Mike Leigh is on a roll.
His new movie, "Secrets & Lies," is coming to American theaters after opening at the prestigious New York Film Festival and winning the highest prize at this year's Cannes filmfest, where it also earned the best-actress award for Brenda Blethyn.
His previous picture, "Naked," did almost as well at Cannes, garnering the best-director prize for Leigh and best-actor honors for David Thewlis, before arriving in theaters in a blaze of debate over its searing story of wasted lives in contemporary England.
Leigh's reputation soared when "Naked" became one of this decade's most talked-about British movies, and "Secrets & Lies" should boost his fortunes even more as audiences experience its sensitive story, superb performances, and compassionate approach to a potentially troubling subject.
Leigh paved the way for its US debut at Colorado's respected Telluride Film Festival, where he was the recipient of a special tribute in celebration of his career, still going strong after a quarter of a century.
"Secrets & Lies" centers on Hortense, a young woman who was adopted as a baby and now wants to meet her biological mother. Her search doesn't take long, and it leads to some major surprises. Hortense is black, well educated, and a solid member of the middle class. By contrast, her mother, Cynthia, is white, meagerly educated, and firmly rooted in the working class.
The women circle around each other warily at first, then grow into a warm and companionable friendship - which raises the question of how they'll break all this to Cynthia's family, which has no idea this member of the clan has ever existed.
Like all of Leigh's movies, "Secrets & Lies" was a fully collaborative project in which everyone from technicians to stars made meaningful contributions. Key members of his process are the performers. They invented their own characters and dialogue in conjunction with Leigh, who jotted down the sketchy "screenplay" only after five months of discussion, consultation, and improvisation with his cast.
"Filmmaking is very much a creative journey that involves all of the craftspeople involved," he said in a Telluride interview, acknowledging that he embarks on each movie with only the "vaguest notion" of what it will eventually be about.
"It's a question of getting together with a group of people ... and discovering what the film is by making it," he added. "That consists of inventing the characters, creating their whole lives, doing a huge amount of discussion and research, and most particularly a vast amount of improvisation with the actors ... going through the years of relationships, living through things, and arriving at a point - very much under my control - where [we have] the dramatic premise."
Leigh got "hooked" on movies as a child and made an early decision to become a filmmaker. "For a kid in Manchester in the 1950s," he recalls, "this was about the most unfeasible thing one could possibly think of, as I was repeatedly told." But he stuck to his plan, entered London's renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1960, and "acted in very bad movies" as a way of entering the cinema scene. He directed his first full-length film, the darkly comic "Bleak Moments," in the early 1970s, with backing from actor Albert Finney.
Since most movies are developed in a very different way - with performers memorizing their lines from a completely written script - how did Leigh hit upon his improvisatory method?
"In the '60s," he replies, "there were all kinds of things floating about in the air.... All of us who started to do things [then] grew up in a period of great repression and restraint, and we started to kick over the traces and question [established] ways of doing things." Among his inspirations were John Cassavates's offbeat film "Shadows," the New Wave filmmakers in France, and Peter Brook's productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company, most notably of Peter Weiss's seminal drama "Marat/Sade."
Leigh is often pegged as a political filmmaker, since his movies often deal - directly or indirectly - with the problems of very real people living under very challenging conditions. He accepts the "political" label, but only with qualifications.
"I don't do films that are agenda-driven," he insists, "and I don't do work that is ... propagandist. But nevertheless, what I do is kind of political, in the sense that my characters are always identifiable, and I instinctively draw them in their social and economic contexts."
Despite this, Leigh ironically notes, some observers have criticized him for not being more aggressive in the political arena. Since his movies have always told straightforward stories with recognizable characters, he had a "bad time" during much of the '70s because "this was unfashionable. People said it was a bit decadent, old-fashioned, square. It didn't look avant-garde, it wasn't abstract or surreal enough.... I said I wasn't concerned with that. The art was there, and I didn't want to advertise it!"
In the end, Leigh says, his definition of "a political act" is "just to share with other people things that you feel, in a way that makes them feel in some way. What I'm concerned with is the way we live our lives, and what politics should be concerned with is the way we live our lives, and what our lives are about. It's terribly important there are filmmakers whose films have very direct, specific, political objectives, and it's terribly important that those films work and cause changes to happen ... but I don't make films of that kind.
"I make films where I don't leave you clearly able to conclude what I'm asking you to think or feel," he continues. "I make films that ask a great number of questions but ... don't come up with too many answers. And I hope I make films where you walk away from the [theater] with work to do, arguments to have, things to worry about, things to care about. In that sense, I would regard what I do as political."