As part of the London Film Society and in association with Timeout, Mike Leigh and Lesley Manville presented an informal talk to members of the society and practitioners in the industry on Screen Acting. The evening started with a cheeky comparison between a clip of Michael Caine’s filmed class on screen acting and footage of Leslie Manville in ANOTHER YEAR. Caine could be seen giving sound advice about not blinking, choosing which eye to look into and considering sightlines and how sightlines open the face to the camera lens. All of which in the right production is sound advice. Leslie’s scene however, was a stark contrast, with a different process of approaching the revelation of the character in front of the camera. Impishly at the end of the clips, Mike asked Leslie “so which eye were you looking at?”
What unfolded in the discussion of the evening and subsequent footage was the central issue of the creative process which unfolds up to and including the take in front of the camera. Mike Leigh’s work and dedication to the art of film as well as his work in theatre is legendary, if not infamous to some. His reticence to discuss process has left him free of some criticism or cross examination; however it does leave you somewhat frustrated wondering what leads up to what we see in the final cut. Informatively there was a collection of takes shown of one scene from HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, which gave you a glimpse of the creative environment that Leigh nurtures.
Repeatedly they discussed how conducive or not the environment is for the actor on set. Leslie referenced her own experiences – working with Mike over a considerable arch of time, obviously a very fruitful and inspiring exchange, in comparison to some of the industrial productions that her increased success has brought her, as well as her experience since she started acting in television when she was 16. Leslie clearly pointed out the shortcoming and misunderstanding that some directors hold that all that is required for such grounded character revelation is for the actor to show up on set, jump into a costume that actor has never seen, and work the dialogue they’ve not even rehearsed. Many believe that the actor can simply just turn a tap and produce such in-depth quality of work because they have seen the quality of their work on a well rehearsed film, such as Mike Leigh’s.
Mike represents a tradition of practitioners who take process extremely seriously, which reflects how central they see the relationship with the actor to enable the art within film to come alive. As the pace of the industry increases and the financial figures become even tighter, such a creative nurturing methodology seems to stand in stark contrast to the average industrial aggression of a TV or film set. In simple practical terms, getting as much footage shot as quickly as possible seems to be a central calculation in the cost effectiveness of making many a film or TV show. Frustratingly, as much as this was highlighted and specific examples given, there was not much clarification for the hungry young actors in the audience of what to do in such given circumstances. Clearly Leslie, over decades of her own personal evolution alongside her body of work as an actor, has the means in the commercial sector to produce the goods where she, I presume, feels happy with her work, though not necessarily always inspired.
For myself as a teacher of a methodology, I had to resist the urge to offer up a few possible ideas. I empathized about how challenging working on set can be, given most of my experiences as an actor were reflective of what Leslie was saying in regards to the working environment. As an actor, most of the work nowadays requires you to be both director and actor. It is a sad reflection that actors are considered mostly as the spice to the dish and are expected to sprinkle magic over the construction of the script and the cinematography. It is a daunting environment to be creative in and that is why an actor requires a solid craft and methodology, even more so given the industrial demands upon their craft, let alone their potential art.
Mike clearly argues in his body of work for a more nurtured and respectful exchange, not only to the actor, but more importantly the evolution and life of the material itself. However, his methodology is specific to himself. That is why so many actors are hungry to work with him because they sense the opportunity to really engage with a proper process of discovery, growth and consummation of the role. The question they considered of a creative process with the medium of film does not merely exist within the artistic realm, but is central to the success of industry itself. In the retail sector, there really are two forms of product: one is make it cheap, bang it out quickly and sell it ideally at the maximum profit. The alternative product is truly invested in, tested and really shaped in such a way that it encourages loyalty and repeat purchases from its customer. Both have a logic and both exist within the marketplace. However, the discussion kept touching on the frustration that, within our own industry at times, it believes that it is making a quality production where in fact it really is just bashing out product. This would be detrimental to any film, commercial or artistic.
There is however an ethical as well as political dimension to this argument. TV and film is not just a medium to sell things, it is actually central to how we see ourselves as a human being. It literally has become the mirror, particularly for the younger generations, by which we try and obtain a sense of our self. Therefore the capital gain of good TV & Film cannot be purely assessed with audience figures or profit margins. An example of Leslie’s highlighted this concern about the actor who wants to constantly check the take as it is played back on set, seemingly a process of reassurance, or vanity, rather than an effective means of character development. The increasing dominance of actor as product is exacerbating the potential to tell a truly inspiring human story.
Mike and Leslie’s work is a great legacy in recorded form that can be shared and seen time and time again. But under such industrial pressures, I presume the underlying concern is how we keep such creative work alive. Part of the evening’s purpose was to find benefactors for the London Film School who want to improve and upgrade the quality of their facilities and equipment. Clearly the London Film School was formed back in the 50’s with an ethos that talent is not enough and training is central to building a community of capable and creative practitioners in the 21st-century. No community of craftspersons can be sustained, let along expanded, without the means to educate and enlighten. So hopefully in these times, where many see cutting as a means of investing in our future, more enlightened minds will come forward and provide the backing for an investment in one industry we still truly are both creative and competitive in.
My small contribution to this evening would be that for good screen acting to happen the actor must have good craft. The foundation that a good drama school can instil is not sufficient and we no longer have a sufficiently subsidized repertory system for actors to truly work their muscles. The reason I teach the work of Lee Strasberg and provide a studio environment is because I believe it empowers the actor in whatever given environment to function as a true mature craftsperson. There are many specific tools that enable the actor to work in such a demanding environment. Whether it is building a substantive history of the characters path, a central component of Mike’s methodology, or choosing an action that is the primary verb the character is pursuing psychologically, or perchance a sense memory which enables the actor to use their own human experiences as a bridge to the given circumstances and the character. Those, and many others that come from the great teachings of the 20th century, are the central tools that the actor needs to either work on set in either demanding environments or more creative productions.
But we could also ask, on a political level, if actors are going to purely service and please the industry, but in fact take responsibility for defining its work environment. It does seem asinine to me that rehearsal time is seen as almost superfluous when bringing together a film. For many directors in film, they simply don’t know how to rehearse an actor so I don’t think that finances are in themselves the total reason, though it does also require actors who have the craft and tools to rehearse when it is offered. The London Film Society clearly identifies the need for a genuine debate as well as the means to shine some light upon various means and processes within the art of film making. Mike Leigh and many more of his generation represent practitioners with a clearly involved and defined creative process. It is process that the actor must take seriously both for their careers to function and flourish, but ideally to truly offer up a contribution within this industry that doesn’t purely make films entertaining — but also genuinely inspirational.