Film director has not jettisoned his method of letting actors improvise, he tells Cannes crowd after triumphant screening
It is a meticulous study of one of Britain’s best-loved painters which has been installed as the early favourite for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
But at a press conference after the triumphant screening of Mr Turner, director Mike Leigh disclosed that, despite extensive historical research, he still relied on his customary method of allowing his actors to improvise without a script.
“This film was made no differently to any of my other films,” he said. “You can read all the books in the world, you can research for a million years, but it doesn’t make things happen in front of the camera. You still have to create a character, and breathe flesh and blood into it.
“We did what we always do: we developed our characters, and the research informed our decisions. But in the end, you have to make it happen – and there was no script, as always.”
The film, which has been greeted with rapturous reviews, covers the later half of JMW Turner‘s life, beginning with his 1825 visit to the Netherlands and finishing with his death in 1851.
It recreates images that inspired of some of his most famous works, such as The Fighting Temeraire from 1839 and 1844’s Rain, Steam and Speed.
Leigh, along with cinematographer Dick Pope, outlined some of the research that had gone into the making of the film, including examining Turner’s original colour documents at Tate Britain.
But Leigh explained they were unable to film in Margate – the coastal town where Turner spent long periods and where he met Sophia Booth, his final lover – as comprehensive redevelopment means “it no longer looks anything like it did in the 1830s”.
As a result, the film was unable to take advantage of the light from the skies that Turner himself called “the loveliest in all Europe”; instead, most of the exteriors were shot in Cornwall.
Explaining his decision to make the film, Leigh said: “Turner is a great artist: a radical, revolutionary painter. I felt there was scope for a film examining the tension between this very mortal, flawed individual, and the epic work, the spiritual way he had of distilling the world.”
Timothy Spall, who plays Turner, has also appeared in four other Leigh films, including Topsy-Turvy, the study of Gilbert and Sullivan that was Leigh’s last foray into the 19th century. Leigh asked him to start learning to paint more than two years before production on the film began.
Spall also waxed enthusiastic about Turner’s work. “Turner was very much a painter of the sublime. In his time, the sublime meant man’s involvement in the beauty and horror of nature: both the horror in the beauty, and the beauty in the horror of nature. That is what Turner was trying to record.”
Asked how he connected with Turner, Spall replied: “He was a funny-looking fat little man, and so am I.” The character’s repeated growling he explained away as: “He has so much to say, it’s burning inside him – and it comes out as a little imploded grunt.”
Leigh’s only Palme d’Or win came in 1996 with Secrets & Lies, which also featured Spall; three other of his films have been selected for competition, including Naked, for which he won best director, All or Nothing and Another Year.
This year he is undoubtedly in contention for the top prize, as well as Spall for best actor. But with the competition only just under way, there is a long way to go.