Mike Leigh is lounging in his Soho office to discuss Career Girls, and we're not talking about the kind who occupy the top floor and make the lightbulbs tremble whenever business is booming. Career Girls is Leigh's latest film, his sixth made specifically for cinema, and the 14th in an uvre that also includes shorts, television work and plays stretching back to 1965. Everyone knows what a Mike Leigh film is. His work has been absorbed by our collective consciousness to the point where real-life situations and dialogue can be labelled "very Mike Leigh" without need of further explanation.
Using a name as an adjective is both illuminating and reductive. It's an acknowledgement that sometimes we have to resort to invoking works of art in order to process experience that we find it hard to articulate. Or else this familiarity functions as short-hand. "It was like something out of Bergman." "I felt as though I was in the middle of a Pinter play." "She could have walked out of a Mike Leigh film."
What does that mean? Perhaps that a situation or a person is tense, fractured, bloated with unresolved emotions, given to flashes of awkward humour. But this still doesn't allow for the dramatic and stylistic shifts that have taken place in Leigh's work. In the past five years, the notion of what a Mike Leigh film actually is has altered a great deal. After the chiming optimism that ended 1990's Life Is Sweet, all hope hit the buffers with Naked, the 1993 film that remains Leigh's most visually cinematic piece, as well as his most splenetic. He argues that there is no smooth trajectory to be plotted from his work, insisting that the tone of each film is largely dictated by "feeling obliged not to dish up the same meal at the next sitting".
That's some understatement when you consider that, after the helterskelter ride to hell that was Naked, came the wonderful Secrets and Lies, which was, for all its anguish and heartache, his most jubilant film to date. In between was the play It's a Great Big Shame!, which catalogued two murders committed in the same house 100 years apart. The use of separate eras was a first for Leigh, and he has now drawn on the conflicts and parallels between past and present more explicitly in Career Girls, which uses the occasion of a reunion between two old friends from polytechnic (a touching double-act from Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman) to flit between the 1980s and the 1990s.
It's a strange one. Anybody who has only tuned into Leigh since Naked or Secrets and Lies will certainly be surprised - at under 90 minutes, and with only two main characters, its modesty and simplicity can be deceptive. Yet the wise, warm manner in which Career Girls deals with difficult emotions make it one of Leigh's most poignant and moving works. When I inform him that a friend was wrecked, but without really knowing why, after watching the film, he is visibly pleased. "Sounds good to me," he smiles. "If we were locked into Hollywood Exec Interference Syndrome, we would have to start justifying the various emotions and relationships in the film, and explaining everything. I like to leave the audience with stuff to go away and deal with, or argue about."
His working methods are so notoriously thorough that flashbacks could feasibly have been part of any of his previous work. "In all the preparatory rehearsals for my films, I get the actors to live through the years in the characters' lives in order to arrive at the point in time where I finally drop anchor," he says, secure in the knowledge that his improvisational techniques no longer demand either explanation or justification. Suffice it to say that the cast know their characters inside out, right down to what haircut they had three Christmases ago and who they've got a crush on.
The actor Andy Serkis spent three months working as a futures trader in order to research his part in Career Girls, and was even offered a job at pounds 30,000 a year by his new-found, cocaine-blitzed, Dorchester-frequenting colleagues. Serkis gives a beautifully crafted comic performance - and it occupies no more than 10 minutes of the film's running-time. As Katrin Cartlidge has observed: "There can be no tip of the iceberg if there isn't an iceberg."
"It's not an academic thing," Leigh says. "We're creating characters who are like real people, so it can only be the accumulation of experience which leads to who they finally are. We've got to follow the contours of real life. Someone asked me if I saw my role in the early stages as being like a therapist. That couldn't be further from the point. My role is as a film-maker, and above all as a bloody story-teller. It's about having fun! Of course, it is traumatic, but all creative work is. With these films, we hover on the edge of a black hole because we are making something that doesn't exist until it's on screen. It remains dangerous. I've never made a film where I knew what the end would be before I was three-quarters of the way through shooting."
Is that still nerve-wracking for you?
"Always. I shit bricks every time. I always think: this is going to be the one that screws up. You never entirely lose that lingering doubt. But it's like that with all other art forms - you don't paint a picture or write a poem that's already been planned. It's only films that are planned to death, that are dead before they start shooting. Which is not to say that films with scripts are useless. But I work in an organic way. You discover the film by making it. It's about opening doors you didn't know you could open. And I never cease to get one hell of a buzz out of watching actors being extraordinary."
Can your characters ever be autobiographical, given your collaborative technique? "Absolutely. There's a lot of me in Johnny from Naked. In fact, I can trace a whole line of characters that are to some degree autobiographical."
And he does. In the process, you find a roll-call of faces flicking through your memory, like the pages of someone else's family album. Mark, the spirited antagonist from Meantime, who teaches his dim-witted brother how to stick to his guns. And the day-dreaming chef in Life Is Sweet, and Maurice, the photographer trying to hold his family together in Secrets and Lies. Cyril, the cynical but optimistic motorbike courier cautious about his girlfriend's longing to bear children in High Hopes. And Hannah in Career Girls, a woman who is unlikely to find an outlet for her fizzing wit at the stationery company where she works. These are what Mike Leigh regards as people like him: "They're all idealists with a strong sense of humour," he notes fondly, like a pupil who's just been asked to compose his own school report. "And they all, in their own way, display subversive tendencies."
Leigh's own position as the outsider of the British film industry was cemented earlier this year when he officially registered his disapproval at having his entire career snubbed by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. It's not that Leigh is dedicated to bringing institutions like Bafta crashing to their knees. After all, he happily accepted his OBE (for "services to the British Film industry") in 1993. And this year, Secrets and Lies earned five Academy Award nominations. Heck, Leigh has even directed commercials for McDonald's. This is evidently not a man afraid of embracing the establishment. But he was not about to tolerate what he perceives as Bafta's slur against his work. "When you consider that, up until Secrets and Lies, nothing I had made had ever got a single nomination from them, except a couple of shorts - well, that is less than satisfactory."
During our interview, Leigh has been unrelentingly enthusiastic, lurching forward to babble excitedly into my tape-recorder, or dismissing an impertinent enquiry with schoolmasterly severity. Unleashed on an audience assembled at the NFT later that week for a screening of Meantime, he is even more fun. He politely fields questions about his next project, though the cat is already out of the bag: it will be a period piece focusing on Gilbert and Sullivan. There's some juicy comic frisson when an audience member, referring to Leigh's own background, wonders whether he would consider making a film about a Jewish family. "It's a possibility," Leigh replies, leaving a tense pause before adding: "And you can't get a more Jewish answer than that." Pressed on the question of autobiography, he recalls when a cousin watched the family gathering at the end of Secrets and Lies and declared, "Oh, there we all are again". And he enjoys a spar, rising to the bait of one viewer who casually suggests that he mocks and pities his characters. After a brief, brittle exchange, he announces: "I have to take your comment as an unresearched insult. You wouldn't say those things if you knew me."
Most worryingly, we learn of a denim-clad skeleton in Mike Leigh's closet when he reveals that he once attended a Status Quo concert at Wembley Arena. But, before you rush to picket Career Girls, don't panic. He walked out n `Career Girls' goes on general release from next FridayReuse content