At the very forefront of this year’s new wave of British biopics, Mike Leigh’s revelatory Mr Turner strides confidently into the 2014 London Film Festival. The film, starring the eponymous Timothy Spall, focuses on 20 years of the life of British romantic landscape painter, early impressionist and, one might argue, proto-abstract artist J M W Turner.
As with all of Leigh’s works, the script and, to an extent, plot of Mr Turner was constructed through several months of improvisational work with the cast – a truly unique feature of Leigh’s directorial style, and one which has truly made his name in the industry.
The Upcoming spoke to Mike Leigh and actors Paul Jesson and Marion Bailey at the premiere at Odeon West End.
I suppose, Mike, the most obvious question is: why Turner?
ML: Because he was special. He was very special. It was a privilege. He’s a great painter, so we wanted to express this work, this amazing work, and this creative guy.
Do you recall the first time you fell in love with one of his paintings?
ML: Not really. I think probably when I was an art student in the 60s, but Turner’s always been around.
How much is the film informed by his paintings?
ML: That’s the whole point of the film: Turner’s paintings are cinematic, so they are inspiring for a filmmaker. It seems a natural thing to make a film about. It’s about the scale of our existence, skies, seas, landscape, the world, the earth. He’s a legend, and some of what’s in the film – the legends surrounding him, which may or may not be true – we’ve made some of it up because it’s not a documentary. We’ve tried to give the film the look Turner’s made, and I have a brilliant cinematographer, Dick Pope, and he’s done an amazing job to evoke the colour, the tone, the atmosphere, the style of Turner’s paintings.
He was called “the painter of light” – why is that?
ML: He always painted the sun, the elements, whatever he was able to capture – not just what can be captured photographically, but beyond that, where we get something magical.
Do you see yourself in him at all?
ML: Not really. [laughs]
So he’s a cold person?
Paul, what does it mean to take part in portraying the life of such an important British figure?
PJ: It’s been a long time coming, this film. Mike has wanted to do it for years and years, and I’m so glad to be part of it – this feels fantastic. Turner is a painter whom I’ve admired since I was a child, since my first time going to the National Gallery to see those amazing canvasses and watercolours. He’s just so moving as a painter – his work gives you a lump in your throat I think.
As an actor, how different is your preparation when the character you are portraying is based in reality?
PJ: You have some sense of what the story will be, but Mike hasn’t abandoned all of his principles – there are still things that have happened in the film that I didn’t know anything about until I saw it. It’s important to Mike that an actor only knows what he needs to know for their character. So it was full of surprises for me, as it probably was for everybody.
So what’s it really like in the studio with Mike, composing? He has such an interesting style.
PJ: It’s always challenging, but always fun. A lot of what you do is just built up over four months or more of rehearsal and of finding who these characters are – creating these characters. So when they get together, life happens.
So do these characters come more from you personally, or from who they really were?
PJ: It’s impossible to say what they were really like – you read a bit about them, and there were certain details that we know, like that his father had a habit of jumping around on his toes and was very chatty, so you just incorporate that and incorporate details from people that you know.
Is it a kind of experience you’ve had before?
PJ: With Mike, yes. But not with other directors – with them you’re working with a script that you know and learn. Mike’s work is scripted, finally – it’s not improvised on camera, and everything is in place by the time you film it. But it’s created naturally, based on improvisation, based on the interaction of the characters, as a result of working together for several months.
At what point do you know that you’re doing what he wants from you?
PJ: You report back to him all the time, all the way through rehearsal – he takes from you and he will suggest things, but what you suggest to him is used. It’s very much a two-way thing, which is one of his great strengths. He will never use an actor in the same way as in a previous film – you’re never typecast with Mike, and he always trusts you to do something completely new and different and challenging.
MB: Well I suppose what interested Mike was that he was a great artist, who was very complex and in some respects forward individual. He was such a multi-layered character, I’m sure that that’s what the fascination was.
Do you recognise yourself on the screen?
MB: I recognise how I will be – of course, the film takes place over 20 years. There was a great make-up designer called Christie Mundell who did a wonderful job, I think, at aging us all gradually as the filming went on.
How much do you identify with your character?
MB: I didn’t know anything about Turner’s private life, but I loved his work. Not a lot is known about Mrs Booth, so I read as much as I could and it left great scope to our imagination to think about how she would have been. But clearly, she was a literate and hard-working, working-class woman; very much the same sort of background as Turner himself, and I suppose they just clicked. In her, he had a sort of sanctuary, and she loved him unconditionally and was very happy. She was twice widowed, but they stayed together for two decades.
How is it working with Mike Leigh?
MB: Wonderful. It’s always wonderful, a great adventure. It’s hard work, but it’s always a pleasure.
Mr Turner is released nationwide on 31st October 2014.
Watch the trailer for Mr Turner here: