Improvisation – the Mike Leigh method

Improvisation is the key that unleashes the sort of unforgettable performance typical of Mike Leigh’s films Secrets and Lies, Naked and Life Is Sweet. But how does he do it?

As a student, Robert Marchand wrote a paper on the method, and attempted to reproduce the results in a test. He failed, and called Mike on the phone to find out why. Since then, Marchand has established a reputation as an expert on the Mike Leigh method of improvisation.

An accomplished director in his own right, session leader Robert Marchand is responsible for such work as The Potato Factory, Kangaroo Palace and Come In Spinner.

He hastened to begin the session with the clarification that the final performances on the big screen are not impros – they are the result of a painstaking effort over many months.

“Mike Leigh begins a film with an initiating idea, which conjures up a number of possible actors he can cast,” Marchand told us. “He auditions some and casts others he has worked with before.”

Since Leigh doesn’t work with formal scripts, the auditions take the form of an exercise where the actor delivers a caricature of a person they know. This demonstrates their ability to observe real people and convert this knowledge to a performance.

With improvisation, casting is obviously critical. Some actors thrive on being allowed the opportunity to strut their stuff while others prefer the rigor of the script.

Once the cast is established, a list of potential characters is devised, out of which a base character who lies at the core of the drama is established.

After this, the actor researches the character and does solo improvisations with the director. These impros begin at a ‘rest point’ in the character’s life, not a high point of dramatic tension. The idea is to really get to feel what the character is all about. For example, the actor might begin on a Sunday morning and decide to make a cup of tea. If she’s out of milk, she might go down to the shops to buy some – in character. In this way she gets to discover how other people to respond to the character.

This process of solo improvisation and research goes on for weeks and even months before the actor is introduced to another actor who has been cast, and they begin duo impros, discovering who each other is and exploring the dramatic potential of the situation.

During the process Mike Leigh employs a Production Assistant to take notes on the improvisations, and he later calls upon these for material.

Leigh shoots two thirds of his film without revealing the ending, Marchand said. Then the crew pauses for a week or so while he does improvs of the final scenes. After that, the end scenes are shot.

In Marchand’s second session of the afternoon he showed us how the improvisation process works by working with four actors who had been provided for the workshop. Each actor in turn was asked to improvise hanging around a living room in character. They met up at a coffee shop. Finally, the four actors bumped into each other in a doctor’s waiting room.

The workshop was a fascinating insight into the Mike Leigh system. “A great deal of impro is about seizing the moment,” Marchand told us. “You have to go with whatever happens, and it is always unpredictable. The actor may decide to leave the scene, for example, ending the impro.”

Marchand set up the scene as a caf? and got Julie to go outside for a moment while he briefed Sophie. The actors do not get briefed simultaneously or they would be forewarned. Sophie was told she was alone because her boyfriend is in jail. Julie was then asked to come back and sit down at Julie’s table in the coffee lounge.

The two characters began to chat, with Julie asking Sophie a number of questions. After Rob bought them out of character Sophie said that after one more question from Julie she was going to leave. “That is why it’s valuable to let the impro run,” Marchand commented.

“The impro may not go the way the director thinks it should,” said Rob, “but there are no right or wrong answers. It’s all about exploring the character and the drama that unfolds.”

The workshop provided an invaluable opportunity to witness a Mike Leigh-style improvisation unfold before our eyes.

Improvisation – the Mike Leigh method
by: Mark Poole

Screen Hub
Monday 6 September, 2004

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