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Mike Leigh's screenwriting secrets

  • Story Highlights
  • British filmmaker Mike Leigh shares his scripting style and secrets
  • Mike Leigh has been in the movie business for over 35 years
  • Leigh's work is known for gritty realism and focus on underprivileged societies
  • He is also renowned for his unconventional approach to screenwriting
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- British filmmaker, screenwriter and playwright, Mike Leigh has been in the movie business for over 35 years.

Leigh on screenwriting: "I don't make a conventional screenplay ... it's a whole organic process."

In that time, he has been nominated for five Oscars, as well as winning the Best Director award at Cannes Film Festival for "Naked" in 1993, the Palme d'Or there for "Secrets & Lies" in 1996 and the Leono d'Oro at Venice Film Festival in 2004 for "Vera Drake."

Famous for his fierce independence (read refusal to work in Hollywood), Leigh's work is known for gritty realism and a focus on underprivileged sections of British society.

Another of Leigh's calling cards is an unconventional approach to screenwriting. "The Screening Room" caught up with the veteran director at the International Screenwriters' Festival in the UK earlier this year to ask him more about his approach to making films.

The Screening Room: Why is this festival so important to you?

Mike Leigh: I am a filmmaker who is both a writer and director and I have this way of making films where the writing and the actors and the shooting is all combined together. I don't make a conventional screenplay ... it's a whole organic process.

TSR: What do you think other scriptwriters can learn from you?

ML: I think screenwriters who, because of the politics and economics of the film industry, are forced to work in a much more conventional way, are always fascinated to discuss with me how I work.

TSR: There is this romantic idea that screenwriting has to be a painful, solitary experience. That's not what you experience, though.

ML: No, I don't sit in a room writing a script solo. My films are highly structured. Everything you see in my films is very precisely written, very thoroughly researched, but actually it is done through rehearsal, it's done through improvisation and research. I work for six months with the actors before we shoot anything, then the shooting of the film is in itself then an operation of making the film as I go along in a way, although it's very structured. It's a very sophisticated thing.

TSR: How did you first discover that this way the way you wanted to make your films?

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ML: I trained as an actor, I did a lot of theatre work and, of course, the convention of actually rehearsing is much more prevalent in the theater, although actually what I do isn't really theater practice, it's very film orientated in its nature but it came out of all of those kind of explorations and experiences in the 1960s.

TSR: How important is the audition process for you?

ML: For me, casting is probably more important than it is for most people. If someone has written a conventional script then a range of actors could do that role. I find actors with whom I can collaborate to create characters, so I have to have actors that are brilliant, who are very intelligent and not all actors are very intelligent, who are versatile, who are character actors and not all actors are, that have a sense of humor, that have a sense of society and commitment, who aren't just narcissistic which a lot of actors are, and people who are patient and courageous. Working with me on these things is dangerous.

TSR: When you work with actors do you give them over to the idea that they are shaping the story, or do you always know exactly what you want?

ML: I don't always have a structure, and certainly there is no illusion involved. Also, I say to each actor when asking him or her to take part, you will only ever know what your character knows, so they never have an overview of the film. Their actual contribution is as an individual with a responsibility to their character, but my job is to tell the story.

It's a very healthy and harmonious division of labor, but certainly, there would be no point in doing it if I didn't set up conditions in which they can really explore and the thing can go in fantastically unpredictable directions.

TSR: When you take a script to a producer, how much should you compromise to get the film made?

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ML: I am the least qualified person in the world to answer that because I don't do that in the first place. I mean, I go to backers with my producers and we say, "I can't tell you anything about it. I haven't got the script. Give us the money and we will go away and make it." And they either say 'yes,' which happens just occasionally, or they say 'no' which happens most of the time.

So, I never have a situation where anybody interferes or where I have to compromise. But just in passing I would say that I have a rule about what one should do in the film business which is never compromise.

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