The way you make your films tends to dominate the discussion of your work. Do people have a misguided or oversimplified idea of your process, and does that bother you?
Oh, totally. People have no idea what we do. And as a result of this interview, you will have no more idea of what we actually do than you do now. You will think you will, but… I mean, I don’t really talk about what really happens, any more than Van Gogh could’ve actually talked about the chemistry and telepathy and intuition that—quite apart from how he used the paint—that went into painting the sunflowers. You can’t really talk about that—what I get up to with the actors. And in fact the whole process of filmmaking is very particular, and, I suppose, though I don’t like to use the word, esoteric [pronounced with a long “e”]. Because that’s what happens when artists create a thing. But another way of addressing the point is that actually what’s important is the film, the story, what it’s about, what it does for people. We don’t have elaborate discussions about this building, in terms of the plans and the foundations; it’s the building itself we’re concerned with. And also, it’s a film—it’s not just about what I do with the actors. It’s very much a collusion of myself, actors, cinematographer, designers coming together, and it’s a very creative and shared process. Having said all that, for me, I really discover what a film is by embarking on the journey of making it. It varies from film to film as to what extent I’ve got a clear conception of it. With something like Vera Drake, I sat on the idea for over 40 years, to do a movie about an illegal backstreet abortionist, because I’m old enough to remember what it was like when people had unwanted pregnancies before the 1967 Act. For a long time, I nurtured the notion of a film about adoption-related issues because people close to me in my life have related experiences [cf. Secrets & Lies]. But with a film like Happy-Go-Lucky or Naked, I had no more than a feeling, really, and it’s a question of then embarking on a journey of discovery and exploring and creating and finding the film in a way. So it is about getting the actors together and working individually and creating a character with him or her and putting them together to build a whole world, and bringing something into existence which is kind of three-dimensional and for all intents and purposes “real,” out of which I’m then able to distill a film. And it is about going on location and making up a film as we go along that is the meat and bones of the thing.
Most film sets are so rigorously planned and scheduled as to eliminate the possibility of the kind of discovery and accidents you’re describing. They also tend to marginalize the actor to a degree.
Well, exactly! That’s why I work the way I do. I mean, if you didn’t prepare for a long time before shooting, you couldn’t do it. It is about creating the opportunity and the space for everybody, both sides of the camera, to be absolutely creative and to explore and take risks and be dangerous. I mean: They come and arrest Vera Drake. The cops show up and they come into the room and it goes to a close-up of Imelda Staunton and it holds on the close-up, and you go through a journey with this woman. Now, not only is that a most extraordinary piece of acting, but it’s also a very courageous piece of cinematography. And choreography, because it’s not a tight close-up; you can see the others in the background, soft. There’s a lot of cinematic decisions being made over and above the organic thing that is only possible—partly because Imelda Staunton is a brilliant actor (but then, I try and get actors who are brilliant; that’s the whole thing of it) but also because we spent all that time not only talking about it, but actually creating this woman’s life in such a three-dimensional way that when we did the famous improvisation that lasted 10 hours about two months before we shot that scene, none of the actors knew there were cops coming. Nobody knew she was an abortionist. The cops didn’t know who they were coming to arrest—they thought they were going to be confronted by this aggressive woman who would deny everything… all those things are what it’s all about. Now, to talk about Happy-Go-Lucky, the first decision on the journey of deciding what film to make and how to make it was to get Sally Hawkins at the center of things. I mean, I had a sense of a kind of character, but it wasn’t until we started to work together that Poppy began to be born. I knew that with Sally’s intelligence and extraordinary capacity to play characters, and her humor and her ebullience and energy, that we could create a remarkable but real woman. By then building her relationship with her sisters and her flatmate and exploring her as a teacher, we were able to create something that was just as resonant and three-dimensional. The difference is that when she’s confronted by issues and problems and danger in the movie it’s not the same as what happens to Vera Drake. ’Cause she can deal with it. She can look it in the eye.
Where did the impulse for Poppy’s happiness—which is obviously a very complex kind of armor—arise from?
The truth is: We all know people like that. People who get on with it. It is a film about getting on with it. On one level, once I’d explored and been on the journey and made the film, I realized that I’d instinctively made a film that says the world is in a mess in the 21st century. There is a great deal to be gloomy about and sit around wringing our hands. But while we may do that, some people, a lot of people, get out there, get on with it, roll up their sleeves and tackle things. And not least among those people are schoolteachers. I mean, to teach kids is by definition an act of optimism. You are nurturing, cherishing the future. The kids in Poppy’s class, the actual kids, were 8 last year. They’re gonna be 10 in 2010. They are the grandparents of the 22nd century. You can’t teach those kids without being optimistic. That’s what the film is about on one level.
Do you find that people tend to think of this kind of willful happiness or optimism as a way to escape from reality?
Yes, and I don’t think that’s what she’s about. I don’t think she’s compensating. I don’t think there’s some sort of crisis under the surface. She’s not somebody that’s escaping from reality. I think she’s very, very alert and aware of reality. She’s sensitive to people’s pain. In the end, the film is called Happy-Go-Lucky because—well, I’ve got to call the film something. It was called Untitled ’06 when it was being shot. The title evokes an atmosphere. It’s not a scientific description of what’s in the bottle. To describe Poppy—as some people have—as someone who is relentlessly happy is missing the point. It’s not just about happiness, which is a kind of delirious, mindless state, like you have when you’ve eaten a lot of magic mushrooms or smoked a load of dope or had a frontal lobotomy. She’s about being fulfilled, about taking life seriously, about working hard, about being honest above all. Of course, she has a sense of fun. There’s a very important moment in the film, when she goes to visit her pregnant sister and they’re sitting around the table, and the brother-in-law says how he gets on very well with his father-in-law and they have nice conversations, and Poppy says, “That’s more than we ever do.” It’s just a kind of indication that she’s not born with an emotional silver spoon in her mouth. She comes from an ordinarily healthy dysfunctional family just like the rest of us. She’s been there. She’s been through life. But she makes choices. Somebody else asked me here in the States if she and Zoe were just drifters, drifting through life. That’s a stupid reaction to the film. These are not drifters. These are people that made choices. They actually take responsibility. When the crisis comes at the end of the film with Scott, apart from anything else, what’s going on in that scene is a woman taking responsibility. She’s taking responsibility to be sympathetic, which she is. She’s taking responsibility to walk away, which she does. She’s taking responsibility to monitor what’s going on. Therefore, to talk about it in terms of happiness as a thing by itself doesn’t really deal with what the film is about.
A propos of the idea of Poppy and Zoe as drifters: I was struck by the exact opposite. They both seem—uncharacteristically, for their age—satisfied with their lives and their careers. Do you think that’s unusual?
I don’t think it is. I think to say so would be to suggest that these women are somehow extraordinary. And I don’t think that’s true. I’ve got sons who are 30 and 27, so I know what it means to be that in 2008. I’m not generalizing about everybody, but I think there is a generation of people who, again, simply make the choice not too easily to buy into the done thing—the bourgeois done thing—but that doesn’t mean they’re tearaway anarchists. They’re living responsibly. And I think there are a lot of people out there who are. And when the time comes, they’ll get on and do what they have to do, which may include having kids, or even getting married—if that’s what anybody thinks is necessary in the 21st century.
I don’t know if this was intentional, or something you’ll even agree with, but when we meet Poppy in the opening scene at the bookstore, she seems a bit annoying—in the way that aggressively cheery people sometimes are. She keeps insisting on getting a response from the clerk, who’s really just keeping to himself.
But if you go back and look at it, she walks into the shop and greets him in a perfectly nice, normal way. It’s the way he behaves that makes her then sort of go out to him, which she does with humor. So I think that is a misreading. On the other hand, I think the real point is this: You meet somebody in life and bring to it all your preconceptions of how people are, and then—I mean, even you and I are doing this as we speak—gradually, they become a three-dimensional person, and you see their layers and depths and resonances. That is what happens between you, the audience, and Poppy. And so, you can be forgiven at first for thinking, “Is this someone I want to spend two hours with?” But you’ve already seen her cycling around the streets and being very relaxed and happy and waving at people. She gets her bicycle stolen and she’s pretty cool about it. Hey, what are you supposed to do? It’s happened, no point in weeping. But the point is: Here is a portrait of someone who is actually extremely mature, adult, focused, responsible, serious, intelligent, but who also has a great sense of humor and a great joie de vivre and is bursting with energy and has a healthy anarchic streak, and also, because she has got a great sense of humor—like all of us with a great sense of humor, when you’re confronted by someone like Scott, the driving instructor, who is clinically devoid of a sense of humor, it brings out the worst in you. I mean, she gets in that car and just can’t help taking the piss, as we say in England.
But in a way, isn’t that also her best? She’s so alone in the driving scenes, but she entertains herself. Scott barely notices what she’s saying. He certainly doesn’t appreciate how funny she is.
Absolutely. She makes jokes to herself, as you do. Her antennae are out. He hasn’t got any. But she can see him for the child he is. She’s used to looking at and understanding, and, if you like, decoding children. And she can immediately piece that together.
The scene in which Poppy meets the vagrant seems to take place in a slightly surreal landscape. I’m not suggesting it isn’t really happening in the narrative, but it feels like it has some other purpose for revealing Poppy’s state of mind. Was that deliberate?
In a way. On the one level, when I was talking to the production designer and the cinematographer about how we were gonna do that scene, I said we need to be somewhere where we don’t know where we are, because I want the audience to be subliminally pulled out of their comfort zone. That’s what you’re talking about. However, in real terms, and there is no question that this is something that really is happening to Poppy and not a figment of her imagination, which would be ridiculous, those of us that live in real urban cities—I would suggest that in terms of what I’m talking about, Seattle is not a real urban city; it’s a city, but not urban in the sense of London or New York or Manchester, where I grew up—it is not extraordinary to suddenly find yourself, even though you know your way around, in places where you don’t know where you are, and talking to vagrants. It’s the texture of the city, and that has to be said. But it is a scene where Poppy finds herself being in another place, physically as well as emotionally—she doesn’t run into such people all the time—and is about her openness, her ability not to be judgmental. It’s important. She’s immediately open to this guy. She hears him. She cares. There’s a moment when we think it might be dangerous, and she thinks that, too. But she’s not concerned about that. In the end, you know, she connects with him. And when she goes back to the apartment, Zoe asks her where she’s been, she doesn’t tell her. It’s not a plot thing, not a big deal—she’s certainly never gonna see this guy again. But she feels that she’s shared something with this guy, and it’s private. She’s given him something and she’s taken from him in some way. Some people have said he’s another screwed-up guy like Scott. And I don’t think he is. I mean, he’s obviously damaged, but you can tell he’s got depth of emotion. If you listen to what he’s saying, he’s talking about a man and a woman and a relationship. He even sings a snatch of Sinatra. So he’s not a Scott. He’s not completely emotionally sterile and impotent. He’s somebody who’s been through it and been damaged. And she’s onto it.
That scene made me wonder if Poppy’s desire to reach out and help people was somehow compulsive.
What do you mean by compulsive?
As though she has no choice but to try and help everyone she sees who might be in distress.
I think that’s true of all of us who are that way inclined. If you’re like that at all, then you’re natural inclination is to act on it. I don’t think there are any half-measures with that. I don’t think you can be a sometime natural helper. You either are or you’re not.
It also reminded me a bit of your film Naked. The comparison may be far afield, but I couldn’t help thinking a lot about Poppy in relation to Johnny from Naked. They’re obviously temperamentally as different as can be, but they both lead with a kind of idealistic—
Yeah, Johnny and Poppy are both idealists. And they both eschew the material world and cynicism. The difference is that Johnny is embittered and frustrated and disappointed and therefore turns in on himself and is in some ways aggressive, and Poppy is the opposite.
And the way they respond to the material world affects everyone around them. Where Johnny poisons everyone he meets—
I don’t think that’s true. If you go back to the film I think you’ll find that is simply not true. Some people that applies to, but he is actually able to have that same kind of empathetic relationship when they haven’t got bullshit on the go.
Fair enough, not everyone. Though he is memorably aggressive toward the ones with bullshit on the go. Whereas Poppy, who encounters a great deal of different forms of aggression and negativity, always goes out of her way to sympathize with people even when it puts her in danger.
Of course, that’s right. Poppy is simply about not only being fulfilled and about being honest and about being fair, but she wants to love people, and she wants to be lovely.
Again, this may be too much, but I keep thinking about the similarity of the times that Naked arose from, at the end of Thatcher and Reagan/Bush I, etc., and the times Happy-Go-Lucky is coming out of, here at the end of Bush II and Blair, etc. Not that they’re meant as political films, per se, but the fact that they take place in urban environments that are identifiably, as you say, “real” and “in a mess.” I guess what I’m asking is: Do you recognize parallels between the films (and their lead characters), and if so, why respond with such optimism now and such millennial darkness then?
I don’t really know that I can usefully draw a conclusion from the triangle of connections you’re making. My film High Hopes, for example—and indeed the films that preceded it, Four Days in July, which was about Northern Ireland, and Meantime, which was about unemployment—were, although each was universal in its way, specifically a reaction to aspects of Thatcher. Naked was nothing to do with Thatcher or indeed Blair or anything else. It was far more concerned with other things. Not least, the impending millennium. When I talk about “the world is in a mess” in 2008, you can’t help but have George W. Bush in mind as a contributor, but we’re destroying the planet. And for all his faults, George W. Bush didn’t invent destroying the planet. He may be responsible for aspects—as indeed so might the United States—of why there’s been this growth in Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, but in fact that comes from all kinds of other sources. Overall, what I’m concerned with is that the world is heading for disaster. But life goes on!