Mike Leigh on ‘Vera Drake’
The film’s feeling for 1950 is very vivid. What is your attitude to that period?
I was seven in 1950 so my recollections are there in the spirit of what you see. The film obviously had to be set before the 1967 Abortion Act but there’s also a sense of togetherness, a wholesomeness, a positive kind of innocence that are characteristic of the period, though that’s not to say that 1950 was an entirely uncynical world. I feel no nostalgia for the austerities of that time – the only moment I felt nostalgic was when they wheeled in the cars. But the focus of the Drake family is very much about ‘getting on with it’, not having a lot of choices and making the most of what you have.
How did you approach recreating the period?
What I’ve done, as ever, is to create a heightened realism, to distil the essence of the time. In reality, for instance, the Drakes would have had the wireless on all the time, but that would have slowed us down to a naturalistic pace and made the scenes literal – not to mention the fact that we could barely afford copyright for anything; even the movies Vera and Stan watch are a concoction. The same distillation is there in the colours too: there are a lot of greens and greys that are non-naturalistic but suggest the functional, utilitarian spirit of the period.
Did any films from the 1950s influence the way you shot the movie?
No. It must be disappointing for Sight & Sound, but there are no conscious film references. But DoP Dick Pope suggested Bill Brandt and we looked at some Picture Post stuff, which was quite useful.
I was especially taken with the opening scene when the Drakes are preparing evening tea.
If you’re familiar with my films, you’ll see I like the discipline of this kind of set-up. I love looking through doorways, that kind of thing. And in that early scene when they’re all coming and going we managed to say a lot in a totally cinematic way.
Was it hard to find parts of London that could convincingly pass for 1950?
That was a slight problem. But more of a problem was making a period film with no money – we had a ridiculously tight budget and we shot it all on Super 16. In any case, the issue was more how to avoid shooting the 2003 real world, which is why there are so few street scenes. At first we had some flats lined up in Grays Inn Road but there was trouble with squatters so we moved to Stepney. A lot of the film was shot in a decommissioned hospital in Crouch End: we used it as a rehearsal space for six months, then for the hospital scenes, and then shot other scenes in the outbuildings. It was an environment we could control.
How did the actors get into a 1950 mindset?
During rehearsals we did all the usual things I get people to do, which include creating their characters and defining their relationships to one another as well as a massive amount of research. Everyone takes part in this. We talked to people who had memories of that time, we read a lot, we looked at movies and newsreels, we listened to radio programmes, we consulted a couple of guys at the Imperial War Museum to piece together the characters’ journeys through World War II. Having done Topsy-Turvy, which is set at the turn of the last century and was in many respects a taller order, I know both periods are accessible. Don’t ask me how I’d make a film set in the 12th century – you could research it until you were blue in the face but you still wouldn’t know what reality to create. But the sense of what things Victorian and later looked like, smelled like and sounded like is part of our received notions. And given the right time and space to absorb it, it gets into your bloodstream.
I think Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis, who play Vera and her husband Stan, were born after 1950. But though I was born in 1943, I can ‘remember’ the 1930s through my parents, my grandparents, all sorts of things. And the right kind of actors – which is to say intelligent, creative actors – can assimilate the period. Somebody said the other day that the film won’t mean much to younger people. But that’s just daft – even within the context of unwanted pregnancies it can resonate with young adults today.
The film will be thought of as an ‘issue film’, the issue being abortion. But it’s far from black and white. I read in another interview that you’re more interested in asking questions than in supplying answers.
In this particular case the job was to confront the audience with a moral dilemma. People have to make their own decisions about how they see it. But having said that, it’s also implicit in the film that backstreet abortionists cannot be a good thing.
I was struck by Vera’s reference to her single-parent background; her mother may have chosen to abort her had she had access to the facilities.
That’s all there for you to ponder. I put in that information in a way that leaves you to work with it rather than laying it on the line. If you sit in a tube train and listen to a conversation you can glean a great deal even if you have no background information. I don’t think film storytelling should be quite so serendipitous, but on the other hand I always work on the assumption that the audience is at least as intelligent as I am, if not more so, so I don’t have to super-explain. And it’s important that the audience leaves with stuff to take away.
Are you ever surprised by audiences’ interpretations?
In the earlier part of the film people laugh uproariously at moments I don’t think are particularly funny. But overall such a film must be open to different interpretations, short of anybody totally misreading it and thinking it’s concerned with Egyptology or something similar.
I believe the funding came through at the last minute.
The UK Film Council was in place. And I will simply say that StudioCanal were less than enthusiastic because their previous film with me, All or Nothing, though critically reasonably well respected, was on the whole a box-office flop. So they were reluctant to take part, though they did put up money in the end.
Do you feel pressure to make films that will do well at the box-office?
I’ve always thought it a good thing if you can make a film that works commercially. I’m not concerned to make films that are consigned to arthouse obscurity; in fact, I get very pissed off when people talk about my films as arthouse. But I would be incapable of yielding to manifest pressure to do something I didn’t believe in. My most successful film commercially was Secrets & Lies, and there’s no doubt that was to do with the subject matter – adoption – which has an obvious hook. All or Nothing hasn’t got a hook: it’s about love and redemption, which are not as palpable as adoption or, hopefully, abortion. Topsy-Turvy had the potential to be either a commercial proposition or something that would be rejected as esoteric; it found its own level, which I’m happy with. I’m motivated to do things that talk to audiences. There’s no compromise.
It’s rare to see a film about such a singularly good person as Vera that remains engaging.
For me that was the biggest challenge. I’m quite good at characters who are quirky and complicated, though I’ve dealt with characters who are good people too – for instance, Maurice in Secrets & Lies is a precursor to Vera. Though Vera is an organic creation, her character is driven by the morality of the film: this is a good person whom society casts in the role of a criminal.
Interview by Edward Lawrenson, Sight & Sound, January 2005
Director: Mike Leigh
©: Untitled 03 Limited, Les Films Alain Sarde
©/Presented by: UK Film Council
Production Companies: Thin Man Films, Les Films Alain Sarde
For: Inside Track 1 LLP
Production Company: Inside Track
Made with the support of: National Lottery through UK Film Council, UK Film Council Premiere Fund
Presented by: Fine Line Features, Alain Sarde
International Sales: StudioCanal
Executive Producers: Robert Jones, Gail Egan, Duncan Reid, Christine Gozlan
Produced by: Simon Channing Williams
Producer: Alain Sarde
Co-producer: Georgina Lowe
Unit Manager: Steve Mason
Production Manager: Danielle Brandon
Production Co-ordinator: Sarah McBryde
Production Accountant: Will Tyler
Location Managers: Neil Lee, Henry Woolley
Post-production Supervisor: Steve Harrow
Researcher: Lucy Whitton
1st Assistant Director: Josh Robertson
2nd Assistant Directors: Dan John, Hayley Williams
3rd Assistant Directors: Sarah Coombs, Merry Irwin
Set 3rd Assistant Director: Darren Price
Additional 2nd Assistant Director: Nick Shuttleworth
Additional 3rd Assistant Directors: Robert Burgess, Sam Smith, Toby Leigh
Script Supervisor: Heather Storr
Casting: Nina Gold
Written by: Mike Leigh
Cinematography: Dick Pope
Camera Operator: Dick Pope
Focus Puller: Gordon Segrove
Clapper Loader: James Scott
Grip: Colin Strachan
Stills Photographer: Simon Mein
Graphic Designer: Andrew Grant
Film Editor: Jim Clark
Production Designer: Eve Stewart
Art Director: Ed Walsh
Set Decorator: John Bush
Property Master: Richard Mills
Costume Design: Jacqueline Durran
Wardrobe Supervisor: Charlotte Finlay
Wardrobe Mistress: Laura Grace
Make-up/Hair Designer: Christine Blundell
Make-up Artists: Lesa Warrener, Kerry Scourfield
Title Design: Chris Allies
Digital Cinema: VTR
Colourist: Tom Russell
Music Composer: Andrew Dickson
Choir: Nunc Dimittis
Viola: Rosemary Warren-Green
Double Bass: Stacey Watton
Bass Flute: Helen Keen
Harp: Lucy Wakeford
Conductor: Nick Bicât
Music Supervisor: Step Parikian
Vocal Co-ordinator: Ben Bevan
Choreography: Francesca Jaynes
Sound Recordist: Tim Fraser
Sound Maintenance: Loveday Harding
Sound Assistant: Tom Barrow
Boom Operator: Denise Yarde
Re-recording Mixers: Adrian Rhodes, Chris Burdon
Supervising Sound Editor: Nigel Stone
Sound Editor: John Warhurst *
Sound Effects Editor: Zane Hayward
ADR Mixers: Peter Gleaves, Paul Carr
Foley Walkers: Pete Burgess, Andi Derrick
Foley Mixer: Robert Farr
Medical History Adviser: Jonathan Evans
Legal History Adviser: Jeffrey Gordon
Police History Adviser: Ray Seal
World War II Adviser: Terry Charman
Motor Car Adviser: Clive Loveless
Publicity (McDonald & Rutter): Jonathan Rutter
Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake)
Phil Davis (Stan Drake)
Peter Wight (Detective Inspector Webster)
Alex Kelly (Ethel Drake)
Daniel Mays (Sid Drake)
Adrian Scarborough (Frank)
Heather Craney (Joyce)
Eddie Marsan (Reg)
Ruth Sheen (Lily)
Sally Hawkins (Susan Wells)
Fenella Woolgar (Susan’s confidante)
Lesley Sharp (Jessie Barnes)
Anthony O’Donnell (Mr Walsh)
Helen Coker (WPC Best)
Martin Savage (Detective Sergeant Vickers)
Allan Corduner (psychiatrist)
Nicky Henson (private doctor)
Lesley Manville (Mrs Wells)
Wendy Nottingham (Ivy)
Paul Jesson (magistrate)
Sandra Voe (Vera’s mother)
Leo Bill (Ronny)
Gerard Monaco (Kenny)
Chris O’Dowd (Sid’s customer)
Sam Troughton (David)
Elizabeth Berrington (cynical lady)
Sinead Matthews (very young woman)
Rosie Cavaliero (married woman)
Vinette Robinson (Jamaican girl)
Tilly Vosburgh (mother of seven)
Liz White (Pamela Barnes)
Jim Broadbent (judge)
Richard Graham (George)
Anna Keaveney (Nellie)
Simon Chandler (Mr Wells)
Marion Bailey (Mrs Fowler)
Sid Mitchell (very young man)
Alan Williams (sick husband)
Heather Cameron, Billie Cook, Billy Seymour (children)
Nina Fry, Lauren Holden (dance hall girls)
Emma Amos (cynical lady)
Joanna Griffiths (Peggy)
Angie Wallis (Nurse Willoughby)
Judith Scott (Sister Beech)
Lucy Pleasence (Sister Coombes)
Tracey O’Flaherty (nurse)
Tom Ellis (police constable)
Robert Putt (station sergeant)
Craig Conway (station constable)
Jake Wood (ruffian)
Vincent Franklin (Mr Lewis)
Michael Gunn (gaoler)
Paul Raffield (magistrate’s clerk)
Philip Childs (clerk)
Jeffrey Wickham (prosecution barrister)
Nicholas Jones (defence barrister)
Stephan Dunbar (usher)
Angela Curran, Jane Wood (prisoners)
Eileen Davies (prison officer)
A COMPLETE FILM SEASON
Mon 18 Oct 20:40; Thu 28 Oct 18:00
Nuts in May
Wed 20 Oct 18:00; Sun 31 Oct 11:20 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Alison Steadman, Roger Sloman, Anthony O’Donnell, Stephen Bill and Sheila Kelley)
The Kiss of Death + The Permissive Society
Sat 23 Oct 12:50
Sat 23 Oct 15:10
Sun 24 Oct 14:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman and Kate O’Flynn);
Mon 15 Nov 20:40
Sun 24 Oct 18:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh,
Marion Bailey and Phil Daniels); Thu 11 Nov 20:45
Secrets & Lies
Mon 25 Oct 14:30; Sat 6 Nov 19:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh); Sat 27 Nov 15:00
Tue 26 Oct 20:50; Sun 14 Nov 12:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh)
Thu 28 Oct 14:30; Tue 2 Nov 18:45 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Ruth Sheen and Phil Davis); Thu 11 Nov 18:00; Sat 20 Nov 20:30
Life Is Sweet
Tue 28 Oct 17:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh);
Thu 4 Nov 18:15; Tue 23 Nov 20:50
Grown-Ups + The Short and Curlies
Sat 30 Oct 17:15 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh);
Tue 30 Nov 14:15
Home Sweet Home
Mon 1 Nov 17:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh);
Sat 6 Nov 11:45
All or Nothing
Wed 3 Nov 20:30; Wed 10 Nov 20:30; Sun 21 Nov 17:10 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Lesley Manville and Marion Bailey)
Fri 5 Nov 20:50; Fri 12 Nov 18:15; Tue 23 Nov 18:00 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh)
Fri 12 Nov 20:40; Fri 26 Nov 17:40 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis)
Sun 14 Nov 17:30 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh and
Jim Broadbent); Sun 28 Nov 17:40
Fri 19 Nov 17:30 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville); Mon 29 Nov 20:30
Four Days in July
Sat 20 Nov 11:50 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh and
Bríd Brennan); Wed 24 Nov 14:15
Sat 20 Nov 16:20 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh);
Mon 29 Nov 17:40
Sun 21 Nov 13:10 (+ Q&A with Mike Leigh, Marion Bailey and Dorothy Atkinson); Sat 27 Nov 17:30
Who’s Who + A Sense of History + A Running Jump
Sat 30 Nov 14:00
Welcome to the home of great film and TV, with three cinemas and a studio, a world-class library, regular exhibitions and a pioneering Mediatheque with 1000s of free titles for you to explore. Browse special-edition merchandise in the BFI Shop.We're also pleased to offer you a unique new space, the BFI Riverfront – with unrivalled riverside views of Waterloo Bridge and beyond, a delicious seasonal menu, plus a stylish balcony bar for cocktails or special events. Come and enjoy a pre-cinema dinner or a drink on the balcony as the sun goes down.
BECOME A BFI MEMBER
Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at bfi.org.uk/join
We are always open online on BFI Player where you can watch the best new, cult & classic cinema on demand. Showcasing hand-picked landmark British and independent titles, films are available to watch in three distinct ways: Subscription, Rentals & Free to view.
See something different today on player.bfi.org.uk
Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at www.bfi.org.uk/signup
Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email