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Interview: Why Mike Leigh turned to art

The British director on his acclaimed big-screen portrait of Turner—and the artist’s “box of tricks”

The film director Mike Leigh’s latest work is a biopic of the painter J.M.W. Turner. “Mr Turner” stars the British actor Timothy Spall as the artist and was, like all Leigh’s films and TV plays, developed through workshops and improvisations with the actors, as well as historical research. It tells the story of the last 25 years of Turner’s life (he died in 1851). At the Cannes Film Festival in May, Spall won the award for best actor and cinematographer Dick Pope won the Vulcan Award for technical achievement. Leigh has been nominated for seven Oscars and has won numerous other awards, including the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1996 for “Secrets & Lies”.

The Art Newspaper: You were an art student in the 1960s. For how long have you wanted to make this film?

Mike Leigh: Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, it was a given that I was committed to making contemporary films about the contemporary world I was in. It would not have occurred to me to do it, because I was keen to get out there on the streets, and do all that.

But you must have been become familiar with Turner during that period.

I went to Rada and trained as an actor, then I went to Camberwell [School of Arts and Crafts] and did one year of a foundation course. I then did the first year of a theatre-design course at the Central School of Art and Design, before going to the London Film School. At that time, pretty much all the other London art schools were into Pop art, but Camberwell, without being conservative or old-fashioned, was committed to drawing and figurative work. In that context, one started to twig Turner. He was very vague to me when I was a teenager. I knew about Picasso and Braque and had the postcards on the wall, and Salvador Dalí was always wonderful—of course, now we know better. The thing about Turner is that he’s so prolific and so diverse that it takes a lifetime to get your head around it all.

Were there never any other artists’ lives you wanted to film?

I read Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of Eric Gill. But I don’t think you could make that film without running into a lot of trouble [laughs].

You start the film well into Turner’s life.

A whole biopic would be long, it would be tedious to look at and, frankly, it would be tedious to make. You’d have to find a small fat boy who looked like Tim Spall and could throw on paint, and then a pimply youth. I’m not interested in that. The last quarter-century of Turner’s life sees the death of his father and, most importantly, the entry into the radical phase of his work and people’s [increasingly hostile] reaction to it—including Queen Victoria.

The film is just as much about the emergence of Modernism, and Turner leads what I assume would have been an alternative lifestyle: never married, almost ignoring one mistress with whom he was believed to have two daughters, keeping the woman he would later live with secret from family and friends.

I think he was an idiosyncratic and eccentric character for any time, so in that sense that’s true, but the film passes—I hope quite subtly—from the late Georgian period into the Victorian era. Don’t forget that the Regency period ended only five years before the beginning of this film. There was much more looseness in society anyway. So I’m not sure that he would have been totally extraordinary.

You examine class structure as well. There’s a scene where he is dismissive of John Ruskin as a pretentious little twerp.

I think he probably was. But the interesting thing about the Royal Academy [Turner entered the Academy schools aged 14 and showed his first painting at the institution a year later] is that people make the assumption that Academicians were all toffs. A lot of them came from artisan or working-class backgrounds.

The scenes where Timothy Spall is painting look like he’s making quite a good job of it.

He went to Tim Wright, who’s a portrait painter and a very good teacher, for two years.

Could he paint already?

He’s got some amateur flair. I said, “We’re not going to film you painting a whole Turner, but you need to look plausible,” and he got his head around the whole thing, so it meant I didn’t have to cut to someone else’s hands. Every actor who played a Royal Academician was an actor who could paint. Clive Francis [who plays Martin Archer Shee, then the president of the Royal Academy] is a well-known cartoonist.

There’s a scene where Turner and his companions in a rowing boat encounter a ship, the Temeraire, being towed—the inspiration for his famous work of 1839. The visual effects give it a hyper-real quality. To what extent were you aware of not trying to be totally naturalistic in that scene?

Very aware. It was the only way we could do it. It is, after all, a realisation of The Fighting Temeraire, which is quite a contrived painting. What he does with the sun and the light is a box of tricks, so it’s a theatrical painting in its own right. Whereas when he sees the train [the subject of Rain, Steam and Speed, 1844], we actually hauled a train off the tracks at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry and lugged it to North Wales and put it on a track.

His last words, “the sun is God”, are a gift to the script. Do we know if they really were his last words?

As far as we know. There were only a couple of people there. Academics [also] now suggest that he didn’t actually have himself strapped to the mast of a ship to paint a storm. Well, I don’t give a fuck about that. We’re making a movie. If you’re going to make a film about Turner and you don’t [include] that because some quacks—some academics—have said that they doubt that it happened, I think that’s boring.

• Mr Turner is in UK cinemas now. It is due to go on general release in the US on 19 December and in Australia in January 2015