Noted for his film style in which the commonplace was often tinged with the extraordinary, filmmaker Mike Leigh's process involved improvisational workshops and rehearsals with his actors, often done weeks before a single frame was even shot. The British writer-director worked on stage and in television projects before making a name for himself with critically-lauded films such as "Naked" (1993), "Life is Sweet" (1991), and "Secrets and Lies" (1996). With his highly personal projects, Leigh depicted the uneventful lives of ordinary people, yet presented them with plot twists, deep character development, and intricate humanism. His 2008 film "Happy-Go-Lucky," the story of a North London schoolteacher, continued the director's love of capturing everyday life and presenting it as "heightened realism," as he described it. With numerous awards and nominations for his impressive body of work, Leigh cemented his reputation as one of the most celebrated British directors of all time.
Mike Leigh was born on Feb. 20, 1943 in Salford, Greater Manchester, England to Alfred Abraham Leigh, a doctor, and Phyllis Pauline Leigh. His grandfather was a Russian immigrant. Leigh's early years were spent at various film schools and universities in London, England, including the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the Camberwell School of Art, the London International School of Film Technique, and the Central School of Art and Design. In 1973, Leigh married actress Alison Steadman, whom he met at East 15 Acting School and directed in his films "Life is Sweet" and "Topsy Turvy" (1999). The couple had two children, Toby and Leo, before they divorced in 2001.
London's experimental fringe theater scene of the 1960s set the backdrop for Leigh's artistic vision, and in 1971, he made his feature film writing and directorial debut with "Bleak Moments." It would take 17 years for Leigh to step behind the camera for another feature film, instead focusing exclusively for British stage and television. The highlight of Leigh's hiatus from big screen projects was "Abigail's Party" (1977), a satirical play he wrote for the stage and for television about the new British class that emerged around the same time. He took the exploration of his characters to new heights, thanks to lengthy improvisational sessions with his actors, including his wife, Steadman, who starred in the play. "Abigail's Party" drew mixed reviews from the British press, but it would be included in the "100 Greatest Television Programmes" list from the British Film Institute.
"Abigail's Party" was one of six episodes Leigh directed for the "Play for Today" (BBC, 1970-1984) series. His TV projects were inspired by theater and echoed the rebellious spirit of independent filmmaking. When asked why he had such passion for the small screen, Leigh said, "There was a time when you just couldn't make an independent, indigenous, serious feature film. And those of us who were lucky enough - Ken Loach, Stephen Frears, Alan Clarke and others - mostly found that at the BBC you could do what you wanted." Leigh also directed the Irish civil war drama "Four Days in July" (BBC, 1985) and the comedy "The Short & Curlies" (Channel 4, 1987) for British television.
After a 17-year break, Leigh made a triumphant return to feature films, citing a deep-rooted love for the craft. "I am much happier making films," Leigh revealed. "Theater is fine when you do it. But film is my natural habitat." His comeback was well received by critics worldwide with "High Hopes" (1988), a bleak look at London during Margaret Thatcher's rule, centering on a working-class couple dealing with an aging mother, pretentious neighbors, and the wife's desire to start a family. Leigh's reputation hit an even higher note in 1991 with "Life is Sweet." The colorful cast of characters included a who's who of British cinema, including Steadman, David Thewlis, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Rea. It took 40 minutes of the film for the audience to realize that Leigh was not being sarcastic at all about the film's title; instead developing and slowly revealing the emotional core of the plot.
Released two years after "Life is Sweet," Leigh's masterpiece "Naked" was a staggering and controversial look at one man's (brilliantly played by David Thewlis) emotional and psychological downfall on the streets of London. Even more amazing than the film was the script itself, which was only 25 pages long at the start of production. Throughout the course of filming, Leigh and his actors created the rest off the cuff, and turned its antihero, Johnny, into one of the most engaging characters in cinema. "Naked" won Best Director and Best Actor at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. The film garnered negative reviews in his home country, yet it won Leigh "indie cred" in Hollywood - something he never wanted. "Given the choice of Hollywood or poking steel pins in my eyes, I'd prefer steel pins," said Leigh, who received an Order of the British Empire honor that same year.
By 1996, despite his honest feelings towards the Hollywood industry, Leigh was the toast of Tinseltown with another slice-of-life look at London's inhabitants. "Secrets and Lies" was the story of a baffled black woman seeking her birth mother, who gets involved with a low-class and despondent white family. Like many of his previous work, Leigh asked the actors to improvise and develop their characters while filming. Stars Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste dazzled onscreen in the gloomy, yet strangely inspirational film that became a critical and commercial success. "Secrets and Lies" earned top nominations for Leigh, Blethyn, and Baptiste at the 1997 Academy Awards, and won the top honor the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
It was tough for the filmmaker's 1997 follow-up "Career Girls" to reach the bar set by his two previous works. The female buddy film was thought to be a disappointment, even by some of Leigh's supporters. He delivered a big comeback with "Topsy Turvy" (1999), a cinematic kaleidoscope that followed the rise and fall of Victorian musical duo W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. With its elaborate sets, costumes, makeup, and score, "Topsy Turvy" was a colorful feast for the senses, yet the emotional grip and humanistic complexity was not far from the writer-director's previous films. Leigh returned to form with "All or Nothing" (2002), the gritty tale of working-class families in modern day London that starred a list of unknown actors. It was another facet of the filmmaker - to work with actors based on talent and what they could bring to the character and story - rather than banking on big name celebrities.
It did not take long for Leigh to add another period drama to his impressive repertoire, with the bleak World War II tale of "Vera Drake" (2004). Imelda Staunton was poignant and intense as the title character, a wife and mother in 1950s England who also happens to perform underground abortions. The tragic and moving film was hailed as Leigh's best work at the time of its release, again earning the filmmaker Academy Award nominations for writing and directing, as well as several acting nods for Staunton. In 2008, Leigh continued his hot streak, helming the contemporary comedy "Happy-Go-Lucky," starring Sally Hawkins as an effervescent schoolteacher named Poppy who keeps a positive outlook on life despite the tragedies surrounding her. The warm humor coupled with Leigh's signature offbeat realism had critics lobbing several award nominations at "Happy-Go-Lucky" in 2009, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy and a Best Original Screenplay nod.
The writer-director returned the following year with the contemporary dramedy, "Another Year" (2010), starring Leigh regulars Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as Tom and Gerri, a contented happy couple nearing retirement age. Structured around the four seasons of a single year, the film followed the less stable lives of the various friends and family members who orbit Tom and Gerri's comfortably structured world. Regarded by many as Leigh's most well-crafted work since "Secrets and Lies," "Another Year" garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Leigh's next film, "Mr. Turner" (2014), was a biography of 19th century British painter J.M.W. Turner, a controversial figure in his life who is now seen as a pioneering figure in the development of modern art.