artnet Asks: Mike Leigh, Director of New J.M.W. Turner Biopic

This is the director's 20th film without a script.

Timothy Spall In Mr. Turner
Photo via: artnet News
Mike Leigh.

Director, Mike Leigh.

Oscar-nominated director Mike Leigh’s new film, a J.M.W. Turner biopic titled Mr. Turner, will be released in the U.S. this December. The film’s premiere date, the 19th, coincides with the anniversary of the great painter’s death on December 19, 1851.

Mr. Turner explores the last quarter century in the life of the eccentric British artist. Famous for his romantic landscape oils and watercolors, Turner developed a distinctive style that influenced many later generations of painters, and paved the way toward Impressionism.  His work is often credited as a precursor of abstract art. artnet News sought out the director to pick his brain and see how this film came about, and how his well-known idiosyncratic cinematic approach shaped the movie.

At this year’s BAFTA awards, Leigh took home the prize for Excellence in Directing while Timothy Spall won for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival. Leigh is best known for his directing Secrets & Lies (1996) and writing screenplays for Vera Drake (2004) and Happy-Go-Lucky (2008).

To begin, how did this project come to fruition? Are you a big fan of Turner’s work?

I thought of it after we made the Gilbert & Sullivan film Topsy-Turvy, which was released in 1999. It took well over ten years to get it [Mr. Turner] financed, but that gave us time to research the project. I’m a huge Turner fan – have been since I was a London art student in the early 1960s.

When you wrote the script, did you have a specific actor in mind for Turner’s role?

I didn’t write a script. I never write a script. I collaborate with actors through months of rehearsal to create the characters. Timothy Spall was the only choice for Turner. Mr.Turner is my 20th movie since 1971 without a script.

What was the research process for the film?

We researched by reading, looking at the art, exploring archives, visiting locations, talking to experts and generally immersing ourselves in anything and everything to do with Turner and his world.

What was the reasoning behind the film’s musical choices?

I didn’t want faux period music, preferring a sound that expressed the spirit of Turner’s paintings. Gary Yershon’s score, led by those five evocative saxophones, absolutely fulfilled my brief. What’s also important  is how sparingly we use the music. Less is more.

Why did you decide not to incorporate any sort of timeline or flashback scenes?

As Mr.Turner isn’t an old-fashioned Hollywood bio-pic, there was no case for flashback scenes. Not having a timeline allowed the film to have a fluidity in its progression through the 26 years of its story. A timeline, or labels telling you where and when throughout the action, would have made the journey clumsy and cluttered.

Mr. Turner will open December 19, 2014 in select U.S. theatres.

Timothy Spall In Mr. Turner.

Timothy Spall In Mr. Turner.

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