The Four Seasons
Family matters as Mike Leigh and Dick Pope BSC collaborate for the ninth time on Another Year
It’s been almost 40 years since Mike Leigh first examined the human condition on film in his debut feature Bleak Moments. The past twenty of those have been, of course, distinguished by the writer-director’s remarkable collaboration with Dick Pope.
While Leigh talks warmly about Pope’s “incredible imagination and technical inventiveness”, the veteran cinematographer returns the compliment paying tribute to the 67-year-old filmmaker’s “bravery” and refusal ever to compromise on his vision.
This mutual admiration society is back in business for the ninth time on Another Year for which the official ‘short synopsis’ offers a rather useful umbrella snapshot:
“Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. Family and friendship. Love and warmth. Joy and sadness. Hope and despair. Companionship. Loneliness. A birth. A death. Time passes...”
One could expand on that a bit by explaining that the film mainly centres on a happily married middle-aged couple, drolly called Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), as they interact, happily and sometimes unhappily, with family and friends across a year of, shall we say, real life.
To say any more would be to spoil the kind of revelations – from laugh-out-loud moments to deep melancholy - that inevitably emerge in a Leigh film, which, as ever, according to the man himself, “celebrates the lives of ordinary people.”
If one of the starting points for their last film Happy-Go-Lucky - like all their previous films a prolific awards winner - was Youth then this time round there was, admits Leigh, a distinct feeling at the outset of “let’s do Us a bit.” Stir in “age and time” as well as a desire to cast Broadbent, a regular, with David Bradley who was making his Leigh debut.
Also developing out of the ‘process’ – which involves, among many things, months of rehearsal and character development with the selected actors - was also the complex role of Mary (Lesley Manville, another Leigh returnee), an old Tom and Gerri friend with distinct issues.
Explains Leigh: “When I was conceiving how to make the narrative work which apart from anything else was to explore Mary who doesn’t, for various reasons, visit Tom and Gerri very often, as a central dynamic, it became clear we’d have to have a longer time span than you’d normally get in my films.
“I had talked to Dick as I always do about the potential look of the film and whilst we got a sense of the general spirit of what I thought it was in terms of developing the action, we weren’t very clear at that stage about the way we should go precisely in visual terms.
“As always he shot tests which gave me coincidentally what were four alternative looks. At that precise moment I was struggling with the narrative thing about Mary’s visits but after watching the tests, which only took a few minutes, I suddenly thought of the seasons.
“When Dick then asked me which way we should go, I replied “All ways. We should make it a film in all seasons.’ This immediately made it very exciting for him and also made absolute sense to me in terms of what the film was about and how it was actually emerging.”
There was, however, no discussion required this time about whether the film should be widescreen, Pope having persuaded Leigh to utilise it for the first time ever on Happy-Go-Lucky.
Making its debut, however, on Another Year, was a new Pope innovation: a high-end consumer digital projector he’d bought with which to watch rushes. “Normally these days you just get to take home the DVDs to watch them alone, so to be able to view our dailies together as a company, digitally projected on to quite a large screen was absolutely wonderful. I’m now completely sold on the idea,” he said.
As well as recreating the seasons in a comparatively short space of time – more of which below - the other challenges for Pope were often variations on familiar themes.
“The hardest thing is maintaining a consistency throughout the film as the story unfolds and takes shape. As we don’t work in a studio, the natural light conditions never stop changing.”
The final shot of the film which, which without wishing to give too much away, ends in a remarkable, penetrative, almost unblinking final close-up on one of the characters was, Pope revealed, “incredibly tricky”.
Cast and crew were crammed into the kitchen of in a house in Wanstead as Pope also operating was, basically, tracking round more than 250 degrees of a huge table photographing each person in turn.
“Gordon Segrove, my assistant, was pulling focus and had to get it absolutely right. We’d devised this way of crabbing the dolly around with the minimum of width but it was really tight to get past the actors and I had to operate off a monitor because I was so jammed into the camera I couldn’t get my eye to the eyepiece.
“When we got round to the final face we tracked right in and in fact I added a bit. I always work with Prime lenses as there are no zooms on the film so at the end of the shot when we settled, I later buried a little bit in the DI and got further in, supplementing it by perhaps 10 per cent.
“The scene was designed to end that way so that wasn’t the surprise but what was a surprise was the way Mike held it in the cut and went out on it. It was just perfect. Most filmmakers would have got out much earlier. That was so brave, but typical.”
Pope talking to EXPOSURE from Los Angeles where he’s grading The Convincer, his second film for Jill Sprecher, acknowledged how his longtime Leigh collaboration has had the most fruitful spin-off in terms of his other work.
“They love his films in the States and so working with Mike has also afforded me the opportunities to work with all sorts of maverick American filmmakers like Richard Linklater [with whom he will work again shortly], Neil Burger (whose The Illusionist earned Pope an Oscar nomination), Barry Levinson, John Sayles and, of course, Jill.”
Naturally, he and Leigh will resume normal service, next on what still remains fiercely under wraps and which Pope would only describe “as a film project for the 2012 Olympics.” “God know what it’s going to be, “he laughed.
“I’m reaching a certain age,” said Pope, “and I’ve never been busier.” To coin the title of their first ever film together, back in 1990, life is sweet. QUENTIN FALK
* Another Year, to be released in the UK on November 5, was originated on 35mm Fujicolor ETERNA 500T 8573, Super F-64D 8522, ETERNA 250D 8563 and ETERNA 250T 8553
THE DP VIEW
Dick Pope BSC
We shot the whole film for about eight weeks from the beginning of September so trying to get four seasons meant we were heavily reliant on the weather. If, for instance we’d had an Indian Summer throughout we’d have been in serious trouble.
In fact, the gods were with us; when we needed it, we had sun; and, strangely enough, when we needed shade or storm clouds for Autumn and Winter we got them too.
We supplemented with our own rain especially for Spring, but we never put rain on brilliant sunshine as it always looks terrible. We obviously frosted some of it for Winter, some of which was done for us by Pepper as a visual effect. The frosty ground of the cemetery was done, for example, by a team and we supplemented it a bit on the trees.
As far as the stocks were concerned we used Super F-64D for some Summer day exteriors, ETERNA 250D for Summer day exteriors and interiors, the ETERNA 250T for Spring and Autumn, and the ETERNA 500T for Winter.
In order to get the seasonal ‘feel’ we used the grey scale on every scene especially with the 250T and 500T.
With Spring and Autumn, for instance, we would shoot a grey scale with an 85 correction and then shoot the scene with only an 81EF correction. For winter we would shoot the grey scale with an 85 correction and then shoot the scene clean with no correction at all.
You could say that these days you wouldn’t need to bother because with the DI you could just shoot the whole film with no correction then fix it later if necessary in the grade.
However I liked to do it my way because by shooting it without correction and with careful use of grey scales, I was able to get the look I wanted in the rushes stage so that the whole company who watch dailies get to see it looking as a close as possible to the final product, as it were.