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Director Mike Leigh and Actress Sally Hawkins of Happy-Go-Lucky
Press Roundtable
Regency Hotel
September 26, 2008

Written by Wendy R. Williams

Opposite Photo:
Sally Hawkin and Mike Leigh

Mikes Leigh's new film Happy-Go-Lucky is featured at the New York Film Festival and is opening nationwide on October 10, 2008. I saw the film and then attended the press roundtable. Here is my review (be sure to scroll down for the interview with Mike Leigh and Sally Hawkins):

Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky

Mike Leigh’s
Opens Friday October 10, 2008

Miramax Films
Reviewed by Wendy R. Williams

Written by Mike Leigh
Starring: Sally Hawkins; Eddie Marsan; Alexis Zegerman; Sylvestra Le Touzel; Stanley Townsend; and Kate O’Flynn.

Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake) has created another wonderful film world and this time he has left the world of adoption secrets and illegal abortions to enter the world of happiness. And this world of happiness revolves around one unforgettable character Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins), an eternally optimistic London grade school teacher.

Here is a quote from the Happy press release: “In the effervescent new comedy from director Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies), Sally Hawkins stars as the unforgettable Poppy, an irrepressibly free-spirited school teacher who brings an infectious laugh and an unsinkable sense of optimism to every situation she encounters as a single woman in London. When Poppy’s commuter bike is stolen, she signs up for driving lessons with Scott (Eddie Marsan), who turns out to be her polar opposite – a fuming, uptight cynic who takes himself extremely seriously. As the tension of their weekly lessons builds, Poppy’s story takes alternately hilarious and serious turns -- careening from flamenco classes to first dates--becoming a touching, truthful and deeply life-affirming exploration of one of the most mysterious and often the most elusive of all human emotions: happiness.”

When we first see Sally, her bike has been stolen. But this loss does not get our heroine down, she uses the lack of a bicycle as an impetus to sign up for driving lessons. Then she goes home where she makes some hysterical masks to take to her school. And life continues to serve up life’s problems to our heroine. She sees a student bullying another student and instead of cracking down on the bully, she investigates to find out what is happening at the child’s home that is making him so aggressive. And by doing so, she meets a really hot social worker. She sees a homeless man under a railroad overpass and she stops to talk to him, showing absolutely no fear.

But it is the driving lessons that really test Sally. Her driving instructor (played by the excellent Eddie Marsan) is that kind of man that would make most sane people hire a new instructor after the first five minutes. But not our heroine, she optimistically assumes that she can win him over and perseveres against all odds. But nothing she does makes a difference with Scott and in the end, Sally has to give up. But even having to quit her lesson does not get her down; she still thinks about what might be best for Scott.

Mike Leigh has made a beautiful film. And it is the type of film that made me want to sit down after I saw it and talk about happiness. Abraham Lincoln is famously quoted as saying that, "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be." So is being happy a talent like an aptitude for math? Are we simply born with our capacity to be happy? There is the age-old question: Why do some people, who have little reason to rejoice, stay basically happy anyway and why do others, who seemingly have every reason to be happy, live their lives with so little happiness? And why is it so much fun to watch a character like Poppy simply be happy?

Sally Hawkins was the winner of the Best Actress Award at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival for Happy-Go-Lucky. Happy-Go-Lucky was also an official selection at the upcoming 2008 Toronto and New York Film Festivals.

Director Mike Leigh

The Interview with Mike Leigh

As Mr. Leigh entered the room, the gathered film reviewers (myself included were talking about what the film meant to us), several of us thought it was about happiness being an innate part of a person’s nature. The critic from the Culture Vulture had an interesting point, he thought the overriding theme was teaching: Poppy is an elementary school teacher, Scot is a driving teacher; Poppy takes flamenco dance lessons from a memorable dance teacher (Karina Fernandez).

Question about whether the underlying theme of the film was teaching:

Mike Leigh: Perhaps.

Question about whether Leigh is enjoying the New York Film Festival:

Mike Leigh: I love the New York Film Festival, love the Q & A’s, and love the spirit.

Question about what was Leigh’s inspiration for the film:

Mike Leigh: The truth is that whatever I do it is only what artists do. You have a conception, a feeling. For many years I wanted to make a film about adoption (Secrets & Lies). And I was around before the 1967 Abortion Act (in Britain), old enough to know what it was like before and that was the impetus for Vera Drake. Happy-Go-Lucky was a circle of an idea, an idea that evolved. This is not something I invented. Before talking films, all films were made the way I make films. Film only started being scripted beforehand with the talkies.

Question about Leigh's collaborative process:

I assemble a group of actors, characters actors, really creative and giving people. And [in this case] I found three actors who looked alike [thus Poppy and her two sisters]. Getting Eddie Marsan was perfect.

We did all the relationship building. The characters knew all about their childhoods, what their weddings were like.

But make no mistake, I am in the business of highly organized films and I am not a documentary maker.

You embark on a journey to find out what you think about something. And afterwards you look at what you have. All films are really created in the editing room.

I am not a jobbing director. I make very personal films.

Question about the impetus for Happy-Go-Lucky:

Mike Leigh: The movie is about positiveness. As for the title, you have to call the film something. I like titles that create a general sense of what the film is about, about what is in the bottle.

Poppy is all about being positive.

Question about the scene where Scot loses it and becomes almost violent:

Mike Leigh: Poppy knows how to handle him. It is not a problem for her, but she really cares about other people and is concerned about Scott.

Question about some of the cruel things that Scot says to Poppy about her wanting to be the center of attention; does this have an element of truth:

Mike Leigh: There is convention in Hollywood movies that is someone says something, it must be true. Poppy does not need attention.

Question about what Poppy needs:

Mike Leigh: A character does not have to need something.

[The women in my films] are not like the women in Hollywood movies who are only there to support the male lead character.

Question about working with Sally Hawkins:

Mike Leigh: She has great humility and a great sense of humor. She is very intelligent. I don’t work with narcissistic actors.

Question about how he found Sally:

Mike Leigh: I found her through the normal process. She was in Vera Drake.

Question about whether Leigh watches his own films after they are finished:

Mike Leigh: Yes. I have no problem looking at my own work. But I am not like Gloria Swanson.

Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky

The Interview with Sally Hawkins

Sally entered the room with her arm in a sling and explained that she had broken her collar bone while filming Happy Ever After in Ireland. She had just had an operation on her collar bone ten days before but simply could not miss the New York Film Festival.

Question about the process of working with Mike Leigh:

Sally Hawkins: Mike demands of all of his actors,no matter how little the part is, that every actor does an extreme amount of work, you have to block yourself out for a year. He gives you homework. When I was doing Vera Drake, I learned everything about the period.

He set up the flat where we lived and furnished it with our props. I had my purse from the very beginning.

After each improvisation session, you sit down with Mike and talk about what happened. Mike does not like for his actors to be actors, with a third eye eying themselves.

Question about her laugh:

Sally Hawkins: I worked on it for weeks. And finally one day Mike said that the laugh was there.

Question about whether she writes in a journal:

Sally Hawkins: I try to but I did not keep one for Poppy because it is not something she would do. Poppy is not introspective.

Question about the clothes:

Sally Hawkins: All the props and clothes were on set early on. The costume designer took me shopping for Poppy specifically. Some of my clothes are like the clothes that Poppy would wear, but Mike wanted me to segregate them in my mind.

I needed to know everything about Poppy – what books she liked to read, how much sugar she would use in her tea, what breakfast cereal she liked to eat. She actually could not use sugar, it would make her mad creative.

Eddie Marsan and Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky

Question about the scenes with Scott:

Sally Hawkins: Mike Leigh, Eddie Marsan and I spent weeks driving around. Eddie and I were in the front seat and Mike was in the back. When we first started working these scenes, we did not know how it would end. We did not know and Mike did not know. But a shift had to take place with her. Poppy always wants to learn about people, why they do what they do, and it was hard for her to let Scot go. She always wants to be fair and to be kind.

Poppy tells Scott in one scene, “It’s not much fun being you.”

Question about what Mike Leigh will do next:

Sally Hawkins: No one ever knows what is going on in Mike Leigh’s head. He is a master film maker.

Question about what she (Hawkins) will do next:

Sally Hawkins: When my collar bone heals, I need to go back to Ireland and finish Happy Ever After. And then I am going to play Bernadette Devlin in Aisling Walsh’s The Roaring Girl.

Many thanks to Mike Leigh and Sally Hawkins for talking with New York Cool.



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