In MR. TURNER, British auteur Mike Leigh follows the latter half of the life and career of iconoclastic landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. Played by Timothy Spall in a Cannes Best Actor-winning performance, Turner is at once charming and a repulsive brute of a man, using unusual methods to craft stunning masterpieces while employing considerably less elegance in his personal relationships. With gorgeous photography by Leigh’s longtime cinematographer Dick Pope and lush period detail, MR. TURNER is a sensuous slow-burn replete with Leigh’s trademark wit and empathy for human frailty.
AFI talked with Leigh about the film, which screens at AFI FEST presented by Audi.
AFI: You’ve mentioned in interviews that when you began researching Turner’s personality, he “presented himself as a character for a Mike Leigh film.” Can you elaborate on that?
ML: My research revealed a complicated and contradictory sort of chap – at times generous, compassionate, emotional and humorous, but also given to curmudgeonly eccentricity, grubby personal habits and diverse and variable attitudes to women. Thus, given the intriguing tension between this driven and talented, but very mortal and flawed individual, and the sublime profound work he created, and given my own lifetime’s fascination with people, with all our strengths and weakness, warts and all, Turner’s possibilities as a character in a film of mine seemed rich in scope, to say the least.
AFI: You and cinematographer Dick Pope do a remarkable job of capturing Turner-esque light and color in the various settings of the film. How did you achieve that?
ML: For some years, Dick Pope and I studied Turner’s oil paintings and watercolors, as well as his actual color charts, which are held in the Turner archive at the Tate Britain in London. This helped us to decide that the movie should be informed by a sense of Turners’ palette – his colors, tones and atmosphere, rather than descend into mere pastiche. Most of the time it’s enough for the general quality of the image to reference Turner only so far as the colors are concerned, but sometimes you are looking at more direct representations of specific Turner images. And often, for example, in the opening shot, we have created the illusion of a Turner, without its actual being one. Technically, Dick’s remarkable achievement results from his combining an Arriflex Alexa digital camera with a set of re-housed Cooke Speed Panchro lenses from the 1940’s – the ones used on SPARTACUS, amongst many films. And, of course, he exploited the full potential of sophisticated state of the art digital grading.
AFI: There are no surviving photos of Turner, and painted portraits of him vary in terms of appearance. What was the process of having Spall embody Turner, from a physical standpoint – his appearance, the way he carries himself, even the noises he makes?
ML: Although images of Turner are indeed diverse it was relatively easy for us to formulate an overall picture of the man, at least sufficiently for us to bring him to life. And we were also able to work from the many descriptions of him in the diaries and memories or his contemporaries. As to our process, however, that is, I’m afraid, a trade secret.
AFI: Your rehearsal process is based on an organic improvisational style. Do you have a favorite moment in MR. TURNER that sprung from this process, or that really surprised you?
ML: Since the entire film is evolved form organic improvisation (combined with rigorous research), and since the joy and delight of this work is the endless harvest surprising moments it yields, it is quite impossible to identify one such moment in particular.
AFI: What kind of a balance did you keep between staying true to historical facts, and then straying from them for narrative reasons?
ML: MR. TURNER is not a documentary, it is a dramatic distillation, and I do distill half of Turner’s lifetime into 2 1/2 hours. Besides which, all the research in the world can’t ever make characters live and breathe in real time in front of the camera. So…in details, we have, of course, been endlessly inventive. But in broad terms, I have followed the general contours of Turner’s later life, and I have tried to stay close to what I understand and imagine to be the spirit of his life and world.