Today I listened to the film director Mike Leigh give four interviews. Or, to be more precise, I listened to him give three interviews. By the time I got to the fourth, I had to abort mission. I felt overwhelmed.
Leigh is in San Francisco to receive the director’s award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and stir up some buzz for his latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky which comes out in the in the U.S. later this year. I took the occasion of his visit to pitch my editor at The Believer Magazine the idea of doing an interview with Leigh. The editor gave the idea her blessing, and I was lucky enough to be granted an interview with the great British auteur.
Reading and listening to other Q&A’s with an interview subject is, at least for me, an important part of the research process for a journalistic profile.
In my opinion, you can never overdose on research. There’s always more to learn about an interview subject; more ways to think about their lives and work in order to come up with insightful and hopefully slightly unusual questions and conversation points for a meeting. As such, I had done a fair bit of reading. I’d re-watched some of Leigh’s films. I spent an entire morning on YouTube scouting for Leigh-related video clips. The process was entirely pleasurable. But never have I felt so keenly aware of the problems inherent in the business of interview subjects being forced to regurgitate the same material over and over again for the sake of the media.
My actual interview with Leigh went as well as I could have hoped for considering the fact that I spent the morning wondering what on earth I could find to ask a hero of mine who’d given countless press interviews during a career spanning more than three decades. Thankfully, Leigh was in a gregarious mood and even complimented me on the fact that I managed to ask him a few questions that he’d never heard before. When the Festival press officer came in to the interview room to tell Leigh that our time was up, he even told her to go away and come back in 10 minutes so that we could continue our conversation. Yet as fun as our conversation was, I experienced complete Mike Leigh overkill by the time I got home.
It all started with the interview with Leigh I caught on the radio as I was driving into San Francisco from my home in Oakland to meet the director. Michael Krasny, the host of KQED 88.5FM’s Forum program, interviewed Leigh for about half an hour, asking him a range of fairly run-of-the-mill questions about his films and taking calls from listeners. Next came my meeting. Then, in the evening, I went to hear Leigh in conversation with David D’Arcy of Screen International at The Castro movie theatre. D’Arcy asked some of the same questions that Krasny and I had asked. Then there were more (mostly uninspired) audience questions. When I drove home, I turned on the radio again, and happened to catch the start of the re-run of Krasny’s interview with Leigh from the morning. It was too much. I turned it off.
Clearly I have no stamina for these things. Remarkably, Leigh managed to sound engaging and interested through all of these interviews — and that’s to say nothing of the several additional journalists he met with today whose conversations I wasn’t party to. Leigh’s been answering the same questions for years now, and yet he still seems to relish going into the details of how he works and the state of filmmaking in general. Even when people ask dumb questions, he generally manages to turn them around and give something back that’s intelligible and often witty.
I can’t quite decide if Leigh is the most tolerant, generous and patient filmmaker in the world, whether he’s a sucker for punishment, or whether he simply likes the sound of his own voice. Perhaps a desire to share his joy of filmmaking with audiences and readers supercedes the jetlag, the silly questions and the endless repetition. I doubt I’ll forget today, at any rate.
I was wrong: After all, perhaps there is such a thing as too much research.