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Filmmakers Channeled Painter's Essence for 'Mr. Turner'

20 Apr, 2015 By: John Latchem

The critically acclaimed film Mr. Turner tells the story of British artist J.M.W. Turner, a Romanticist landscape painter and famed water-colorist who lived from 1775 to 1851.

The film stars Timothy Spall in the title role, for which he won the Best Actor award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. Among its other honors, Mr. Turner was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment releases the film on Digital HD April 21, followed by Blu-ray and DVD May 5.

Home Media Magazine recently spoke with writer-director Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy) about making the film.

Home Media: What makes Turner an interesting subject for a feature and what attracted you to his story?

Mike Leigh: Well, he’s a great painter for one thing. He’s a great character. I was drawn to him really in the first place by learning his paintings. But when I started looking into his character, the personality, the man, I found this complex, eccentric guy, and you consider this guy produced all this amazing, sublime, epic work, it just felt like a different film.

HM: He’s not exactly an endearing or cultured figure in the film, but his paintings were groundbreaking and well-regarded. Can you talk about this contradiction?

ML: I don’t know if that is a contradiction, actually. What’s not being questioned is his paintings are groundbreaking. Whether that’s a contradiction with the fact that he, I mean, whether you think he’s appealing or not is a subjective matter. He was complex and in some ways eccentric, but at the same time very honest, very passionate, and that is consistent with what he did. His work is terrific. He was terrific. He produced so much. He never stopped. I think we tried to capture that sense of a guy driven by this inevitable task he got producing this stuff, getting out there and looking at the elements.

HM: Rather than offering a plot-heavy representation of the life of the painter, you chose a different route in “Mr. Turner,” delving into his inspiration and eccentric character. Why did you make this choice?

ML: I think that’s just a natural thing for me. I think it would be very tedious and pedestrian to wade through his life or to try to extrapolate a kind of conventional movie plot from any aspect of his life. I think that would be a phony, bogus thing to do. And unnecessary. And certainly my natural inclination is to evoke a narrative, or in a way to imply a narrative by simply exploring different things that go on and place you in the midst of it, so it’s kind of an internal development rather than a conventional Hollywood plot sort of development. There were so many interesting things for us to explore in the film, it just felt right to let them breathe. We do actually go through 26 years of his life, so you do see the development in that sense, obviously.

HM: Improvisation seems to be a big part of your process. Can you explain how you developed the performances with the actors?

ML: It’s a question of spending a great deal of time, and this applies to all of my films, of course, not just this one. A great deal of time is spent creating characters, bringing them to life and exploring them through improvisation so that we get to a stage where we’re really able to bring to life in a three-dimensional and organic way the whole world of the thing. And then through rigorous rehearsal we arrive at this very tight thing, you could say scripted work. But I think we only write the script to bring it back. We arrive at the very precise action and script through rehearsing at the location on the set with the actors.

HM: Can you speak a little about Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Mr. Turner?

ML: Obviously Tim Spall is a consummate character actor. Now when I say character actor obviously I don’t mean what they mean in Hollywood, an old actor who plays small parts. All the actors in this film are character actors in the sense that they are versatile actors who can and do play people like real people out there in the street. And he’s really good at that, he can play a character with all the good and bad characteristics. And he’s very good on the 19th century. He’s read a lot of Dickens, which is a bonus. I knew he would be good because he had some sort of amateur painting experience. Although we sent him to a teacher for two years to learn how to paint properly before making the film. But the great thing is he’s able to bring to life this multifaceted character, this guy with all these different sides to him.

HM: Much of the film looks like a moving Turner painting. Can you explain how you and your cinematographer composed these shots and achieved the right light and color?

ML: First of all, we made the decision to shoot the film with a digital camera, which is a breakthrough for us, since we always shot on film. So we really embraced this new, extraordinary medium and technology, which we previously had kind of in a healthy way, like a lot of filmmakers, sort of resisted. But once we embraced it we saw that we could do all kinds of stuff with it that would make it possible evoke Turner’s work. In terms of the actual research that we were able to do, being in London, which has the Turner archive in it, they were incredibly generous and they just opened their doors to us and we would sort of look at the paintings and experiment and test so we could get the hang of how to make it Turner-esque. Of course, the other thing is we were extraordinarily lucky with weather conditions and lighting conditions when we were shooting the movie because you’re not always lucky with weather and light when you’re shooting a movie in the British Isles. In fact it can be a nightmare on occasion. But we were actually quite lucky and there are times when you’re really looking at actual sunrises and sunsets. And what you see is what we actually had, and they’re very Turner-esque.

HM: Do you have a favorite shot or favorite shots in the film?

ML: There’s a moment where Turner leaves his house early in the morning and the camera pans to a sunrise with a boat, and that was to me very exciting and dramatic when we did it. There are a whole number of those in the film. Also I’m pleased with the contribution of the production designer and her team; the Royal Academy scene, I’m really please with the way we managed to get that, the way we shot it. It’s a great tribute to teamwork. There are a lot of people involved in getting it right.

HM: Can you talk about some of the research that went into the film?

ML: We’re not only talking about research, looking at the paintings and Turner’s sketchbooks and Turner’s color charts and all of those things. But you’re also talking about research into social, political, economic, gastronomic, religious, everything. At the center of it all was the research into all the artists played by actors who incidentally actually could paint. And each of them is playing a real painter who existed during that time, and so each actor researched his particular character and then we researched collectively the whole politics and dynamics of the Royal Academy, which was quite a rarified institution in London. But in order to bring a thing like this to life you really have to research everything at every level as thoroughly as you can.

HM: Can you talk about how you chose the locations for the film? Was it important to go to the places Turner himself traveled?

ML: To some extent. Ideally that’s what we would have done, but you can’t always do that. It varies between the actual locations of which there were actually few and places that evoked or were appropriate to get the spirit of what the places would have been.

HM: Why has Turner’s art stood the test of time?

ML: I think because of his kindness. He gets to the essence of the elements. It’s a timeless, epic thing. Some work simply becomes out of date or stale because it’s locked in its time. But Turner’s work really transcends time and I think that’s why it’s stood the test of time I would think.

HM: If Turner were able to see your movie, what do you think he would think of it?

ML: When we were making the film, when we were particularly preoccupied with the fact that we were using this new technology, and we had these thoughts about should we be using film, we would say to ourselves on a number of occasions, “what would Turner think?” And of course he would be fascinated because, and we’ve got it in the film, he was fascinated by new technology. He was fascinated by photography, he was fascinated by railway. What would he make of the movie? My hunch is, as all of us are as we see ourselves written about or depicted by other people, his reaction would range somewhere between outraged and amused, really.

Stephanie Prange contributed to this report

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