Habonim spirit influences work of director Mike Leigh in ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’

Director Mike Leigh may be known as a bit of a curmudgeon, but he refuses to see his new film, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” which revolves around a relentlessly optimistic teacher, as a departure.

The 65-year-old British writer-director is famous for gritty realism in movies such as “Naked,” about a strangely metaphysical angry young man, and “Vera Drake,” about a 1950s illegal abortionist, for which he received one of his five Oscar nominations. He’s also known for working without a script, instead encouraging his actors to improvise. A comedy sketch apparently has parodied his movies by depicting characters sitting around and grunting.

Leigh has little patience for such parodies and even less for critics who marvel about “Happy-Go-Lucky” as “a change of pace” for the director.

“Rubbish,” he says of such reviews, hunching in his chair and folding his arms during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel here. “This movie has all the elements of a ‘Mike Leigh’ film because I cannot get away from making a Mike Leigh film. All my work combines a balance between the humorous and the pathetic.”

He says he traces this point of view to his Jewish upbringing in Manchester, though he now leads a secular life and eschews organized religion.

The idea for “Happy-Go-Lucky” began when Leigh was pondering the gloom-and-doom atmosphere after Sept. 11.

“I thought, ‘Now’s the time to make an “anti-miserablist” film about people who are living their lives and getting on with it,'” he says.

The main character, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), gets on with her life even as she encounters a seething driving instructor (Eddie Marsan), who eventually stalks her; a mentally ill transient; a bullying student; and her dour sisters.

“She is an optimistic character, but more importantly, she is a ‘positivist,'” Leigh explains. “Poppy is someone who looks things in the eye, who deals with difficult matters as they arise, who is open and nonjudgmental. She cares and is motivated by her love for people … but none of these things in a soppy, sloppy or sentimental way.”

The movie received good reviews when it premiered at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, where Hawkins won the best actress award, and it marks a milestone of sorts for Leigh. At 65, he has some 20 plays and almost as many films under his belt, of which 10 have been released in a DVD box set this year (some for the first time).

A series of conversations with Amy Raphael make up the new book, “Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh,” which will hit stores in the United States this month. In the interviews, Leigh reveals previously guarded secrets about his filmmaking techniques, as well as candid reflections on his heritage, including comments on how some Jews pretend not to be Jewish.

Fear of being singled out as Jewish is more pronounced among British than American Jews, he suggests in person.

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“I was in New York recently, and if you come from London and you’re Jewish, it is remarkable to be somewhere where Rosh Hashanah is virtually a public holiday. Everything closes down…. It’s like a version of the ‘Yiddish Policemen’s Union,'” he says, citing Michael Chabon’s novel about a Jewish settlement in Alaska. “The point is that we are used to being this relatively closeted minority, but I have to qualify this statement by reminding you that I have spent so much of my life not really being a part of the Jewish scene.”

Leigh’s Yiddish-speaking paternal grandfather was born Meyer Lieberman (later Anglicized to “Leigh”) in what is now Belarus and arrived in England as “part of the great Jewish emigration west,” the director says. “Actually he had a ticket to New York, but he stopped off to see some people in Manchester and decided to sell the remainder of his ticket, and he stayed — how dramatic that sounds! Had he not done that, he wouldn’t have met my grandmother, and therefore I would not exist in the form that you now meet me.”

Leigh’s physician father and midwife mother met through Habonim, the Labor Zionist youth movement, in 1936. Mike Leigh, in turn, became a Habonim leader and traveled with the group to Israel on a ship as a teenager. The experience had a dramatic effect on his future work as an artist: “The atmosphere was one of chevrah, of sharing, openness and coming together — of making things happen by colluding — which describes the spirit of how I work with actors and the atmosphere of my rehearsals.”

But when Leigh returned to the United Kingdom, his overriding goal was to immerse himself in the theater. While attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he played down his background to escape being stereotyped.

“If you’re perceived as the ‘Jewish’ filmmaker — particularly since that was not the agenda I was concerned with — it could only get in the way, so therefore, I was not interested in talking about it,” he says matter-of-factly.

Leaving the chevra of Habonim wasn’t difficult, he suggests, because he had never intended to pursue Jewish religion or culture.

“I walked away from the Jewish world at 17 — I couldn’t wait,” he says. ” I was eating bacon and pork at an early age; I lived a completely secular existence.”

Leigh directed his first feature film, “Bleak Moments,” in 1971, and in the 1990s made a splash on the international scene with movies such as “Naked” and “Secrets & Lies.”

“Mike Leigh’s work, as filmmaker and playwright, has always seemed to be about Englishness, about the turmoil and pain that lies beneath the veneer of ordinary lives,” an article in the Guardian said of him.

So it came as a shock to some when his comedy-drama, “Two Thousand Years,” which opened at the National Theatre in London in 2005, revolved around members of a Labor Zionist family as they argued about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what it means to be Jewish.

“Here’s my Jewish play,” he wrote in his introduction to the published script. “I’ve been threatening to do it for years, but I haven’t felt ready until now.”

Leigh had been commissioned to write something for the company, which he perceives as “a forum for ideas,” and used that as an opportunity to reflect upon his upbringing and his disappointment with Israel and its policies.

Like all of Leigh’s work, the script was created in an atmosphere of secrecy, via conversations with individual actors, who were told as little as possible about the other characters until improvisations began. The topic of the play remained unknown to the public (and even to theater officials) until the production went into rehearsals. Nevertheless, Leigh’s fame ensured that tickets sold out within minutes of going on sale.

Leigh says he selected only Jewish actors for “Two Thousand Years” so they could bring their personal experiences to the table.

“That kind of casting is central to the way I work,” he explains. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, anyone can do this; you just have to learn the lines and stand in front of the camera.’ It’s a creative process where an actor comes in with nothing, and I work with them, and we create a character from scratch.”

Critics were so surprised by the play’s content that headlines referred to the author’s Jewish background as Mike Leigh’s “secret.”

“It was like, ‘Hey, he was a closet Yid,’ which is nonsense,” the director says with a laugh.

These days, he has a dual take on his heritage: “I am fundamentally upset by religion; I think it’s deeply unhealthy,” he says. “I’m a totally spiritual person but entirely unreligious. But I have Jewish roots; I am Jewish, and that’s why I dealt with it in ‘Two Thousand Years.’ And indeed there is an unquestionably tragicomic dimension to my work, which it would be disingenuous to not own up to being pretty Jewish.”

“Happy-Go-Lucky” opens Oct. 10 in Los Angeles.