Mike Leigh: Agile Planner / by Dan Weingrod

With the Oscars mercifully over I’ve been thinking about Mike Leigh. He had two nominations this year. In fact, since 1997 Leigh has been nominated for 7 Oscars for directing and screenwriting. He hasn’t won any yet, and his films aren’t exactly financial blockbusters, but it’s a pretty consistent track record. One of the things that fascinates me about Leigh is that he uses a completely unique approach and process for creating his films, and the more you look at it the more you can see echoes of Agile and Lean processes.

Leigh starts his film projects with a germ of a story idea and then gathers a group of actors around him to “workshop” it. When the workshopping begins nothing is written down. No script, no plot and no real idea of what the film is going to be about. Leigh says he has three rules he sets out for the actors when they begin:

“I can’t tell you what it is about. I can’t tell you what your character is because you and I are going to collaborate to make a character, to invent a character and also you will never know anything about this film except what your character knows at any stage of the proceedings.”

The actors go off and independently research their own characters, create their own stories and meet with Leigh to flesh out their characters against the background of the growing project idea which remains in Leigh’s head. Once the actors have completed this initial phase they come together and Leigh creates the outlines, scenes and situations that ultimately become the film. The actual film production is shot more or less traditionally, with the actors rehearsing and building scenes as filming progresses.

For Leigh, the benefit of this process is that it builds an environment where actors approach acting very much like real people. They know what they know and don’t know what they don’t know. They also have more “skin in the game” because they are a fundamental part of creating the story. This encourages risk taking, innovation and a sense of empowerment and teamwork. The results are films that regularly achieve awards for acting or screenplays, the key beneficiaries of this process.

What I love about this process is how it seems to use many of the principles of Agile and Lean. They seem have been adapted through trial and error to the filmmaking process and demonstrate the same effectiveness that can be seen in development:

  • Iteration is ongoing as characters are developed from a “minimally viable persona” are continuously iterated based on their relationship with other characters and the changing texture of the story.
  • Pivots occur as actors adjust their roles to make them more effective within the story or the story is adjusted as characters become more interesting. During the making of Happy Go Lucky, an actress who ended up playing a Spanish flamenco teacher was not Spanish nor did she know anything about flamenco. But when it was agreed that this was where her role would be going she suddenly had to learn everything about flamenco and create a Spanish persona, (and she gave a memorable performance).
  • The “creative team” is a cross functional team that reaches across traditional silos to drive critical input that builds the whole. The actors help create the story and the director helps shape the character. Within this interplay the final work is developed.
  • Most importantly, by approaching the project with the sense that the end result is unknown the entire project has a sense of openness and opportunity for testing and innovation.

Leigh’s films are rarely popular blockbusters and many people find them downright depressing, but they consistently achieve critical acclaim. In fact, it amazes me that they even get made. Try to imagine his elevator speech: “ I have a film, but I can’t tell you what its about” or “ I’ll need six months up front and then I’ll tell you what we’re making”. It has only been on the basis of past art house success, and great actors who are willing and thrilled to work within this process, that he has been able to continue to make his films and get regular Academy Award nominations.

We can learn a lot from Leigh’s experience because we often find ourselves trying to make the same elevator speech, but without the benefit of his prior success. We eschew the big “campaign” and recommend small, iterative steps. We try to connect experts across multiple disciplines or media to help us build our story, we try to work within a lean enough structure so that we can pivot if necessary and we regularly test our assumptions and we even approach projects without complete certainty that they will work.

When this works, the results are creative products and experiences that are truly useful, creative and add value to the client/customer relationship. A certain successful bodywash campaign may be a good example. Unfortunately it just doesn’t happen too often. It’s hard to sell uncertainty that may lead to success and its difficult to move people away from traditional blockbusters and campaigns. But if we were willing to open the door just slightly more for a more open, iterative and agile planning approach we may find ourselves reaping more benefits than we had imagined.