Mike Leigh uses lengthy improvisations developed over a period of weeks to build characters and storylines for his films, examining the domestic relationships of ordinary people. He starts with some sketch ideas of how he thinks things might develop, but does not reveal all his intentions with the cast who discover their fate and act out their responses as their destinies are gradually revealed.
Intimate moments are explored that will not even be referred to in the final film to build insight and understanding of history, character and inner motivation. When an improvisation needs to be stopped, he says to the actors 'Come out of character,' before they discuss what's happened or what might have happened in a situation.
The critical scenes in the eventual story are performed and recorded in full-costumed, real-time improvisations where the actors encounter for the first time new characters, events or information which may dramatically affect their characters' lives. Final filming is more traditional as definite sense of story, action and dialogue is then in place. The director reminds the cast of material from the improvisations that he hopes to capture on film.
"I make very stylistic films indeed, but style doesn't become a substitute for truth and reality. It's an integral, organic part of the whole thing." Leigh's vision is to depict ordinary life, "real life", unfolding under extenuating circumstances. "These are emotional, subjective, intuitive, instinctive, vulnerable films. And there’s a feeling of despair... I think there’s a feeling of chaos and disorder." He makes courageous decisions to document reality.