How we made Naked

'We spent weeks in that big house entirely in character – just being really horrible to each other'

Mike Leigh, director

Naked was my big international breakthrough. I'd never had a film in Cannes before – and in 1993, I won best director and David Thewlis took best actor for his extraordinary performance as Johnny. At first, though, the film was called Untitled '92. I was starting to anticipate the millennium: it was obvious it was going to be a big deal, but I didn't know how to treat the subject. I could have made a science-fiction film. But I realised the character of Johnny – a frustrated, idealist drifter who's hacked off with the world – would be a very interesting vehicle for millennial preoccupations.

We prepared for the film in an old office block in Marylebone, London. David was living in Soho, endlessly reading Nostradamus and all the other things Johnny was into. One day, he came in for a session and said: "I've just met this real nutter." An American had assaulted him with stuff about barcodes fulfilling the Revelations prophecies. We said: "This is great, we've got to have it in the film. It's real Johnny stuff."

Nobody ever goes into character on my films and stays there. I'm very strict about that. There's a huge amount of nonsense talked about this. There's a scene where you see Johnny standing outside Leicester Square station, with people walking past. We put the camera in a bin liner in the middle of a traffic island and walked away, so we could film real people coming past. One of them was the actor Kenneth Cranham, who David knows. David talked to him as Johnny because we were filming – and from that conversation the myth developed that he was hanging around in Soho in character. The idea that it was a psychotic metamorphosis is bullshit.

I also wanted to make Naked a film about unacceptable male behaviour. Which is why you have the character of Jeremy, the landlord, played by Gregg Cruttwell. Although you could call Johnny's behaviour unacceptable, it comes out of frustration. The landlord is infinitely worse: his actions come from a very black place. When the film came out, there was quite a lobby of angry feminists. But it's a critique of unacceptable male behaviour, not a celebration of rape. There's no greater bunch of feminists than Lesley Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge and Deborah MacLaren, the film's female actors. There's no way you could make something misogynist with them. They'd walk off.

No other film I've made has had such a diverse and contradictory response. Certain northerners see it as a great Manc poem of some kind. We took it to the New York film festival, which is always a gas, because the Q&As there are really sharp. And the first question was: "Mr Leigh, within an hour of the end of the film, is Johnny dead?" It's a really cool question – to which there is no answer.

Naked - Gregg Cruttwell and Katrin Cartlidge
'Not a celebration of rape' … Greg Cruttwell and Katrin Cartlidge in Naked (1993). Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Features Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Features

Greg Cruttwell, actor

The only thing Mike told the cast at the beginning, when he got everyone together for a drink, was: "I have certain feelings and notions about the world." Then it was like being at university: you work one-on-one tutorials with him, creating a character. You pick someone you know, which forms a base. Then, for the first six weeks, you research every bit of the character's life, until you know them better than you know yourselves.

I met some incredible people during my research. At that time, in the early 1990s, there were some pretty unscrupulous upper-middle-class property developers. One guy sat me in his office and said: "The first thing I'm going to tell you is that I sleep with every woman I show around the flat." It was so creepy, like something Jeremy would say.

Eventually, your character reaches the point where Mike will introduce them to someone else. Katrin and I met this way – improvising in character – before we'd met properly as real people. We were getting intimate and Mike suddenly said: "OK, stop there, come out of character." And I went: "Hi, I'm Greg." And she said: "I'm Katrin." It was so weird.

I would go out to do improvisations in the real world, with Mike following me like a voyeur. I went into Selfridges as Jeremy and ended up picking up a girl from the makeup counter. And then I went round the corner and Mike said: "Come out of character." We just had to leave her. Any improvisation would stop if it was going too far sexually, or was going to get violent. Later, the improvisations are distilled into rigid scripted scenes. Yet they've come from the freest process of all.

We spent weeks being really horrible to each other in that big house the girls live in. For some sessions, I'd be out in the street in a pair of black pants – It wasright in the middle of winter. This was before Dalston was full of hipsters and the neighbours were all at the window going: "Fuck off, get out of here!" It was a bit weird, ending up on the cover of the video in those pants, underneath Katrin – they'd sexed things up for the American market. A few years later, I'd be in Blockbusters with my kids, who were 12 or so, and their mates were like: "Isn't that your dad?"


Interviews by Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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