Belfast Telegraph

Spall 'ordered to learn to paint'

Mike Leigh ordered Timothy Spall to learn to paint more than two years before they started working on their latest film - a biopic of painter JMW Turner.

Spall, whose career includes appearances in a string of Leigh's films, ended up taking lessons several times a week in preparation for the role in Mr Turner.

Speaking at a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, he said Leigh sent him away to get art lessons.

He told reporters: "He said 'right we're going to make this film in two and a half years time, I'd like you to start painting'. So I started to learn how to paint two years before I started rehearsing then we rehearsed six months.

"A brilliant English portrait painter called Tim Wright gave me lessons, when I wasn't working I'd see him two or three times a week."

Spall said his physical similarity to the legendary painter also helped, saying: "What made us the perfect match more than anything was he was a funny-looking fat little man and so am I".

The film's producer, Georgina Lowe, revealed they could not film scenes set in Margate because the view from the town had changed since a gallery named after Turner was built there.

The Turner Contemporary, which is on the site of a guest house where Turner stayed which features in the film, opened its doors in 2011.

Ms Lowe said: "We didn't go to Margate because of the gallery that's in the situation there now and it's completely changed and we quite simply found a beautiful location in Cornwall."

Leigh said: "Some people who really know Margate will object to that fact, that the Margate in the film really doesn't look anything like Margate but this is our distillation of Margate and I think it serves the needs of the film".

Mr. Turner premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, winning rave reviews for Spall.

Famous as a charcacer actor, and for playing Mr Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films, Mr Turner is a deserved leading man turn for 57-year-old Spall, one that made him the star of Cannes' second day.

"It's about how genius is not in always the most romantic of packages," said Spall. "Most geniuses are strange."

Sony Pictures Classics will release Mr. Turner in the US in December, positioning it for an awards season push. Right now, it's in the hunt with 17 other films for Cannes' top award, the Palme d'Or.

Leigh won the award in 1996 for Secrets & Lies, which co-starred Spall.

Leigh is famous for a filmmaking style that relies on improvisation-heavy rehearsals rather than a script. It's an approach that's often elicited acclaimed performances, including Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake and David Thewlis in Naked.

The director had long desired to make a movie about Turner, and focused his meticulously researched film on the last 25 years of Turner's life. The painter died in 1851.

Leigh said he was fascinated by "this very mortal and in some ways flawed" individual who was creating such epic works.

"He sees beyond the sea and the sky," said Leigh. "He makes us see an experience that goes beyond the surface."

More often than not in the two-and-a-half hour film, Spall's Turner expresses himself with nothing more than a grunt.

"The grunting grew organically out of this incredibly instinctive, emotional, autodidactic, intellectual man who had a billion - a zillion - things to say but never said it," said Spall. "People who sneeze and can redecorate the room have a wonderful time. People do that (grunting sound) are repressing something."

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