Following soon after the breakthrough success of Secrets & Lies, Mike Leigh’s new film, Career Girls, has understandably been compared to its predecessor. The writer/director’s latest effort, however, is smaller in both scope and effect. A more fruitful comparison might be to one of Leigh’s plays, Ecstasy, which was staged at Studio Theatre in June.

Like Career Girls, Ecstasy is set in working-class north London, recounts somewhat desperate attempts at having a good time, and is keyed to pop music. (Elvis in the former, the Cure in the latter.) Both are, in a sense, chamber pieces.

By phone from New York, Leigh accepts the comparison. “Absolutely,” he says. “The difference is only the difference between a play and film, really.”

That difference is important to the director, however. “Film is a medium that I actually am in love with, which is not true of theater. I feel much more liberated with film. Actually, Career Girls is a good illustration of the liberating nature of film. I’m able to go any direction and tell the story in cinematic terms. There are constraints in making a stage play. Quite apart from anything else, you have to make it happen at the same place at the same time.

“Actually, it’s quite interesting comparing Ecstasy and Career Girls, because both of them, like a lot of my other stuff, really are about remembering things that happened previously. There’s a huge amount in the second act of Ecstasy of them recalling and reconstructing what happened eight, nine years ago.”

Memory is a natural theme for Leigh’s work, since he and his performers rehearse for months before he finalizes the script. In that period, they establish the characters’ personal histories, which are designed to enrich the performances even when they have no direct bearing on the finished story.

“The rehearsal process that I use to make these things happen,” Leigh explains, “invariably involves the actors’ living through years and years of these encounters, until we finally arrive at what becomes time present, where I sort of drop anchor and tell the story. I just thought it would be quite good fun to go back and see some of that journey, and that’s what Career Girls is. In the evolution of, say, Ecstasy, a lot of time was spent in those rehearsals actually living those previous relationships.”

The process, he says, “is pretty fluid. There are all sorts of ideas on the go. It’s the same as what any artist does, really: You interact with the material, starting with ideas, and then gradually discovering what it is you really are doing.”

Cinema, Leigh notes, lends itself to more complex narrative structure, such as Career Girls’ flashbacks from the central characters’ settled late-20s to their clamorous college selves. “To do that in the theater, although obviously one can and people have, I find rather self-conscious, awkward, and actually not very exciting. Which is why I tend, with stage plays, although I do them very infrequently, to do what you see in Ecstasy, which is all happening in one room and continuous real time, so that you’re not preoccupied with theatrical devices. Whereas cinematic devices I find liberating and stimulating.”

Memory, I suggest, is more of a cinematic subject than a theatrical one. “Um, yes,” Leigh agrees tentatively. “I don’t know if that’s true or not. It’s a profound statement. It sounds as if it’s true, but I actually don’t know if it is. I’m sure there’ve been a lot of plays that have dealt very thoroughly with memory.”

In such previous Leigh films as High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, and Naked, the central characters are complex, but some of the supporting ones—especially the upper-class villains—seem to be caricatures. I propose that something similar is true of Career Girls: The principal characters, played by Katrin Cartlidge and Alison Steadman, seem more natural in the grown-up sequences, more cartoonish in the school-days flashbacks. A pause suggests that Leigh doesn’t agree.

“I can only say I think that’s a matter of opinion, really.” He laughs. “I mean, they’re not supposed to be. And I don’t feel they are, really.”

But aren’t their mannerisms more exaggerated in the flashbacks?

“Well, that’s because that’s the way they were. What that’s about is that when they’re 19, 20, 21, they’re at that stage where you haven’t quite sorted out who you are yet. You haven’t quite sorted out your style. You’re slightly fragmented. You haven’t constructed yourself, as it were. Also, there’s so much insecurity at that age.”

But I don’t remember being quite so conspicuously neurotic at 19, I protest.

“I’m very glad to hear it. I was.”

Leigh says that Career Girls was a conscious attempt to do a smaller film after Secrets & Lies, but notes that “to some extent, those things are determined by the size of the budget. Plus the amount of time available to do it.” Under those circumstances, “it seemed like a good idea to do something shorter and, in a sense, simpler.”

The film was made, he explains, “before Secrets & Lies was seen by anybody.” The director is now preparing a larger project, but says it’s too soon to reveal anything about it.

Presumably, the new film will include some sense of working-class life. Even Career Girls, a tale of college-educated women, sends its principal characters to one of the British institutions then called polytechnics. “They’re kind of second-class universities,” Leigh says. “You could get a good education at those places, but it wasn’t one of the prestige colleges.

“It’s not the only environment I know,” he adds, “but it’s certainly one that’s appropriate for these characters. What’s interesting is that from various backgrounds, they’re kind of moving into this sort of career-person class.”

Leigh doesn’t think, however, that this development spells the end of the class system. “It’s true that there’s a lot of kids who are becoming in some way upwardly mobile. But I don’t think one should generalize the working-class experience out of existence.”

Still, the director gently objects to being typed as an observer of class issues. “I do characters who are placed, socially, economically, and culturally,” he says. “They are inevitably defined within terms of their class. But I haven’t really made that many films which are specifically about class. They’re about living and surviving and relationships—that sounds horrific and pretentious—more universal things than the English class matter.

“I don’t think they’re just about milieu. Of course, they’re English. But they’re not really about things English. With Secrets & Lies, for example, people really related to all sorts of aspects. The fact that it was English doesn’t seem to have gotten in the way at all. I think the same was true of Naked.”

Perhaps Leigh’s films seem so English because they’re rooted in such specific details—unlike Hollywood films, which seldom seem to have any relation to real life.

“That’s true, all that’s very true,” he says. That’s why “most of the American directors I feel any affinity with are independent filmmakers. Like [Robert Altman], and the Coen brothers.”

Watching the humane Secrets & Lies or Career Girls, I must admit it didn’t occur to me that Leigh might have a taste for the Coen brothers.

“It might not have occurred to them, either,” Leigh chuckles. “But it’s true.”—Mark Jenkins