People in Transition:
An Interview with Andrew Haigh
by Ashley Clark

Before forging a feature directorial career with the absorbing rent-boy faux-doc Greek Pete (2009), the Yorkshire-born Andrew Haigh worked as an assistant editor on Hollywood blockbusters, including Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. There were scant signs of these films’ bombast in his 2011 breakthrough, Weekend, a tender, beautifully observed study of a blossoming relationship between two young men in Nottingham. Since Weekend, Haigh has produced (and occasionally directed and written) Looking, an HBO series about a group of gay friends in San Francisco. Despite critical acclaim, Looking suffered from poor ratings and was cancelled earlier this year. Thankfully, the 42-year-old Haigh is back in the spotlight with his latest film, 45 Years. Based on the short story “In Another Country” by David Constantine, it’s a precise, restrained, and intensely moving drama starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as Kate and Geoff, a married couple whose world is rocked, on the eve of their 45th anniversary, by the resurfacing of a long-suppressed tragedy. I recently sat down with Haigh to discuss the specter of inherent Britishness, the secrets contained within relationships, and his experiences working in both film and television.

Reverse Shot: I saw 45 Years at the Toronto Film Festival, and, as a Londoner who moved to North America a year and a half ago, it struck me as having some powerfully British qualities, above all a tremendous sense of understatement. When you’re making films, do you think about nationhood, about being a British filmmaker?

Andrew Haigh: I don’t think you can help it. I don’t think it’s necessarily a conscious thing, because I’ve been in America doing Looking for three years, so I get to be surrounded by Americans. But then I go back home and realize that there is a certain English-ness—which I think is very different from Scottish-ness or Welsh-ness or certainly Northern Irish-ness, if that’s even a word. It’s that sense of an inability to talk about very complicated things, which I think people are getting better at now. There are some very deep emotions we all carry around, but that we don’t know how to articulate—fears, doubts, and all sorts of things. Both Kate and Geoff are experiencing this enormous upsurge of emotions that they can’t deal with, and their initial reaction is to keep it repressed, to keep it hidden. That becomes such an important theme within the film.

RS: And the sheer scale of that repression is indicated by the title.

AH: Yes. The longer you don’t talk about something, the harder it becomes to do so. There’s this notion that when you’re in a relationship, you trust the other person so much and you talk about everything, but I don’t think that’s true. I think that you define yourself to each other at the beginning, and you change and grow together. But there’s a whole past that if you don’t share in that beginning period, you probably won’t ever share—to do so becomes increasingly risky, because you don’t want to lose what you have. So it made complete sense to me that there would be things Geoff had experienced that he wouldn’t talk to his wife about.

RS: Both Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay give subtle, layered performances, and I think they both nail the idea of acting—performing a role—within a relationship.

AH: We’re always performing within relationships. You know your partner well enough that you’re aware you have to be a certain type of thing for them at specific moments. If you weren’t, they would say, “What the fuck are you doing? I don’t understand what’s happening!” One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Kate and Geoff are talking about something in bed. They’re very close, and they’re very intimate, and then, when the light goes out, they’re just alone, the two of them, in their own thoughts, in the darkness. That’s true of relationships—however close you are, when you turn the lights out, it’s just you and your thoughts. You’re never going to tell your partner all of those thoughts in your head. You’d be an idiot to!

RS: Did you have any particular influences in mind when making the film?

AH: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve stopped thinking that I’m influenced specifically, but there are many filmmakers that have spoken to me powerfully over the years. I think 45 Years sits within that British social realist place, so there are links to films like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, then moving through to Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, and Lynne Ramsay. When Ratcatcher came out [in 1999], I adored it because it was like social realism, but it had a streak of poetry within it. Since then, a lot of my influences come from low-budget American cinema — a lot of truth came out of the cinema that was unfortunately dubbed “Mumblecore”; some of those filmmakers really got to the heart of things.

RS: Constantine’s short story is only ten pages long. Was it tricky to adapt?

AH: I initially thought it would be too short to adapt and expand successfully. The story is pretty much told from Geoff’s perspective, but when I made that shift into it being from Kate’s point-of-view, it seemed to open everything up. In Constantine’s story, the couple’s past is during World War II and the 1960s, and there’s no wedding anniversary party. Once I added in that mechanism to tell the story—the upcoming party that everybody is preparing for—it began to develop. In the end, it’s still not a very long script; we cut out even more stuff when I was editing.

For me, it’s imperative to bring things down to the minimum, so people feel things, but don’t necessarily intellectually understand everything. I’d much prefer for someone to leave the cinema with questions than to say, “Oh, I loved that film,” and then never think about it again.

RS: Two long shots in the film, both focusing on Kate—in the attic, where she makes a big discovery, and then at the end, at the party—are among the most riveting cinematic moments I’ve seen all year, in their poise and potency. What was it like working on those sequences?

AH: Those two shots were the most stressful moments to capture because they were key, important moments. In the attic scene, we got it in four takes, and then in the final scene we did around ten takes. It’s such a long shot—around seven minutes. These shots brought with them certain technical challenges, but when you have someone like Charlotte, the camera loves looking at her, and she can express things through her face and body language that most actresses just can’t. In that final shot, Charlotte does a gesture with her body. It feels like a gunshot, but it’s only a hand movement. I really love that moment, that something so small and subtle can have such resonance. That’s a testament to her and how she built that character over the course of the film.

RS: It’s striking how few older actors are given the opportunity to dive into roles of such richness. Cinema doesn’t really serve older actors well, does it?

AH: No, I don’t think that it does. For me it’s a wider question of Western culture being terrified of aging and dealing with it in a serious manner. When we do have representations of older people onscreen, it’s usually for comic, rather than dramatic effect. There’s a notion that once you get past 60, you stop thinking, and stop trying to evolve. This film is about two people still dealing with their choices and feeling that there are more choices they can make. Their world is still forming. It’s not over. We live in a youth-obsessed, crazy kind of culture.

RS: Were you working on Looking at the same time as this?

AH: Yes, I finished the first season of Looking, then I flew home after the final edit, and shot 45 Years. The day after the wrap party, I flew back to San Francisco for season two. I’d be writing Looking in the morning, then editing 45 Years in the afternoon. It was a busy time, but it was good in a strange way because it meant that I could step away from one and then go back to the other.

RS: There’s been lots of talk in the past few years about the “golden age of television”, and serial dramas being the new cinema. Given your involvement in both film and TV, I’m curious as to how you view the distinctions and/or similarities between the mediums. [N.B. Reverse Shot’s “Home Theater” symposium featured a comparison of Looking with Interior. Leather Bar.]

AH: I think they do bleed into one other, and there’s so much more scope in television to do work that feels more like cinema. However, to me, it isn’t cinema, it is still television. It’s very, very good television—it’s just different rather than better. We shouldn’t get rid of cinema for the sake of television. There are things in film that you just can’t do on TV. More importantly, I want to watch cinema in the cinema. It sounds different, it feels different, it looks different in a cinema. TV is never going to sound the same. In TV there are very strict regulations on your sound, on the loudest and the quietest clips, and what level dialogue has to be in relation to other things. In film, you can do all kinds of stuff. You can watch something on your television, and unless they’ve got a massive screen and 5.1 surround sound, it’s not the same experience. And that’s not just for blockbusters. I think it’s even more important for art films because they’re the films that require concentration and immersion. If I’m seeing something I know will need my intellectual and emotional involvement, I want to see it in the cinema, not at home on the sofa, on my computer with my emails coming through.

RS: Totally. I do sometimes find myself writing or watching a film on my laptop, and I’ll be helplessly distracted by a desktop notification. I’m worried that my brain is changing incontrovertibly.

AH: You can’t help it—it’s the way it is. I understand it. I always go crazy about how much I hate screeners being sent to people when they could go see it in the cinema. But I understand that too. There’s so much content. It’s an annoying word. Like, “content,” whatever . . . Content providers—that’s all we are! We’re going to be content-providers and then we’re going to die. That’s a really cheerful way to look at life!

RS: You must have been disappointed by the cancellation of Looking.

AH: I was; we all were. It was an amazing thing for us all to be doing together. From the time I signed on to do it, I knew that it was going to be a very, very hard sell—not just because of the gay content, which is always a hard sell for a mainstream cable provider but because of its style. It’s not perfectly suited to people who want [the narrative] a little bit faster. I knew that it would always be a challenge to keep it going, but I think me and [show creator] Michael Lannan were always like, “Yeah, but this is the kind of show we want it to be. If we can keep making the show, that’s great, and if we can’t, then we won’t make it anymore.”

RS: It’s very culturally specific, and also not a gay “issue” drama.

AH: Exactly, and it was the same with Weekend. They are characters first. Their sexuality is important, of course, but it isn’t the defining thing.

RS: After Greek Pete, Weekend, and Looking, 45 Years is your first screen work not to feature gay characters or be set in a gay milieu. But of course there are stylistic and thematic links, and the situation between the characters in Weekend is analogous to those in 45 Years—one pair is forging their relationship right at the start and testing the waters, the other is decades in. Does being described as a “gay filmmaker” weigh on your mind, and do you think about that burden of representation generally?

AH: It’s a weird thing, but you have to let people say what they’re going to say about you. I don’t mind if people say that I’m a gay filmmaker—I mean, I am a filmmaker and I am gay, so if they want to put that together, that’s fine, but the idea that I should only ever make things about gay people is so ridiculous to me; it doesn’t make sense. I’m interested in certain themes, issues, and people. For some reason, people want to put you in a box very quickly and say, “Oh, I understand what you are now. You’re telling a thing about gay people,” and it’s like, “No, I’m telling stories about people and sometimes they’re gay and sometimes that adds an extra thing that I’m discussing, but sometimes it doesn’t.” In the end you just think, “Whatever. You can say what you’re going to say.”