Indiewire spoke with Haigh in Berlin shorty following the film’s world premiere.
Berlin: Andrew Haigh on Surprising With ’45 Years’ and the Future of ‘Looking’
Berlin: Andrew Haigh on Surprising With '45 Years' and the Future of 'Looking'
It’s only been four years since British writer-director-producer Andrew Haigh came out of seemingly nowhere to floor the world with his sophomore feature “Weekend,” which first premiered at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival and soon went on to become one of the most acclaimed gay-themed films of all time. He’s since helped launch HBO’s comedy-drama television series “Looking,” which is currently in the midst of its second season and directed his third feature, “45 Years,” starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. The devastating drama, playing in competition at the still underway Berlin International Film Festival, stars the two screen icons as a long-married couple whose relationship is put under severe stress following the discovery of the body of the husband’s long lost first love. The film is based on a short story by poet David Constantine.
Caught the press screening. Your film ruined me.
[Laughs] I saw your tweet; it was very sweet.
I really mean it. I have a colleague who was at the premiere last night and he said you got a standing ovation.
Yeah, it was crazy. I’m really bad at knowing if something I’ve done is any good. I can’t work it out; I can’t be objective about anything I do. So I find it quite a tense, stressful place when you’re about to show it, and Berlin is a big place to show the film, and you’re in competition and the palace is like 1,700 seats, three tiers, and it’s a small, intimate film on this enormous screen so I was pretty much terrified.
You work really hard on something and you know you can’t always make great work. It just doesn’t happen like that, I don’t think, at least not for most people anyways. So you’re just so relieved that it affects people.
“Weekend” premiered at SXSW. You couldn’t ask for more dissimilar festivals than Berlin and SXSW.
“Weekend” premiered on opening night to literally about 30 people in the audience. And it was in a cinema of about 200 [seats]…30 people in the audience. And I had just landed from England and I thought, “oh this is going to be a disaster.” Luckily it was distributors and interesting critics so it was actually pretty good for the film, but it was quite the difference.
To have your third feature premiere in completion in Berlin attests to how far you’ve come in such a short matter of time. Do you have to pinch yourself?
It’s so strange to me. Since SXSW actually, the last four years have just been insane and it’s still hard for me to get my head around it. This all happened so quickly and so much stuff as happened that it’s an odd thing and I have to keep trying to remind myself, when you’re stressed and anxious and exhausted, there was a time when you thought that no one would ever see anything that you do. So it feels good.
When I first heard what “45 Years” was about I was totally thrown given what I’ve seen of your work. I went in today thinking there must be a gay element to the storyline that wasn’t revealed in the synopsis. But nope, I was wrong.
[laughs] I know, it’s so funny. I met this woman in San Francisco at the “Looking” premiere thing and she was saying, “Oh, so is the body a man?” “No, no, no.” “But he’s secretly gay?” And I’m like, “No.” And she’s like, “So, there’s nothing gay?” And I’m like, “No.” And she looked so disappointed. It was like I had turned my back on the gay community. And it was never a conscious decision to be like, “I’m not doing something about gay characters” But also, it was never my ambition to only do stories about gay characters. It just so happened that the first couple of things I did were about gay characters.
Yeah, that’s what got you recognition.
Yeah, and obviously “Looking” is about gay people. But it’s certainly nice to not do something like that for a while [laughs]. You know, it has it’s own thing, doing gay stories, that you have to deal with.
To upend expectations must be thrilling.
It was kind of thrilling because it’s weird, you gather an audience and then you do something about two 70-year-olds in Norfolk, you know that a lot of that audience is never going to see that film. Obviously, some will see it but others will say, “Oh I’m not going to watch something about two people like that.” That was quite nice and exciting because I think audiences are quite fickle anyway. They’ll love a film, and then they’ll hate a film. They’ll love you, and then they’ll hate you. They’ll love something you do, and then they’ll hate something you do. So I think you can’t rely too much on any audience. You can just do stories you think are interesting and hope that people will want to watch it.
You must have learned a lot about fickle audiences working on a show like “Looking.” From episode to episode, my friends are constantly divided; they’re on board one week and crying foul the next.
Of course; it’s insane. Before the show came out, people had already decided whether they hate it or love it. I understand it, there’s so little gay representation on screen so there’s a lot of pressure on it. But it’s a pressure that we can’t possibly live up to. They want it to be something that it’s not going to be. And I read things sometimes by some people and I’m like, “You are insane. We’ve never said that’s what this show is. Why do you think it’s that show?” Some people love it and some people hate-watch it and tweet about how much they hate it while watching the episodes, which to me is the act of a crazy person. Why would you do that? Just turn it off. So I find it a very strange concept and it’s very hard for us who work on “Looking” because we’re all from like a low-key background. We’re not TV execs.
The show’s low-key.
Yeah, and there’s so many gay people on the show. The heads of the department are gay; most of the actors are gay. Nobody ever mentions that. Isn’t it fantastic that there’s actually a show about gay people with gay people? So it’s frustrating sometimes because we’re all really pleased with the show and the truth is that’s a niche show in an already niche community. It’s a niche within a niche.
Back to “45 Years” – what about the short story that the film’s based on spoke to you? You’re a relatively young guy. What’s the connection?
The age thing was always less important than the fact that it’s this exploration of relationships and how you define yourself through your relationships and how complex that is, and how “Weekend” was about two people deciding this is who we are and maybe we could have a relationship with each other. This is the other end of the spectrum and I think weirdly there are a lot of similar themes that are being explored in both films: how our romantic relationships show us so much about who we are as people at a certain time and how it can change and how it can develop. And there was just something about this short story that was so simple and elegant about this body that had been found, a past, like a frozen past almost, and then this long future of actually having to live this relationship and being made to compromise and give up elements of yourself and adapt when you’re with someone. That’s what you have to do when you’re with someone. You lose your individuality and I think what’s so fascinating about this story is what happens when that relationship suddenly starts to get on shaky ground. It’s so easy to suddenly fall down a rabbit hole of fear and doubt about not just your relationship but also your whole life.
Yeah, it’s tragic.
Yeah and I think that’s what saddens me about the movie. They are happy together, they’re really happy. It’s not as if that marriage shouldn’t have happened. They’re a good couple and they have a lot of happiness and their reasons to be together are great, and I think for me it’s always that conflict. I think there’s always a conflict within me about being comfortable and secure and then being an individual and fighting for what I want to be on an individual basis. There’s a conflict between those things. And I think the truth is we do fall into those relationships. You meet someone and you have no notion when you meet someone that this is going to be a long-term relationship and it becomes a long-term relationship. I’ve known my partner for ten years. When I met him I was just drunk and I’d had too much cocaine and now we’ve been together ten years. So you never really know and then you look back and you’re like, “Oh, it’s been 10 years.”
Did working on this project put any stress on your own relationship, by forcing you to reflect?
I don’t think it put stress on it. I’m the kind of person who reflects on everything so I kind of already do that. For me I think it’s important to constantly ask the questions. We have a choice every day to do whatever we do and that choice is quite scary because it could absolutely change everything about our lives. It’s important to keep reminding myself that I have a choice. And I don’t have to be with my partner when I want to be, I don’t have to do this job, I don’t have to work for HBO, I don’t have to make this film. It’s always within my power to decide whether I do it or not.
You must have been scared shitless to direct Charlotte Rampling, one of the all-time greats. I’ve interviewed her before and she’s an intimidating presence.
She’s a very strong woman. When I first met her I was terrified to meet her. I went out to Paris to meet her and it was like a dream. We went to this nice little restaurant on the Left Bank; we had a glass of wine. She’s just an incredible lovely person. She’s not the kind of person who can be bothered with small talk, which I admire so much. She absolutely feels very deeply about things and isn’t afraid to tell you how she feels. But she’s also a very good collaborator. It’s not just her way or the highway. It’s always about discussion and what I think is amazing when you work with her is that there are moments where you know when you’re writing when you feel, “Oh I don’t think that’s really going work.” And she knows. She has an inner sense of things. And after working with her for just an hour, any fear of working with someone like that disappears because she’s a lovely person to work with. It’s not scary.
So what’s going on with “Looking”? A fifth season has been announced for “Girls.” Is a third for “Looking” in the works?
We don’t know. I don’t know; we have no idea. It’s a very strange experience. We’ll find out about two days before you find out.HBO has an enormous amount of shows in development. And they have four slots on a Sunday three times a year. One of them is a drama and two of them are half hours. So it’s a very competitive thing.
I feel you stand a good chance at getting renewed. Audiences seem to be responding more to this season right off the bat. The slow burn nature of the first season’s first few episodes was a tough sell for many.
I think people were expecting it to be instantly gripping and this show isn’t that type of show. It’s a slow burn of a show. And so you need those early episodes to just slowly understand who these characters are. We always knew that that was a risk. It’s weird now because I think this means some slightly rewriting of history because actually our reviews were pretty good when it came out, too, and they’d only seen the first four episodes. Nobody had seen episode five. I think viewers started picking up in episode five and it takes time to understand who the characters are. There was some early criticism of we don’t know who these people are in the first two minutes of the show. Well no, because it’s the first episode and it’s half an hour. Just wait a little bit, please. Obviously this season, we’ve told eight episodes already. People know who these characters are and also we’re more sure of who our characters are. We’re learning who they are as we write more episodes. The actors are understanding who their characters are as we write more episodes. So I think we’ve just been able to start the second season off with more of a bang.
The half hour format kills me. The show screams for longer episodes.
Yeah, even 45 minutes would be lovely.”Six Feet Under” was such a fantastic show, and it’s great because it was a mix of comedy and drama but within the hour format. It was really good. I’d like a mini-series, that would be nice; or a “Looking” movie.