It was a triangle of past, present, and future when I interviewed director Andrew Haigh recently in Los Angeles. Down Sunset Blvd. from the offices where we meet is the LA Film School — Haigh spent a year here “basically to get equipment in my hands” before tackling his first feature, “Greek Pete.” Across the street, you’ll find the post-production house where he’s editing the upcoming series finale to “Looking,” his critically praised, underseen HBO series that ran for two seasons. And then there’s the film we’re here to discuss, “45 Years” — a dark relationship drama based on David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country” and starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.
On top of being a gripping follow-up to Haigh’s excellent film “Weekend,” “45 Years” also carries on the director’s thematic and structural obsessions (which he readily admits). Rampling and Courtenay play Kate and Geoff, a couple living in the Norfolk countryside about to celebrate their titular anniversary, when a traumatic event from Geoff’s past comes back into play. The film covers the week leading up to what should be a happy occasion, but instead what unfurls is a gradual unraveling of loyalties, trust, and security.
Certainly with actors like Rampling and Courtenay onboard, that’s a compelling watch, but during our chat Haigh described walking the two acting legends through his specific shooting style via a very direct, naturalistic approach. He also spoke about his unusual route to directing, as well as his next project, an adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel “Lean On Pete,” at its core about a boy and his horse.
With “45 Years,” you had two incredibly seasoned actors, which could be intimidating when proposing this film’s approach. Was it difficult to convince your two leads of your shooting style? Were they used to it straight away?
We planned it out with them before shooting started, but Charlotte completely embraced it from the start. She’s been in so many European films, so she understands the numerous ways to shoot a scene. Tom was also totally onboard, but I think for the first couple of days he was feeling it out. There’s one scene where Kate comes back home and Geoff is basically hidden behind a bookshelf — you don’t even see him until the end of the scene. Tom was to the side, asking, “So we’re not going to see me at all?” So I think it took him a little time to get used to that, because he’s from much more traditional style of filmmaking. He totally got it by the end though.
Who did you cast first?
We cast the female character, Kate, first because she’s so central to the story. It’s all from her point of view, and luckily Charlotte said yes very quickly. That casting decision was so difficult, because if our leads didn’t work together, we were done. For me, acting is the most important thing that makes a film work — if that doesn’t work, the film doesn’t. So that, and also watching the first assembly, are the most stressful things on a film.
What is it for you about the assembly?
You just want to cry and hide. I wish more directors would talk about how hideous the assemblies are. I’ve talked to other directors and it’s all the same; they’re in tears by the end of it. It’s not a fault of the editors or anything; it’s just that the film’s in the rawest form, it’s always so, so long, and all it takes is for a few scenes that don’t work for the whole thing to fall apart. You’re just like, “I’ve ruined it. No one’s going to see this film.”
You got your start as an assistant editor on films like “Shanghai Knights” and “Gladiator,” worlds away stylistically from your style three films in. Did working on those studio projects guide you toward that approach?
Well, as an assistant editor you’re not doing any actual “editing;” you’re just syncing up dailies and such. But you still see the process, and especially on the smaller films, you learn an enormous amount. I worked on Harmony Korine‘s “Mister Lonely,” and that was actually an incredible experience, because you’re sitting in the editing room with the editor and Harmony watching the decisions they make. That’s when you really get to seeing the heart of making a decision.
What was Harmony’s process like?
He just works from a very gut level that’s really interesting. He doesn’t think about too much about the audience. He just thinks, “What am I interested in? What makes sense to me?” And that’s why his films always feel incredibly fascinating.
But then, working on those bigger films, I saw that the emotion is all created within the edit, and I just felt like there’s a lack of truthfulness in that. When I started trying to make my own things, I really thought, “Okay, how do I try and make a moment feel genuinely truthful?” With deciding not to edit as much, that was because, one, you have to do it in the moment within the take and on the day; and two, it means the actors have a lot more freedom to help that moment.
How do you effectively tease that out? Do you ever get trapped in a “timeline zone,” just nudging a Final Cut or Avid clip forward by milliseconds because it’s never right?
It’s such a problem, that. It’s actually the biggest issue I have during an edit. Even when I watch a film now, “Weekend” or “45 Years,” they’re still clips on an editing timeline. I can feel them, and I notice when I should’ve cut or let it go for longer. I think it’s the hardest things for a lot of directors, and it’s certainly hard for editors to take the clips away from that Avid and make it feel like an actual film.
Judging the approach, though, I want to see the relationship unfold in front of my eyes. I want the weird, subtle emotional changes to happen within the same frame and shot, rather than the emotion being created by a reaction cutaway. When you cut too much, everything loses its importance; it’s a real fine line to tread. Although if you concentrate too much on having it all in one shot, the audience can become very aware of the camera. I don’t want that to happen either, so it’s trying to keep it feeling natural and organic without forcing the issue.
You make room in the film for Kate and Geoff’s internal lives to emerge in different ways, not just as the age they are but also flickers of their younger emotional selves. When you met with Charlotte and Tom, did they immediately connect with your perspective of writing their characters?
When I was writing the script, I tried not to think about their age too much. I tried to not think, “Does this make sense for someone who’s 70?” Because I’m convinced that we are not that different from when we’re 40 or 50 or 60. We may change and learn new stuff, but our desires and our fears are pretty much the same from a very early age. To be honest, I was a bit worried thinking if it would work or not, but when I sat down with Charlotte and Tom, they completely felt it was truthful to their experience and their recollections of being that age. And they were pleased to read something that didn’t create a fake understanding, like most films.
The grouchy slapstick grandparents, that sort of thing.
Right, when I see those films I’m like, “Who are those people? When did you stop being one thing and start becoming an ‘old person’?” You know, I think it’s because we think of old people as effectively your grandparents. I think we have an idea of what our grandparents are or were, but the truth is our grandparents act a certain way to us. They don’t act like they really are. We just think they’re sweet and loving — mine certainly were, my granny was always a lovely lady. But she had a life, and she had her fears and doubts and ups and downs.
The film takes place over a week, yet every time you cut to an exterior, there’s a drastic shift in weather. It gave everything a slightly expanded, off-kilter feel.
It’s funny, I’ve read things from American writers talking about that aspect, and British audiences are just confused, like, “What do you mean? It’s normal.” [laughs] The weather in March is insane in Britain. It’s winter to spring to a day of summer, and it really can change so drastically within a week.
And the story in your next project, “Lean On Pete,” takes place over three months?
Three months, right. It’s how my brain works, I can’t deal with stories unless there’s some time constraint on it. That constraint allows you to understand something bigger and deeper. It just makes sense for me to drop into someone’s life, look at it for a time, understand their life, and leave again.
Have you cast the lead role yet?
No casting’s been done yet. It’s going to be hard to cast the role of Charlie [Thompson, a fifteen-year-old boy]; that sort of casting is always difficult. I don’t think he can be famous, because I know for sure that character has to feel true and authentic. We have a number of names that we’re thinking about for the others, like the character of the horse trainer, but it’s that lead role that we’re focused on now. So hopefully we’ll start shooting on that next summer.
“45 Years” opens in theaters today. Check out Haigh and Rampling at The Criterion Collection below.