An Interview with Andrew Haigh

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Let It Play:
An Interview with Andrew Haigh, writer-director of Weekend
By Eric Hynes

British filmmaker Andrew Haigh’s Weekend has become one of the indie breakouts of 2011. Why that’s especially noteworthy is that it happens to be a romance between two men—and one that doesn’t shy away from the ins and outs of gay sex. As evidenced in his debut film, Greek Pete (2009), Haigh isn’t timid about such graphic depictions—but he’s also more interested in mind and soul than body, constantly negotiating between them to create something transcendent. Read more from Michael Koresky on the film here, and, below, read Eric Hynes’s interview with Haigh, who worked for years as an editor in the film industry (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Hannibal Rising) before striking out to make his own personal cinema.

RS: It’s always a challenge to make a film plays as both universal and singular, but with Weekend you’ve taken on the additional challenge of making a film that speaks to both a general and a gay audience. How did you manage that balance?

AH: The more you focus tightly on someone, in a weird way the bigger they become—their experience can resonate wider. That was the key for me—to be true to these two characters, and to what they meant to each other, and just hope that it becomes something more universal instead of trying to automatically make it so. And when you deal with issues of intimacy, identity, and connection—these are universal struggles, aren’t they?

RS: Did you feel any pressure to make certain that the film worked for gay audiences? That it wasn’t watered down?

AH: I did feel pressure about that. When I was writing there were funders that thought I should make it less explicit, or less gay. But I just thought I would make it as honestly as I could, to be as honest as I could about how these characters would act. It’s obviously about two gay people—I’m not embarrassed by that, I’m not pretending it’s not about that. I think any audience, straight or gay, is going to respect that frankness more than me watering something down or not. But I’m also not trying to represent the whole gay community in this film. I’m not saying all gay people meet in nightclubs and take drugs. It’s about these two people. I’m not making a commercial for how good gay people are. I’m just trying to be real to some degree, and hope other people see that and feel that.

RS: I’d love to hear about how you developed the characters of Russell and Glen. It’s one thing to design characters that are “well-rounded”; it’s another to keep us cognizant that we’re getting just a slice of otherwise full lives.

AH: Conceiving characters is to me the most important and time-consuming part of it. Even though you don’t necessarily know all about their back-stories in the film, I spent months working on them. Because their views, their politics, their philosophy—it doesn’t all exist in a void. Everything that’s happened to them has led to this moment. My initial thought was that I wanted Russell to not know who his parents were, to be a foster kid. His need for love and family, and his desire to not rock the boat, are based on his development as a person, going from family to family when he was younger, and always wanting to fit in and be part of something. I took it all the way down to the way he decorates his flat, buying all these things to create his own family history. Same with Glen, whose politics are based upon a slightly more middle-class family life. I got kind of crazy into it. Where he went to school, what his friends were like, the arguments he had with his parents around the dinner table, all those kinds of things. I used to read a lot of Jean-Paul Sartre when I was younger, and so I still deal with characters on a kind of existential basis. Who are these people, how do they define themselves? Who are they in private, who are they in public, and are those two things the same? Glenn wants his public and private personas to be the same person, while Russell’s private persona is nothing like his public persona. So I tried to deal with it all on this basis, as a way of trying to get to understand who these characters are.

RS: It would be easy, with the formulation you’ve just described, to conclude that Glenn is the more heroic one—he’s himself wherever he is—while Russell is less comfortable with himself. But you don’t assert that at all. Russell is comfortable with his limits, with what he can and can’t do.

AH: He doesn’t feel the need to show the world who he is. He wants to be happy and to be comfortable, and I don’t think he sees that as a bad thing. Whereas Glenn thinks his life has to be a struggle. He’s desperate to create some meaning in his life, which means that he has to struggle at it. I think partly what happens is they meet at a middle point. And Glenn realizes that maybe he can turn the volume down a little bit.

RS: Yet they’re not broken characters who need to be fixed by one another. Classic plot structure centers on somebody who’s broken and needs to be fixed, or on somebody who’s down and needs to recover or rebound. That’s not what Weekend is about at all: you’ve created two well-adjusted adults.

AH: I didn’t want it to be that Russell is this broken person who’s completely in the closet and then suddenly blossoms into this new flower. Or that Russell and Glen stay together and live happily ever after. They’re both just muddling through life. Which is certainly how I feel. There are these brief periods when people come together, raise a few issues and make each other think. Things change a bit, but there’s no radical transformation. There’s just a gentle something that happens between them.

RS: So how do you take something derived from the rhythms of life and shape it into the conceit of a film, a structured narrative?

Weekend_director.jpg AH: They’re different things, aren’t they? Obviously there’s a structure to the film, and it’s a very traditional structure. It’s been done so many times. I just wanted to mess with it a bit. To start with, “Okay I’ve seen this film before: two gays in a club meet and have sex. God this is going to be dreadful,” but then play with it. Then, at the end, as we’re headed for a traditional romantic endpoint, to mess that up a little bit too.

RS: But you don’t strip away the melodramatics entirely. Which is still very much how life works: there is genuine drama, even canned drama, in our lives. You let some of that stand.

AH: I wanted the film to feel romantic. I wanted it to feel like these two guys really like each other, and there’s something really special between them. To not be scared of that, just embrace it. And they’re going to think about that weekend for the rest of their lives, and probably never see each other again.

RS: Were there any films or novels that you thought of as models?

AH: You can’t make a film like this without thinking of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, films that deal with a limited timeframe. But I tried not to think of those films too much. I mostly drew from personal experiences, from meeting people and spending a short span of time with them. You know the relationship is going to end, so you don’t panic about the future or the possibility of the future with that person. You relax a bit, let yourself be more open. With a finite end to something, you think, I’ll just let it go and be more myself.

RS: I was really interested in how the sex scenes progress, and what you show as far as their sex life. You don’t see anything from their first encounter, yet as we get to know them better and as they get to know each other better, it’s more intimate and explicit.

AH: That’s exactly how I wanted it to be. Sex on film is a really funny thing. Often it just doesn’t work, and I don’t like seeing it. I don’t really understand the point of it. I wanted to hold that initial sex back. What’s interesting to me is how they thought of the sex, the effect of their encounter. So the conversation about it was a more interesting way to approach their first time. But I also wanted you, the audience, to start to fall for the characters. So that you really want them to have sex. When you see them get it on while on the sofa, you want it to happen. You to want them to enjoy the sex in the time they’ve got together.

RS: I was really struck by how Russell still puts the breaks on things a little, even on the last night. It’s not like he’s gone from somebody with limits to someone unbound.

AH: Because he’s still that person. You don’t change that much in 48 hours. And as you say, he’s happy with his limits. He’s actually so much more secure with who he is than Glenn. This is the level he wants it to be at. Glenn’s a funny one because he’s so desperate to be a certain type of person that he doesn’t let himself be emotional.

RS: Did you have an idea from the outset of how you might want the film to look and play out visually?

AH: Pretty much from the outset. Even when I wrote the script, I knew I wanted to shoot long takes. Each scene is like a master shot, without coverage. That was always the intention. I never shot any kind of coverage.

RS: That’s a shocking choice for an experienced editor such as yourself to make.

AH: That’s the way I constructed the script. For example, the morning-after scene: it’s three shots with time jumps in-between. I set out to make each shot different, each taking you closer to this intimate circle. So it was very structured in that respect. In terms of actual angles, I tried not to think about it too much until we were on set. But I always had a vague idea, especially in terms of distance between us and the characters.

RS: The limited number of shots—is that what allowed you to make a beautiful-looking film without disturbing the terrain of naturalism?

AH: The naturalism was so important to me. I wanted it to feel like as an audience member you were sitting in the corner of the room, allowed inside for a limited time before you have to leave again. I’m a big fan of long takes, anyway. I think it’s so much better for the actors. You have to work a bit harder as an audience member, but you’re engaged more in what you’re looking at.

RS: Your eyes are more active.

AH: You’re given the freedom to look around the frame, and look between these two people, rather than be forced to look at one or the other. Yet I still want people to look at certain things, so it’s trying to get that balance. The kinds of films I love are these kinds of films, where there’s a simplicity to it, and you don’t need to force the audience. I’ve never wanted to make films where I’m editing all over the place. Also you hire actors because you think they can do fantastic jobs. Me trusting Tom Cullen and Chris New in those scenes enabled them to really get into their roles. They were so happy to do six-minute takes without having to repeat it from different angles. There were no worries about continuity. So if we tried something different, it was fine.

RS: Since you shot in sequence, were the actors cognizant about which versions of scenes were going to be used, for keeping track of their character arcs?

AH: We all usually knew what were the good takes. We had such a good relationship, the three of us. We’d shoot the scenes and then just sit on the bed, and wait and chat about what we’d just done and what was coming up. But most important was getting it tonally right. I can’t imagine shooting out of order: film really works if you can ride that tone within scenes. Shooting out of order would confuse the hell out of me.

RS: It doesn’t seem like the best thing for actors, though it’s clearly best for certain films and filmmakers, and often necessary for budget. It sounds like you’re almost thinking about it in terms of being an actor yourself, wanting to follow the thread through.

AH: That’s what’s exciting. It’s so nice to watch a scene and know that this is it—like shooting a documentary. Where you get what’s in front of you. I wanted it to feel like that for the audience. Once you start cutting, the audience subconsciously knows it’s not real anymore. I mean our film wasn’t real either, but you know what I mean—creating a sense of reality.

RS: It’s always a movie, but when people move around in front of the camera for an unbroken period of time—even if they’re acting—something is actually happening.

AH: I watched Manhattan two nights ago—being in New York I had to watch it—and Woody Allen does that all the time. Very often he just uses master shots. He walks around the apartment, you can’t see him but you can hear him talking to Diane Keaton, and it keeps rolling. And I just love it. It feels like you’re engaging properly with what you’re looking at.