Interview: Andrew Haigh, writer and director of 45 Years
Matthew Turner | On 25, Aug 2015
Four years ago, Andrew Haigh caught the world’s eye with the intimate Weekend, a story of a two-day romance between two men. The film won two British Independent Film Awards, as well as the attention of HBO, who commissioned him to make two seasons of TV showing Looking.
Now, he returns once again with another romantic tale: 45 Years. After examining the early hours of attraction, the story follows the falling part of the marriage between an elderly couple (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay). We sit down with the director to chat casting, TV, relationships and what’s in his Netflix queue.
Head this way to read our review of 45 Years – and see where you can watch it online.
It’s been six years now since your first film, Greek Pete. How did this one come about?
I found the short story when I was making Weekend. In a weird way, it felt like a good short story to read – it seemed to be oddly about similar things, but within a very different context. And then after Weekend finished, I kind of put it aside but it kept kind of playing on my mind,
What was it about the story specifically that made it stay with you?
I’m always interested in how relationships help us identify who we are with people and help us understand what’s important in our lives and what we want our lives to mean. I think both the short story and Weekend had a similar thing in trying to understand that. And it was a very simple short story, it was like 15 pages or something, it’s a very sparse version of what the film became, even though the film is pretty sparse too, it’s even more contained than that. So it just felt like a good thing to widen up and start exploring.
Do you read a lot of short stories, generally?
No, not really. I always want to, but the minute you’re working all the time, it’s hard to read at the best of times. For me, short stories are a good thing for adaptation. There was another short story I tried to adapt once, a Colm Tobin short story that never quite happened, but they’re a good basis for a film. Novels are very difficult to adapt, obviously because you’re stripping away, rather than expanding. Short stories are often based on theme, more than they are on anything else, so it’s a nice thing to start with.
Tell me about the casting process. Did they both come on together? Did they do, like, chemistry reads?
(Laughs) I can’t imagine either of them would be up for doing chemistry reads! We cast Charlotte first – it was always very important to me that we cast the Kate character first, because she is the centre of the film, and then find the right partner, the suitable partner for that character. And Charlotte came on board pretty quickly. Tom came on after that. So, yes, they didn’t get together, they didn’t really know each other, they’d never worked together. I think maybe they’d met each other a few times at some ’60s party, maybe, but they weren’t friends and so we didn’t really all get together until we met a few weeks before production to do a little basic read-through of some of the scenes and that was the first time that we all got together. So it was a bit daunting, it was like, “Oh my God, is anyone going to believe that these two people can be in a relationship?”
I think, luckily, in terms of the roles that they’ve done before, they’re still movie stars, but they’re kind of set outside everybody else in some strange way. I mean, Charlotte doesn’t do lots of TV, although she’s doing more TV now, but she’s not done lots of TV like a lot of English actresses have. And there’s something interesting about both of them, so putting them together felt like a really good kind of combination. Like, you know them, but you don’t fully know them.
What was it that Charlotte brought to the role that made her stand out for you?
The character is relatively passive, like she is pushing things away and she’s pushing things down and she’s hiding things, but I didn’t want her to be a weak character, I didn’t want her to feel weak and I think Charlotte is just such a strong force that I always thought she was going to feel that strong force within the film and that she’s still going to be someone that has an identity and kept her individuality within the relationship and hasn’t succumbed to just looking after her husband and doing nothing else. So even though she does look after her husband in the film, she still has some strength and I just think Charlotte’s got this incredible ability to show you what’s going on in her face without letting you know exactly what it is she’s thinking about. And I never wanted the story to be clear-cut about what it is and exactly what it’s saying about relationships or love or identity, whatever it is, but just help you feel something emotional, more than anything else.
Have you seen Heading South, the sex tourism movie she did?
Yes. That’s a very different role for her, I think. It was interesting, that role. She’s very full of life in that, where in some other films, like Swimming Pool or something, she’s very buttoned down. I think sometimes she’s under-utilised, like she’s sometimes in a supporting role in films and I think the best work that she’s done is when it’s embraced around her as a person.
It’s interesting – she’s not often spoken of in the same terms as say Helen Mirren or Judi Dench, but she’s very much up on their level…
I think she chooses very different projects, as well.
“I never wanted the story to be clear-cut about relationships or love.”
Do you have room for improvisation when you’re shooting, or do you prefer the actors to stick to the script?
It’s weird. Sometimes, I feel like it’s that people think there’s more improvisation than there is, and even the actors think that there’s more improvisation than there is. I’m not saying that all the words are mine, but there’s definitely less than sometimes people seem to say there is. It’s very important to me that the set feels very free to try different things and I don’t do much coverage and all that kind of thing, so I like to give it over to the actors and obviously, if they want to add things, they can add things, but I wouldn’t say there was improvisation in this other than some lines here and there, which to me, isn’t improvisation, it’s just like, embellishment or something. But there are certainly scenes that you feel like they weren’t in the script, like the scene of Charlotte playing the piano. I knew that Charlotte could play the piano and I thought that was an interesting moment to have there and she made that piece up on the spot in that moment. It’s not like an actual piece, it just came flooding out of her and I feel like it’s effective because of that. We shot the film in order, so it felt like the perfect time to do that. So there’s definitely a feeling of, like, ‘We should all try things that we want to try’ but I wouldn’t say improvisation.
Did you learn anything during the making of Weekend that you applied to 45 Years?
I did. It’s the way that I work with actors, it’s about creating an environment around the set and the best directing work you can do with actors is outside of the actual shooting, if that make sense. So it’s walking to the set in the morning, it’s having a cup of tea at lunch with them, it’s talking about things rather than saying, ‘I think this scene is about this’ – I don’t think that works. I think it’s about creating certain moods within certain scenes as we’re shooting them, to create an effect. And also just the way I like to shoot things and how I like to keep things small and intimate and like lights always not being on the set and always being outside, like a window or somewhere, just to make it feel less of a film set. I think for Charlotte and Tom, it probably felt very un-film set-like, especially for Tom, who’s worked on bigger films. So you come to the kitchen, there’s just a kitchen table and they’re in a kitchen. And all the lights are outside and then there’s just me and the camera guy and the focus puller and that’s about it.
Was there any notable contrast between working with younger, unknown actors and older, established, “famous” actors?
I thought there would be and I wondered if I needed to change my methods. In the end, you don’t. I felt like it was the same: I did exactly the same thing that I did on Weekend. I spent two days with Charlotte talking about script, I spent two days with Tom talking about the script, we didn’t do rehearsals and then we started shooting. You maybe read through it together once. It’s a bit intimidating, you think, ‘Oh my god, Tom’s worked with certain directors and Charlotte’s worked with certain directors’ and you feel a bit intimidated, but in the end, the minute the day starts, filmmaking’s so exhausting and your focus is so intense that you forget all that kind of stuff and just have to get on with it.
How important were the locations to the shoot? How did you go about finding them?
We had a location scout and he kind of looked at things, but I knew what I wanted it to feel like more than anything else, and the house obviously is so fundamental to the story. And it was very important to me that it didn’t feel like some grand big house, it just felt like a pretty normal, middle-class house, which is what these characters are, and that it was that kind of thing and it didn’t feel quaint English. The landscape is obviously important: I wanted the flatness of Norfolk to contrast with the mountains of the parts in his story, so you felt like the past was full of height and vitality and excitement and the present is flat, unending, unknowing and all you can see is basically your own death on the horizon. So that kind of contradiction felt nice to me.
Whereabouts was it shot, exactly?
It’s all in Norfolk: in Norwich and then Neat’s Head, I think the village is called. And I was living there at the time, so I knew that area and it was nice to make a film where I can go back to my house and go to sleep. Although that actually was a bit strange…
So, that was the real importance of the locations, then?
Yes! I finally wanted to make something where I was living at the time, instead of having to travel around all over the place.
What was the hardest thing to get right, overall?
The hardest thing, it was the same with Weekend, there’s obviously a kind of tone that exists within the film that you have to try and sustain and I’m a big fan of films that have a consistent tone. I don’t need high dramatic peaks and troughs, and I like a singular kind of tone. And I think the hardest thing is you have a relatively objective camera, but at the same time it’s quite an obvious point of view. It’s Russell in Weekend and it’s Kate in 45 Years, and it’s trying to marry those two things together, a distinct character point of view, but at the same time, have a removed objectivity with the camera.
So that’s always tough and there’s always things you think are going to be the most important scene and then you cut that scene out and then you think: “Well, I don’t need that scene anymore.” It’s like the more subtle you try and become, the more acute that issue is. Are we giving too much away? Not enough away? How much do we want to leave in the audience’s head? And you always know that some people are going to respond to that and other people are going to be frustrated because they want more information.
“Charlotte’s got this incredible ability to show you what’s going on in her face without letting you know what she’s thinking about.”
You mentioned cutting stuff out. Did you cut anything you were sorry to see go?
It’s hard, because I’m really not precious with stuff that I shoot, so if I don’t like it or if it doesn’t work, or I don’t feel like it adds enough, then it’s like, okay, just get rid of it. And there’s a few scenes that were a little bit touch and go whether we would leave it or not, and there’s a few dialogue scenes perhaps at the beginning that I liked, but we figured they weren’t adding anything. If they don’t add anything, I don’t want them in. And again, it was about how much to explain, and there was a scene that we had when Kate actually talked a little bit about her decision not to have children and we kept that scene in for a while and then it was like, “No, let’s get rid of it.”
I think it works much better without that…
It was very important to me that the film couldn’t really be perceived as being a film about [the idea that] you’re only happy if you have children. Because I don’t believe that’s true and I didn’t want it to be that. And I think the pregnancy issues within the story are like a metaphor for larger things – it’s all about a woman and the decision to have a child or not have a child or whatever that might have been. And I do that a lot. I think it was the same with Weekend – sometimes you have to over-explain to get people to give you the money to make the film and in script form, everyone’s like, “Oh, let’s really understand what she’s feeling here” and I’m always like, “Well, you do realise there’s someone playing this role and you will understand things from looking at them”, and they’re like, “I know, but…” and then I shoot those scenes and then I’m like, “Well, that’s coming out” and get rid of it.
Who are your biggest influences, as a filmmaker?
It’s a hard one. It really does vary so much. There’s filmmakers I like, films I really admire, from Bob Rafelson in the ’70s to Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Uzak (Distant) is one of my favourite films of all time, I love it. I think it’s got a melancholic masterpiece of being unable to connect and communicate, but desperately wanting to connect to communicate. And so there’s a lot of films that independently just, like, speak to me and you build up different influences, like I was obsessed by Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher when that came out and I haven’t seen it for years now, but there’s all these things that just keep staying in your mind as you progress, with different films. So like a wealth of influences, really, across the board.
Did you watch anything in preparation for this?
The preparations for this, if I remember rightly were a film called Tuesday After Christmas, which I really liked a lot, a film by Radu Muntean. I love that film, I thought it was a really interesting look at the breakdown of a relationship. And Uzak’s always there – I always put that on when I’m trying to think of things. And a few others, but nothing super-specific. I find that as I’m making more films, I don’t feel like – often you use your influences to tell people what the influences are so they give you the money to make the film, but as I progress, I don’t feel like I necessarily have to watch films to prepare me.
Do you watch anything on VOD services, and if so, what have you watched recently?
I do, yeah. I’m in America and the moment and I’ve got Hulu Plus and Netflix, and I’ve been watching a good few Sidney Lumet films that I always think I’ve not seen enough of. I go through stages of thinking, “Right, I’m going to watch a certain director’s work for a while”. I’ve been watching lots of Louis Malle stuff. Mainly older stuff, though – I don’t watch many new films on VOD, it’s usually just older classics. And Hulu Plus is great, because it has all the Criterions on, so you get all of the Criterion Collection or most of the Criterion Collection.
With the extras as well?
With some of the extras, not all of them. I still like to buy the discs, so I feel like I’m getting beautiful hard copies.
Has anything stood out among the things you’ve been watching?
I hadn’t seen 12 Angry Men for such a long time. In fact, I think I hadn’t seen it since I was like 15. I watched it again and I’ve watched a few Lumet films recently and he’s such a master at blocking and it’s incredible – 12 Angry Men is so incredibly blocked and all of his films are, actually.
I watched Network again and he doesn’t cut that much and he has a very simple aesthetic, that’s the wrong word, but like a sturdy aesthetic, it’s perfect for the stories he’s telling and his blocking is so beautifully done that he doesn’t have the need to cut and I’m a big fan of not cutting unless you really need to. But you have to be able to master blocking within a scene to make that work. And he’s just so good at that, so I’ve been watching that. And I’ll often, like I’ll watch some of the scenes in Network and just turn the sound off and just watch how he blocks in relation to camera. It’s interesting – it’s a really interesting thing to look at.
“If something can come out of the TV to stop all social media, that would be great.”
How important do you think VOD is for the future of independent filmmaking and distribution?
It’s such a tough one for me. It’s absolutely essential. It feels to me that you see what art house films make in the cinema and most of them make absolutely nothing and it’s really sad, because some of them are good films and people just aren’t going to the cinema to see them. And it’s because cinemas are expensive and you’re probably only going to see two things a month, if you’re lucky, and you’re probably going to go and see Jurassic World. And so how do people get to see interesting work? It’s hard, because as a filmmaker, you want to see it on the big screen and you want the audience to see it on a big screen, because those films are better on the big screen, because you have to work at them and I know that it would be easier to watch 45 Years in a cinema than it is on VOD when, like, your phone’s ringing, and you know, you spend all this time working on sound design and then someone’s watching it on an iPad and I’ve felt this from doing the TV show in America [Looking for HBO]: it’s a TV show, I know people are going to watch it on TV, it’s still frustrating. You do your mix, we do a 5.1 mix, “Oh, sounds fantastic!” You watch it on VOD, the sound’s like things are like squashed into this mucky mass of horribleness.
So it’s frustrating, but I also understand that you’ve got to get people to watch it. I would love it, in 10 years, if everyone’s TVs are big and they all have sound bars and good speakers and they can turn all the lights off and they can lock the door and something can come out of the TV to stop all social media, that would be great. Just disable everything! Because it is important – I don’t want filmmakers to have to change their aesthetic to be more suitable for television, because that’s what separates film and television.
Speaking of TV, you mentioned Looking, what’s the current situation on that now?
That was two seasons and I did that for two years and now we’re doing a wrap-up special for the final one. And I shot 45 Years in between seasons one and two of Looking. So I’ve been based in America for basically the last few years.
And I read somewhere that your next film is going to be an adaptation of Lean On Pete?
Yeah, it’s about a boy and a racehorse. That’s as official as it can be, but that’s my next project. We’re hoping to shoot early next year, it’s set mainly in Oregon, around a run-down racetrack in Oregon and it’s about a young 15 year-old kid who’s living with his dad, he moves to the city and then something happens to his dad and he essentially steals a horse and goes across country to find his aunt in Wyoming, so it becomes a road trip movie. So it’s definitely a different type of film. I think again, people are like, “Oh, 45 Years sounds so different to Weekend” – there’s similarities and even though this is not about relationships in the same way, I still see it as an extension of the things I’m interested in. It’s certainly about a kid trying to find some stability in his life. So hopefully, that’s the next thing, if we can get all the funding, because it’s a bigger project.
The HBO association presumably helps you with that side of things?
I think it does, but I still think there is that separation between film and TV, even though people like to think there isn’t. You know, I think lots of people who are film critics don’t know anything about what I do on HBO shows and all those TV critics that I talk to about HBO shows had no idea about 45 Years, so it’s a different set of critics and a different set of distributors in the world and that kind of thing. Which is fine by me – it isn’t the same. What I do on the TV show is not the same as what I do in the movies.
45 Years is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on All 4 until 7th January 2021.