Andrew Haigh: The Loneliness of Lean on Pete

October 15, 2018
The acclaimed British filmmaker behind Weekend and 45 Years, and the divisive HBO show Looking, makes his first American film with Lean on Pete.

What took you to the States? Was it the desire to really try a different landscape in a way?

I think it’s just that I’ve always been fascinated by America and I’ve spent a lot of time there; I’ve kind of lived in America on and off for the last three or four years. Then after doing Weekend and 45 Years I was looking to do something slightly different, even though I think thematically there were similar links between all the films. But, to be able to tell it in a different environment.

Why this book by Willy Vlautin?

I just really just fell in love with that character Charley [played by Charlie Plummer in the film] more than anything else. There was this incredibly lonely kid desperately wanting some kind of security and stability and hoping so much that he can find that. I just found it really heartbreaking. He’s a really good kid, it’s like everybody’s let him down; life has let him down, his family’s let him down, society’s let him down, and he’s just stranded.

But still has some weird hope pushing him forward. In Weekend, there was also this kind of loneliness. What is it that you find so interesting about that?

I’m just very lonely. I’m surrounded by it. I think 45 Years, again, deals with loneliness. I find that everything I think about comes back to that thing. And it’s not so much that I’m necessarily lying alone in bed, crying and alone, but I think fundamentally, most of us, that is our base level. Feeling alone, and being alone, and that most of our life is about reaching out and trying to stop that feeling of aloneness. Whether it’s through relationships, or whether it’s through our jobs or meaning in our life, or whatever it is, we’re trying to escape that isolating feeling.

I think in all of the stories that I’ve done, there’s been different reasons that is kind of accentuating that aloneness, and with Charley everything is just falling away from him, and it’s almost like making that loneliness more apparent. And also, the need that you need underneath that, what’s pushing you forward to escape that.

What I like about the book is it’s on the fringes of lots of traditional stories. It’s on the fringes of a boy with no money falling through the system. A boy with a horse. A missing mother, although it’s usually missing fathers in books and films. I love that the book, and hopefully the film, skirts a lot of those traditional cinematic conventions. And then they play with it a little bit. I feel like when I watch the film, you don’t maybe realise the importance of him not having a mum around for a while, until he starts talking about her later on, and then you see the emotional effects of that.

It’s always important to me, I think as you go through life, things happen in your life. You deal with them however you deal with them, and then they re-emerge later on as you go through your life. And I wanted that to feel like that is in the film, too. The stuff that happens with his dad, he reacts in the moment, but then it re-emerges how he feels about it later, or to the horse. It just lingers onwards into the story, which I wanted the film to feel like.

And you also have a Trees Lounge reunion between Chloe Sevigny and Steve Buscemi.

I like that film a lot and I like both of them. When we were talking about names, it’s a bit complicated when you’re trying to work out combinations of people, and who fits what and all that kind of thing. And then when we thought of them as a couple together it just made sense. They haven’t been on the screen since Trees Lounge, but I like the idea that to an audience, even if they’ve only been in one film together, they seem to have a connection in the type of films that they make. And so, in the film when you watch it, you get a sense of their friendship almost.

I think you can’t escape when you make a film the reputation that actors have and what they bring to the story. It was the same in 45 Years with Charlotte [Rampling] and Tom [Courtenay], they have a reputation that comes into the film. And you can’t escape that. If anything I think you want to embrace it a little bit and just use that to your advantage.

What was your experience filming in America?

It was very good. I’d done a TV show [Looking], so I’d been there for a fair amount of time before. The crews are very different in America, you have a lot more people, and everything is very defined about what they can do, and union rules mean they can’t do something that someone else can do. As a director you’re not allowed to move anything, which is weird. It’s just strange for me coming from an independent world. The crews are great, everyone’s very dedicated. Possibly in Europe, because there’s less films being made, there’s maybe a little bit more passion from the crew. But on this film, I felt the crew was really behind the film a lot, which was lovely.

Are you more drawn to shoot again in the US or back home?

I think it all depends on the story, really. Some of the projects that I’ve got, there’s one that’s set in the US and there’s a couple that are set in England, and one in Greece. There’s a bunch of projects. I don’t have this desperate desire to have a big career in Hollywood, for example. I just want to make the films that make sense to me. We sometimes get pressure when we make a film that’s relatively successful. Like ‘now’s your chance to get Meryl Streep, we’re gonna do it!’ No, it should be the horse…

45 Years

That happened on 45 Years?

There was more. Scripts came to me often about older people, and suddenly astounding to me that people will think just because you made one film… I’ll probably get animal movies now. Maybe a mixture of old people with animals. Gay animals with old people.

Are you trying to consciously avoid this kind of typecasting as a director?

It’s really not conscious. Other people, obviously, they’ve typecast you in deciding this is the kind of films you make. To me, all of the films I’ve made make complete sense to me in the order I’ve made them. And then next films make complete sense to me. And I think long and hard about whether it’s the right film to make at the right time. So, I don’t feel like I’m trying not to be typecast. The audience is very important, and critics are very important in the filmmaker’s career. It’s odd, it’s like an engagement with the audience and critics, and you try to navigate your way through it.

Looking was cancelled after two seasons. Did you feel sad about that?

I didn’t feel that sad. I always knew the chances are that it was going to be cancelled, even when we were making the first season. I think HBO wanted a certain type of show, and then they employed me, and I made a different type of show. It was always slightly challenging. I also think that the audience just wasn’t big enough for the film. When the audience is not big enough you know it’s going to be cancelled. Lots of people really liked it, and then certain parts of the gay community didn’t like it.

They’re obviously allowed their opinion on whether they liked the show or not. I think, it just wasn’t what they wanted it to be. I think with a lot of things when you’re doing something about a certain underrepresented group of society everybody has an idea of what they want it to be and if it isn’t what they want it to be they don’t like. Or simply, I know that my style of making things isn’t for everybody.

I think TV is slightly different. There was a bigger audience, ideally, for a TV show. I think the way I made that show was probably not particularly mainstream in the way I shot it and made it. So I think it meant the audience was smaller


What do you think about TV shows attracting feature filmmakers?

I think it’s really interesting to see filmmakers going into TV. To me, they’re very different mediums. Everyone seems to think that TV and film’s the same now, but to me it’s not. There’s a fundamental difference, even if it’s hard to tell what the difference is. I love Game of Thrones, but you watch an episode of that, it isn’t a movie, it’s an episode of television. It feels like an episode of television, however big the budget is. And I think there’s very subtle differences between the two mediums, and they both have really good things about them.

You have a lot less time on a TV show. Doing the TV show I did you’ve got four days to edit an episode. You have ten weeks, minimum, to do a movie. And there’s just simple things like sound. You do the sound for a movie, it’s completely different for a TV show where you have to reach certain levels for dialogue and music and you can’t go across certain levels. Simple things like that. And just the medium itself. I think TV allows you to be more expansive, and in film you can actually be more narrow; you can do more single protagonist stories in film. In TV they need things to be larger…

Would you say your relationship with the audience is different when it comes to TV?

It certainly has a difference, having a TV show that’s on weekly and reading Twitter after the episode comes out and all those kinds of things. Which I know I shouldn’t do but I can’t help it. It’s horrific and horrible and good and bad and all those things. But I just think people watch it in a different way. I know how I watch TV. I do watch it and the lights are on and my phone goes and I’ll check my messages. You just watch it in a different way. And in a cinema you just don’t.

Lean on Pete is screening at the Adelaide Film Festival, and will be released in cinemas on November 29, 2018


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