You’d be hard-pressed to find a queer filmmaker I’m as fond of as Andrew Haigh, whose feature Weekend (2011) is easily one of my all time favorite films, and who – as I discovered when I spoke to him late last year – is an incredibly cool guy. With his latest film, the brilliant 45 Years, opening wide this month, our conversation was primarily focused on that. But, as my interview in Miami New Times introduces, it was also a nice conversation between two gay men about identity and how finding oneself is something that consistently appears through Haigh’s work. Without further ado, here’s the rest of our chat.
You don’t really use all the much dialogue in this movie. A lot of it is shown through the camera. There’s a lot of really complex feelings going on within Charlotte Rampling’s character’s head. I’m so fascinated. What’s your method of articulating that kind of overwhelming feeling through the camera?
It’s a tricky one. It’s always what I’m most worried about, I suppose. Given the film starts off and there’s certainly kind of more conversation between the two of them and they’re trying to understand what’s happened. And then they kind of basically both shut down. Kate’s character definitely shuts down. It becomes impossible for her to articulate through words how she feels. It becomes all about silence for her and trying to deal with it internally. It helps enormously that we had Charlotte Rampling doing that role because she has this amazing ability to be able to get across really complex emotions through her physicality and through her face. And I think, for my job, it was about just trying to create an environment that that can happen in. For example, we shot the film in order and things like that really help, I think. Both Me and Charlotte and Tom kind of understand the trajectory of the film and understand the kind of subtle movements within each scene and how people are feeling. And then it’s all just about finding actions that help you kind of, you know, understand what’s happening and camera placement and just knowing when we need to be as close to her face as we can be to really see things. And when we need to be further apart. So it’s definitely like a dance almost between the camera and Charlotte and Tom to try and get across that interior life.
She’s so magnificent in it. I’ll always be willing to go out of my way to see something with Charlotte Rampling in it. I’ve loved her since The Night Porter.
It’s what I love about her. She always chooses interesting things.
Whether those films end up being amazing or not, she’s dedicated to choosing films that interest her on a very deep level. And so when you have her in your film, you know that she really wants to do it and that’s quite an amazing feeling as the director, knowing that your actors are totally committed to doing the project.
That must be fantastic to know. That’s a great feeling. And I’m curious: how did she come onboard? Was it always planned that way?
No, I mean I didn’t write with anybody in mind, really. It’s too stressful for me to write with people in mind, in case they’re not going to do it. This probably sounds so narcissistic but when I’m writing I basically just become all of those characters. So I am Kate while I’m writing it and then I am Geoff when I’m writing his side. And when that’s done I can start to think about who to try and approach. And we approached Charlotte. You know you have a lot of conversations about who you think would be perfect. We approached Charlotte. And she’d never seen Weekend and I gave her a copy of Weekend and then I gave her the script and I wrote a letter and everything. And we had a conversation on the phone and she very, very quickly was just, “Yes, I’d love to do this. I really want to do this.” And then, once she was cast, we then cast Tom. I was always about casting the female lead first, since it’s central to the story, and then finding someone that would be perfectly suited to her.
In the short story it seems like there’s a little bit more of a balance between Kate and Geoff, but obviously the movie goes more for Kate’s perspective. Was that ever an intentional decision?
Yeah, it definitely was. I remember first thinking about the story and I thought about having it like dual protagonist and both of their worlds. But I very quickly kind of stepped away from that and felt like I wanted it to be from her perspective. And it’s hard for me to know why that’s the case now. I think firstly it felt more interesting to me and more original to me, like so many of these stories are told from the male perspective. You know, like a male kind of middle aged existential crisis. And it was far more interesting to me to see that happen through a woman’s perspective and see how his crisis affects her and what her own crisis is. I think there was maybe something about how I’m always drawn to the left of traditional perspective within a story, so it just made sense to tell it from that kind of perspective.
Yeah, and one of the lines that really stood out to me personally was “I’d like to be able to tell you everything I’m thinking and everything I know but I can’t.” And that says so much about not just their relationship but relationships as a whole, like there’s always things that can’t be said in one. And I think you show that with the camera particularly well.
It’s interesting because it’s so important, that line, to me because in the world we live in we’re always expected to be able to articulate our feelings, you know, and you’re encouraged to talk about your feelings and discuss things with your partner, with your family, just whoever it is. But the problem is some of those feelings are so complicated and we actually can’t articulate them. They scare us so much and they’re so like deep down in the core of who we are that to try and actually even understand what they mean is so difficult, let alone be able to talk about them. And I think in relationships especially, especially when you’ve been with someone for quite a long time, it always becomes more terrifying to share certain feelings because you don’t want to lose what you have. You’re more honest in the first couple of weeks then you are after ten, twenty, thirty years. You have so much more to lose.
When you’re still trying to get to know the person, that’s where all of that honesty comes out. Sure, you want them to get to know the best side of you, but you still reveal a lot. It’s all those little deep dark secrets that sort of build over the years that get to you.
Yeah, and you can’t escape them. It makes sense to me that Geoff wouldn’t have, over the years, talked to her about what had happened and all the details of what had happened. Because he does love his wife and he doesn’t want to hurt her. That’s the thing in a relationship. You care about someone so much that you don’t want to hurt them but also you don’t want to possibly destroy what you have. It becomes very difficult.
And it’s so interesting to see that the sort of paranoia of a partner being in love with someone else placed upon a couple where there’s not a live threat, but it’s like… “she’s been standing in the corner of the room all this time behind my back” and that’s such a different way to approach the concept of mistrust within a relationship, rather than having someone cheating.
Yeah, exactly. It was always, in the original story, what interested me the most about it. This woman is dead. He’s not having an affair with some woman, you know, that she’s just discovered. She’s been dead before they even met each other. So it’s a very, very complex, strange thing that shouldn’t really worry you. It doesn’t really make sense. At the same time, it clearly does have an enormous effect on both of them. It is like a ghost story, a strange kind of ghost story.
Exactly. And her reasoning is completely understandable. The scene that really solidified that for me was a shot of her sitting in front of the photo projector when she’s — I wouldn’t say she’s torturing herself, but we almost sort of do torture ourselves when we put ourselves in a situation where we sort of make the problem bigger than it could potentially be.
And also I think we think we’re stronger than what we actually are so we think like ‘Oh, I can take it. I’m going to really find out the truth of this and then it’ll be fine I’ll be able to move on.’ And then you find out the truth of something and you’re like ‘Oh god no I’m a scared little child. I’m not a grown-up and can’t actually deal with those things.’
One of the decisions that kind of goes hand in hand with that is there’s a lot of shots of just Charlotte Rampling’s face shrouded in darkness. A lot of the days, I noticed towards the beginning, end with her face just laying awake in darkness each and every single night. And that’s such a powerful image especially when complemented by pure silence because that’s what we all do at night a lot of the time. Or maybe that’s just me.
I think that is most people. I think when you are alone with your thoughts, it’s just you, even if you’ve got someone lying next to you in your bed, you’re just alone in that darkness with nothing but your thoughts. And I think that is interesting. And nothing needs to be said. And when you have people like Charlotte you can just turn that camera on and you can just watch that and it’s really really interesting. You see the effects of the day. That’s what I liked about the separations of the day. It was trying to end each day with just what that day has meant to her in that moment. Everything is just changing bit by bit throughout this week.
It’s a great way to punctuate each point of the narrative. To talk about the silence that pervades throughout the whole film, I think one of the most effective things about it is that it doesn’t have any score whatsoever but every time that there is sound, it’s such an overwhelming moment. Like the party in particular is almost like an assault on the ears just because it’s like this buzzing of conversation that’s impossible to understand, the piano keys, “Happy Together” somewhere in the background, and then it sort of climaxes with “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” And that’s such a powerful use of sound in the movie.
I always knew that sound was going to be essential to this film and you know I’ve never really used score and stuff but I do love the power of when you do use music and you have to play it at the quietest level that you can make it and then the loudest level you can make it and how you can build that. I do think it’s very truthful to their life as well. You live out in the countryside, life is very quiet. You exist within this kind of strange world where you can hear the wind and the creak of a house. And so getting to that party it feels like–it’s almost like the bomb detonates in the early scene where they get the letter and it’s the ripples start small and get bigger and bigger like a mass explosion at the end of the film.
And we spent a long time working on that sound design and making it. Playing with the levels and you know different creaks and then playing around with that music so it hits you on a very emotional level. It’s true, the minute you don’t have score what happens is the music you do have becomes really, incredibly important and it has so much more of an effect. I’m often so against emotion being pushed through traditional score. When it’s pushed through songs, for example, that mean things to the characters they have a story point as well as being emotional key changes.
She brings up both of the songs much, much earlier on in the film. And you never know how they’re going to impact the situation until they come. And “Happy Together” in particular is just like–it’s particularly nice that it’s just used in the background of a scene because that fits so well. That happiness is in the background of their relationship at this point.
What I loved about “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” so much is–it’s such a strange song because it really is like the saddest song when you listen to the lyrics.
It absolutely is.
It’s devastating. But then there’s also that weird thing where you start listening to it and don’t really listen to the lyrics and you’re like ‘oh this feels like it’s romantic.’ You hear the words like love and smoke and you know it’s in an interesting key, so you can imagine that two people when they were in their twenties thought ‘Yeah this is a great song to have. I love this song. It’s so beautiful.’ And then it’s like 45 years later it’s exactly the same song but in that final moments obviously Kate hears it in a very different way and we as an audience hear it in a very different way. And it’s like she’s suddenly feeling what those lyrics are really about.
That last shot of her face is everything. It should win her the Oscar, in a just world.
It was terrifying. I guess to me the whole film is that one big sequence building up to a final moment. I love films like that. I like it rather than being a bunch of scenes put together in different acts. I don’t kind of like that idea, I like it just being something from the beginning building to something at the end. Like a slow build.
The slow burning films are always the best as long as they have a perfect payoff like this one honestly does. That’s what you need when you’re tackling something as emotionally driven as this.
It’s true. If you don’t have that payoff it’s really disappointing. A slow burn film that stays slow burn and then has an ending that doesn’t give you some kind of release, even if you don’t know what it really means, it needs to give you some kind of release. Otherwise it’s not going to work.
A couple of people I’ve read have, weirdly enough, been comparing it to Amour which is a completely different type of film about love and it’s just because it features two older, established, very talented actors. I’m curious to know your reaction to that.
It doesn’t really make sense to me either, other than there’s older people in it. I agree. Amour is about love in the face of one of them dying and this is a very, very different thing. In many ways, even though there is this ghost from the past that is dead this isn’t a film about death. It’s not a story about death. It’s actually a story about living and continuing to live and having to make choices and thinking about the choices we’ve made and understanding who we are. So it’s actually, on even a thematic level, they’re very, very different. I love Amour. I think it’s a beautiful film. But I don’t see the comparison really apart from having amazing older actors.
Yeah, that’s basically the only one. But people feel the need to bring it up.
I’m well experienced in the desire for people to like put things in a little pigeon-hole.