In 2011 British filmmaker Andrew Haigh’s breakthrough gay romance Weekend became an indie sensation and a staple of modern queer cinema. He continued to tell compelling and authentic gay-themed stories in HBO’s critically acclaimed albeit short lived dramedy Looking and then two years ago he helped Charlotte Rampling earn her first Oscar nomination with outstanding drama 45 Years.
Now Haigh returns to the silver screen writing and directing Lean On Pete, a heart-wrenching coming of age tale of social disarray about a boy’s quest for hope through his friendship with a race horse. Adapted from Willy Vlautin’s lyrical novel of the same name, don’t expect however the Disney treatment. This is a raw, often harrowing but heartfelt look at the fringes of American society in the form of a road trip where Haigh beautifully captures the spirit of the source material.
On the eve of the film’s UK release we had the pleasure of meeting the brilliant British filmmaker who generously entertained us for a good half hour, chatting about his new cinematic effort, his next project and all things filmmaking.
Why did you want to tell this story?
My partner gave me the book on an airplane. It was a long time ago, just after Weekend. It completely broke my heart and I thought: how can we live in a world where something like this could even happen to a kid? Even if I didn’t know that kind of life, I felt like I understood Charley and his pain, what he was going through and what he wanted. I would talk about Charley with my partner and we would get upset about him as if he was a real person. The minute that person feels real in your head you know it’s definitely something you want to explore more.
Was this your first proper adaptation and do you find it harder than writing your original screenplays?
45 Years was based on a 12-page short story so I think of Lean on Pete as my first proper adaptation because it’s a whole novel. 45 Years was about expanding the world of the story whilst this was about condensing a 300 pages novel into a script. I feel like it’s the same process as writing my own scripts even though there is an element that’s slightly easier to start with because the story is laid out and you have some of the dialogue and the characters. However, when it comes down to it, it’s the same problem: how do I make the scene work? It’s all about how can I make what these people are talking about feel authentic, and make sure it’s about character rather than just plot. I like my scenes to not necessarily feel like they’re about anything as you’re watching them and then later on you realise that they’ve been about something.
How involved was author Willy Vlautin with the film?
After I got the rights I went to see Willy and spent some time with him and he showed me around the racetrack and introduced me to people that he knew there. He even took me to the house where Charley lives in the film and told me that’s how he imagined it and then we were lucky to secure permission to film there. So yeah, Willy was rather involved and he helped with a lot of things. He would come on set and he’d wind up visiting for the most harrowing scenes, so you’d see him there on the side, welling with tears. He also gave me script notes and that was great feedback for me cause he obviously knows the world a lot more.
Willy is such a tender writer. He cares about all of the people in his stories. He has this huge sympathy for everyone and actually that’s not that common. Most writers don’t like the people they’re writing about or they are condemning those characters but Willy still has enough sympathy, even if they’re making the wrong decision or making a mess of their lives. He’s such a lovely, kind and very talented guy and now also a good friend of mine.
Do you reckon the recurring theme in your work is the loneliness of the human condition?
Yes, absolutely. I feel everything I do is related to that sense of loneliness and that longing to not be alone. I think all of us spend most of our time feeling alone and we find ways to disguise our loneliness – whether it’s relationships, a job or whatever it is – because we know that our central state of being is probably to feel alone. For this story that’s especially true: Charley spends a lot of time running away, he leaves the frame and disappears. I think we’re constantly battling with loneliness, finding things that make us feel better, striving for things that we think are going to make us happy and then when they fail to do so, striving for the next thing to try and repeating the process over and over. It’s just our basic biological need that keeps us going.
Let’s talk about the brilliant talent that is Charlie Plummer in the lead role of Charley Thompson. Were you always adamant on casting a newcomer?
Yes, aside from budget choices, we were definitely aiming for a non-name actor. There aren’t that many famous actors of that age group anyway and some of them look too old or are not quite right. We saw a few people that were British but then we felt it had to be an American. Charlie had just turned 17 when we shot. I hadn’t seen King Jack yet – his first lead role in a feature – but then I saw it after we got his audition tape and it confirmed what a good actor he is. I liked the idea that he wasn’t famous but funny enough, he shot Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World right after Lean on Pete and that film wound up being released first, so now I’m sure more people will recognise him.
Was this the biggest budget that you’ve worked with so far and was there any particular production challenge?
I suppose Looking in the end was the biggest budget because you’re doing ten episodes but yes, in terms of films, Lean on Pete was the biggest budget I’ve worked with, not hugely expensive but definitely more than my previous films. Of course there were harder moments, though in the end it wasn’t so much about dealing with horses. It was more about those bigger scenes like the racing ones, which were tricky because we had money but not enough money. For example there’s a scene where Charley runs out of the stadium and the horses run past and we could only do it once cause it would have been dangerous to race the horses again. So we had to get it right in one shot with 200 extras and it’s steady cam and certain things have got to happen. Some technical challenges were definitely bigger than what I had in the past but the truth is that no matter how complicated a scene may be from a technical standpoint, in the end you’re still trying to make it work on an emotional level that fits what the film demands.
Speaking of budget, lately there’s been this constant conversation on how studios should consider art-house filmmakers for their big franchises. Do you have a hitch for directing a blockbuster?
There is this weird idea that all of these filmmakers want to go and make a blockbuster. And of course some people actually want to and it’d be great if more women filmmakers were hired to make massive blockbusters. It’s weird for me cause some of my favourite filmmakers are women and they are making really fascinating films at a certain level and who knows, maybe they would disagree with me but they probably like making those films just like I like making the films I do at my level. Yet, sometimes that is seen as if it feels less and people automatically think that we want to make much bigger films. I don’t want to be making a massive Marvel film just like I don’t want to be the CEO of a massive company and I think it’s alright.
Where do you stand in the endless debate of cinema vs. streaming platforms?
It’s so hard because you make a film for the cinema and you want it to be seen at the cinema because you want it to sound and look a certain way, even if cinemas don’t always have the best sound and picture. You’ve created it for that reason and watching something on the TV is a different experience, just because you’re constantly distracted. I’m oddly happier to watch blockbusters on my TV screen at home but I’d rather go to the cinema to see films that are more challenging to watch because I want to keep all of my attention.
The world is changing. Younger people don’t go to the cinema because it’s so expensive to start with. I think that as long as you keep making films and they get seen somehow, that’s a good thing. I’m aware this isn’t the easiest film to promote because it’s not really about a boy and a horse in the traditional sense and most certainly I wouldn’t want to go see that kind of film. I think it’s really important to remember that when you make a film it’s there forever and people can rediscover it. When Weekend came out not many people saw it but then more and more people would discover it over the years and I think that’s the joy of making a film. It can come out and make money or not but then people can still discover it and appreciate it.
How do you see the current scene of LGBTQI+ themed films?
I think it’s really hard to make a really successful film that tells a more sexually explicit gay story or even one that isn’t necessarily adhering to a slightly more hetero-normative lifestyle. I think it’s great that films like Love, Simon are being made. And it’s usually the ones about love, which are essentially saying that we are all the same but I suppose part of me inside feels like we’re not the same and that’s alright. We don’t have to say that all we want in life is what everyone else wants. Maybe we don’t want what everyone else wants. Maybe we don’t want to fit in and some people do but lots of people don’t want to fit into a more kind of hetero-normative narrative. That’s why I love films like Call My By Your Name and those are the ones that end up being successful.
I just think it’s ok to make films that are more niche and do not appeal to everyone. They don’t need to break through and win Oscars or make huge amounts of money. They can exist within a smaller world. So now that you seem to be able to make more LGBTQI+ films, I do hope that more will be created that do deal with different aspects of sexuality, without having the need to be hugely successful.
Can you tease anything about your next project, BBC miniseries The North Water adapted from Ian McGuire’s novel?
It’s a really good book set on a 1850s whaling ship. It’s incredibly brutal and violent: it’s men on a boat being trapped in the ice up in the Arctic. In concept it seems to be so far from anything I’ve ever done and it is, technically and size-wise, but it still seems to deal for me with the same themes of all of my work. It makes total sense that I want to do it but to an outsider it may seem like a total departure from my other stuff.
Do you see any big difference between TV and film or between working in the UK and the US?
I think TV is still different. It feels less about directing and more about writing and there’s a need in TV to engage the audience quicker and more and what that really means is to make people think less. Engagement really means to not make them turn the television off, which in my experience it’s what TV is more about. In terms of working in the UK and the US, weirdly I think they’re pretty similar. You get the same experience working on anything: they want to make your film, then they start to get a bit scared so they ask if you can make what you do but maybe make it for more people. I think there’s a constant pressure to make things more palatable but my gut instinct is always to try and fight against that because I don’t care about making things more accessible and I don’t want to. I want to make things slightly more challenging and ask questions. That’s what interests me and I think you’re constantly trying to battle against that a little bit and that’s the same whether it’s with HBO or BBC or whether it’s a film.
Lean On Pete is out now in UK cinemas and on demand.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia @FrankieWriter.
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