Every Man is an Island: An Interview with Andrew Haigh
Over the course of his 15-year filmmaking career, the writer-director Andrew Haigh has become one of our most perceptive portrayers of solitary creatures. Working in tandem with actors who do not so much play as inhabit their on-screen counterparts, Haigh continually uses his inward-looking characters to explore various forms self-seclusion, sparked by forces as disparate as closet anxiety, the collapse of a marriage, and, in the case of Lean on Pete, the loss of a loved one and the impetuous pull of the open road. Adapted from Willy Vlautin’s titular 2010 novel, Haigh’s latest is a quietly enthralling and stylistically unvarnished portrait of an American adolescent adrift, dotted with colorful personages, heart-stopping tragedies, and the wide open spaces of the Pacific Northwest.
Recently arrived in Portland with his irresponsible father (Travis Fimmel), 15-year-old Charley (played with poignant uncertainty and masterful precision by Charlie Plummer) takes a summer job assisting a grizzled race horse trainer (Steve Buscemi) in the maintenance of his less-than-prized possessions. In the wake of a shattering tragedy, Charley embarks on a hasty joy ride with his favorite mount, Lean on Pete, in search of the cherished aunt (Alison Elliott) who withdrew from his world many years before. Haigh sketches each sojourn and brief encounter in Charley’s journey with tremendous empathy and self-effacing cinematic craftsmanship, keeping Lean on Pete in line with an exquisite body of work that feels increasingly valuable with every new, emotionally intelligent effort.
I talked with Haigh about the process of page-to-screen adaptation, his canny work with actors, and the queer sensibility that infuses all of his characters and narratives.
When did you first discover Willy Vlautin’s novelLean on Pete? And at what point did you realize that this story might make for a fitting screen adaptation?
I read it because my partner gave it to me as we were coming back from doing some press for Weekend. So it was a long, long time ago that he gave it to me. And he’d read a few of [Vlautin’s] novels before and had loved Willy and said, “I think you’d really like this.” And I started reading it then on the trip back, and just fell in love with it really quickly. It’s weird, I read a lot of stuff with adaptation in mind and whether it’s something I can do. And, most things, even if I like the novel, I’m like, No, I can’t. It doesn’t speak to me enough, I suppose, on a really gut level. But when I read Lean on Pete, I just sort of fell in love with Charley and what he had to go through and how heartbreaking that was. And even though, clearly, my life isn’t the same as Charley’s in any way, shape, or form, I felt like I could understand his desperate need and his aloneness and his loneliness. I felt that really affected me. So then I tried to get the rights very quickly after reading it the first time.
Lean on Peteis your second feature adaptation of a literary work following45 Years. What does the actual process of scriptwriting entail for you, particularly when working from an established text, which seems like such a daunting task? I always imagine it’s tricky to balance the urge to adhere to a preexisting story with the need to make it stand on its own, cinematically.
45 Years was slightly easier, in that regard, because it was such a short, short story. It was like 12 pages. So I felt like the film became [or] was almost the genesis for the story. But then the film became its own thing. But [Lean on Pete] is a bigger novel. Because I loved the novel so much, I wanted to be as faithful as I could be to the novel. But it’s always going to be through my lens. It’s always going to be changed. And when I talk to the author now, it’s interesting. He likes the film a lot, but I always think it must be strange for him to see his world through another lens. But I just went through the novel slowly, bit by bit, trying to work out what was essential, what I needed to lose, what—even though I loved—I had to get rid of because of time and clarity. And I think when you adapt, it’s always about the central themes you’re trying to explore, and then the bits that you choose are kind of built around that.
So many of your protagonists are forced to confront new and largely unexpected levels of their own emotional vulnerability, which is why I think casting is incredibly crucial in your movies, from Tom Cullen and Chris New inWeekendto Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in45 Yearsto Charlie Plummer, who is just astonishing inLean on Pete. How did you settle on Charlie for this role, and how do you work with your actors to open them up so that they’re not only ready but able to achieve these emotive yet often internalized characterizations?
It’s really interesting. I think you’re right, my films are about people who are dealing with new emotional difficulties. All my characters are relatively passive and kind of sensitive and fragile in that regard. They have to deal with these huge events, even if it’s just meeting someone new or a relationship falling down or all the things that happens to Charley. There’s a certain type of actor that I like in relation to that. And if you look at Charlie…I always thought that Charlie, Charlotte, and Tom are really similar, oddly, in the way they, even on a technical level, approach scenes. They approach things in the same way. And their faces feel quite similar: there’s a kind of an openness and a willingness to draw you in—but they also push you away a little bit at certain times. And that’s what I look for in an actor. I look for an actor [who] is subtle, [who] draws you in, but refuses to let you in completely. That’s what I want from a performance. I don’t always need to know what is happening, I just want to know that something is happening. And I want to try to unpack and understand that. When I first saw Charlie’s audition, he just blew me away from that very first tape that he sent to us. And as I was watching, I thought, I don’t really know what’s happening in your head at this point, but I really want to try to understand you. That’s what my films are about: trying to understand my central characters and how they’re dealing with these fragile emotional states.
Young actors are so rarely noted for technical proficiency in their screen performances, but he’s just so brilliant from beginning to end.
It was interesting watching kids [in auditions]. We saw a lot of them. And a lot of them were great. But they would take the scene, read it, and say, Okay, I think I’m supposed to be sad in this scene.So they would, very well, be sad in a scene. But Charlie didn’t seem to approach any of the scenes like that. He [asked himself], Okay, what do I think in reality this scene could be about, this character? How can I find a way through it that’s more interesting and more challenging, and give something different? And he approached every single scene like that, which is a bit how Charlotte approaches material. I remember her talking to me about the ending of 45 Years, and she [said], “I don’t know if I’m gonna cry. I don’t know if I’m gonna scream. I don’t know what’s going to happen—and I don’t want to think about it. I just want to see what happens as I do it.” That’s what I love about actors, that they really are trying to find something that feels truthful in a moment, rather than what they think a scene needs to be.
I’m sorry, I’m just flashing back to the last shot of 45 Years, which feels truly imprinted on my brain.
Anyway, you’ve amassed quite an ensemble as well, from great actors showing new sides of their talent in the sort of roles they never get to play, like Steve Buscemi and ChloëSevigny, to slightly underused performers I always want to see more from, like Travis Fimmel and Alison Elliott. Some of these actors have significant arcs, while others drop in for just a few scenes. I’m curious about how you work with performers who are playing characters with distinctive, shared histories that need to believably exist long before the movie begins, like Plummer and Fimmel or Buscemi and Sevigny.
It happens early. When I’m directing on set, I don’t really talk too much about motivation or what a character should be doing. It’s all about those early conversations you have with the actors. When I sat down with Steve Zahn or Steve Buscemi or Chloë, [we] were just talking about things. I think it helps a little bit now that people have seen my previous films so actors kind of know, I suppose, the type of performances I like. But also, these performances needed to feel very grounded in the world. The characters of Del and Bonnie [played by Buscemi and Sevigny] just slip into Charley’s life. They drift in, they exist for a while, and then they drift away. They’re not like traditionally big, flashy supporting roles. You want them more woven into the fabric of the film. And I always want my characters to feel very, very women into the world, rather than stand out from the world. And I think Chloëand both Steves understood that.
For them, it’s a [matter of] finding the nuance in the character in a small period of time. I didn’t want [Buscemi’s] character, Del, to be just a cantankerous old horse-trainer, which is what he could have been so easily. But I also don’t want him to be the perfect stand-in father figure either. He can’t be any of those things. And Charley’s dad cannot just be a shitty, alcoholic dad. He needs to be a dad who’s not great yet loves his son and is trying the best he can, but is also young and not always doing the things he wishes he could. And for the actors, it’s all about trying to find those little details in the performance on the days when they’re working. I’m much more rigid about blocking and where people stand, what they do with their hands. And then I leave all the emotional stuff up to them.
How do you guide actors like Elliott or Amy Seimetz, who are asked to make an impression in such an abbreviated timespan? Are you affording them a bit more attention?
I try to, yeah, especially [with] Alison Elliott around the end. And I love Amy. It was so good of Amy to have done that role because it’s such a tiny little role. I love her. I think she’s great. And she is someone who can just fit into things really interestingly. And it’s the same with [Chloë]. I remember doing some press in Venice and Chloësaid that shesees herself as a character actress. And the problem is the world doesn’t seem to let women be character actresses unless they’re, like, 60. And I always thought that is why someone like Chloëis so great because actually she can fit into worlds, even though her public persona may be something very different. And the Alison Elliott [role] is interesting because I think when people read the book, and even when they read the script, they had a version of what that aunt should be, like a homely, kind of perfect aunt. And I didn’t want that. I wanted someone who was struggling on her own terms [and] not sure if she could have space for someone in her life, but desperately wanted to have someone, wanted to look after Charley. And she understood that. We talked a lot about not making her the perfect person. It’s hard when you have a small role. You’re trying to create a whole landscape of a life in a five-minute scene.
This is your first time working with cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, whose images here are beautifully atmospheric but transcend the sort of generic, picture-postcard quality that these settings frequently inspire in other movies. It oftentimes seems that the photography is poeticizing the story and the emotions at its core. I’m thinking in particular about that breathtaking shot of Charley and Pete trudging through a patch of green flora that emphasizes the grueling nature of their quest but also the inseparable bond that has precipitated it. How did you work with Magnus to express this story through visuals?
We spoke a long about time about [the look]. It was very important to us that the environments that Charley were in were fundamental to him throughout the story. He’s going to places he’s never been before [and] all of these environments are having an emotional effect on him. And we, through our visual style, can help show that emotional affect, but we could never make it picture-perfect. We said, “Look, if there’s ever sunlight coming through trees, let’s move the camera away from that shot.” [Laughs] We didn’t want beautiful, melancholy lens-flare all over the place, which we’ve seen in thousands of films. And I was trying to find a more kind of grounded beauty to it that made sense and, as you went through the film, started to feel a bit stranger, almost. As [Charley] started getting out into the desert, we used a lot more zooms and dollies in association with each other so it gives a slightly woozy feeling as the film progresses, almost as if he’s losing his footing on the world as he’s slipping through the cracks. And [we used] mainly natural light, in nearly every scene. [Magnus] is a great DP. And he’s also a really delicate DP, if that makes sense. He understands the fragility of capturing subtle emotions and how really difficult that can be; you have to find a way to reveal it rather than just cut to it and show the reaction. Our shots were always designed to try to envelop you and then slowly reveal something.
You began your career as an associate editor and served as the sole editor of your own films up until45 Years, upon which you handed over that role to Jonathan Alberts, who also cutLean on Pete. What has it been like for you to entrust such a crucial job to another collaborator? I mean, I imagine you’re still in the editing room during the actual process…
Yeah, I’m still in the room…[Laughs]
I can’t imagine a director not overseeing that. Although I did read an interview with Ridley Scott where he said he never goes in the room—
He’s never in the room! I was an assistant on lots of his films and I don’t think he was ever there. But he shoots with, like, six cameras and knows exactly what he wants. The editors know his work very well. And, you know, he comes in on a lesser basis, whereas I’m in there all the time. It was actually really good to stop editing my own [films]. Jonathan’s a really good friend of mine as well. He understands my anxieties and neuroses and all those kinds of things. [Laughs] And he’s great to be editing with in a room. It’s great to have someone like him who understands that I’m trying to take a different approach to how I build films. [He understands] that I want the scenes to be constructed in a slightly different way sometimes [so that they] build slowly over the course of a film, rather than dramatic peaks and troughs. He’s great at that. The editor-director relationship is always very intense because you’re literally in a small room for months and months and months. So it has to be the right person.
I love that mid-film sequence where Charley is relaying his childhood memories to Pete and the shots of each dialogue are fading in and out of each other. Are you thinking about editorial choices like these during production or is it all being decided in post?
I think it’s a lot prior. It comes together in the editing process, obviously. But that whole sequence in the desert only ended up being about seven shots total. So when you’re working, knowing that there are going to be limited shots, they’re planned in my head. The sequences are planned. [I’m thinking about] how one shot can go into the following shot that can then link into the following sequence. So I think about them a lot. And it’s also about the tone. I needed that sequence to feel kind of sad. The heartbreaking nature of it, to me, is that it’s the first time he’s opening up—but he’s opening up to a horse. Even though the horse can feel his emotional state, [he] can’t understand what Charley is saying. You wish Charley could talk to his dad or a friend about it. The funny thing about the film is that there are no other teenagers in it, apart from that one girl he meets in the desert. But there are no other kids in the film. This is a kid stuck in an adult world, which always strikes me as being really heartbreaking. Why hasn’t he got friends? I wish he had friends to talk to, and he just doesn’t!
I also didn’t realize until I was watching the credits that the song that closes the film is an R. Kelly cover [by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the stage name of singer and actor Will Oldham].
What went into that decision?
I actually wrote into the script that I wanted that song like that. And it was a nightmare to get the rights for it, unfortunately, but we got the rights for it. What I love about that song is the R. Kelly version is this gung-ho celebration of Hooray for me!and Hooray for America,essentially. But then the Will Oldham cover strips it of that and makes it feel sad and sweet and slightly hopeful, while also realizing that life is really tough. And, for me, it felt perfect for the ending because Charley has sort of gotten what he wants, but at the same time the moment is drenched in a melancholy reality, if that makes sense.
You talked earlier about the loneliness of Charley. I think there tends to be this odd policing of queer directors who start off making films about queer characters but then gradually broaden their perspective and move away from that focus in successive films. But one of the things that connects your films, and even Looking, is that feeling of being an outsider, which is definitely an experience specific but not exclusive to queer identity. You’ve managed to stretch this out to show us the ways one might feel like an outsider within a marriage or on the road, where one is emotionally and physically isolated from others. Is this a throughline you feel you’re consciously exploring in your films? Or are these stories and characters standalone entities in your mind?
No, I definitely do see a throughline. And it’s weird to me. Someone [recently] asked me [if] it was a conscious decision to make Lean on Pete because it’s not about a gay person. And I thought, Well, why do you think Charley isn’t? There’s no reason that Charley isn’t. And I said to [him]. And [he] went, “Oh, but he doesn’t talk about boys or liking boys.” Well, that doesn’t mean he’s not gay! He’s a 15-year-old kid! For me, Charley easily could end up being a gay kid. I think it’s funny because I approach everything from my own personal experience. And I think for a lot of queer people, loneliness has been part of their life, growing up. And it’s a very isolating place to be. And I think all of my characters, even Kate in 45 Years, are the same. They are isolated people. And they are outsiders. But my version of the outsider is the lonely aspect of being an outsider. In certain films, the outsider is the strong, tough hero who is going to live on the margins but love it, whereas mine are those outsiders who are quite afraid of being an outsider, and deal with the aloneness of being [one], and not feeling like they fit in or trust people or are ready to open up. Charley is a character that can’t open up to people. The only person he can open up to is a horse who can have no judgment. And for me, that feels like it comes from a very queer perspective. When you’re growing up, it feels like you can’t open up. You don’t trust that authority figures are going to accept you or look after you. Subconsciously, all of my work is informed by those kinds of feelings and emotions.