Yorkshire-born writer-director Andrew Haigh specializes in stories about ordinary people experiencing emotional tsunamis that upend their sense of self. His latest film, Lean on Pete, is about a lonely 15-year-old, Charley (Charlie Plummer), who sets out on an impulsive road trip after what’s left of his already precarious family life evaporates, leaving him alone except for the quarter horse he bonded with while working in a D-level racing circuit. I met with Haigh at the offices of the film’s distributor, A24, and we talked about why he prefers passive main characters, the importance of being melancholy, and how Lean on Pete finds a new way of exploring a theme that runs through all of the director’s work: our struggle to feel less alone.
Your work is usually about people finding themselves through relationships with other people, but Charley finds himself by relating to a horse. What was it about this story that compelled you to film it?
I think even [in my films about] people finding themselves through other people, it’s about people essentially feeling very alone in the world, and they’re desperately trying to find a way to not feel alone. If it’s in the case of Weekend or 45 Years, it’s through relationships, I suppose. But this was dealing with a similar thing, just in a different way. We all exist in a state of aloneness, and we find ways to not be like that, but they can very easily fall apart and we can fall back into aloneness again. Kate in 45 Years, for example, has had this relationship that felt very strong, and then suddenly it dissolves and she feels alone again. So this was a way to look at that in a context that wasn’t necessarily about romantic relationships—and also wasn’t even existential. It’s not an idea of who you are or an identity that falls apart if your relationship does, for example. This is about what happens, actually, if things fall apart: if your family falls apart, if you don’t have any money anymore, if you have no place to live. What is that type of aloneness? And for me it wasn’t about a boy and a horse, in any traditional type boy-and-horse movie way. It was just about him desperately needing something to cling onto and have as a friend, I suppose, to talk to and to care for like he would like to be cared for.
And there are a lot of parallels between the kid and the horse.
Yeah, exactly. I felt like they were almost the same.
They’re both runners, even.
When we cast the horse, I was looking for one that felt like it was like Charley. It was the horse that was at the back of these three horses, that didn’t want to look at us, and was a little bit nervous, and took a while to warm up. I don’t like to make films about the person that’s usually at the front. I think the person that hangs around at the back is usually more interesting.
There’s nothing surrealistic about this film, yet it felt to me a bit like a dream that slowly turns into a nightmare. I think that has to do with how really big things often happen to Charley out of the blue, and he moves through it all in this state of kind of underwater watchfulness that can make him seem passive or helpless even when he’s driving the action.
I’m drawn to passive characters, much more so than I am to active ones. It’s the same in 45 Years. Kate isn’t the active character in that story.
She wasn’t even the main character in the short story. Her husband was.
Right. And in Weekend, the main character is the passive one within that relationship. It’s the other character that’s forcing everything to happen. I like that. I feel like it makes sense to most of our lives, that you deal with things as they come to you. And you’re right about the tone of the film. It’s not like it’s dreamlike, but there’s like a steady flow to it that’s not quite like reality but is grounded in reality. Again, I suppose I feel like I walk through my life like that. Events happen, but actually, you stay quite constant as you deal with all of these things. Even when there’s emotional peaks and troughs, your understanding of the world is relatively steady. Or mine is, anyway.
That’s probably part of the reason why I like your movies so much. I always feel like about 95% of life is out of our control.
I’d say more like 99%.
But Hollywood is so much about characters having an arc and being proactive and driving the action. Has featuring characters who are passive made it harder to get your movies made?
I think so. And I think it both probably makes it harder for them to be made and is why so many people don’t like them. [laughs] You read all these books about how to write the perfect script when you’re starting out, and I always felt like they have good ideas in those books, but none of it speaks to how I think we actually live our lives. I suppose I want to see that on screen. I was thinking recently about Bob Rafaelson’s Five Easy Pieces. I think that’s my favorite Jack Nicholson performance, and it’s probably the most passive. He kind of flows through the film, trying to do things as they come along, and he makes choices, but he’s not like this strong, active character.
In fact, he’s pretty frustrated.
There’s a pervasive sense of sadness and loss that suffuses your work, and a word that comes up a lot in the other interviews you’ve done that I’ve read is melancholy. That seems to be a big part not just of your movies, but of who you are—maybe even, as you once said, of being British.
I think it is. When I talk to people about the feeling of being a melancholic, over here [in the United States] it seems to be more that you’re depressed. Whereas, over there [in the United Kingdom] you can be melancholic—if you’re Irish, especially—and it’s not really about being depressed.
So what does melancholy mean to you? Is it more of a poignancy?
Yeah. It’s a feeling of having hope, but then the reality of life not being what you’d hoped it would be. And looking back to a period in your life when you thought it would be exciting and better with a sense of nostalgia, even though you know at that time you weren’t happy either. It’s a really weird feeling. It’s a feeling of sadness that pervades, without being depression.
That feeling comes out a lot in your endings, including in Lean on Pete. Charley does what he sets out to do, and there’s a great sense of relief and accomplishment about that, but you certainly don’t leave the theater thinking “Happily ever after!”
“It’s all going to be great!” [laughs] That’s another thing that films do so much. I very strongly believe that all of the things that happen to us in our lives, from the day we’re born, has such a dramatic impact on everything we do, we feel, our relationships, how we feel about all the choices we make. So the idea that there could ever be an ending to your story makes no sense. You’re always going to struggle onward. Charley, at the end [of the film], is not suddenly going to find everything fantastic in his life. Because so much has happened. He’s lost people he’s loved. You can’t get over these things.
And he’s done stuff he has to come to terms with.
Yeah! That’s the thing. There’s some violence in the film that comes from Charley. It was never, for me, that you should think: “Well done, Charley, well done!” It was more like, “Aagh, why have you done this?” You can sort of understand why he’s done it, but you know he’s going to have to deal with that. We all have to deal with things that we’ve done that we don’t love.