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Interview: Andrew Haigh on the Making of Lean on Pete

Haigh discusses the theme that runs through all of his work: our struggle to feel less alone.

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Interview: Andrew Haigh on the Making of Lean on Pete
Photo: A24

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.

Yeah.

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.

There’s a strong sense of place in this film, both of the place where Charley starts out and of the places he’s moving through. Is it harder to capture that sense of place when it’s not your own culture?

I think you probably have to make more of an effort, but when you live in an environment you don’t necessarily make an effort to represent it properly either, because you maybe don’t see it as well as you do a new environment. The book is based there, and it’s written by an author who knows that world very well, and I traveled a lot around for about four months before I made the film. I wrote the first draft of the script on the road trip that Charley goes on, in diners and motels, and I met a bunch of trainers and jockeys. I think it’s about going into an environment and finding what feel like the right details to define that world. The people in the homeless shelter are the people that went to that shelter normally, and the people in the background of the racing community are people that work with horses in that type of racing community. Film is fake, so you’re trying in every way to make it feel authentic.

You adapted 45 Years from a short story by David Constantine and Lean on Pete from a novel by Willy Vlautin. Those two processes must be pretty different, since there’s so much in a novel that won’t fit into a film. Did you like one kind of adaptation better than the other?

They were quite different. The story that 45 Years is based on became dramatically different. In the story, there was no wedding anniversary party; it was all set from his perspective, not hers. So much of the dialogue in the film was not in the story. But Lean on Pete was a novel, so there’s a lot that I couldn’t put in, and stuff I put in the script, early stages, that had to come out. We even shot a little sequence that wasn’t in the film. It’s more of a fine-tuning process, trying to keep in your mind: What is this story really about? It’s not really about racing; it’s not really about horses; it’s just about this kid and what can happen. You try to keep that as the subtle through line of the story, and other things can just fall by the wayside. It takes time. I kept sending Willy each draft as I wrote it. He’s a lovely guy, and he was very open. He knows this is my version of the story. He was quite helpful in saying, “I don’t think you really need this.” Even though it was a sequence I loved in the book, it was like, “No, I think you can get rid of that. Don’t worry about it.” [laughs]

Your husband is a novelist.

Yes. Early novelist, let’s say.

Does he ever give you any input when you’re adapting a piece of fiction?

We’re very simpatico in terms of the things that we like, so he’s very helpful to talk to about things when I’m pulling my hair out, wondering if I’m giving too much away or keeping too much hidden, or trying to find that balance of objectivity and subjectivity in the story, or all those things that I end up spending a lot of time trying to balance.

Does he read your screenplays and give you suggestions?

Yeah. But he doesn’t watch the film until it’s finished. Some directors have screenings for their friends and they’re, like, “Give me all your ideas!” I show it to nobody. My producer, obviously. And that’s literally it until I have to show it to executive producers and my distributor and others. I feel like it’s hard enough to keep in your head what it is that you’re trying to do, and the more you watch it, that becomes increasingly harder. And everyone else’s opinions, while worthy and valid, are their versions of the film. I know not everyone is going to like this, but the only way I can ever make a film is knowing how I want to tell it, rather than trying to make everyone happy.

You edited a lot of other people’s films when you were starting out. I’m curious to know what you learned from that.

I think the most important thing for me was realizing that directors are as stressed as everyone else. Growing up, I thought directors should know everything all the time. And then you sit in an editing room with a director and they’ve got their head in their hands: “Oh no, how do I make this scene work?” That was actually really liberating because I could see, okay, it’s not easy—even the best directors struggle to get across what they’re trying to say. That made me feel like I could make my own films.

Could you have made films and TV series like Weekend and Looking without the New Queer Cinema wave that started in the ‘90s?

No, no, definitely not. Those films that were made before I made Weekend, especially in the early ‘90s. And, actually, in the ‘80s there were some really interesting, quite radical films that were being made.

My Beautiful Laundrette came out then, didn’t it?

Yeah, exactly. Then I think there was a gap. They stopped making them. You had Brokeback Mountain a little later, but in the aughties, whatever you call it, there wasn’t so much. I remember being frustrated by that, feeling like being gay has changed so much in society that I wanted to make Weekend to deal with how different it was. And now it’s changed all over again.

Do you think we’re approaching the point where we don’t need a “queer cinema” category per se, because queer characters and queerness can just be part of the mainstream, or are we still a long way from that?

I think we’re a long way from that. And I actually think that’s okay. I think it’s great that there are films now that can get made that have gay characters that can do well and they can win Oscars and do all the things that people want them to do, but I think being queer or gay is also lots of different things, not just about love. It can encompass all kinds of fascinating things that aren’t going to appeal to a wide audience. There are still lots of things that I, as a filmmaker, want to look at, things that are gay or queer experience, that I know are never going to be commercially successful. And I think that’s good. It should also be like that. We need room for art-house or challenging material without the notion that it has to break through to a wider level.

It also feels like queer cinema is a mostly male movement. Carol came out recently, and there was The L Word on TV, but I can’t think of too many recent examples of shows about women. Well, there have been a few about trans women—maybe more than about cis gay women.

Yeah, there’s probably been more films like that than there are films about gay women made by gay women directors. There are not a huge amount of them. I do hope that people realize that these films deserve to be made even if they don’t have a huge audience. We want to see more of them. We want ones that break through and do well, and we want ones that are smaller.

Do you feel like it’s getting easier or harder to make small films? The barriers to entry are lower so it’s a lot easier to make a film on a low budget, but it seems like it may be harder to make a living at it.

I think it’s harder. I think unless they are the three small films a year that break through, it’s really hard to get people to see them. The younger people aren’t going to cinema to see the smaller, independent, art-house films. I love Kelly Reichardt’s films, and you look at the box office for them and you think why aren’t more people seeing them? It’s like Antonio Campos. Why are more people not going to see his films? They’re American art-house filmmakers, making films of a certain level, but it’s hard to get people to see them. There’s too much content, frankly.

Looking also never really found its audience.

No, never. It didn’t help that it was on HBO, to be honest with you. I think if it had been on Netflix, it would have been a different thing. HBO’s expensive, and you have to subscribe to it. Almost everybody has Netflix. Well, not almost everybody, but lots of people.

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