Thursday, December 29, 2011

Interview with Andrew Haigh, the director of "Weekend"

I've conducted three interviews this year (2011) that made me happy I do what I do for a living. One was with Macy Gray (so chill, so sweet.) Another was with Dee Rees, the director of Pariah; she's brilliant, shy, sweet, dope. That interview will post here soon. And this one, with Andrew Haigh, director of Weekend -- one of my favorite films this year. He was the definition of charming when we spoke. A version of the interview ran a few months ago in the LA Weekly and Village Voice. Space constraints meant that it was a greatly truncated version. What appears below more fully captures the conversation we had.

When Kim Yutani, Director of Programming at LA’s Outfest film festival, introduced Weekend to a packed festival audience earlier this year, she remarked that it raises the bar on modern queer film. Many in the audience arched their eyebrows and smirked at what seemed typical programmer hyperbole. By the film’s end, even doubters had been won over. If the film doesn’t raise the bar, it certainly takes its place among the best of queer cinema. This smart, engaging British film – somewhat formally demanding as it nudges viewers toward emotional epiphanies and a moving ending – is filled with ideas and heart, humor and sadness, all of it strategically mapped out. Unfolding over the course of a single weekend in which handsome, melancholy lifeguard Russell (Tom Cullen) meets and falls for Glen (Chris New) a firebrand art student with prickly notions about marriage, family, sex, and art, the film both defies expectations and honors classic film tropes. It unfolds primarily through scintillating conversations the two men have – post-coitus, over meals, while smoking pot. It pulls you in slowly before you realize you’re completely hooked.

ERNEST HARDY: Weekend feels out of time – a throwback to indie film of the late ‘80s-‘90s, including New Queer Cinema, but very forward in its depiction of gay relationships. Formally, with its measured pacing, minimal use of music, and long one-take scenes, it makes demands on the viewer. How much of that was dictated by the specific story, and how much is simply your filmmaking aesthetic?

Andrew Haigh: I knew when I was writing it that it wasn’t going to be an easy thing. It kind of starts off slowly and takes its time. You have to work at it a bit. I always knew that was going to happen. That was intentional. I like things to breathe. The kinds of films I like are the ones that take their time. It was always a choice, and not just a story choice. I think all my films are going to be like that.

The payoff is that the emotion in the third act is so powerful because it’s been earned. There were no shortcuts or easy formulas to get you there.

If you reach an emotional pinnacle too early on in a film, that’s kind of it. There’s only so many times you can do that – and it’s probably only once – so you have to work out what that moment is. I think, as in real life when you’re getting to know someone, it starts off slowly. Little things are hinted at and you want it all to accumulate slowly and gently. My idea was that [for the viewer] the emotion would suddenly be there and you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know I cared about these characters.”

An interesting thing about responses to the film is that even people who haven’t had many “weekends,” including a lot of heterosexuals, recognize and relate to what’s being said about loneliness, emotional isolation and longing.

Yeah, that was always really important to me. I personally think it’s because of the issues happening underneath the film, which is two people trying to work out who they are, what they want, how they’re gonna live their lives, and how they’re gonna be in public to the world. It’s what we all deal with all the time, whether you’re gay, straight or whatever. That’s why I don’t think you have to be a gay guy in your late ‘20s or early ‘30s to get the film.

Silence itself is a character in the film – the silence that envelopes Russell at certain points, the ways in which the presence of only ambient sound underscores his isolation within the frame. Was that aspect of the film part of your initial concept of it, or was it something that evolved as you wrote the script?

It was always very much from the beginning. And when filming, I never shot any coverage. With each scene, the one shot that you see is the only one ever filmed. There was nothing else ever. The investors were like, “Could you just shoot some cutaways or anything else?” And I was, like, “No.” Essentially, each scene is only one shot and there was no inter-cutting ever, apart from a few cheats. And I knew part of that would be silences, which I didn’t want to fill with music. There’s no traditional score. It makes it harder work, I think, because as an audience you have to engage in it a little bit more. Also, I didn’t want to force the audience to look at something. Like the scene on the sofa, where they’re talking about family and coming out and stuff, it’s just the one shot of the two of them. As a viewer, you decide if you want to look at him or look at him.

You already touched on my next question, which was to do with the use of music, which is sparingly doled out. It seems that whether it’s a Hollywood blockbuster or a so-called indie film, so many movies now are wall-to-wall with music…

Yeah, and it’s the same music as far as I can tell. It’s like, 'Oh, great, here comes the melancholy indie music.’

How did you come to use John Grant’s Queen of Denmark CD? It’s an inspired choice because your film and Grant’s CD are tonally in sync.

The album’s really popular in the U.K. I’ve been to so many film festivals [in the U.S.] and nobody’s heard of John Grant. I think it’s exactly what you said. John Grant is gay and out, and singing songs about yearning and kind of painful stuff. But there’s humor, and that was really nice, to me. And that’s kind of what I wanted to do – play with identity and what you think a gay film is, or what you think a gay musician is. I loved the album, was obsessed with it. I contacted him and explained what I wanted to do, and he generously allowed us to use the music. The thing that I like about the end-credits song is that it’s got the right tone but the lyrics aren’t anything to do with two boys who’ve had a weekend together.

It’s not on the nose.

Yes, exactly. And I think that’s always what I try to do.

Speaking of not being too on the nose, it’s interesting to see the subtle ways class differences play out between these two characters because that’s something that’s usually either ignored or caricatured in gay films. But everything from their occupations to where they live – even though we don’t ever literally see Glen’s home…

You kind of get a sense of where he lives. And there is, obviously, a class thing in the film but it becomes an unsaid character. They never really talk about it. But it’s there. And I think Glen, who in my head is much more middle-class, is almost embarrassed of being middle-class. He doesn’t want Russell to go back to his house. The apartments where Russell lives are quite ugly but he likes living there. He’s made what he can of the environment and filled it with things that he likes.

You’ve mentioned that one reason you wanted to shoot in Nottingham is that it’s where Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was filmed and that’s one of your favorite films. In what ways did filming there – or just thinking about that film while making Weekend – feed your own creativity?

I love that film. As I was writing this I didn’t feel that I was directly inspired by it, but then as I started thinking about the two films – and obviously they’re very different – but in a way Albert Finney’s character, and the woman with whom he’s having a relationship, are trying to work out their place in a changing world, whether they want to accept the mainstream opinion or fight against it, and how they react to the social times. In a way I kind of see Glen as an update of Albert Finney’s character, just in the modern world. He’s still fighting against the mainstream but he’s also fighting against the gay community and trying to forge his own path, even if it makes him unhappy. Which I think is kind of what Albert Finney does in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. There’s the sense that he’s just fighting for the sake of fighting. Plus, the realism in that film – I mean, now it’s very obvious that it’s a product of its time – but for the time it was a very honest depiction of those lives.

Those cultural artifacts which push the envelope or challenge the mores of their time often retain something of their subversive or titillating energy, even after time passes and cultural evolution makes them somewhat old-hat.

Exactly. And it was great for us because the apartment block that [Weekend] is set in is actually built on the spot where the house [from Saturday Night] used to be – exactly on the same place. And that wasn’t intentional. It was pure coincidence but it was really nice. And Glen wears a t-shirt on the first night [the two characters meet in a nightclub] that says Saturday Night Sunday Morning. Hardly anyone notices because [the scene] is filmed in all these reflections. We spent loads of time getting this t-shirt, and then when I shot it I thought, “No one’s gonna read it because every time you see it, it’s in reflection in the mirror.” But I quite like the fact that it’s there, just kind of lurking.

Can you talk a bit about the use of water in the film? Russell is a lifeguard; he takes bathes as opposed to taking showers, and we see that bathing – for him – is a time of reflection as well as cleaning…

That should have been a conscious thing but it’s not. It was a subconscious choice, definitely, because I knew I wanted him to have baths instead of showers. That made sense to me. I can’t even articulate why. It’s almost like it’s his time to reflect on who he is, or whatever. Whenever I thought about what Russell would do [for a living], I always wanted him to be a lifeguard. It was the first thing. It’s like he’s always there to save other people. He’s always there to look after other people but he’s never had a family to look after him. No one’s gonna be there for him, that kind of thing. And also, those apartments are a bit rundown so the showers never work. [He laughs.] It’s interesting how things just happen in your brain and then it makes sense for the character. Like, Glen would have always have a shower. He would hate baths.

One choice you made that seemed very conscious is that when the characters have sex, there’s no discussion of AIDS or safe sex. Was that because the introduction of that topic would skew the tone of the film too much?

I think it would certainly skew the tone, change the tone of the film based on this talk about safe sex. But it’s interesting to me because in my head they have safe sex. They would have used condoms. Maybe that’s just because the generation that I’m from, I just assume everybody would use a condom. Why wouldn’t you? A lot of people have brought that up. Someone asked me if I feel that I’m promoting unsafe sex. I was just like [groans] Nooooooo! I mean, to me, Russell is the kind of guy where, of course he would have safe sex. Glen would. They would have safe sex. It’s always an issue, isn’t it? Especially in America, it’s a kind of… I don’t know. In England we have such amazing advertising around the issue of safe sex.

I think it’s an issue in the States because there are groups where the rates of infection are skyrocketing again, so it’s kind of at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds.

Yeah, that makes sense. I would hate anybody to think I’m promoting unsafe sex. It’s crazy that people wouldn’t use condoms. But let’s face it, if in that scene [everything] suddenly stopped and had been like, “Make sure you use a condom; this is how you put it on properly,” that’d probably destroy the tone of the whole thing.

Do you see this film as sort of validating – for lack of a better word – the ways in which gay men have connected historically, ways that are kind of demonized by some of the more vocal, increasingly conservative quarters of the community?

It’s such a complicated issue, isn’t it? For a long time gay men fought to be seen as different, doing our own thing: This is our lives, this is what we do, accept it. There’s a conservatism that has come into the gay community: We’re just like you, just like everyone else. And maybe some people are and they do want to get married and so on, but that doesn’t mean that other people that don’t wanna get married… [He pauses.] Sometimes, I feel like the straight world is actually hooking onto the idea that they’re quite happy for us to get married because it means, “Whew! They are like us.”

A lot of so-called progressive hetero folks support gay marriage because ultimately it validates them and an institution that validates them and their relationships. It removes the weight of respecting and valuing truly diverse ways of being.

Yeah, it validates them. And now you get this pressure. I’ve got my mum asking me when I’m gonna get married, and I’m like, “Probably never.”

Look, of course everyone should have the right to get married. But I think people need to remember sometimes that we don’t all need to be the same. There’s thousands of different types of relationships that people can have, whether it’s completely monogamous or it’s not monogamous, or they’re married or they’re single or whatever it is. All of those are valid as long as you are doing what you want to do, and it’s your choice. Our forefathers [he laughs] fought to not be like everyone else, and to be accepted on their own terms. It’s complicated. It’s quite exhausting and there is a point where you maybe do want to be seen like everyone else. [Laughter]

I hope the film shows that it’s a complex issue. Nobody’s usually on one side or the other. Glen may say, “I don’t want to get married,” but if you listen to him enough then you realize he does want to be in love and he does want some security, and so we’re all just flowing along on this thing of, “Do we want it? Do we not? Security? Freedom? What do I want?”

The main thing is simply to be allowed to come up with your own definitions of security and freedom, which may be in direct opposition to the notion of marriage.

Absolutely. And that’s nothing to do with being gay. A struggle that almost everybody faces is finding that balance between feeling like they’re free as an individual, and having a kind of social safety and comfort. Everyone deals with that. It’s universal.

One of the ways Russell deals with his longing for security and comfort – family, if you will – is by paradoxically putting up barriers between himself and his straight best friend. While the film wonderfully captures the ways in which many LGBT folks can be outsiders in the midst of our own families or groups of friends, and the ways that they can be oblivious to our isolation, it also shows how we can let our fears lead us to make unfair assumptions about what they’re interested in or able to handle – and in the process we might sell them and ourselves short.

And it’s because it’s scary. We all know what it’s like to tell our family and the people we love that we’re gay. It’s a hard thing to get out, and that fear is still there, the worry that you have is still there. It doesn’t completely go away just ‘cause you’ve told them. Maybe some people are great at it but I think, especially if you are not obviously gay, or if you could be perceived as straight, that it’s almost harder because you’re constantly having to come out, and so there’s constantly the fear. Even with your straight friends, they almost forget you’re gay until you say something and they’re like, “Oh, yeah.”

And you gauge your straight friends’ reactions, their unconscious blanching or visible discomfort if the conversation steers a certain way, the ways that they can be oblivious to the ways in which your life and theirs is just not the same, and you condition yourself to censor yourself…

Because you feel uncomfortable. They can talk about girls they’ve had sex with and feel free to go into all sorts of details, but if you mention it they’re like, “Um...” So you censor yourself. The thing is, you shouldn’t censor yourself. You should just be as open as you can.

I mentioned at the start that the film is reminiscent of indie and queer films of the ‘90s in the way it experiments with form and expectation. But the ending also harkens back to classic Hollywood flicks. But the reference isn’t played for irony, isn’t lobbed from some theoretician’s chilly distance. It’s unabashedly romantic.

I knew that setting a scene in a train station was gonna reference Brief Encounters and a million other films. That was intentional, and the end of the film is quite positive. You think, “They’re gonna be alright, these two people.”


Lisa said...

What a beautiful complement to one of the best films this year. Thanks Ernest.

Wingedman said...

Best film I've seen this year, got it on the blu-ray version.

I love how you hit the nail on the head about censoring ourselves amongst straight friends, because that's absolutely what really happens. I didn't even sort of come out to them really, just showed up one day with my boyfriend and let them deal. I just couldn't say the words "I'm gay" to so many people at once.

So thank you for the interview, and thanks especially to Andrew Haigh for, indeed, raising the bar on modern cinema, queer or not.