Since premiering at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival, Andrew Haigh’s sophomore feature Weekend has garnered an impressive reputation amongst viewers and reviewers. Audience accolades at that as well as a selection of other international festivals followed, alongside trophies from the British Independent and London Critics Circle Film awards. Indeed, the low-budget effort has drawn acclaim around the globe, with the reaction to its resonant romantic tale exceeding its humble origins. Sarah Ward spoke to assistant editor turned writer and director Haigh about the importance of character-driven drama, the impact of authenticity in approach, and the intricacies of telling an intimate love story.
Starting at the beginning, can you tell me about the evolution of the idea behind the film?
It’s weird really, because ideas just sort of slowly appear. They just come into the corner of your mind really, really slowly. I just wanted to tell a story about two people falling for each other, two men, and their own personal struggles, and have it just being as real and authentic and honest as possible. I’ve always been frustrated that there weren’t as many films as there should be about that, and the way it’s always so sugar-coated or unrealistic or inauthentic. So I think that was my base.
How did you progress from having an idea to making the film?
With difficulty! Writing is so difficult. You write a first draft, and it’s dreadful- it’s so bad that it’s never going to happen. And then slowly you develop and get better, and get more confidence with it. And once you’ve done that, the real hard stuff happens where you have to try to get it funded. You send it out to people and they turn it down, and they think that no one’s going to see this, there’s too much talking, that kind of thing. It probably took around two years until we had the money to make it. And to me anyway, that was a long time. It would be so great if you could write something, make it and get it done within a year, rather than spending three years of your life on it. But in the end it’s worth it, you hope.
You said that you wanted to tell a love story that was realistic and authentic. Were there any personal experiences that influenced the story?
I suppose it is definitely drawing upon personal experience and personal feelings, that kind of thing. It’s not autobiographical, but I don’t think you can tell a story about two people falling for each other unless you have experienced something like that. But while it was a love story, I spent a lot of time concentrating on the character study as well. To me, that’s what missing in many films– the characters don’t feel like real people. Your love life is dictated by your personal situation and your own personal struggles and your philosophy, your politics and everything. It was important that it all became incorporated within this story, because when you fall for someone, that’s what you fall for– you fall for their character. So it was really important to me that almost first and foremost that it was a character study, and out of that it became a love story.
When you first meet the characters, they’re obviously opposites in many ways, but share the same struggle with identity. How did you balance that dynamic within the film?
It is hard, because it is such a delicate balance to get right. It was so important to me to ensure that they felt like complex characters, so when I was writing it was always about having the characters do the less expected thing than you would normally do. I just tried to keep it fresh, and tried to make it seem as though this is how these two people would really react. When you’re writing, it’s just this weird face in your head, then suddenly you cast, and you’re shooting, and you see these characters come alive. And because we shot in order–completely in story order–it helped so enormously because you can just kind of guide that process, and you can see the characters develop in front of your eyes as the actors are understanding them more.
That technique worked well for the story.
I think it would work for any type of story. I mean , producers hate it– I want to have everything in order, which means we have to keep going back to different locations, and they’re like “please god no, you can’t do that”. But you know, in the end it is a hassle, but I think it does pay off.
You’ve touched upon the cast. How crucial was it to find the right actors, and how did you find Tom Cullen and Chris New for the roles?
I was always so nervous about it, because it is a really wordy story with a lot of talking. And you’ve got to completely believe that these characters like each other, that they’re falling for each other, because if that chemistry is not there, I mean, the film would just be an absolute disaster. So it was quite a scary part of the process, and I saw about 50 people. Lots of really good people, lots of really good actors, but when I saw the two of them together there was just this kind of spark I suppose. They were doing the script together and improvising in the audition, and I just knew that that would come across as chemistry.
The naturalistic style of the film is very striking. How did capture that sense of realism throughout the feature?
There was improvisation, but all the bigger dialogue scenes–where they were really talking about something–were far more scripted. But again, the boys were encouraged to throw a couple of lines in, to make it how they wanted, to leave stuff out, to make it feel spontaneous. I think that’s where naturalism comes from–you just try to make things sound spontaneous and by allowing an element of improvisation within everything that really helps. I think the way I shot the film–in single takes really, so there was no cutting within the scene–meant the actors had the freedom to do whatever they want. They could talk over each other, they could interrupt each other, move around, do all these kind of things that they can’t do under normal situations. Normally when you’re shooting something you just kind of choose an angle, and the actors make sure they leave a pause in between everything they say so you can cut better. To me that just destroys naturalism. You can create naturalism in the edit, but I just wanted to watch these actors perform these characters, which I think that helped in making it feel natural. Plus we had a tiny crew, and it was very un-filmy. We used natural light whenever we could, and we used real people at real locations rather than extras–all those little decisions that you make that create this realism.
Talking about the aesthetics of the film– how did you want the feature to look when you were writing the story, and how did you achieve it?
I think I just wanted it to feel semi-documentary, cinema verite style, but to also have this calmness. I didn’t want this really aggressively handheld style, which is often what people do when they are trying to be naturalistic. I wanted the audience to feel like they’d be let in the room, being allowed to sit in the corner and watch these two people. And I wanted to have a differentiation between the scenes we shot inside and outside–using longer lenses when we’re outside so you feel like you’re the general public watching these two boys. So it kind of turned out how I wanted it to turn out. The whole lack of editing was right there in the script, when it was constructed. Although, it’s a bit scary when you start shooting, and you’re like “right that’s it, scene done”, and you’ve got no coverage. And you think “what happens if it doesn’t work?”. But then you think it’ll work, with your fingers crossed at the time.
How important was it for you to ensure that the film resonated with the audiences regardless of their own sexuality?
There’s an argument that what you need to do is water things down to make it more palatable to a broader audience, but I disagree with that. I think that if you focus in and actually are more honest about these two people, and that they are gay, and not shy away from that and what they do, then in a weird way you kind of get past all that and people will understand it more. It will resonate more because they become more focused. I don’t know why that works, but it does work. And also, I have to know that this film is not going to make millions and millions of pounds and that a religious Christian family in Kansas aren’t going to see it. You just accept those things and tell the story the way you want to tell it. But also, it’s obvious to me that if you’re telling a story about two people falling for each other and two people struggling to work out what they want from life, that is going to resonate because we all experience that. It kind of frustrates me–and I guess it is partly the reason for making the film–that people think straight people won’t get it, they won’t understand it. Why? Of course they will! If you can get them into a cinema, it will resonate with them.
The film’s setting over the course of a weekend and dialogue-heavy focus recalls Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. What did you do to differentiate your approach?
You see, I like those films. I think they are good films. And of course when I was writing this and thinking about this, I would rewatch those films and think about them a lot. To me, the way I thought about it was although they feel like realistic films they are still Hollywood films. They are still two very beautiful people walking around Vienna and then Paris. So I thought it would be interesting to set the story in Nottingham, in a less glamorous place. And because they are gay, let’s have them have most of their conversations indoors because they don’t feel comfortable talking about those kind of things outdoors. So the film is definitely influenced by those stories, but it’s also a riff on them, trying to make them more realistic. And also those films are often very chaste – they often don’t have sex, or if they do you don’t see it. I think if you are telling a story about two people having this short, intense relationship, you have to show them having sex. That’s part of it, it is really important. So again, I was just trying to make a more realistic version of those people, and to have it about gay people. Usually those films are about middle class white people whining, at least maybe these people have other things they want to address, talk about–there’s other things going on beneath the surface.
Were there any other particular films that inspired you or that came to mind when you were making the film?
There are a few American filmmakers that I really love at the moment, I guess you’d call them neo realists. People like Kelly Reichardt, who did Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff. And a guy called Ramin Bahrani who’s in New York and did Goodbye Solo and Chop Shop. I guess they’re just tender and non-judgemental and just happy to watch these sort of characters. Kind of semi-political, or political under the surface. They’re just so beautiful and delicate but they are unshowy. And even though those films aren’t particularly dialogue driven, it is a style I really like and tried to bring into my film.
You’ve moved on from being an apprentice and assistant editor on a number of major films to writing and directing your own. What has that journey been like for you, and how has it prepared you for making Weekend?
It’s weird, because when I worked on something like Gladiator, I was just an assistant. I was in the back room doing the work while all the major decisions are made somewhere else. But as I came up in the industry and started working more with the directors over the years, you learn a lot, but you kind of learn what you don’t need. I learnt that I wanted to tell stories differently from those films. They are such massive undertakings, some of those films, and I just like the idea of stripping it way way back and trying to get to the core of the characters and relationships. So I think working on those films taught me that those are the kind of films I didn’t want to make. But you do learn how a story works, and how a story develops and how subtly you need to be to get something across. It is certainly a good training ground but in the end it was just like “I can’t do this any longer, I can’t work for other people, I need to make my own stuff and make that jump.”
What’s next for you?
It was a really hard decision to make Weekend, but it has done better than I thought it would. It has gotten my name out there so there’s a lot of pressure on me now to see what the next film is. It has been quite a hard decision to work out what route I should take next; do I do another film about gay people, do I not, do I do something completely different, or do I do something that’s again dialogue-driven, that sort of thing? So at the moment I have some stories I’m working on, and they’re different enough. It’s tricky. This time next year hopefully I’ll have something in the can.