After the success of both Weekend and 45 Years, British director Andrew Haigh now turns his attention to America, with Lean on Pete. To mark the film’s release we caught up with the talented young filmmaker to discuss this challenging adaptation, loneliness, and working with horses.
Stefan Pape: So how did this come about? Did you read the novel and think, I have to make this a movie? Or was it brought to you with a movie in mind?
Andrew Haigh: My partner gave it to me, he said ‘I think you’ll love this book’. He’d read a bunch of Willy Vlautin novels before, and I trust his opinion, and I read it and loved it. I very quickly thought that I wanted to do this, and this was a long time ago, just after Weekend. I just knew it could be a movie, and I get sent a lot of books by agents and very rarely do I think that I can make it into a film. Even great books. For me, there was something about Charlie, his loneliness, his need for stability and his odd sense of hopefulness amidst the misery. I stuck with it a little bit and then over the next few months, I knew it was the one. I tried to get the rights, but there was a battle between myself and other directors, who I won’t mention, but I managed to succeed.
SP: When you read now is it almost impossible not to visualise the text and see it on cinematic terms? Can you enjoy a book in the same way you were once able to?
AH: No, not at all. It’s the most depressing thing about making films now is that I can’t read a book for pleasure. Unless it has been made by someone else, maybe, but even then it’s difficult. Most books I do have to read to consider making into a film, so I read non-fiction for pleasure basically, because I can relax as I know I won’t make it. It’s tricky.
SP: And you stayed with Willy?
AH: Yeah, it was ages ago now. I spent a few weeks in Portland to hang out with him, I met some jockeys, some trainers, we went to a race in Oregon. Then I went on a road trip for three months with my partner, camping, staying in motels, basically following Charlie’s route that he takes in the story. Which we obviously compress, but in the book it’s endless. So I went on that route, and obviously I’m never going to have to experience what Charlie does, but I got a sense of the world, the people, the landscape.
SP: How was it awaiting Willy’s feedback? If you adapt Dickens, for example, you won’t get a phone call from the man himself letting you know his thoughts. So that must be quite nerve-wracking?
AH: I was terrified about it. He was fantastic in the whole process, he gave comments on the script, told me stuff he felt didn’t make sense for the characters, he was great like that, and he came on set a bunch of times. He’s such a nice guy. Then when the film was finished I sent it to him and I was so nervous, and it took him three viewings to be able to watch it. Because my Charlie is not his Charlie. He has got a vision in his mind as a writer, even about what Charlie looks like, and my Charlie is not that. So it took some time for him to recalibrate, and then we had a screening and afterwards he had to go on stage and he was crying his eyes out at the end of the film. I think that was the first time it hit him in a proper way. It must be so strange, it’s like someone taking 45 Years and remaking it completely and then me watching it.
SP: So much bad stuff happens to Charlie. It feels authentic and we invest in his plight – but was that a difficult balance? Because sometimes when bad stuff keeps happening, it can take you out of the story.
AH: Absolutely, and I was really worried about that. In the book, so much more stuff happens, it’s really bad, it’s endless. But in a book you can get away with it, you can put it down. In a film I knew that couldn’t happen, so it was about limiting the bad things and keeping in the stuff that makes the most sense, that feels authentic enough. It was a fine line as I wanted it to feel incredibly real, but at the same time there was a fable-esque quality to it. So I hoped that would help with all the bad shit that happens along the way, and you’d have enough interest in Charlie to be there with him along that journey.
SP: Assuming you didn’t have a huge amount of understanding for this world before signing up to the project – does that help you? Because Charlie enters into this world not quite knowing what it’s all about either.
AH: Absolutely. I was a bit worried about that to start off with, why would I make a movie when I don’t know much about this world? But I set it up as truthfully as I could, I had advisers. But you’re right, Charlie doesn’t know this world, he’s experiencing it for the first time and so it helps. The audience doesn’t know, it’s not even normal horse racing. They run for 20 seconds, I didn’t even know that existed.
SP: Is that one of the joys of being a filmmaker? You get to learn and experience new things all the time.
AH: Yep, and that’s why I wouldn’t only want to make films that I understand completely. For me, I want to go and make films that are about different things but underneath all of those stories there is a connecting tissue, a link to all of these stories. That’s the key, I want to investigate them in totally different worlds and environments.
SP: We can’t help but view America on quite cinematic terms, our relationship with certain parts of America is so steeped in cinema, in how we see the landscape. Does that help when making a movie like this, to have that outside perspective?
AH: It’s both a blessing and a curse actually, because when you go out into those landscapes, which are huge, and they’re impressive and beautiful, you want to photograph them. Charlie is stranded in the desert and I want to see that desert around him. So it makes sense that I would tell that story. But when Americans watch Lean on Pete, they don’t even mention the landscape. Critics in America barely even talk about it, because that’s just America. It’s us in Britain that notice the wide shots of the desert, but for them it’s where they live. It’s like somebody in Britain presenting a shot of a field. So it’s interesting, but for me it’s only important if it somehow serves the story.
SP: Loneliness is the core theme to this tale, which appears to separate it from your preceding two movies, which are about relationships. But then loneliness still played a part in those stories too?
AH: I think loneliness is the key theme in all of my films. You look at Weekend, Russell is actually unable to have that relationship with Glen because he’s overwhelmed by his loneliness, and he’s desperately looking for someone to fill this void. In 45 Years it’s a story about a woman becoming lonely within a relationship, and this is about someone becoming isolated as all the protective elements of a normal life drift away from him. In all of my films I’m investigating all of the ways that we as humans feel alone, and how we try to not feel alone, which I think is basically everything we do in our lives, we do to not feel alone. Loneliness is probably our core emotion, we do whatever it takes to not feel alone.
SP: I guess that’s what makes it so relatable? Because what Charlie is going through are, hopefully, things we’ll never have to face, but there’s still that strand we can cling onto.
AH: I think all of us are like one millimetre away from falling into loneliness at all times. When a relationship breaks down, suddenly you’re lonely. If it’s your birthday and nobody has called you, you feel lonely. If you lose your job, you’re lonely. It doesn’t take much for us to become that again, and also more importantly, we’re all very scared of that, because we know how overwhelming it can be. It’s not easy for anyone growing up, everybody has felt alone, so we know what it feels like and it’s a scary, terrifying thing.
SP: Though an intimate character study, Lean on Pete is still exploring larger, socioeconomic issues in America.
AH: I didn’t want it to feel like I’m bashing someone over the head with a message or anything, so for me if something is going to be political, it needs to come out of something personal, something character driven. But if you’re telling a story about someone in a community falling through the gaps and having no-one, no safety net to catch him, it’s bound to have a political, socioeconomic pertinence. To me it’s so fucked up that there are people like Charlie that can fall through and not be helped. It’s everybody’s role, whether it’s family, community, the government, to be able to help those people, and so often that doesn’t happen. It’s not about blaming people all the time, because people have very difficult lives. It’s more about trying to understand why people are driven to certain things.
SP: Everyone in the film have their own issues to contend with, and most don’t have a lot of money to their name. 45 Years did a similar thing, except they were much more financially comfortable. It shows that money doesn’t always necessarily matter.
AH: Everybody is suffering to some degree. In times of difficulty, whether it be emotional or physical, economic, you actually become a bit more selfish, because you’re trying to protect yourself. I think in times like that when you want society, or the government of the time to come in and say, ‘I’ll look after you now’ because nobody else has the strength to do so.
SP: Lean on Pete has been described as an “American road movie” – do you see it on those terms, as a genre movie? Or is it just someone who happens to be travelling, and is doing so in America?
AH: The latter. People want to quickly develop a context of what the movie is, and an understanding of what the movie is without actually thinking fully about what it is. To me it’s not a road movie, he doesn’t go on the road until an hour in. He’s on a journey, definitely, but it’s not a road movie in the traditional sense. Just like it’s not a coming-of-age movie either, in the traditional sense. So I don’t think it’s either of those things, but I guess it’s just easier to label it. I’m probably to blame for that as well, because you say that sort of stuff to get it funded.
SP: Yeah it’s not just audiences and critics that define movies on those terms. To get it green-lit you probably have to sell it in four words.
AH: “A coming-of-age road movie…with a horse”. And suddenly people get what it is, then you watch it and think, it’s not that actually. I mean, there’s a lot of the film without the horse. It’s not about a boy and a horse, it’s about a boy and the horse is part of that story.
SP: I read that you’re not particularly fond of horses.
AH: I hate them. No, I like them a little bit more now actually. But I had bad experiences the two times I tried to ride a horse in my life. I’m quite an anxious person, so anything I don’t fully understand makes me anxious.
SP: There is a famous saying in film, to never work with children and animals. Charlie Plummer isn’t a child, but you do have a young protagonist here, and of course one of the supporting characters is a horse. Did you face any troubles on the way? More so with the horse, I should add.
AH: It was stressful. Charlie was great, he’s as professional if not more so than any other actor I’ve ever worked with. He was so prepared and fantastic. But the main difficulty was not the smaller scenes, they were fine, you have to be patient and the trainers were great, but it was the racing scenes. We didn’t have much money, we didn’t use many horses, so almost all of those racing scenes we had one go at it, one chance. It was difficult, without a big budget, it wasn’t a Seabiscuit budget, and those things become challenging when you have real animals.
SP: Charlie Plummer is a real find. You’ve mentioned how great he is to work with – but also, what a talent.
AH: I think he’s really, really talented, and he’s only going to get more talented. He’s so dedicated but understands what the industry is and what he has to do. He knows it’s difficult, and he’s really sensitive, and often actors are not as sensitive as you want them to be, but he’s so sensitive about everything around him, from working with us to existing in a scene with others, without any ego. He’s amazing.
SP: When dealing with a role who is effectively in every single shot, the casting process must have been a nervous experience?
AH: I was terrified. If we couldn’t get the right kid, it would be awful. Everything hinges on that. We were casting out of LA so it was full of LA kids coming in, and we thought it would just be awful. There were some good kids we met but he was just head and shoulders above everyone else, he was outstanding. When we saw him we knew he’d be the guy.
SP: What also helps with making a movie in America, is the chance to work with legendary American actors. I mean you’ve worked with incredible British actors too, but here you’ve got Steve Buscemi, for example.
AH: Yeah, and it was so cool. I loved Trees Lounge, the film Steve directed and it had Chloë Sevigny in it, and they hadn’t worked together since so it was lovely to put them back together in a film. I remember talking about this in 45 Years, to think that you can employ an actor and escape their history is impossible. When you watch 45 Years you know of Charlotte, you know of Tom and you know what they’ve done, and that can actually help the film. With Steve and Chloe I loved the idea that they are such a part of American independent cinema, and have done such interesting films and I can get them together. They’re great, interesting actors and they’re both character actors essentially. Neither of them have really been romantic leads, they’re not that kind of actor. They are character actors.
Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is released this Friday in cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema.