Andrew Haigh Weekend
Set in the stark middle-of-nowhere town of Nottingham, Andrew Haigh’s Weekend tells a love story that is destined never to happen. Russell (Tom Cullen), a gay man who works as a lifeguard at the local municipal pool, had no real plans for the weekend: Hang out with his straight friends on Friday, work on Saturday, go to his goddaughter’s birthday party on Sunday. That was before he picked up Glen (Chris New) at a gay club Friday night, and the two fall — at first warily, and then headlong — into a romance with an expiration date. On Sunday afternoon, Glen is to board a train that will whisk him away for a two-year art course in America. But before then, the two hang out, have sex, visit a carnival, drink, smoke some dope and talk, a lot. Glen starts the conversation Saturday morning by pulling out a tape recorder and demanding Russell recount the gory details of their drunken hook up for an art project. There is something powerful about the way talking maps out their emotional adventure here. In debating gay identity, recounting prior trysts, confessing personal fears, the two literally fathom the depths of their feelings for each other, at once in awe of the promise and in fear of the possibility of a relationship.
In making Weekend, Haigh (who wrote, directed, and edited this feature) turned to the British school of kitchen sink dramas, especially as represented in Karel Reisz’s 1960 Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, for inspiration. While the subjects and social issues of both stories are quite different, the two movies are connected by their unflinching attention to the precise details of everyday life. As such, Haigh’s tale of two gay lads is nearly devoid of any snappy pop culture short cuts to gay life. The story unfolds in the same surprising, sometimes confounding, sometimes ineffable way that the relationship between Russell and Glen does. As New York Times critic A O. Scott succinctly summed up Haigh’s direction, “the film discovers strong, unexpected currents of emotion and captures, with uncanny sensitivity, the growing affection and self-awareness of his characters.” Before Weekend, Haigh had previously worked in various editing jobs on films ranging from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator to Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely. In addition to a number of shorts, he directed his first feature, Greek Pete, a no-budget story of a London rent boy that mixed dramatic and documentary elements, in 2009. Weekend, which premiered at SXSW was picked up by Sundance Selects and is getting a limited release this weekend.
Filmmaker: The obvious first question — are you scared that that people might confuse your Weekend with Godard’s?
Haigh: I did a little bit. Also I heard that they are re-releasing Godard’s Weekend in two weeks time, or something like that, in New York at Film Forum. First I thought, “oh God,” but then I figured, well, that’s quite a nice film to get confused with, isn’t it?
Filmmaker: You did make a direct connection to Karel Reisz’ Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Haigh: I saw that film a long, long time ago and I revisited it right before I made my film. Both films are set in Nottingham, and a lot of actual locations we used are in that film as well. There is such a truthfulness to that film. It is the quintessential film about the angry young man, and I almost see Glen as some weird update of that character from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. I remember reading about that film, that when they made it, Karel Reisz was a little bit frustrated that they couldn’t be more honest about abortion and other social issues. So for me, when I was making this film, I wanted to be sure that everything was as realistic and honest as possible. I think that is the similarity between this and those old kitchen sink dramas.
Filmmaker: Both films are shot in Nottingham. How did you end up shooting there? Is there a personal connection?
Haigh: Not personal. I knew that I didn’t want to shoot in London. I wanted to shoot in a city that was kind of a provincial nowhere town, so it wasn’t like a liberal Mecca, like Soho in London. And the money that we got came from a regional funding body that was based in Nottingham.
Filmmaker: Friends have told me they felt this was one of the first gay films about gay people they really related to. When you look back at other gay films, or as gay film as a genre, what do you think is missing?
Haigh: I’ve always found it really frustrating with gay films that I’ve seen don’t seem to reflect life as I know it at all. And one of the reasons I had for making this film was to rectify that. I wanted to put something on the screen that reflected how I felt being gay and see the world as a gay person. I really don’t know why there have not been more films that reflect the reality of the gay experience.
Filmmaker: You’ve said the film is not autobiographical, but you have such great details — the fact they both keep journals about their tricks, for example. How did you amass those details?
Haigh: Some certainly come from real life. I had kept a list when I was younger of people I’d been with. I was never quite sure why I made that list, but in retrospect it was somehow to look at my life more objectively. So there were elements that certainly did come from my own life.
Filmmaker: How did you go about writing the script — did you talk to friends or just make it up?
Haigh: It was mostly from me and my imagination. I spent a long time just sitting down alone in my bedroom writing it. I wanted it to feel completely real, so that all the dialogue would feel like how people actually spoke, and not as movie talk. That kind of faltering conversation you have in real life, where you don’t always make sense, or complete sentences. And I didn’t want to worry too much about what audience’s reaction to story would be.
Filmmaker: How long was the writing process?
Haigh: I started about three years ago, and I wrote a version of the script that I tried to get funded but no one was interested in doing it. So I put it away, and I then started rewriting it. I spent probably another year getting it down to the shape it is now. I think I felt that in the early drafts it was a bit too like an argument between the two, rather than two real characters developing together. I remember when I wrote it, I approached it like a character study really more than like a romance.
Filmmaker: You say it first felt too much like an argument. There is a way that the pillow talk in the film is a debate that rehearses some twenty years of gay theory. Was that your intent?
Haigh: I guess, in a way. I probably thought this is my only chance to express all of these thoughts about things I’ve had and try to get it all into this film. But I also wanted to bring it in as subtly as possible, so that it wasn’t just the director ranting about some issue.
Filmmaker: How did you come up with the conceit of the weekend, the idea that this relationship would only last for these few days?
Haigh: You can distill so much in a film that takes place only in this one brief period. I think because the characters know they have only this weekend, that there isn’t necessarily any future to the relationship, they let their guard down. So in a film that works really well. If they actually thought they might have a future together, they would probably hold back on the kind of things they tell each other.
Filmmaker: In the filming, how free were you with the actors about improvising and changing the script?
Haigh: I always wanted them to have the freedom to improvise if they wanted to, and go off the page if they wanted to, or change things around. I was never, “you have to say it as it is written.” I wanted the dialogue to feel fresh, so for me that is the best way to do that. Also it’s better for them as performers. That way they could spark off each other and keep things fresh since they wouldn’t be the same in every take.
Filmmaker: And was there lots of improvisation?
Haigh: Probably less than I originally thought. In reality there wasn’t that much. I think Chris, who plays Glen, probably improvised more. And that was really exciting, to see something change and see real reactions from the other performer because they don’t know what is coming.
Filmmaker: With a virtual two-hander like this, finding the right actors is crucial. Was there anything special in the casting process?
Haigh: We had a traditional casting process. I saw loads and loads of people, both individually and with someone else improvising a scene. I was kind of looking for just a spark — not a sexual one, but almost an antagonism in the way they sparred with each other. When I saw Chris [New] and Tom [Cullen] together, they really sparked with each other during improvisation. For that was really interesting and what I was looking for.
Filmmaker: I imagine that was a hard thing to cast, since initially the two men seem so different you don’t really get why they should be together.
Haigh: Yeah, exactly. I think they begin to see things in each other that they don’t have in themselves. When you are with someone you’ve just met, it is those differences between you which are so attractive.
Filmmaker: How did you plan for the production? You made it with a very low budget but did you have a sliding scope for how big or small the film’s budget could be?
Haigh: Really, when we got our money, we knew how much we had. So we shot for about 16 days. Also we shot in order, which kind of helped because I wanted everything to feel very authentic. I wanted to shoot in real nightclubs with real people, and not extras. So it meant we had to do things on a low budget to make it feel real. And we had a really small crew, like 15 people. But that worked, because I wanted to strip the mechanics of filmmaking away to get this kind of intimacy. So it was quite good that we had no money in many ways.
Filmmaker: And you shot it all on a Canon 5D?
Haigh: Yes, but we did shoot some stuff on a Sony X3, because it had a really good zoom lenses. So on the outdoor stuff we used the X3
Haigh: A lot. I think the editing even came into the script. I knew that I was going to shoot in long takes, so I needed to be sure there was variation and progression and you were going to feel like you were getting close to the characters. So even when I wrote it, the in and out points of those scenes were very definitive about where the beat needed to be. So I was pretty sure how it was going to look in my head even before we started pre-production. But we didn’t shoot any coverage at all. Ever. So I had to be really sure that the shot we were using was going to work, since there weren’t any other chances really.
Filmmaker: That must have been even more difficult, since much of the editing is so elliptical. You would have to be sure the scene totally worked on its own.
Haigh: I hoped it work. But you never really know, do you?
Filmmaker: A bit risky of you.
Haigh: Really risky. My producer said at one point, “do you think that maybe you should do a little coverage.” And I was “no, no, it’s going to be alright.” But really there was no escape when I went to edit. So if the performances weren’t good enough in a long scene, it just wasn’t going to work. So for me it was just having faith. Lots of faith.
Filmmaker: You don’t have really any music in the piece, but the end song, John Grant’s “Marz” seems so poignant and odd. It’s a song about a guy remembering an old candy store.
Haigh: I love John Grant as a musician. I actually used two songs of his songs in the film, the end one, “Marz,” and one that is playing in the room while they are kissing by the window. He’s a gay musician, but his music isn’t specifically gay. But that last song, it’s kind of melancholy song, but also harking back to some perfect ideal. There was something about that that I quite liked as a way to end the film.
Filmmaker: What other films or filmmakers influenced you?
Haigh: There were certain films that I watched to prepare. I watched things like Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo. Joe Swanberg’s Nights and Weekends. All those films, which I really quite like, have a sort of poetry to them. Those modern American films were all very inspiring to me when I was coming up with a visual idea. Not really many British films.
Filmmaker: Did you consider how other films dealt with that narrative of compressed time, that sort of Brief Encounter scenario?
Haigh: I watched Before Sunrise and Before Sunset again. I also watched a lot of very talky films, even films like Rohmer’s My Night at Maud‘s, to kind of see how people handle so much talking.
Filmmaker: Rohmer is very talky but also quite visual, especially in looking at someone else than the speaker.
Haigh: Exactly. You know, I watched Manhattan as well. [Woody Allen] does too. He doesn’t always focus on the person talking, which is such an interesting way to approach those talky scenes, allowing the audience to find their own rhythm and what they find interesting in a scene.
Filmmaker: How has the reception for the film been for you?
Haigh: It’s more than I could have expected. You worry that it’s going to get trapped a little kind of niche. Go to gay and lesbian film festivals, then go to DVD, and never be seen again. So its amazing that it’s expanded and it is getting a cinema release in the US.
Filmmaker: Are you working on new projects?
Haigh: I’m writing two things at the same time, and there are a couple of scripts I’m looking at. To be honest, choosing that next thing is quite difficult. I want to do something different, but there are still themes that I want to explore.
Filmmaker: Well, there are other days in the week to explore — Monday, Tuesday, etc.
Haigh: There is something about time frames that I like. Both of the films I am working on have time frames. One is over two hours and one is over a week. So there is something about limited time frames I really find quite interesting.