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Photo credit: Quinnford + Stout
What is it about temporally limited love stories? Whether they’re constrained by a matter of logistics (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset) or due to health concerns (Love Story, the just-out Restless), in cinema, having a romantic relationship that contains an expiration date seems to be a recipe for poignancy and drama. Andrew Haigh’s Weekend is no exception. Two men (Tom Cullen and Chris New) have a one-night stand and find that they actually really like each other; they begin falling in love despite the fact that one of them is leaving for art school in Portland at the end of the weekend. With a simple, low-key delivery, the film manages to deftly weave in its high-drama concept.
The blending of these two aspects of the film is a testament to the skill of its writer/director, Andrew Haigh. Haigh, who has worked for many years as an assistant editor, has a certain understanding of tone and dramatic tenor; he’s able to keep a scene finely tuned for a long period of time, slowly drawing out a truth in the naturalistic fashion it might appear in if such a scene occurred in real life. While Haigh’s film seems to share certain aesthetic and stylistic affinities with low-budget, talky American indies, the British filmmaker’s sense of style instead splits the middle between such low-budget films (think Andrew Bujalski) and less talkative, more pensive character studies (think Ryan Fleck). I had the chance recently to sit down with Haigh.
Andrew Haigh: I always wanted it to be handheld, but I didn’t want it to be shaky handheld, which you see in a lot of those films. The films that I like are more composed. But I wanted to have a little bit of freedom, to be able to move. I always wanted to be a third-person observer in these scenes, to be not up in the characters’ faces, but rather just watching. I was going for a realistic feeling, and I felt like if it had been too static that wouldn’t come across.
Tribeca: Why do you think that is, that static frames connote something less naturalistic?
Andrew Haigh: I’ve thought about that, and I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s just how cinema has developed—as cameras have become handheld, that’s been associated with realism. Obviously, you don’t see handheld, you see the world static, or like a steadicam. Perhaps it’s because of the documentary tradition—documentaries are often handheld. But I’ve always thought about that weirdness, because when you’re too handheld you’re bringing attention to the camera, and that breaks that kind of realism. I don’t know, it’s a weird one. But then you watch something by the Dardenne brothers, and that feels pretty natural, and that’s pretty much always handheld.
Tribeca: Is that a place, theoretically, that your DP was coming from as well? How did you guys link up, aesthetically?
Andrew Haigh: I pretty much knew—I was adamant that I wanted to do a lot of long takes. We never did any coverage in the scenes; it was pretty much always one shot. I knew that was how I wanted it to be, and the DP pretty much wanted the same thing. There was never much argument about that. She has a very tender aesthetic to how she shoots things, which was what I wanted. We tried not to plan too much—we would rehearse the scene once, discuss it, and we were pretty much always in agreement with where the camera would be. Because there were long, long scenes—that bedroom scene in the morning is like three scenes—we had to make sure there was enough variation in those three shots, so you feel like you’re getting closer into that circle of intimacy. So we did spend a lot of time trying to make it feel like the camera wasn’t just shoved somewhere for the sake of it.
Andrew Haigh: It’s terrifying! Really scary. When we started the first day—we shot chronologically—and we were in the flat, shooting the morning scene, it was scary. My producer was like, “I think we should shoot some coverage,” and my DP was worried about it, and I said, “No, it’s going to be fine.” But then you sit in the editing room and you realize you’re nervous about it.
But I had faith that the actors were good enough, which I think they are. I think they could sustain those things. With me trusting them to do that, I think they were happy about it, and it made their performances so good, that I trusted them with the long takes. But it can be frustrating if you have a seven-minute take, and one bit of it is really good, but the rest of it isn’t, so you can’t use that bit. I knew I had to stick to the style I had gone for; I didn’t want to give it up and start shooting coverage.
Tribeca: It is very much about the acting when you’re working that way. What was your process like with the actors?
Andrew Haigh: We did a little bit of rehearsal, for like a week, but it was kind of just going through the script, talking about things, talking about similar experiences we’ve all had. I tried to spend as much time with them on set as I could, so we’d finish a scene and we’d just kind of sit on the bed and chat, talk about the next scene, discuss stuff. When we were shooting, I don’t micro-manage their acting—like, “That line needs to be more like this.” If they improvised, that was fine. The extent of my direction inside the scenes was, “Let’s try something else.” They did loads of work on backstory, getting them into the characters.
Andrew Haigh: You have to trust them; that’s why you’ve got them for the job. Actors work so much better if you put faith in them. There’s no point in me saying, “I think you need to find a better objective for that line.” I just don’t think it works. When they’re in character, you just let them exist, and if something’s not working, you let them try and change it in the simplest way possible. I’ve made some short films where I made the mistake of micro-managing, putting objectives in the script, and that’s just impossible.
Tribeca: If something’s not working, you let them change it in the simplest way possible—how so?
Andrew Haigh: Having an action be different, or not necessarily having them change what they’re saying, but giving them a different action to do, or putting them in a different position. Sometimes I would give notes to one of them about something the other one wouldn’t know about. Sometimes you find that you don’t need to say anything after a take—you just say, “Try something else,” and that works. I wanted them to feel like they weren’t being directed. I think the hardest part is casting. Once that’s done, you just sort of hope you made the right choice.
Andrew Haigh: That’s a really interesting way to put it, because when you’re gay, you spend the whole time trying to explain to people that your experiences are the same, you’re all the same, and you’re right—gay people are the same in many respects, obviously, but there is a lot of difference. I always think the weight of coming out to your parents is very strong; when you’re gay, you carry that around with you all the time. I think it’s very hard for people who aren’t gay to understand what that’s like, the idea that you fear you’ll be rejected by your parents. I remember being absolutely terrified about it.
And you carry that feeling of not being like your parents. I think subconsciously you want to be like your parents, and when you’re gay, you’re not like your parents. They can’t really understand what it’s like for you. It’s a very isolating feeling. And of course what happens to you when you’re a kid or a teenager affects you for the rest of your life, and I think most gay people are affected by that moment in their life.
Andrew Haigh: I didn’t want it to be a gay niche film that would only be seen by gay people. Even when I was writing it, I wanted to explore issues that I hoped would go to a wider audience. They talk about a lot of things, and I wanted it to feel like it was of their relationship, not a rant from the director. I did want there to be a wider audience; I wanted straight people to see it.
Tribeca: One thing explored in the film is the whirlwind, short-term romance, like in Before Sunrise. What is it about those types of romances that elicit such strong reactions in audiences and in the people in the romances themselves?
Andrew Haigh: I think a lot of people can relate to it, because even if it’s not a romantic relationship, there’s people you’ve met—for one night, for a weekend, a week, whatever, such a small amount of time—and yet somehow it can resonate more than a friendship you’ve had with someone for fifty years. It’s weird. Especially if you know there’s going to be some end-point to the relationship. You’re more willing to let your guard down, to be open, say how you feel.
I think if you think there could be a future, you limit yourself a bit. I know I do. If I think there’s a possibility this could become a relationship, I’m much more guarded than if I meet someone and they’re going away. I’m more willing, in that situation, to say “Fuck it” and be myself. And if you’re a filmmaker and you’re trying to explore characters, it’s a great device.
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