Some filmmakers write a plot, others write rhythm, and some—in a rarified group—write mood. Director Andrew Haigh falls into that third category. Untethered from quotidian contemporary cinema, the UK-born auteur creates stories full of life and feeling. In Weekend (2011), he tells the story of a gay man in search of a one-night stand before stumbling upon something more substantive. Then, in 45 Years (2015), the story is about a romance that is more substantive—for nearly half a century in fact. With Lean on Pete (2018), Haigh eschews human-to-human contact, pivoting instead to the relationship between Charley (Charlie Plummer) and the titular racehorse. But what all three of these movies have in common is that they showcase Haigh’s artful tenderness. In Lean on Pete, there’s a focus on the Portland meadows, which personifies a kind of new American frontier for Charley: Territory yet to be charted, a home waiting to be found.
When we sat down with Haigh he was on a break from his new project—he keeps busy that way. We spoke about his attitude on set, the heart behind Lean on Pete, and how he chooses the projects he wants to make.
Sam Fragoso: With the film now out in theaters, how are you feeling about the finished project of Lean On Pete?
Andrew Haigh: It’s been so hard. It takes such a long time to make a film. You feel like you’ve finished by the time you’ve done the final sound mix. It’s always amazing to me to see how long it takes for it to get released, and then having to talk about it when it does get released. I never re-watch my films. I watch it at the world premiere in Venice. I won’t watch for a good three or four years.
Why do you not watch your own films?
I think it’s because you spend so long working on them. I take a long time to write, shoot, edit. Watching it I just see a collection of decisions and choices. The weekend was on television the other day, and I watched some of it and thought, “Oh you know, that’s not so bad.” Years removed I can watch more objectively.
With Weekend, 45 Years, and now Lean on Pete, how are you choosing these projects? I imagine you have a lot of options.
It’s basically a real gut feeling. When I first read the Lean on Pete book, years ago, I knew I wanted to make it then. There are certain stories that affect me in a way that other stories don’t. This was one of them. That central struggle that Charley is dealing with, and that isolating world that he exists in and becomes more and more isolating the more everything falls apart around him…I identified with that. It resonated with me. 45 Years and Lean on Pete are both part of the same exploration for me. I read lots of scripts and most of them I don’t want to do. The ones that I like, are the ones that are, well, slightly less commercial.
Onset for Lean on Pete, was there a day when you felt like you knew you had something interesting, worthwhile?
The first time you really think about it is when you watch the first dailies. On-set is such a chaotic environment, although I try to keep quiet calm when I’m on set. You think you’ve got what you’re looking for in a scene, but it’s usually something hard to articulate. When you start looking at the dailies, around day three, is when you feel okay about what you’re making.
What’s your temperament like on set?
I’m pretty relaxed. I keep my anxiety under the surface rather than panicking. I’m always pretty well prepared. It’s a very hard job to be an actor—I couldn’t think of anything worse. My job is to try to make them feel comfortable, to feel like they can try new things. There’s no judgment if they do something bad. It’s important that everyone feels safe. The only time I got angry on set was when planes were flying overhead and they kept ruining the shot. You don’t need to get angry, it’s not justified. I don’t need to shout at people to get what I want.
What’s something you wish you knew as a young filmmaker that you know now?
You have to realize not everybody is going to get what you do, and that’s alright. You have to make the film that you want to make and you have to make them in the way that you want to make them. Not everybody is going to like that. Some people will, some people won’t. Stay true to how you want to make films. That’s not always easy, especially as the films get bigger and the expectations are higher. You just have to remind yourself to do what you can do, and don’t try to be something you’re not.