“In the end, it’s about how for these two people it’s a struggle to work out what they want, how they want to live, and how they want to define themselves.”
That’s British writer/director Andrew Haigh explaining what his beautiful new film “Weekend” is all about. The two people in question are Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), gay men who meet by chance in a bar, share a one-night stand, then discover the next morning that the have a lot more in common than just intense physical attraction. For the rest of the weekend, they grow closer. At the end of the weekend, something threatens to tear them apart. For Haigh, that structure represented an opportunity to tell a story about gay characters with broad appeal. “I wanted it to be about something very distinct,” he told me, “but something very universal at the same time.” Anyone who’s ever fell in love on a deadline will relate to “Weekend” regardless of their sexuality. I know I did.
Though Russell and Glen’s time together is finite, the movie doesn’t rush them to a contrived conclusion. Haigh lets their relationship build slowly and believably over the course of some amazing long takes (one in a train station at the end of the film deserves consideration as one of the best shots of 2011). The film’s ticking clock structure, intricate conversations, and charming lead performances recall Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” a comparison I even discussed with Haigh during our interview. During the rest of our conversation, I guess you could say I asked the him what he wants, how he wants to live as a film director, and how he wants to define this movie.
Your bio says that you started in the film industry as an assistant editor working on films like “Black Hawk Down,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” and “Mister Lonely.” Was editing your ultimate career goal or did you always want to move into directing?
I always wanted to be a director, but when I left university and was looking for a job, it seemed like editing was a good department to work in, especially because you get such close contact with the key creative talents of films. It’s a really fascinating way to learn about filmmaking and what you need to do to make a story work.
Are there any specific, concrete lessons you learned from working with guys like Ridley Scott?
They were mostly about how to fine tune what you’re trying to say, especially when you’re trying to do something subtle. Good editors and good directors can do that incredibly well. Also, I learned a lot about how important shaping performances becomes in the edit. What you leave out is just as important as what you have on the screen.
For a movie that’s made by a guy who came up through the business as an editor, “Weekend” doesn’t have a lot of cuts.
Was that by design?
Certainly by design. Working in editing, I find that people often shoot things in ways that they just don’t need to. I’m a big fan of simplicity in filmmaking. It was always my plan to have very few edits. It also makes the job of the editor a little bit easier. Less stuff to cut! But it was always my intention for “Weekend” to be like that.
Why was that?
I suppose I was going for a really authentic feeling with the film, and I always looked at editing within a scene as cheating. I wanted [the movie] to feel almost like a documentary; that this was life unfolding in front of your eyes and that I wasn’t recreating that by editing. You, as the audience, were almost sitting in the corner of the room just watching this relationship unfold. And I felt that not editing within a scene would help that feeling and that tone.
It definitely did. You also set lots of scenes in public places: trains, bars, carnivals. Were those closed sets with extras or were you capturing things in real places with real people to help that documentary feel?
Most of the time we were just kind of capturing things on the street. There were a few times when we used extras. But, for example, the nightclub in the beginning: those are not extras, that’s just us in an actual nightclub on a Saturday night. I was quite keen on putting the actors in real world situations rather than recreating the world for them. I always quite liked the idea of everything I shot outside being from the perspective of the outside world looking at these two people forging their relationship in public. Also, when you haven’t got much money and you’re trying to make something look real, you can’t afford to hire extras. So it was also a good financial reason as well.
Were there any unplanned moments with real people that wound up in the film?
Not really. It was a struggle sometimes, and it doesn’t help that I was doing lots of long takes. You can have an amazing long take and then someone runs in front of the camera or makes a face or stares into the lens. So it has its downsides, but it makes it feel like a real place when you have real people. Extras are extras, and I think subconsciously you feel that in films.
Is the film autobiographical in any way?
The events onscreen haven’t happened to me in that exact way. But I suppose the feelings are autobiographical. The way I see the world is probably in the film in the two characters. So there are certainly elements of me in the film but I’m not one of those guys.
So you’re actually both characters, in a way.
I’m somewhere in between the two. I might veer one way or the other depending on what kind of mood I’m in. I was probably more like Russell when I was younger and as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more like Glen.
That’s interesting. Now I’m imagining the movie as a conversation between different parts of you.
In many respects, that is what it was.
There’s a very interesting scene in the movie where the characters discuss the way gay art is received by straight audiences, and how straight people have no tolerance for art about gay sexuality. Have you had different reactions to the movie depending on whether the audience is gay or straight?
Definitely. A gay audience obviously sees a lot of elements about being gay in the story. From straight audiences, the reaction has almost been surprise that they can feel a lot of similarities to their own life in the story even though they’re not gay.
And given that conversation in the film, I’m assuming that was something you were hoping to accomplish. Have you been happy with the dialogue that’s developed as a result of the movie?
Yeah. It’s hard when you make a film about gay people because you want straight people to see it. Part of the whole idea is you want straight people to understand some of the issues that gay people face. So it was important to me that it did have a wider audience.
Those conversations between Russell and Glen are so great. I’m sure you get asked a lot about how scripted or unscripted those scenes were.
They were pretty scripted. There’s quite a lot of issues they’re discussing; if it was all improvised it would have just rambled on into nothingness. But at the same time, the actors were always free to change things when they felt necessary. There was never a moment when I said, “You have to say exactly what I’ve written!” So there were elements of improvisation in all the scenes. And that’s interesting, because when neither actor is sure what the other one is going to do with the script the scene comes alive.
I have no idea, but I would guess that the one thing that has to be scripted are sex scenes.
Actually, they weren’t. They were kind of semi-scripted but certainly not set in any kind of definitive way. We shot the film in order, so when we got to the sex scenes we knew what they had to be, and we constructed them around the tone and emotions that we wanted to achieve.
People often ask about the sex scenes and whether they’re difficult to do. Bizarrely, they were probably the easiest element to shoot. It’s the long conversations that end up being more challenging, because in reality when you shoot a sex scene it’s not sexy. You don’t see it in the film but when you cut the camera suddenly everyone’s laughing.
This may be me reading way too much into the movie, but I noticed a lot of water imagery in the film. There’s several scenes where we see Russell taking baths, and he works as a lifeguard as well. Was there some kind of design behind all those water images?
It’s funny because there were reasons, but I’m not really sure what those reasons were anymore. Maybe it was something weirdly subconscious when I was writing. I remember thinking, “I don’t want him to be in the shower, I want him to be in the bath.” And I wanted him to be a lifeguard, and it made sense that there would be water there. I’m not really sure what the reason was, but it felt right.
The movie reminded me in a very good way of “Before Sunrise.” And given its storyline, I think “Weekend” would be perfect for its own “Before Sunset”-esque sequel, reconnecting with the characters a few years later. Is that something you’d ever consider doing?
It would be quite fun to do in ten years time and see how these people have changed and developed. I’d love to turn it into a road movie. Ten years down the line, they’re traveling across the States. I’ve always wanted to do a road movie. It’d be “Weekend” crossed with “Five Easy Pieces.” Could be interesting.
Definitely. What are you working on now?
There’s a few things I’m trying to write at the moment, but it’s funny. When you make a film, you don’t realize that you then have to promote it. After this is all done I’ll go back and figure out what the next project is, because obviously it’s an important move. I’ve got a few scripts I’m in the early or middle stages of.
Are these projects similar to “Weekend” or do you envision them being different?
I certainly don’t think there’s going to be an action film coming up next. I like small scale character dramas. That’s what I enjoy making and want to make. There might not necessarily be any gay characters, it could be a very different scenario, but I think there will be certain themes that connect them. Maybe not so much talking next time.
Maybe there will be more water imagery.
Yeah. I’m gonna set something at sea, nothing but water. “Waterworld 2.”