Andrew Haigh interview: Weekend

Weekend is only Andrew Haigh’s second feature film, a no-budget romance set in Nottingham, but that hasn’t stopped it causing a stir Stateside. Surfing waves of rave reviews, the film’s been celebrated as a smart and honest examination of gay life in the modern world, and is now expanding its UK theatrical run after an impressive openning weekend. LWLies sat down for a chat with the writer/director recently to gauge his response to all the attention.

LWLies: Can you believe that you’re off around the world talking about your little movie?
Haigh: No, I can’t believe it at all. I find, because it’s happening and you’re in the middle of it, sometimes I stop and think, ‘What? How’s this happened?’

Your first film, Greek Pete, was quite a small movie that not many people saw…
Greek Pete was tiny, miniscule, and I suppose we sort of thought this would be again small, and some people might see it and that would be it. Obviously you always hope for more. And then, it’s been out in America for a couple of weeks and it’s… it’s weird. It’s like, ‘Is this my…? Is this the same film we’re talking about?’

How do you think a little film like this suddenly hits the big time?
I don’t know! It really helped that we played it at SXSW, we went into that festival, and nobody really knew what the film was. I think we built up something, a steam. There were a core group of people, like Indiewire, they really got behind the film and they just wouldn’t stop talking about it. It was a little bit embarrassing, but they really helped it getting out to different people and it took off.

Are you surprised by the different types of media that are interested?
Absolutely, even when I wrote the film – it’s in the film when Glen’s character is talking about people not being interested in [gay cinema], that was borne out of frustration. It was the expectation that nobody would be interested in it. So I feel a bit embarrassed now that I put it in the film! It’s showed me that I’m wrong, because people have been [interested]. It’s amazing, but I’m still not entirely sure how it’s happened. We had big articles in the New York Times and LA Times. I think basically there’s been such a gap of these kind of films about gay people, and I think I’ve hit a good point in time and it’s been quite lucky. I know a lot of other filmmakers, especially Americans, who are gay, and they’re making a lot more naturalistic gay dramas. I think there’s gonna be quite a lot of them coming out, and I’ve just managed to get there first.

Weekend’s quite refreshing compared to a lot of STV low-budget gay films.
I just had no interest in my film being a… I want to be a proper filmmaker, I don’t want my film to be a shitty DVD that 10 people see. It’s not interesting to me. The films I like aren’t within that genre. Maybe that’s the problem, it’s hard for filmmakers to make films with gay content. I think maybe a lot of them aren’t as interested in cinema as they are interested in getting this film made and to DVD.

A lot of the cheesy American gay films are all about the nudity.
And they’re always people that are like super hot guys with muscles. I don’t know anyone like that! I don’t know who those people are. It’s weird. I wanted to tell a story that was like, ‘Gay people are also normal people, they do normal jobs and don’t look like perfect specimens of men.’ Even though Tom and Chris are quite good-looking. They’re just a bit messy, which I guess is the new gay look anyway. It’s bearded and scruffy.

You’ve got a good beard on you, did you copy it off Tom?
I made him grow a beard! I said you’ve got to grow a beard for it. I just like beards I think. And he’s kept it! He didn’t have one when I first met him.

Sex is quite integral to Weekend and Greek Pete. Is that something that interests you?
My short films are nothing like that at all. I think it definitely interests me, but only because sex is so integral to everybody’s lives, it’s such an important part of everybody’s lives. Either you’re not having it, or sex is a part of your relationship. I think it’s just not dealt with in a serious enough way in films, it’s either just for titillation or it’s deathly serious rather than just being, it’s part of someone’s life and it’s just sex, and it’s not just sex, it shows a lot about your character. How you talk about sex, what you do, everything. So it’s trying to look at sexual relationships in a wider context.

Weekend is similar to My Beautiful Laundrette in that it’s set in a recognisable time. Was exploring modern gay identity something that appealed to you?
Yeah, I think it’s changed so dramatically being gay, and acceptance and equality since Beautiful Laundrette. It’s changed amazingly. But in many ways it hasn’t changed, which is quite interesting. While discrimination has obviously gone down and prejudice has gone down, and things are different, there are still things that are problems, and issues that exist with being gay in the modern world. It was definitely about incorporating, having that as a background to the story, rather than it being all about that. It is funny, you speak to people and they work in the media in London, they’re like, ‘It’s fine being gay! There’s no problems!’ But there are still problems. And even if you work in London in the media.

It’s usually straight people that say that, like, ‘Oh, it’s fine for you lot now, isn’t it? For you gays! Everybody loves you!’ I’ve never really fitted in with that, I’ve never really been part of the gay scene. Obviously I went out, but it’s never really been part of my life fully, and neither is the straight scene. I think a lot of gay people, if they don’t fit a certain stereotype, they just meander around all over the place not really knowing where they fit in. You’re stranded a little bit, which is what I think Russell is. And Glen to a certain extent.

Do you know people quite similar to Russell and Glen?
Not really, I think maybe they’re parts of me to some extent. If there was a line I’d kind of vary between the two depending on my mood, how angry I am with the world.

What are you angry about?
I’m always angry about something. I’m quite an angry person. Everything! I can be quite calm, but I don’t live in London anymore, and as soon as I come to London my rage level starts building up. I live in Norwich now so it’s a very different town, I love it. It’s a really interesting city, but I come to London and you notice the massive inequality that exists here. When you’re in somewhere like Norwich it’s a lot more equal, there’s not massive wealth and massive poverty. There’s more things to make me angry.

Russell and Glen are polar opposites, was that a conscious effort?
I knew they had to be opposites because it’s a drama, and otherwise that wouldn’t be very interesting. It had to be that their characters were well-rounded enough that it wasn’t just me writing two opposite characters. It would just be pointless. I spent so long doing backstories for the characters, because your ideas and your philosophies don’t exist in a vacuum, they’re based on your how your life has been and where you’ve been. So it was just about really working that out, so that when they were together they felt like real people. And the fact that they’re different is what attracts them to each other, they’re grasping at bits of each other. That’s what makes relationships interesting.

Was the documentary look intended to blur fiction and reality?
Definitely, and I always wanted Weekend to be as real as possible. It was scripted, but we approached it like it was a documentary. So shooting everything in long takes, I wanted to imagine that this was happening right now in front of me and I could capture it for this instant and then it would never happen again. So that’s why there’s no coverage. Not having extras. In the club it’s a normal night in the club. They’d be dancing to the camera and you’d be like, ‘No!’ It’s all just real people.

You’re pretty much a guerrilla filmmaker, then?
Pretty much. We used the guerrilla process but I didn’t want it to look like guerrilla filmmaking, it had to feel like it was very thought out, but at the same time captured footage.

It looks amazing, though. How did you strike that balance?
I wanted it to look good and nice and professional. I never understand, just because you’ve got no money doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to look good. We shot on the 5D Canon, a stills camera essentially that shoots video, we had this big rig thing that keeps it steady. But just because you’ve got no money, it doesn’t have to look shit. We didn’t have any lights, but Uma was a good DP. You just make an effort.

Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is quite similar in terms of no-frills filmmaking. Are you a fan?
Yeah, definitely. I was a big fan of all those American mumblecore type films, low-budget character dramas. They’re kind of like an update of Cassavette’s films with modern settings. Monsters is a good example, I think it’s a good film, it’s an indie relationship drama with aliens. Which is amazing. I still don’t understand how he made that film. There was like three of them on the crew. Crazy! He’s doing Godzilla now isn’t he? I’ve heard him speak and he seems like a really nice guy. Let’s face it, a lot of directors can be arseholes. If I like a film and I hear the director talk and he’s a wanker, it really puts me off.

Being a director, are you a bit of a control freak?
Yeah, I am a total control freak. You have to be. The hard thing is when you make something that’s really small budget and then it’s out in the world and distribution companies take it on, you’ve had so much control on the early days, and then you have to give that control away, which is really hard. I sometimes have to stop myself. The posters were great. I know the designer, but again that was me sticking my oar in and making sure they use Sam and giving the posters to the Americans saying, ‘This is really nice.’ Also, you know you have to compromise sometimes, and there’s times when you’re shooting where everybody’s focussing on something and you know actually it’s not that important. It’s about being a control freak about the right things.

You’ve made a strong point about gay life with Weekend. Is it now time to move on to other topics? Can you better it?
No, in terms of my desire to explore that kind of world it’s probably done. Doesn’t mean I won’t be making films about gay people, but there’d be no point in me doing that again. There’s themes that are there, whether they’re about gay people or straight people, old people or young people, there will be similar themes. But I need to do other different films. I don’t just want to make small films about gay people talking to each other!

Have you been approached by people about your next film?
Yeah, I’m writing some stuff, I’ve got an agent now. Americans are crazy, I’ve got a team of like 10 people now. You’re like, ‘Okay!’ You get so many scripts. It’s an amazing thing about America, they see this film but it doesn’t limit what they think you can do, they say you can do anything now. Whereas in England there’s that sense of you could only do really small films about gay people. In America they’re sending me scripts like… not quite alien scripts, but things that are bigger. They’re still not big studio pictures, but bigger stuff. Nine out of 10 directors that make a good first or second little film, end up going to America and making a piece of shit. It’s a real common thing. I don’t know why that is.

Perhaps America is too interested in this idea that films are products, whereas small indies worship storytelling.
Maybe there’s just too many people get involved. But also it’s about bad decisions. Those directors have gotten a script, gone, ‘Oh, it’s alright, it’ll do, I’ll do it because it’ll get me into America,’ but it’s never gonna work unless they really care about it. So I’m only going to do something if it’s somebody else’s script that I absolutely fall in love with. Other than that, I don’t just wanna do something just for the sake of getting paid, even if that would be nice.

Greek Pete was quite a small little cult film, do you count Weekend as your first proper film?
In America they’re trying to pretend that Greek Pete wasn’t my first film, because then you can get on first feature lists. But for me, that was my first feature and it is. I really enjoy it, I’m proud of that film, I like that film. Yeah, this is my second feature, I can’t say it’s my first because that belittles what I did before. This is obviously scripted and different, but it’s still my second feature.

Do you think the label of ‘gay film’ is a reductive or restrictive term?
It’s so difficult to know what it is. For me, Weekend’s a film about gay people. Whether people call that a gay film is up to them, really. It’s funny, because the film partly is about how you struggle to define yourself, and you continually try to define yourself. So it’s funny to me that as soon as you make a film, it’s like ‘It’s a gay film!’, people throw it in a pigeon-hole. I suppose it’s inevitable, and I’m not embarrassed that it’s gay. If people want to call it a gay film, that’s fine. I think it’s going to be like that for quite a long time, it will take a while I feel before it’s just ‘a film’. Also because it’s very much about gay sexuality and it’s got sex in, it’s automatically going to be pigeon-holed.

It’ll probably be like blaxploitation, films about black people are not called ‘black films’…
You wouldn’t call a Spike Lee film a black film. He’d be like, ‘Fuck off!’ When you do make a gay film it’s suddenly, people say, well it’s gay. I should slap people every time they say it!