British writer-director Andrew Haigh spent the better part of a decade working as an assistant editor on such blockbuster movies as Black Hawk Down, Shanghai Knights and Mona Lisa Smile, all while shooting his own short films. Finally, he released his first feature, Greek Pete, a kitchen-sink drama about a male prostitute, in 2009; and Haigh followed it up last year with Weekend, a docu-realistic romance about two men who meet at a gay bar and then spend two days having hot sex and getting to know each other. Weekend landed on a number of “Best Of 2011” lists last year—including the No. 11 spot on The A.V. Club’s list of the year’s best movies—and it’s recently been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Criterion, the boutique home-video label known for handling the best in world cinema, past and present. Haigh spoke with The A.V. Club about the experience of making Weekend, whether it’s okay to call it “a gay film,” and his plans for the future.
The A.V. Club: It’s not too shabby to have just your second feature film get selected to be part of The Criterion Collection.
Andrew Haigh: Yeah, it’s incredible, really. We had no idea that was going to happen. We didn’t expect it whatsoever. And when we found out, it was a bit gobsmacking. It was amazing. I mean it’s really hard to get Criterion DVDs in England, but still I’m very well aware of them and know the kind of films they put on their collection. So it’s crazy. Really good. Big honor.
AVC: Was Weekend conceived after you made Greek Pete or had it been in the works for a while?
AH: I’d been working on it, kind of writing the script [for Weekend] and doing the first draft before my other film. But when we tried to get money for it, everyone turned it down. So I put it aside for a few months, did a rewrite, and tried again and still we got rejected. [Laughs.] Finally we managed to get some money together. It was an arduous slog, just trying to get the money.
Then the shoot took, oh God, 16 days? That was such a long time ago. 16-and-a-half days, something like that. A quick shoot process. Partly because of money, but also just partly because I wanted it to feel like an intense kind of shoot. I wanted it to be shot over a small period of time. I also shot the film in order, which I think was very helpful for the production. For me, anyway. [Laughs.] For me and the cast.
AVC: The movie takes place over the course of about 48 hours; so shooting over 16 days to approximate 48 hours, obviously it matters what time you shoot certain things. How does that work if you’re shooting in order?
AH: It matters only in terms of outside scenes, where it’s clearly night or day. But still, it was quite a complicated schedule to get right. It would’ve been easier not to shoot it in order, but I was really insistent that we do it like that. You’re trying to map this relationship over 48 hours, and for me, I needed to shoot that in order so I could see where it was going, and make adjustments to make it work. Also I think for the actors, it’s an amazing opportunity. Normally they have to do it out of order, all over the place, last scene of the film first, all that kind of thing. I think that’s really difficult. Well, I imagine it would be anyway. So I just wanted to try and make it as authentic as possible, and part of that was built into the shooting process.
AVC: You mentioned making adjustments; did anything in particular change during the shoot, either because of the circumstances or sudden inspiration?
AH: Nothing major, but there’s always small changes that you make. Certain bits of scenes that you don’t think you need anymore. And we were constantly adapting the script as we were going along, in terms of cutting stuff out and changing little things. There’s always elements of improvisation and stuff going on, too. But in terms of the general gist of things, it pretty much stayed the same. We wanted it to be quite free, so if the weather was bad, well then the weather was bad. So that didn’t matter; we would just go ahead and do things. We were always aware. We wanted it to feel spontaneous as well, so adapting to circumstances made that happen.
AVC: Both your feature films thus far have a docu-realistic quality. Do you see that as your style?
AH: It’s funny, because I did some short films before that weren’t so docu-style. But I’m trying to tell stories that feel authentic, so you can completely believe in these people and their struggles and their character. And I think shooting like I shot Weekend really does help. I think it makes you engage more with the characters. It maybe means the audience has to work a little bit harder, but I think that can be a good thing, too. I mean, I don’t know. My next films… I think I’ll probably take what I’ve learned shooting Weekend and fit it to whatever I decide to do.
AVC: What did you learn from your time working in the editing department on big blockbuster films?
AH: Oh, God. Probably just things not to do. [Laughs.] Sometimes these films are so massive, and you’re trying to create these intimate moments, say for example between two people, and then you’ve got the whole mechanics of a film set around you. That’s quite difficult. I also learned what you do need and what you don’t need—what is actually important in telling a story. I worked on a lot of films where they shot so much footage and they barely used any of it. Like, 80 percent of it was wasted sometimes. So I suppose I’ve maybe learned what I think you actually need.
AVC: A couple of your short films were set in the U.S. Was that when you were working in the editing departments of films that were shooting here?
AH: No, I actually did a year’s film course in L.A. and I made them there. It was, like, L.A. Film School? Kind of small film school based on Sunset in L.A., so not one of the big ones.
I love America. I’m a big fan. I’ve spent a lot of time traveling around the States. One of my newer projects is going to be set in America. It’s a great place. It’d be more controversial if I said, “No, I hate it. It’s the worst country in the world.” [Laughs.] But I think America’s a fascinating place. There are so many different aspects to it that are constantly intriguing. I think also you can’t help but look to somewhere where you’re not from. It’s just a different world that you’re kind of drawn to. And to us in Britain, which is very small and insular sometimes, we think of America as a kind of bastion of excitement. Traveling west and road trips and all those kind of things hold a special joy in our hearts, I think.
AVC: The two stars of Weekend are both absolutely terrific, and not so well-known. How did you find them?
AH: Chris New, who plays Glen, had done a lot of theater work in the UK, but he hadn’t done much film or TV. And Tom Cullen, who plays Russell, was pretty much just out of drama school and had done some short films and bits of theater and things. So they were both relatively unknown. And that was a treat, I suppose, because I like the idea of working with people that aren’t necessarily known to other people. And they were just right for the roles.
The thing is you just go for the best people you can. I did relatively straight-forward auditions, with like 50 people. It was probably the most stressful part of it for me, because I knew that if I couldn’t get two people that you could believe could fall for each other, the film just wouldn’t work. So much of the film completely rests on their shoulders. And if they weren’t up to the task, the film would’ve been complete rubbish. I saw lots of really good people. I saw everyone individually, and then we put them in different couples and kind of improvised to see what they were like together. And Chris and Tom, you could just see there was some spark or something between them. And I was very relieved. [Laughs.]
AVC: There’s also a physicality required of the role. There’s a sexuality and a rawness that was necessary for whoever took on those parts.
AH: Yeah, definitely. They had to throw themselves into it, completely. It was a nice process. It was very much the three of us working on the script together. Every night before we would shoot, we’d go over the next day’s pages and talk about what we could keep and what we could change and what we could adapt. It was always about how I wanted them to feel free to try whatever they wanted to do and to trust that they could do it.
AVC: The central relationship in the film is front and center, and that’s what the movie is about, but occasionally it seems that on the corner of the frame, you see other people who are watching this relationship. Is that intentional? Is that to show that even if these two people are comfortable with who they are, there are still people on the outside who are judging them?
AH: Yeah, definitely. That was very much the intention. To me, the film is partly about this thing of who you are in private, and who you are in public, and if they’re all the same thing. I think for Glen, they are more or less the same thing, and for Russell, not so much. He’s a very different person in private than he is in public. When they’re out in the public, I want it to feel like we are the public watching them so we can see how they define themselves to the outside world. I think for gay people, you are also very aware of yourself when you’re in public. So it was about trying to explore that a little bit.
AVC: Should the film be classified as a “gay film” or not?
AH: That’s a really hard one. [Laughs.] I never really know how I feel about it. It’s strange because I’m quite happy about it being considered “gay cinema.” Sometimes if you say, “No, it’s not, it’s not!” it’s almost like you’re embarrassed of the fact that it’s about gay people, which I’m not in the slightest. So I’m happy for people to call it, if they want, a gay film, and for it to be seen as part of queer cinema. That’s fine with me, and I’m proud of that and that’s good. But at the same time I understand that you almost don’t want to be that because you don’t want to be limited or defined just by that. I think that’s the thing.
It does certainly put certain people off seeing it, which can be a shame. But at the same time… it is a pretty gay film. [Laughs.] You know, it’s about two guys and they fall for each other. And it’s also more than that, so… I don’t know. It confuses me. [Laughs.] It’s easier for other people to decide whether it’s a gay film or not. It’s the same with me personally. People ask if I’m a gay filmmaker or am I not a gay filmmaker and that’s just a weird one to answer as well.
AVC: It’s been written that your next project is an adaptation of Agnès Varda’s Cléo From 5 To 7. Is that true?
AH: [Laughs.] No, that’s not true. I said how much I like that film once, and talked about how I would like to do something a bit like it and then suddenly, of course, that was in the press somewhere.
AVC: And then it’s on IMDB.
AH: I know, honestly! All you have to do is say one thing to one person, and before you know it, everyone’s like “Oh, this is your next project,” and Agnès Varda’s trying to sue me. [Laughs.] So, no, it’s not at all.
AVC: Any projects you do want to speak about?
AH: I’d rather not. [Laughs.] I’ve learned my lesson. One is set in the UK and one is set in the U.S. Whichever one’s next just kind of depends on which one gets financed first.
AVC: Did you know that if you Google your name, one of the first things that comes up is a sportswriter from London?
AH: [Laughs.] Yes, it does, doesn’t it? A football writer, or something. And he’s got a Twitter account, and I think people sometimes tweet him and say, “Oh, congratulations on your film!” [Laughs.] He works for a pretty right-wing tabloid newspaper in the UK called The Sun, which is a terrible, awful, dreadful newspaper. So I think we couldn’t be further away from each other in our belief systems. I don’t know what he thinks about all of it. I wonder if he’s seen the film?