Director Andrew Haigh on his new drama 45 years

FILE -- Andrew Haigh, a film director, in New York, July 26, 2011. Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, both film critics, look at some filmmakers in 2013, like Haigh, that are 40 or younger who are making a difference in the cinema of the present and the future. (Ethan Hill/The New York Times) -- PHOTO MOVED IN ADVANCE AND NOT FOR USE - ONLINE OR IN PRINT - BEFORE SEPT. 8, 2013.

FILE -- Andrew Haigh, a film director, in New York, July 26, 2011. Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, both film critics, look at some filmmakers in 2013, like Haigh, that are 40 or younger who are making a difference in the cinema of the present and the future. (Ethan Hill/The New York Times) -- PHOTO MOVED IN ADVANCE AND NOT FOR USE - ONLINE OR IN PRINT - BEFORE SEPT. 8, 2013.

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Andrew Haigh was determined to cast Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in his new drama 45 Years, he tells Siobhan Synnot

I first saw Andrew Haigh’s award-winning feature Weekend at the Dinard film festival, a couple of years ago. The audience chiefly comprised elderly French couples; not the audience you would predict for a low-budget indie about two young gay men who have a one-night stand, do some recreational drugs and have intense conversations about their differences and similarities in Nottingham. Yet on the way out, I passed a man and woman in their 70s hotly arguing about whether the two men could make a go of the relationship.

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling star in 45 Years, directed by Andrew Haigh. Picture: Contributed

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling star in 45 Years, directed by Andrew Haigh. Picture: Contributed

When I mention this to the boyish, bearded Haigh, who directed, wrote and edited Weekend, he’s clearly pleased but not surprised. “A lot of people who saw Weekend, especially straight men, told me that they were surprised how engaged they felt by it,” he says. “I’m gay, but my fears and doubts aren’t just about my sexuality. Some people feel taken back – and some people feel weirdly betrayed – that I’m not solely interested in gay stories, but I want people to watch my films and think ‘how would I cope with this?’ rather than think about whether the people involved are gay or straight.”

Haigh’s new film 45 Years throws out another chewy predicament for audiences to debate on the walk home. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay play a married couple, Geoff and Kate, about to celebrate their 45th anniversary when Geoff receives news that the body of his ex-fiancée has been found, perfectly preserved inside a glacier, more than 50 years after she was killed on an alpine walking holiday.

Geoff’s romantic memories of his past also defrost, making Kate fear that their present comfortable life is under threat. Topics that they have shied away from discussing resurface: their reasons for marrying, their childlessness, the interests they set aside for the sake of a life together.

“I do see Weekend and 45 Years as companion pieces, although they are about different situations” says Haigh. “Weekend is about looking forward and 45 Years is about looking back. Weekend asks: ‘What kind of life do I want to lead?’ 45 Years is about ‘What kind of life did I have?’”

I rather like that their real past feeds into this film”

Haigh found David Constance’s short story six years ago in an anthology: “I wasn’t really looking for a story like 45 Years, but it was so simple yet also so profound. So many movies are about the beginning or the end of a relationship – whereas it’s the tough stuff in the middle that is interesting to me.”

45 Years finally gets a release this month after touring the festival circuit. It won the Edinburgh Festival’s Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film in June, with Rampling sharing the festival’s award for Best Performance. At Berlin, Rampling and Courtenay carried off the Silver Bear acting awards.

It was no accident that Haigh cast Courtenay and Rampling, two icons of 1960s British cinema, as a couple in their 70s forced to confront the choices of their youth. “There’s a scene in the film where they talk about how they first met, and I can just see Tom at the time of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and Charlotte in some of her films,” says Haigh. “I rather like that their real past feeds into this film.”

Remarkably, given their shared backgrounds, Rampling and Courtenay had only met a couple of times, and had never worked together. “I turned down Georgy Girl,” Courtney told me. “Not because of Charlotte. I turned down a lot of films in those days.”

Courtenay needed no persuading to sign up for 45 Years: “I read the script and immediately knew I wanted to do this. Andrew sent me a DVD of Weekend too, but I didn’t have to watch that to see he was talented. But I will look at it, some evening.”

To net Rampling, Haigh went out to Paris where she lives, and spent three days with her. “I think she cares strongly about things, but she’s not interested in small talk. So we had a glass of wine and discussed the character. She was very clear that Kate should not be a weak character, so we talked a lot about that. She was wonderful and accommodating, and I find her a fascinating performer; there’s something so unknowable about her and her acting choices are always interesting. I love that she draws you in, and pushes you back.”

One conversation Haigh had early on with both actors was the staging of an intimate scene where Kate and Geoff dance to a favourite old song, then move upstairs to the bedroom in an attempt to rekindle their sex life. “Kate and Tom knew it was important to have that scene. You don’t often see sex between older people onscreen, but sex is such an integral part of relationships, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent.”

“It’s not about exploiting actors; the scene is tastefully done and it really is a key moment. The sex could have been great. It could have reminded them how much in love they were. Instead, it’s a turning point because after that things get worse.”

As it turned out, Sir Tom’s concern wasn’t the business of stripping down to his underpants and doing a Tarzan-style chestbeat in front of Rampling. “He was more worried about the dancing bit. Charlotte was very much at home with it, but in the end we sent Tom off for a few dancing lessons beforehand.”

In between shooting Weekend and 45 Years, Haigh has been in America, directing and executive-producing a TV show for America’s HBO called Looking about three gay men in San Francisco. Despite positive reviews, Looking was wound up this year after two series and a “special” finale. Haigh seems to be taking this on the chin. “TV is great, film is different. My film crews are about 30 people. TV is 200 people with bigger budgets. On TV you can’t do subtle things like sound design, so it can be a little constricting, and there are a lot of different voices that have to be listened to on TV. But I do enjoy TV.”

Haigh got his start through movies. His very first job was as an assistant to Ismail Merchant, of Merchant-Ivory films, before moving on to work as assistant editor on noisy battle pictures such as Gladiator and Black Hawk Down for Ridley Scott. “I would say that 45 Years is identical to Black Hawk Down,” deadpans Haigh, “except there are cups of tea and watches, instead of guns and explosions.”

In these edit suites, he realised he wanted to tell his own stories, rather than piece together someone else’s narrative. “It’s a good training ground because often the story is created in the edit room, but you’re not very creatively involved. My desire to tell stories in a simple way also came from working on films where there was so much editing and cutting. I’d sometimes think ‘ I don’t feel the need for cutting here. I think it would be losing something.’”

Both Weekend and 45 Years are candid, persuasive and subtle snapshots of relationships, where the biggest jolt of the first act is that Geoff has taken up smoking again. “And it is important to the story,” says Haigh, smiling. “There’s this idea that cinema has to be expansive, when in fact you can understand a lot just from a close-up of someone’s face. Recently I watched the film My Dinner With Andre, a film that has two people talking for 90 mins. I thought that was fantastic.”

• 45 Years is on general release from 28 August

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