Andrew Haigh on All of Us Strangers: 'it's about what we bring from the past'

Both a ghost story and a gay love story, Andrew Haigh’s new film All of Us Strangers is about how we deal with loss, grief and longing, he tells Alistair Harkness

“It was very unusual,” says Andrew Haigh. The acclaimed writer/director of 45 Years is referring to the moment he walked back into his childhood home in Croydon ahead of shooting his new film All of Us Strangers. The film, an adaptation of Taichi Yamada’s Tokyo-set 1987 novel Strangers, is about a lonely screenwriter who returns to the place where he grew up and discovers his parents still living there, no older than when he last saw them as a child on the night they died. A grounded ghost story about residual grief, Haigh adapted it during the pandemic, so there was already a weird meta flourish to the writing process, both in terms of how isolated he felt, and also how delving into his own childhood memories for inspiration felt like a form of time travel.

But those meta-flourishes became more pronounced when Haigh knocked on the door of the house where he lived until he was eight or nine and the owner not only let him look around, but let the production use it for the film. “Walking into that space, you could sort of feel the ghosts of your own past lurking in every corner. And, weirdly, not much had been done to the house for a long, long time. So it was a very strange experience going into my bedroom and into my parents’ old bedroom again. It's amazing how quickly you can you can get transported back to a feeling.”

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All of Us Strangers is all about feelings: feelings of love, of guilt, of shame, of grief. “I felt like it was a way to unlock so many themes and ideas that I'm sort of always interested in: about how we exist within our family, how we deal with the past, how we deal with loss and grief and longing.”

Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal in All of Us Strangers PIC Parisa Taghizadeh / Courtesy of Searchlight PicturesAndrew Scott and Paul Mescal in All of Us Strangers PIC Parisa Taghizadeh / Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal in All of Us Strangers PIC Parisa Taghizadeh / Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

In transposing the story to London, though, Haigh also decided to explore the last of these by making the love story at its centre a queer one. As the 40-something Adam (played by Fleabag-star Andrew Scott) embarks on a script about growing up in the 1980s, he begins a tentative relationship with 20-something Harry (Paul Mescal), the only other resident in the swish new apartment block he’s moved into. For Haigh, whose previous queer-themed films Greek Pete and Weekend were notable for eschewing the message-heavy tropes found in a lot of films with gay protagonists, All of Us Strangers’ ghostly conceit – and the remarkable ending it builds too – offered a unique chance to explore a coming out story from a more nuanced intergenerational perspective. “It was so interesting to look at what’s changed and what hasn’t,” he says. “But I think, more than anything, it's about what we bring from the past.”

When Adam comes out to his long-dead parents, for instance, it’s as a middle-aged man talking to a couple younger than him, a couple whose blinkered understanding of queerness is rooted in the times. Beautifully played by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell, there’s no judgment of the characters, but it was, says Haigh, a reminder of how you felt back then. “Everything the mother says in that scene, when he's coming out to her, is what everybody said,” he elaborates. “That is the haunting that lots of queer people have to take with them into adulthood – how they felt back then, in a really rough time. And the 80s was not a good time to come into your sexuality. If you were gay, it was really challenging.”

Haigh didn’t come out until the late 1990s, when he was already in his mid-20s, but like Adam in the film, he was a kid in the 1980s, just starting to wrestle with those feelings. He still marvels at the subversive mainstream queerness of the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, whose number one hit, The Power of Love, plays a key role in the film (“There was something so universal about it, but at the same time, something quite specific to me and the longing that I had growing up”), but he also remembers well the terror of AIDS, something amplified in the UK by those tombstone public health adverts. In one of All of Us Strangers’ most poignant scenes, Adam confesses to Harry that it took him a long time to have sex because he thought he’d die. “For everybody sex became fearful, but I think the gay kids who were growing into their sexuality, at that time, all you saw in the media was death and risk. And I remember being that age and feeling like, ‘Wait, wait, but if I'm going to be gay, what does that mean?’ Because I literally thought that I would die, that that was my future.”

Part of the reason the film works so well is the central pairing of Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal, the former getting a long-overdue leading role, the latter shoring up his movie star credentials off the back of his Oscar-nominated turn in Aftersun. Scott, who’s also gay and grew up in the 1980s, understood the part instinctively. “He’s a very present-tense performer,” says Haigh. As for Mescal, despite his relative youth, he’s got the same quality Colin Farrell (with whom Haigh worked on the TV series The North Shore) had when he broke through: a beyond-his-years soulfulness that means he doesn’t look like an overgrown boy in adult world. “That was really important for this,” agrees Haigh. “It was important you felt like Adam, who’s in his 40s, is more childlike because he's had a stunted youth. And Paul's character, Harry, who's from a slightly different generation, has been able to grow up faster.”

Andrew Haigh PIC: Michael Tran / AFP via Getty ImagesAndrew Haigh PIC: Michael Tran / AFP via Getty Images
Andrew Haigh PIC: Michael Tran / AFP via Getty Images

It’s also been a little surreal working with Mescal. One of Haigh’s first jobs in the industry was on Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, the sequel for which Mescal is currently shooting. “I was an assistant editor on it back in the day,” he beams. “I was out in Malta, where Paul is now. And now he's playing Lucius, who was a child on that film, which makes me feel so old.”

All of Us Strangers is on general release from 26 January.

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