Where his second feature Weekend was deep in the midst of two men at once falling for one another and trying to come to terms with who they were and who they wanted to be, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years takes an approach where the couple we watch (Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling) have already mostly finished becoming who they are, both as individuals as well as with respect to one another. But it’s one thing from the past that makes them confront the meaning and authenticity of their relationship and their identities.
Keen on using subtlety the quotidian as emotional explosive, Haigh delicately films his lead paying acute attention to every movement, word, and look, how they relate to how these characters see themselves and each other, and how that impacts their relationship with the past, the present, and the future.
45 Years is a stunning piece of work, as exceptional as Weekend and his late HBO show Looking, one that haunts with every frame. But the “ghost story,” as Haigh calls it, has specter that’s a far more real, consequential thing. We spoke with Haigh about the past as a ghost, (trying) to live authentically, and what love means to the director. Check out our conversation below.
The Film Stage: Locations seem to be relatively crucial to your work, both in the grand scheme of things — Nottingham in Weekend, San Francisco in Looking, and Norfolk in 45 Years — as well as the smaller, intimate spaces, such as the carnival and the house in 45 Years.
Andrew Haigh: Yeah. It is so important to me, and I’m not entire sure why. I’m just kind of really drawn to the importance of location. I think when you’re trying to work out how you want your life to be as a person, where you decide to live is so important and it really does come to define you. Say the character in Weekend decides to stay in Nottingham. He wants to live in Nottingham; he doesn’t want to live anywhere else. So that kind of environment becomes incredibly important. And it’s the same in 45 Years: these two people have lived in this house for a long, long time, for many years, in this surrounding, in this landscape, and it kinds of starts to reflect them. I think a person’s location is a really good way to try to understand them. Does that makes sense?
Yes, absolutely. It becomes a part of their identity almost.
Yeah, exactly. We all want to live somewhere where we fit in, and I think all of my work is about trying to find your place in the world, and trying to find where you fit in, and trying to understand who you are and what you want, and I think location is crucial to that.
Yeah, the navigation of identity at personal turning points, like age, also seems to be a crucial part of your work. Why do you choose age, specifically as this marker and for this constructed identity? And do you think there’s ever an age where we stop doing that?
I think age is really important because, most of the time, we’re very busy in our lives. We just kind of… we amble forward and kind of coast along in our lives, and sometimes age or – it can be anything: it can be age, it can be events, someone’s birthday, whatever it is – just meeting someone new. It’s like those things just pop up in the timeline and remind you of where you are in your life, and I think when you’re reminded of that thing, it kind of makes you analyze what you got, where you’ve been, what you’ve achieved, what you want to achieve, and all these kinds of things.
So I feel like there are moments where your identity comes into focus and, like in 45 Years, not only does this letter arrive and they’re thrown into chaos because of that, but also it might have happened anyway, because they’re having an anniversary party. So I think anything that makes you focus on your life is really important. And I think you always… I imagine I’ll always be doing it, always trying to understand how I fit into the world, and I don’t think that age stops that. It’s always an ongoing process, because we’re always changing and adapting and meeting new people, and our lives are changing, so it’s always ongoing.
I actually think that technology is a really interesting aspect of your work with regards to time and how we interact with one another and create our identities. In Weekend, it’s primarily through texting and through computers and a tape recorder. In Looking, it’s dating apps, and, in 45 Years, it’s a letter that sets the film in motion. I was wondering if you could talk about the role technology plays in your films.
That’s interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever really thought of that on any kind of conscious level. But I think it’s true, it’s a way… all of technology is a way that kind of enables us to identify ourselves and understand ourselves. Like writing a letter, or reading a letter, or texting, or doing something on the internet – they’re all things that allow us to put down, in words, how we’re feeling. The characters in my films are trying to understand themselves, they’re trying to express themselves and it’s a very hard thing to do, and I think technology allows us to do that and, in a strange sense, hinders authenticity at the same time. It’s like a terrible curse. I find the internet now and social media, it allows us to try to show the world who we are, but at the same time in many ways, it makes us less authentic.
I remember reading that you said when you meet a person it’s like creating a blank slate, and I think that’s a line in Weekend. 45 Years seems to be about how that entire slate can be recontextulized after this one thing.
Yeah, I think it’s true. As I said before, we’re constantly changing, and we’re constantly disappointed with ourselves in who we are and what we wanted to be. So when we sit there and think, “Oh, my God, I have this really big desire to be something. I have this quest to find my authentic self.” But it’s so incredibly hard to find that. It’s almost impossible to find that, because we don’t really know what that is, anyways. We have so much baggage we’re bringing along with us. So much has happened in our lives — all that factors into our lives and dictates the person we are, so it’s very, very hard to live authentically. So I think whenever we have the chance, we want to redefine ourselves. Like, “No, I want to be this person.” Like, I feel like Glen and Russel in Weekend are saying, “Okay, I’m going to show you the person I want to be right now, not necessarily the person I am.” And I think the key to happiness is when you can merge those two: the person you want to be and the person that you actually are together. Then that’s the perfect kind of symmetry, but I think it’s hard to get.
What have you learned about trying to live authentically and trying to merge those two things after each of the works that you’ve created?
Oof, God! [Laughs] I don’t think I’ve learned anything! I think the reality I’ve learned is that it’s just messy and really difficult, and I think that’s the thing that I try to put in my work: that it isn’t clear-cut and it is complicated and it is messy and it can make you sad and it can make you happy and it can make you frustrated, and the thing that you should do is keep trying but not expect that you’re going to get there. I think the “keeping working at it” is the thing itself that is important. I don’t know if I’m any more authentic now having made those films than I was before. It’s a very hard, difficult thing to achieve.
I totally understand. But how do you think you’ve learned in terms of writing these characters and imbuing them with these complexities and nuances over the course of your career?
I’ve definitely learned. I think it’s always about just trying to make it as complex as I can and work on as many levels as I can. I think people are driven by such a core in their bodies, some sort of center of pain and memory that lives there that really drives them every day, and it’s very hard to articulate that. We can’t articulate it ourselves, and I don’t think you should try to articulate it too much in films. So, when I write, I try to keep it messy. I try and keep it unclear, keep some sort of mystery to it, because that feels more truthful to me about how we try to exist.
I actually think the thing that you really nailed in 45 Years is this sadomasochistic relationship we have with time — with the past, the present, and future.
Yeah, I think that’s true. We really, really want to whip ourselves. I always think it’s an interesting thing when Charlotte desperately wants to know these things — she wants to understand it, she wants to understand what their relationship has been, but she knows really that she doesn’t want to hear the answers. She doesn’t really want to have to deal with it because it’s too painful to have to deal with it. It’s too painful to deal with the fact that our lives have meant one thing, and then it turns out that it could have meant something else or we could have done different things and made different choices. It’s a very painful thing to understand.
But at the same time, we want to pick that scab. It’s like, “Ooh, I’m bleeding.”
Yeah, that scene in the attic where she’s going through the projector, and she’s looking through those photos. That scene is so potent. Where did it come from, in terms of conception?
Initially, it was always going to be that she was going to find photographs of them. It wasn’t going to be like a slide projector. And then I started thinking about it more, and slide projectors – I still take photos on slides, so I have a slide projector – and there’s something so haunting and terrifying about slides. Something to do with the sound, and they come up so large in front of you. I really wanted it to feel like there’s a ghost up there, you know what I mean? It’s like actually the ghost of Katya but also the ghost of herself, Kate, of like a younger version of herself. And it was very important to me that that scene was constructed in a way that we saw both people in the frame at the same time, that it wasn’t cut between the two, and so we kind of designed it in a way that we hung this sheet. And I love the way that it’s like she’s looking at a projection, but we’re actually seeing the reverse projection of the image because it’s coming through the sheet, and then we’re seeing her in the background. It was all kind of trying to make it feel like we’re watching a ghost story unfold.
Yeah, I thought the cinematography was very interesting, in that it felt very specter-like, like there was a ghost creeping through corners. And I thought it was an interesting juxtaposition against Weekend, which tended to be a little bit more intimate, I suppose, in certain respects.
Yes, I love the idea that in many ways this film started out very naturalistically and then it got, like… as we start grinding into Kate’s psyche, it’s started to almost be like a ghost story, and we move away from that naturalist, realist way in a very subtle way, but I kind of love that. Because the past is this kind of ghost that’s hiding in the corners and I love this idea of the past up in the attic, creaking above, always being there, pushing down on the rafters of the attic, almost threatening to break through and land on top of them. I wanted to play with that a little in the visuals as well, edge it towards some kind of ghost story.
Did you have any films in mind when you were creating the aesthetic?
Not really. It’s strange: I feel like you have films that you kind of tell people that you were influenced by in order to help them understand what you’re trying to do, but I can never remember what those films are now. But there’s always, like, films that live, like a well of films that subconsciously affect all of these things. I think you can’t make a relationship drama like this without having a bit of Bergman in the back of your head. There’s a Turkish film called Uzak, I think the translation is Distant, by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and I love that film and I think that’s a very good example of being incredibly realist but then moving into some kind of strange no-realist sort of world. He has a dream sequence in the film which basically highly inspired the scene in 45 Years where she’s walking down the hallway and feels the wind coming through the kind of thing. It’s not really a dream, but she’s like half-awake / half-asleep at that moment.
And spatial relationships are, I think, key to your work. How does that inform the thematic content and your approach to cinematography?
It’s everything to me, because I don’t like to cut too much. I really try to keep the takes long, and the people in the frame are so important. I basically try to cut within the same shot, like people moving, or people getting close to the camera. You want to direct the audience not through cuts, but through focus shifts, through camera placement, through hiding a certain character, like having someone in the foreground and someone in the distance. Like trying to find ways to tease out the emotional context of the scene without having to force it through edits.
Yeah, and I think looks and glances and those gestures often play into that in terms of directing the audience towards the emotions in the scene.
Yeah, those kinds of really small – like when you don’t have a huge amount of props, which, let’s face it [Laughs] my films and Looking do not have, it’s like those small moments become really, really big. Those small gestures become really, hugely important. So, like, someone starting to smoke again is of massive importance, even though it’s something very, very small. Or someone, like, putting their hand down in a final moment, or picking up a letter in certain way, or how someone looks at someone when they’re not looking at them: all of those little things you want to really poke out at the audience.
Like when you’re doing something quite subtle, those things become absolutely fundamental, and I think when you build up on those small moments, those small gestures, it’s almost like the overall effect becomes incredibly important. I’m a big fan of American realist photographers, so if you look at their photos individually, they don’t really mean a huge amount. But if you look at twenty photos by William Eggleston, the effect of them all together has a really profound effect on understanding something. And I think it’s those small mundane details, when put together, that end up defining someone’s life.
What’s your approach as a director – with this film in particular, directing Tom Courtney and Charlotte Rampling – to getting those subtleties and those nuances in the frame?
It’s all like discussing those things, and keep talking about them and keep trying to… as we shot, you build up through the takes of certain scenes. So it’s like, I have things in my mind that I want to try, and you try to adapt and change it. It’s like giving small action and making sure… like the scene at the beginning, when the letter arrives, and it’s things like her drinking the water, him opening the letter, what she does while he’s reading the letter. It’s like finding all these little tiny actions to kind of help the audience psychology.
And, of course, I imagine you took advantage of Rampling’s “look.” What was that like?
[Chuckles] Yeah, you can’t not take advantage of that; you’d be a crazy person not to. There’s just something going on in that face that is so fascinating to watch. And I think, for me it’s misinterpreted, and maybe it’s the roles that she takes, but it’s often seen as like – some people see it as iciness, I actually see it as intense vulnerability, which I find really interesting about her as a performer. It’s like there’s this incredible strength, but also a real vulnerability behind that strength, and I think that’s fascinating to watch. And you see it, like how she can change her eyes, or change the position of her body, and it seems to speak volumes about her interior life.
How has the meaning of love changed for you after each piece of work that you’ve done?
[Laughs] Oh, that’s a great question. That’s a really good one. Oof. I think it’s the heart of everything that I’m trying to do, that is at the heart of it. What does love mean? How do we understand what it means? And I don’t think I necessarily know if I’m any clearer on what it means, but I think the thing is that it can mean something different to each individual. I think that’s the key. You have to try to understand what it means to you.
And I think, for me, love is about our desire to not feel alone in the universe. [Laughs] I think that’s the heart of it. There’s that and not even being morally alone; you need someone that understands you and you understand them, and you have a view of the world that feels connected, and you feel like you can exist like you’re in the world together. I feel like that’s what love means. And in many respects, that can be different things for different people. For me, it’s feeling some kind of comfort that’s security, but it constantly changes, I think — but, as I say, it means different things to different people.
45 Years opens on Wednesday, December 23.