In his new drama “45 Years,” British director and screenwriter Andrew Haigh (“Weekend”) tells the story of Kate and Geoff (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay), an older couple who is about to mark their 45th wedding anniversary with a grand celebration. When Geoff receives a letter revealing a heartbreaking event he experienced before he met Kate 50 years prior, both he and his wife must come to terms with the news and figure out a way to put it behind them.
“45 Years” is adapted from a short story called “In Another Country” by David Constantine. Rampling was recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Kate.
During an interview with me last month, Haigh, 42, talked about how he confronted the love story between Kate and Geoff and whether being a filmmaker who is gay presented any interesting challenges. We also talked about the casting of Rampling and Courtenay and what similar attributes he saw in both of them.
When did you first read David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country,” and what about it resonated with you to adapt it into a feature film?
I read it when I was editing my last film [2011’s] “Weekend,” so it was quite a long time ago. A publisher sent me a collection of his short stories. [“In Another Country”] is probably like 11 or 12 pages. There was this central idea that was fascinating to me. It stayed in my brain and played around in there. It felt like a really good way to tell a story about a relationship and how we understand ourselves within relationships and how they can be more fragile than we think they are and how we can never really, truly know someone. It was a really great thing, especially coming off making “Weekend,” to tell another story about relationship, but tell it from the opposite end of the spectrum.
Your first two films – “Weekend” and “Greek Pete” – could be categorized as gay cinema. You’re a gay man yourself. Did making a film about a heterosexual couple present any interesting challenges?
Not really. To me, I never really thought of myself as making only gay cinema. In the end, there are more similarities between gay people and straight people than there are differences – when you start to look under the surface of things. I never felt like I had to change my mental understanding of relationships. Fundamentally, our concerns as human beings are pretty much the same.
Do you try and avoid getting categorized as a gay filmmaker?
I suppose there’s not much you can do about it. (Laughs) People decide to call you what they’re going to call you. I see that all the time. The world wants to put people in boxes. I don’t mind if people call me a gay filmmaker. I am gay and I am a filmmaker. But it’s almost like you have to ignore that kind of thing. There’s no point in me fighting against it. My films come from me, but they’re not always about gay subject matter. You learn to live with how people want to define you. You just do your best to try and stay truthful to yourself.
You’re in a relationship yourself. I’m not sure if you’ve been with your partner for a long time, but did that help develop the characters in any way in “45 Years?”
Yeah, I think when you’re in a long-term relationship you can’t help but use elements of that when you’re telling a story. I think it certainly helps. I think it’s fundamental. All of us are looking to be with someone – or most of us are anyway. As human beings we strive not to be alone in the world. Relationships become an important part of us.
What kind of relationships are you exposed to the most in your life? Do you hang out with married couples? Single people? Is there anything that links them together?
Yeah, I think I see a variety of different relationships. I see people who are married and not married and younger and older or divorced and still together and not together. I see a nice complexity of relationships. I think the thing that links them all together is that they are filled with people who are trying to make the best of their lives and trying to be happy. They’re trying to find what works best for them and trying to find someone they can be with and understand and who can understand them. There is a vast array of relationships in the world, but I think, fundamentally, they all come from the same place.
Did you do any kind of research on long-term relationships by talking to older couples who have been together as long as Kate and Geoff in “45 Years?”
Not really. I didn’t feel the need to go talk to people that have been together. Whether you’ve been together for five years or 10 years or 20 years or 30 years, I don’t know how fundamentally different that is. So, I was really just trying to understand these characters I was writing and trying to feel what they would feel rather than having to talk to people about relationships.
Talk about the casting process in “45 Years.” How did you come to bring Charlotte Rampling on board?
I didn’t write the script with anyone in mind. I don’t like to do that too much. You can always end up being disappointed when they say no. We had a casting director and we kept talking about people. Very quickly, Charlotte became someone we wanted to approach. I think she certainly has a very interesting kind of persona and an interesting way of being. She’s a great actress. So we sent [the script] to her. I thought she had that perfect combination of strength and vulnerability as a performer. I thought it was perfectly suited for Kate. I spoke to Charlotte and we had a long conversation on the phone. She agreed to do it very quickly.
And Tom Courtenay?
Well, we wanted to cast Kate first because it’s told from her point of view, but we found the perfect male lead to work alongside Charlotte with Tom. We sent [the script] to him and, like Charlotte, he had that very interesting combination of strength and vulnerability that makes sense in their relationship.
Did you hope Charlotte and Tom did anything on their own to get ready to play this couple in a long-term relationship? Or we you confident enough in their abilities for them to just show up on Day One and be believable as a couple who has been together for 4½ decades?
We didn’t really do much rehearsal. In fact, we didn’t do any rehearsal. I spent some time talking to them both. We talked about what the film was and what we wanted it to be. I don’t necessarily think actors have to live together. You hear these stories about actors in like “Blue Valentine” (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) who lived together and all these sorts of things. I know that Charlotte and Tom were not going to want to live together before they made the film. (Laughs) But they’re great actors and they knew for the film to work, they would have to show the audience that this is a couple who has been together for a long time. We knew that’s how we needed to start the film off. We knew what we had to do to make it work.
Are you the type of filmmaker that likes to explain some of the things that happen in your film or would you rather the audience come to their own conclusion? I don’t want to give too much away, but everyone, of course, is talking about the final seconds of the final scene and what Kate’s gesture really means for the future of her and Geoff’s relationship. Do you care to give us some insight to what that meant?
Yeah, I love the idea of people figuring it out for themselves or just having their own opinions. I think it’s so important. I love the idea that you make a film and it exists. I want people to see it at the cinema and have it take over their brain. I love films that come into someone’s life and then leave that life and you’re left to come up with your own conclusions. Life doesn’t end with a neat, tidy bow. It’s always a bit more messy and complicated than that. I love to try to engage the audience in the film and make them become part of it. That, for me, is the perfect way to tell a story.
This is your third feature film. Looking toward the future, what kinds of stories are you looking to tell?
I’m pretty convinced that, thematically, there will be things that link all my stories even if I’m the only one that knows what that thematic link is. (Laughs) I certainly want to tell different stories. The next project I got is an American-based project set in Oregon. It’s not a relationship story. It’s coming together at the moment, but I’m hoping to shoot that in the summer. It’s slightly bigger in scale and scope, but at the heart of it I think it’s trying to say a similar kind of thing as my other films.