Yorkshire native Andrew Haigh has worn many hats in the entertainment industry. He cut his teeth in the early 2000s working as an assistant editor on a number of big budget blockbusters including Gladiator, The Count of Monte Cristo, Black Hawk Down, Reign of Fire and Kingdom of Heaven. In 2009, shortly after his last editorial gig, he released his first directorial debut, Greek Pete which he followed up two years later with Weekend. Neither made a huge splash at the box office but with his next feature, 45 Years, Haigh erupted on the art house scene, directing Charlotte Rampling to an Oscar nomination. He’s since lent his talents to the small screen, directing a number of episodes of the HBO sleeper gay drama Looking as well as a feature version of that same show.
In 2018, Haigh delivers his latest feature, the indomitable Lean on Pete, after an international tour around the world’s most prestigious film festivals, including its debut at Venice Film Festival, to its showings at TIFF and the most recent SXSW. The film was picked up by A24, who will handle its release domestically. I was able to speak with Andrew about making the film, casting Charlie Plummer and the disaffected Americans, still humming the tune of the American Dream, who make up the soul of his film. We touched on balance, connecting with animals, dream projects and traveling around the American Midwest to soak up the flavors of Lean on Pete.
There’s this dark fairytale aura to Lean on Pete, it feels like a spiritual journey through the heartland of America that though populated by a lot of dark turns and tragic twists, is ultimately hopeful and speaks to human kindness and perseverance of spirit. Can you talk about going to these really hard places but not going too dark?
Andrew Haigh: I think it was a real balance and that’s what I love about the novel. It’s really difficult what these people and Charley are going through and it’s a very difficult time. It’s balancing the bleakness and reality of that and the actual situation in that kind of environment and giving that some kind of hope. But the hope makes sense for me because Charley has hope and that’s what’s so important to me. Throughout the story, he has this desperate, innate need to find some kind of stability or security. For me, it was about him wanting to be cared about and cared for and have someone to look after him. It’s quite an old fashion design but when you have so little, as Charley as a character does, it’s what he craves more than anything else. I think it’s almost like, for me, I always say it as not a particularly optimistic story about the state of the world and not a very hopeful story but at the same time it’s still driven by some kind of hope, which is always interesting. And then finding that balance of not making it too sentimental but you’re doing a story about a kid and a horse which can easily fall into sentimentality. So it was about finding that balance so we didn’t do that.
I think you trotted that line very well. As an English born filmmaker who has previously set all of his films in the UK, what about this very distinctly American book did you connect with?
AH: I think it was all those things I said – the character and what’s driving Charley. And that’s always what it immediately is but there were certainly things that attracted me about it being set in an American context. I’ve spent a lot of time in America and lived here on and off over the years. I have a green card. I spent three years over here recently. I don’t know it well but I find it such a fascinating place and sometimes for us back in Europe, in the 80s and 90s, you grew up with America writ large in the culture. There’s this idea that we’re drawn to and trying to understand America a bit better and a bit more and I think that book offered me the chance to explore that a little more – the American dream and what that is about. Because this is about the American dream and how in principle it’s a fantastic notion but in reality, it fails a lot of people that it should be helping. But at the same time, they’re driven by the hope within that context. I find that really interesting. Coming from Europe, we don’t have that kind of thing.
You reportedly traveled around the US after getting the rights to Willy Vlautin’s novel, going through the flyover states, stopping at racetracks, county fairs, camping and hitting old fashion diners. What did that reveal to you about this swatch of people that are often glossed over in terms of Hollywood movies that impacted the way you wanted to make this film?
AH: It’s such an interesting journey. We traveled throughout Oregon and Idaho and Wyoming and Colorado and Utah, all the way up to Montana. So I spent a good four months on the road. It’s so fascinating to me that you can be in a city and that’s a certain type of thing economically, socially, culturally and it changes into something very different if you go out into these small communities – there’s a lot of people struggling and life is very, very difficult. Globalization if you want to call it that, has left a lot of people behind and lives can be very difficult. I’ve met so many incredibly kind people along that route – in diners in the middle of nowhere and small towns in Wyoming – and sometimes you can forget that there are people just trying to get by in these types of places, going about their lives and struggling along. And so, for me, I wanted the film to feel quite tender. I wasn’t judging anybody. People can make mistakes and do their own thing but life is not always easy and I wanted that to come across in the film.
I think anyone who has had an animal of any kind – a pet rat to a thoroughbred horse – will be able to relate to this film and the bond shared between Charley and his horse Pete. Can you tell me about a bond with an animal in your life that helped inform the emotionality you strove to deliver?
AH: I had a cat when I was young. From when I was 7 until 12 or something and I remember him being really important in my life. I was quite a miserable kid and you can put a lot of emotion into a relationship with an animal. It’s there for you and loves you unconditionally. But I think sometimes that can be really important for people. You feel like you can talk to an animal and it’s not going to judge you or answer you back. You feel like it understands you – of course it can’t, it’s an animal. I wanted to get that in the film and what I suppose is heartbreaking about the film, like when Charley is talking to the horse, it’s the only thing that he can open up to. Finally he’s opening up to this animal that can’t understand him but there’s still a connection and a companionship between them.
Where there any logistical issues or on set problems you encountered working with the live horses?
AH: We had amazing trainers so the horses were very well cared for and very well trained but they’re still animals and you have to take a lot of care. It slows everything down. We didn’t have a lot of money so those racing scenes took quite a while to do and one of the last scenes with Pete was very difficult to achieve. You’re working with a real animal and in many ways that’s what is so exciting. Charlie is working with the horse and the horse is reacting to Charlie’s emotional state and that’s quite exciting because you can’t prepare for that. You can prepare for what you want the horse to do in terms of he’s supposed to be agitated or move his leg or that kind of thing but so many surprises come up. Charlie was so good at reacting to Pete. He loves that horse so much and was devastated when it was the last day shooting with him.
When you do go into a scene where it is up in the air and you cannot beyond a certain measure, like having a trainer there, predict what’s going to happen and you get that spontaneity, what happens? Was there a certain moment that you can point to that you thought really popped because of that unpredictability?
AH: I think some of the scenes where Charley is alone with the horse and walking with the horse and Pete would make a reaction. It always seemed to come right at the moment where you’d want the reaction to come. It was always so interesting to me. Like the scene where he’s walking up the hill and telling the story about his mom leaving him and he talks about Dell and Pete makes a snort when he mentions the name Dell. I thought that was so interesting. This is a horse that hasn’t been treated very well by this trainer named Dell and then when Charley mentions his name, he makes a sound. It could have just been a coincidence but it felt like the horse was actually understanding what Charley was saying, which was really interesting.
They’re very intuitive animals. Charlie Plummer is simply a knock out as Charley. He’s such a complex character; he’s eager to please but kind of ashamed of himself, and so matter-of-fact about the impossible circumstance of his life but never wants to be look down upon. What made you cast Charlie?
AH: He just felt so perfect. He went on tape for us and me and the casting director were like, “Well that’s it. He’s Charley.” And it’s really hard to know why but there was something in his performance that matched all those things you described – the complexity, the desire to please, but a desire to withhold. I think ashamed is a good way to put it. And he managed to bring that all into the performance so you feel like you understand Charley but you don’t understand everything about him – you feel like he’s always holding something back. And that just felt really truthful to me and a really hard thing to pull off – what you give an audience and what you don’t give an audience and when you draw them in and when you don’t draw them in – and Charlie is just really talented about that. It’s almost instinctual – he approaches scenes in really interesting ways and finds interesting ways that feel truthful for him.
I feel like this is just a coming out party for him because he is just so strong. I haven’t read the book myself but was there anything in there that you really wanted to include in the film but it just didn’t translate well or otherwise did not make it in?
AH: There was definitely some scenes. There was one section of the film with another character that Charley meets on the road. And while I love the sequence and it was beautifully performed by Charlie and the other actor, and I loved it, but the hardest thing is when you’re editing, there’s only so long that a film can be and it didn’t add enough so we had to take it out. Then there were some other amazing sequences in the novel that I loved but we just didn’t have the time to put in. In the novel, Charley really does suffer. It’s one thing after another. He’s on the road a lot longer in the novel and he’s just beaten down time and time again. In the novel, it works quite well but I think in film, there’s a level to how much abusive you feel you can take or how much wrong can go wrong in his life. So it was figuring out the things that needed to be told to make that story work.
That’s a good segue – there’s so much tragedy going on that, if you’ll excuse the pun, it’s almost to the point of beating a dead horse. Things go so poorly for him. Can you discuss the challenges of working on such an emotional film?
AH: I do try to make my film sets not to feel too heavy. I want them to feel lighter and gentler and I work in a way that I think is quite calm. I don’t want my actors to come in and feel these atrocious emotions every day so I try to be aware of that. The job of a director is to know when your actors have had enough and can’t do anymore or is struggling and you have to let them be and not continue to push them. Especially when you’re working with someone who is younger, you just have to be aware of that. But Charlie was just so dedicated, that’s what was so amazing about him. Always on set on time. Always knew his lines. Always doing something different for it. At times, I’d be exhausted and call for break and he’d say, “No, let’s keep going. I’m fine.” So he was incredible really.
If you could direct any dream project – be it a huge blockbuster or adaptation of a favorite novel – what would it be and why?
AH: I have a number of projects in development. One is a based on a book that came out a few years ago called ‘The North Water’ which is set on a 1850s whaling mission to the arctic where they get shipwrecked. Hopefully that’s getting made early next year. It’s a five hour limited series. At the moment, I suppose that is my dream project. Whenever I take on a project, I have to believe that that is my dream project at the moment. I don’t want to ever do anything just for the sake of it, regardless of what the budget level is, be it $100,000 or 20 million. It’s about does the project speak to me. I have a few things that are ticking away that hopefully will be project. But I can’t really see a Marvel film in my future quite yet.
What are you hoping for with the film?
AH: I just want people to see the film really, it’s as simple as that. I love seeing people’s reactions to it. I love the things that people take away from it. That’s all I can ever want from a film. Something that people will take something from and will resonate with them and they’ll remember it. That’s always the most important thing. When you’re doing promotions and stuff, it’s all about that. We spend a long time working on the movie and I hope that people go out and see it.
Lean on Pete hits theaters April 6.