Andrew Haigh talks Charlotte Rampling’s ’45 Years’ success and wrapping up ‘Looking’

A massive Q&A with the highly lauded filmmaker
Tom Courtney, Charlotte Rampling and Andrew Haigh at premiere of "45 Years" at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival

There has been a lot of talk this season over the Best Actress prospects for “Room’s” Brie Larson and “Brooklyn’s” Saoirse Ronan. And, for awhile, some believed Jennifer Lawrence could win her second trophy for “Joy” (although that didn’t last long once we saw the finished film). Lost among the chatter over these talented, young ingénues and who is really the lead of “Carol” is that Charlotte Rampling’s long awaited invitation to the Oscar party finally appears to be happening.

The legendary actress has been in the mix for her first Academy Award nomination since winning the Best Actress honor for “45 Years” at the Berlin Film Festival last February.  10 months later she found herself with Best Actress honors from both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and Boston Society of Film Critics.  Her campaign hasn’t all been smooth sailing, however. She missed out on both SAG and Golden Globe nods, but many still expect hear name to be announced with the Oscar nominations are revealed on Jan. 14. If it happens Rampling has one man to thank, Andrew Haigh.

The 42-year-old filmmaker broke onto the global cinematic scene with his 2011 drama “Weekend” about a 48-hour romance between two gay men in a small British city. He followed that up by co-creating and directing a majority of HBO’s “Looking,” a half-hour drama about three gay friends living in San Francisco. That series, which created a lot of discussion in the gay community, ends its bumpy run with a wrap up movie directed by Haigh this spring. It’s Haigh’s deft handling of “45 Years,” however, which proved just how talented he is as both a director and screenwriter.

Based on David Constaine’s novel “In Another Country,” the movie centers on Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), a childless, married British couple that are about to celebrate their 45th anniversary. They appear to be the textbook of how to keep a marriage going until Geoff is notified that body of his long, lost girlfriend Katya has been found 50 years after she fell into a crevasse in the Swiss Alps. This one event ends up dramatically changing Kate’s perspective on their relationship.

“45 Years” has earned the praise of many of the world’s critics since its Berlin debut and currently has an impressive 95 rating on Metacritic and a 98% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. That universal praise, along with her own critical kudos, may just be enough to fit Rampling into Oscar’s golden five.

Earlier this month, Haigh sat down to chat about Rampling, “45 Years” and finishing “Looking.” It’s worth the read.

Awards Campaign: Let’s talk about ‘45 Years,’ which I loved.  How are your feelings about Charlotte [Rampling] winning the  awards she has won the past couple of days?

Andrew Haigh: Amazing, I am so pleased for her and pleased for what it does for the film and all of those things. You make a film and you really don’t have any idea how it’s going to be taken by the world. You just don’t.  I’m not very good at knowing even what the film has made once I’ve finished it. You spend so long working on it and so long trying to make certain decisions. So I’m just really pleased for her and I think it’s an amazing performance. I think she’s an incredible actress and an incredible person. It would be amazing if it goes further for her. If it doesn’t, it’s still amazing. People are getting to see the film and talking about the film and everything.

It’s good news.

It’s good news. It’s never going to be bad news. The fact that we are winning anything is going to be good news.

I assume many filmmakers would be apprehensive to approach her because she seems to be very specific in the sort of work that she does. Where you weary at first or did you have a connection that helped pique her interest?

I had no connection with her, but I kind of became obsessed by the idea of her doing it. I watched a bunch of old films of hers and there’s documentary that she had made about herself that I watched and I figured she would be perfect for the role and then I weirdly was not that nervous. I feel like the good thing about her is that you know she does make interesting choices.  You know she always will look at something and think ‘Is this interesting to me? Can I do something with this? Should I do it?’  It’s not about is this film going to make a bunch of money [or] is this going to be even good for her career. I feel like she doesn’t even care about that. She just wants to pick roles that she feels is going to interest her.

How did it all come about then?

I sent it to her and then she rang me up pretty quickly. I sent the script, a letter, and a copy of ‘Weekend,’ which she hadn’t seen. I sent her all of that stuff and then she rang up a week later and started chatting to me on the phone. I was in LA editing ‘Looking’ and she started talking to me about stuff and we had a nice chat and then she was like ‘Yeah, I would love to do it.’

You were nervously waiting.

I was nervous. It was great because talking to her after that  [I discovered] she would only ever do anything if she feels like she has a connection with the director and if they are on the same page about what this is about, what the themes are and what they want to achieve.  Otherwise she doesn’t want to do it. It’s the most important thing to her I think.  Having a conversation with the director and connecting with him on that level. We got on very well and I wasn’t intimidated at all, because the persona of her is one thing, the real person is a completely other thing.

Did she or Tom [Courtenay] come on board first?

Charlotte came first. It was always about casting the female lead first. We didn’t even want to think too much about who the male lead would be [until then].  I loved Tom for a long, long time. ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ is one of my favorite films. I love it. I think he’s amazing. Very quickly I was like “this makes perfect sense”, because they never worked together before which I liked…

Which is slightly surprising.

Which is surprising. They didn’t even know each other, which was strange.

All of those British actors and actresses of that generation know each other right?  They all have opinions of each other. Have a drink and they’ll talk about it. (Laughs.)

You feel like they should all be drunk on drugs on down on Canaby Street in the ’60s. I just figured they would make a really good pair, because I think, unlike a lot of actors of that generation, he has a real sensitivity.  Which really makes sense for me. Lots of those actors don’t. There is a weakness in his character that I really liked and I thought Tom could bring that and it made sense.

I know you’ve been asked this probably twenty million times, but after doing ‘Weekend’ and ‘Looking’ why was this the project you were most passionate about doing next?  

It just made really sense to me. It’s so weird when you make a bunch of films that are about gay people everyone assumes you are only interested in doing something about gay people. I think that if anybody watches the work I’ve done, it’s pretty clear that it’s not just about being a gay person. That was not the intention of any of it. Much to people’s anger sometimes about it they want it be more something that it isn’t.  At the heart of it I just want to get into some kind of understanding of people and understanding their identities and understanding what they want from love and what they want from relationships.  All of that messy complicated ground.

Doing it about two straight people just made complete sense to me.  There are a lot of themes in ‘Weekend’ about how we understand our identity through relationships.  That is also what ‘45 Years’ is about. It’s just that ‘Weekend’ is looking forward at a possible relationship and how our identity [makes sense] by that.  ‘45 Years’ is looking back at a long relationship and how our identity [is forged by it].

One of the things that I love about your work and I see it a lot of it in ‘Looking’ is that you have these key, very iconic visual moments that happen in an episode or, in the case of ’45 Years,’ at the end of the film. It’s that one shot that holds on Charlotte’s character.  I’m curious, is that something that was in the script?  How much thought had you put into it exactly?

Yeah, it’s always the ending is always the most important thing to me. I think from everything I’ve done whether it’s an episode of ‘Looking’ or ‘Weekend.’  Again some people don’t like that, and that’s fine for me, but I have a stop point and have an end point. It’s not like a bunch of scenes undulating through, it’s like I want to get through the beginning and slowly build to an end.  For me it’s about gently getting deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper until you have a final moment and then it ends and you’re left feeling emotional without realizing how you built up to that moment of emotion. I like that.  In many respects, I prefer people to when they leave the cinema it be kicking around in their brain rather than in the moment going “oh my God I love this film.” I’d prefer it to work on them later. I love when I watch a film and even as I’m watching I’m thinking ‘Where is this going? I am not really sure what is happening”, but if later on I’m thinking ‘Wow, that had an emotional effect,’ that is the most important thing to me.

When I think about this movie I think about the last scene. I think of that last shot. When I think of ‘Looking’ I think of the first episode of season two where they are dancing to the music in the forest that sort of comes out of nowhere. Are you okay with people having that sort of visceral reaction as opposed to being like ‘Oh, I loved the characters.’  Do you know what I mean? As a filmmaker does frustrate you or is that something you are okay with?

I mean it depends. I feel like its always interesting, different peoples opinions of my work. It’s like some people totally understand the characters and feel completely in tune with them. Other people are like “I don’t get it”. It’s the same with all of my work. It’s like some people love Glen in ‘Weekend.’  Other people hate him more than anything else in the world.  Some people are incredibly frustrated by him, some people completely understand him. It’s the same with ‘Looking.’  I’ve experienced it all over with ‘Looking.’  Some people were hating, and then loving, and then hating, and then loving, and loving and hating again. The same with ’45 Years.’ Some people are like ‘Why does she get so upset?’ Or  ‘She should get over it.’  Other people are like ‘Oh my God I totally understand it.’

Wait, people really feel like she…

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Some people do. Some people are like ‘Well, she should just get over it.’

I don’t want to meet those people.

I want to engage an audience and allow them to put themselves in the thing. If you do that and you don’t spoon-feed people you can have different reactions to it.  That’s all right with me. I don’t mind that.

How long ago did you pitch making the movie to financiers Film4 and BFI?

I think it was pretty soon after ‘Weekend’ came out. It was very hard to get funding for Weekend and then when ‘Weekend’ did all right I then could then go to all of the people who didn’t give me funding before and say ‘The film did okay. Can you go into development with me?’  Very quickly Film4 and BFI went into development. There were two projects that I was working on. Another one, that I’m probably not going to make, and this one, and ‘45 Years’ definitely came to the forefront very quickly.

One of the interesting things is over the past four years or so there have been a lot of films that have made substantial money with older actors and actresses.  It’s always happened over years, but never as regularly as the current marketplace. I’m not just talking about ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ there’s other films that have made serious dough. Even a movie Courtenay was in , ‘Quartet,’ did very well. Do you feel if those films hadn’t been hits it would have been harder to make ‘45 Years’?

I think it helps, definitely. I think there was a realization that there is an older audience. I see it whenever I go to the cinema. I used to live in the town that I shot the film in and there is an art house cinema. You go, and I would go during the day sometimes, and it would always be older people in the cinema. Older people have actually really, really quite diverse tastes. They’ve actually grown up on really diverse cinema. You can sit there and you’ll be watching ‘Stranger by the Lake, ‘ which is not the one you imagine older straight people watching, but there is a desire…

I don’t want to talk to my mom about ‘Stranger by the Lake.’ (Laughs.)

There is a desire. The older audience is an intelligent audience that wants to see films and I think maybe, hopefully, [independent movie investors] have realized that. That will also change the kind of films that get made about older people.

I wanted just to ask, have you finished the ‘Looking’ finale?

Yes, well I finished shooting it. I’m editing. I started editing yesterday. We are editing it now. We just finished the shoot.

Is it going to be a movie or is it going to be broken up into episodes?

No, it will be an hour and a half movie for HBO and not for the cinema. It’s basically like a wrap up movie/special/finale on HBO Films.

Do you feel like you guys can absolutely do what you want this time around? You don’t have to worry as much about making HBO happy or making fans happy so that it could sort of really actually get the story where you wanted it from the beginning? Or did you feel you had to wrap it up for the fans?

I think it’s a mixture of everything. I’m making it because the people that like the show would like to see it end in a different way, so I would like them to be happy. At the same time I know where I want it to end … Patrick for example. Season two for Patrick, he’s all over the place and he’s a mess.  It was always the idea that he would get to a place where he understands what he wants more. I would have been very sad if I couldn’t get to a place where he understands what he wants.

Do you know if there is any broadcast date set yet?

April I think.

After ‘Looking’ do you know what you are doing next? Do you have another project in the works that you are trying to get made?

Yeah, I’ve got a movie that hopefully is happening next summer, shot in America, up in Oregon and Portland. That is kind of coming together, I hope.

“45 Years” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.
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Awards Campaign provides commentary and insight on the movie industry. It's also the current online home of Gregory Ellwood, an industry veteran who has covered the movie business and Oscar campaigns for over a decade. For more information including partnerships and advertising opportunities please E-mail info@awardscampaign.com.