TELLURIDE, Colo. — Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years,” the study of a childless marriage in its autumn, has been touring the globe since debuting at the Berlin Film Festival in February. The film’s stars, Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, won Silver Bear honors their for their performances — beautiful, naturalistic turns that deserve even more accolades as we charge into the season.
The film, expanded from a David Constantine short story, finally makes its way to the U.S. this weekend as part of the 42nd annual Telluride Film Festival lineup. Haigh, who could only accompany his work at the Berlin and Edinburgh fests, is eager to reveal it to American audiences after the film opened in the U.K. last week (to rave notices pretty much across the board). Not long after we both got to town, ahead of the Labor Day weekend tempest, we talked about the visual language of the film, building background and specificity into his characters and the tendency to look back on your life and ponder how it all happened.
I want to start by talking about the cinematography. It’s stunning, with a final shot for the ages. You’re clearly interested in long takes that let the drama play out. What was your vision for telling the story visually?
It’s always just how I like to shoot things anyway. I like what it does, how it feels to the audience and watching the performances in that kind of context with elongated takes and a lot of kind of two-shots, really. To me it means the audience has to invest more in what they’re looking at and that means they have to engage more. The film has a sort of consistent tone; my idea was that it slowly digs and digs and digs in until it hits in that very last moment, but it’s quite consistent in its tone. I felt for that to work you had to draw the audience in.
That’s interesting about making the audience engage more. I’m curious if it makes you engage more as a director as well, as far as how you tweak the performances and dial your actors in.
Possibly. Everything — in mainstream cinema, anyway — is cut a lot more, but when you watch two people act, or just be together, I want to see the emotional changes happen before my eyes rather than with a cut. When you cut to a reaction, you’re just trying to create the emotion within that edit. I just don’t like it as much. I like to see it just happening. It gives it an odd feeling sometimes; it’s a bit more awkward. The pauses are a bit more elongated and feel more real, but they don’t feel like what you usually see in a film, so I just like that tension that it creates.
With that in mind, it’s worth noting that your background is in editing. So did that just put you off, the inherent manipulation of it?
I think a little bit. And also you don’t need to do it. If you work out your blocking properly enough then you can create something you need to see rather than cutting and chopping up a performance. If you see some of Sidney Lumet’s old films, it’s very incredible. If you can get that right and the camera right in relation to the blocking, you don’t have to cut that much.
How did Tom and Charlotte react to that approach? Were they taken aback at all, not having the usual coverage?
I think Charlotte wasn’t, but Tom was a bit more surprised. And I told him when we started what we would do. Because I don’t do coverage at all. I don’t give myself options. So I think to start with, Tom was a bit like, “Oh my God, really? We don’t have any close-ups?” But he loved it, I think. He loved the fact that he could exist in a scene with Charlotte knowing that’s what the scene was, and that it wasn’t going to be taken out of his hands in the edit.
And let’s talk about that final shot. Without giving much away, you see a lifetime flash in Charlotte’s face as it finally lands that she didn’t know her husband as well as she thought she did. It’s just an impeccable image. I also find it to be a bit of a microcosm for the film; as you mentioned, the film has a slow build, and so does this shot. How did you conceive it?
It made Charlotte very apprehensive, that scene. It was the last thing we shot. We talked about how it had to feel, but then it’s almost like that’s enough. You have a conversation, you talk about it a little bit and then you let it happen. We did, I don’t know, 10 takes probably. And I could see after the first take what it was going to become. We shot the film in order, so it made sense. I think if we’d shot it on the first day it would have been a disaster.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the art department. You mention in a featurette for the film [see above] that there was specific thought put into set decoration reflecting a lived-in home. That seems like a really rich way to get into your characters’ lives.
When I write a script I usually start by doing a lot of background anyway. So I would work out what books they’d read, what kind of artwork they might like on their walls, the kind of shops they would go to. I would work out all those things — if they have any religious beliefs or political beliefs — I’d work all that out and then just forget about it when I write the script. I find it really helps when you’re trying to do art direction because I know, “Well, that’s the kind of books she would read.” I didn’t want it to be that she was unintelligent as a lead character. I wanted her to be an intelligent woman who would read interesting books, and there’s not a twee English nature to her, if you see what I mean. A lot of those British-like films can feel very twee and they don’t feel like real people to me. These are middle class people. Their house isn’t too big. It isn’t too small, either. It’s a decent-sized house. It made sense for the two of them. It’s all those little things you try to work out. It’s a good process for me to try to understand the character.
Do you let the actors in on that?
Yeah, I do. And Charlotte was very interested in those kinds of things, like what kind of books the character would read, what kind of music would they like. The things you choose to do with your spare time define you. So if you can work them out for a character it helps you come to terms with it.
Are these characters, as you’ve adapted them, based on anyone in particular?
Weirdly, if they’re based on anybody, they’re based on me. When I’ve been in interviews they always ask me, “How did you get into the mindset of someone who’s 70?” And I always just think about it as, “How do I feel about things? My past, the choices I’ve made, the struggles of relationships and all that kind of thing. I tried not to think of it as, “What’s it like to be a 70-year-old,” or base it on my grandparents. In fact, I wanted to do everything I could to not base it on my grandparents, because I think grandparents give you a fake idea of what it’s like to be old.
It’s an interesting question, because you make an English film and you go, “Oh, it’s gonna be Helen Mirren.” There’s an idea for what it’s going to be. Apart from loving Charlotte, it’s almost like she hasn’t been in many British films recently. She’s not like those other actresses. There’s something about her that’s so mysterious. She draws you in then she pushes you away. So much is going on but you don’t know what it is, and that fed into this idea that you can never truly know someone. I liked that part of her.
And then Tom, I didn’t want just an angry old, belligerent man, like in Philip Roth novel or something, even though I like Philip Roth — I didn’t want that kind of character. And Tom, while he is a bit belligerent, has a sensitivity that is not like some of those other actors of that age. He has a vulnerability to him and I thought that was nice. I wanted this to be two people who were struggling with things they were uncovering, rather than, “He’s bad. She’s good.” Or whatever it is.
The subplot that drives the inner tension of the film involves the discovery of a woman’s body, perfectly preserved in ice after disappearing in the Swiss Alps in the 1960s — a former girlfriend of Courtenay’s character. But the details are kept very, very vague throughout, the discovery serving as more of an existential device. Were you worried that keeping it that vague might leave audiences wanting?
It was always really important to me that it was vague. To me it was something else that she didn’t know about her husband, something else that she knows her husband will have been thinking about. What’s so weird to me, say in terms of relationships — you meet someone, it becomes a relationship and you build up into it. Then suddenly you look back and go, “Oh my God, I’ve been in a relationship for 20 years. How does that happen?” Those big choices at the beginning don’t feel like big choices. It’s just, “Oh, I’ll go traveling for a little bit. I’ll do that job.” And then in retrospect it’s like, “My whole life has been defined by the fact that I met that person and because of that I took that job.”
It makes everything seem sort of small, doesn’t it?
Absolutely. And meaningless. I think about it too much. It’s like everything just crumbles. Your whole idea of your existence crumbles away! So for me, with Kate, that’s what it was. She’s going through life and she’s forced to analyze her life and it’s just thrown her. It’s pushed her off balance.
Haigh will next shoot the television special wrap-up to his critically acclaimed HBO series “Looking” in San Francisco before heading further north to Portland, Ore., in September, when he hopes to start production on his next feature, an adaptation of Willy Valutin’s “Lean on Pete.”