Andrew Haigh on All of Us Strangers

All of Us Strangers sees a lonely man embark on a new relationship while inexplicably reconnecting with his long-dead parents. Its director, Andrew Haigh, discusses queer alienation, understanding our parents and the soulfulness of Paul Mescal's eyes

Article by Jamie Dunn | 23 Jan 2024
  • All of Us Strangers

I expect Andrew Haigh to be a bit bleary-eyed this morning. After all, it’s the day after the British Independent Film Awards and Haigh’s stunning new film, All of Us Strangers, has just walked off with seven awards, including best supporting performance for Paul Mescal, best director and best screenplay for Haigh and the big prize of the night, best British independent film. Surely he was out celebrating? “Oh, I’m too old for drinking and having fun," he laughs. "I was in bed by about 12.30 after a cup of tea.”

Adam, the protagonist of All of Us Strangers (played by Andrew Scott), is similarly partying-aversed – initially at least. As the film opens, he’s alone in his near-empty tower block in London, where he spends his nights gazing longingly across the city or watching archive clips from Top of the Pops while struggling to write a screenplay about the death of his parents. His lonely existence is punctuated one night by Harry (Paul Mescal), his only neighbour, who turns up at his door drunk and horny. 

A lonely gay man longing for connection puts us in mind of Weekend, Haigh’s breakout feature from 2012, although a hint of the supernatural creeps into the new film. While researching his screenplay, Adam goes back to his childhood home to find his mother and father still living there, despite having died in a car crash when he was 12. “At one point, I was nervous that people would just see this as Weekend Part 2 with ghosts.” laughs Haigh. “I was like, ‘Oh God, I don't want that to be what this film is.'” Haigh agrees that the films are in conversation in some way, though. “Weekend was 12 years ago, and as I've got older, there were more things that I've wanted to explore about queerness and the nature of love. And I've poured that all into the new film.”

One theme that links the two films is the feeling of being outside of society as a queer person. “As queer people, we're all trying to understand romantic relationships because we haven't had a framework of what those relationships can be,” explains Haigh. “You know, you grow up in a family where everybody is straight, and everyone at school seems to be straight, and you're not, so you're unsure how you fit in with any of that. So I think it can take a lot of queer people a long time to understand what it is that they want. But it is not that you're inherently lonely because you're gay, which is what people used to think. It's just that the world says we are that kind of person.”

All of Us Strangers is based on Strangers by Japanese author Taichi Yamada, which tells a similar narrative about a heterosexual writer. What drew Haigh to the story initially was its central concept of meeting your parents as they were when you were a child and you are now an adult. “The idea of being able to go back and meet your mum and dad on the same level would be an incredible experience,” says Haigh. “Often we think our parents should know everything. But then, when you get older and you look back, you're like 'Jesus, my parents were 32 when I was a kid. I was a mess when I was in my early 30s. Why did I expect my parents to know everything?'”

Haigh suspects that children’s inability to fully see their parents' point of view is what makes family dynamics so tricky to navigate. “If love is, in general, let's say, about truly knowing the other person, it's no surprise to me that familiar relationships can be quite complicated, because there is so much that stops us from being honest with each other within those relationships," he says. "So to me, to have this sort of space, separate from reality, where you can find a common ground feels so appealing. I mean, it's wish fulfillment, obviously, because it’s never going to happen, but it feels like something that would be special.”

All of Us Strangers is undoubtedly Haigh’s most visually complex film. But like all his work it’s centred on great performances. Working with actors is clearly something he relishes and Andrew Scott is an actor he’s wanted to work with for the longest time. “Obviously Andrew has had a lot of lead roles in theatre, and he's done a lot of stuff on television, he has been in a lot of films, but I've never seen him be the centre of a film. And I've always thought, Why? Because he's such a good actor.” Haigh also felt Scott would understand this world. "In real life, Andrew and I have similar experiences," says Haigh. "Andrew is gay, so we understand what that experience was like growing up. Plus he really responded to the script. So it was just a no-brainer, really. He's a really talented actor, he loves the script, and he understands it. It's like the three things you want more than anything else.”

Paul Mescal matches Scott’s performance every step of the way. Haigh points to Mescal’s eyes as being the key to his performance. “It just feels there's a whole world going on behind there that you want to sort of understand; there's a soulfulness to him. And with a role like Harry, you don't know a huge amount about him. But Paul lets you know that he wants him to be compassionate towards Adam, and you also get the sense of his own demons. It’s all there in the eyes and I feel like Paul is so good at communicating two things at the same time, one thing on the surface, and then something else that's underneath. And that's rare."

All of Us Strangers is released 26 Jan by Disney