The Up-and-Comer: Andrew Haigh interview

We spoke to Andrew Haigh about his second feature film <i>Weekend</i>, the year's finest romance, ahead of its premiere at the London Film Festival

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 28 Oct 2011

“No one’s going to come and see it because it’s about gay sex. The gays will only come because they want a glimpse of cock, and they’ll be disappointed, and the straights won’t come because, well, it’s got nothing to do with their world.” So says Glen (Chris New), a character in Andrew Haigh’s wonderful new film Weekend. He’s talking about his art installation, which aims to explore how a person adopts an idealised identity at the start of new relationships, and how talking about sex with a new partner can reveal the barriers that stop them embodying this identity in their day-to-day life. It’s a moment so meta that Charlie Kaufman must lie awake at night cursing that he didn’t write it himself. “Obviously when I wrote that I was addressing the fact that I was worried that no one would come and see it,” says Haigh when he speaks to me from his home in Norwich ahead of Weekend’s UK premiere at the London Film Festival. “It does feel like you’ve got to persuade straight people to come and see it. Don’t scare them off: ‘it’s going to be okay, come and watch it.’ So it can be quite frustrating sometimes.”

His concerns have proved unfounded. Weekend is currently doing great business in the US and has been the toast of every festival it has attended, from Austin’s SXSW to London. And rightly so: Haigh's follow-up to 2008's Greek Pete is a funny, lyrical hymn to romance that’s easy to embrace. The film opens in Nottingham, Friday night. Russell (Tom Cullen), a shy lifeguard with one foot still in the closet, is reluctantly visiting his small circle of friends – all of whom are straight – for a night of beer and curry. Obviously uncomfortable among the hetero-exclusive chat about stag nights and kids' birthday parties, Russell makes his excuses and heads out to cruise a cheesy gay club in town instead, but he’s no more at home here. It's only once he's three sheets to the wind that he approaches the guy he has his eye on, the aforementioned Glen, but ends up instead with a short-arse with terrible dance moves. Cut. It’s the morning after and Russell’s making coffee for his original target Glen. We only hear how the night panned out second-hand when Glen interviews Russell for his art project. 

This one-night stand develops over the course of the weekend from butterflies-in-stomach flirtation to life altering romance and is beautifully observed by Haigh, who uses languorous takes, witty edits and eschews non-diegetic music to create an authentic and wholly naturalistic atmosphere. “People just cut all the time now,” says Haigh, who served as assistant editor on several Ridley Scott productions, a filmmaker not exactly known for his vérité visuals. “You have to have a good reason to cut, I think, otherwise don’t bother. But for me it’s also about going for this almost semi-documentary approach. I really feel like each of the film’s themes is just life unfolding in front of our eyes: we’re getting this intimate insight into two people and their growing relationship and I'm not forcing you to look at certain things.” It also helps that Haigh is working with actors as talented as New and Cullen, whose performances are so captivating it’s a miracle that he ever said cut at all. “It’s so good working with actors and them knowing that we're going to have these long six and seven minutes takes – it meant they could really get into it. I think it makes their performances feel so much more real.”

Cullen, a broad shouldered six-footer, seems to physically shrink when playing Russell, whose insecurities about his sexuality, as well as his class and education, manifest as nail biting and awkward body language. Haigh, however, isn’t interested in the tortured-gay clichés that dominate the queer canon, from The Children’s Hour to Brokeback Mountain. “When I was writing it, although it’s very clearly about sexuality to some extent, to me it was always about the difference between how you define yourself in private from how you define yourself in public and that constant need for self definition,” explains Haigh. “It’s always something that I’ve been interested in and that to me is what these characters are struggling with: issues of their own identity, and being authentic to that. It’s almost like the gay context works really well as a way to try and explore these kinds of issues.”

What makes Russell particularly susceptible to this private and public dual identity is that he doesn’t fit the stereotype of a gay man. “I always wanted the Russell character to be very kind of straight-acting. It’s such a weird word that,” laughs Haigh. “I mean he still sleeps with men, so that’s not very straight, but he is kind of adrift from his sexuality. I think, in a weird way, it’s quite hard if you’re gay and you’re like that because obviously it’s not something you necessarily cultivate. Some people are less camp, or whatever you want to call it, than other people, and it becomes quite hard for you to fit in because you’re constantly having to come out to people. And also Russell is not like his friends, he’s not like his straight friends and he’s not like the gay people he sees out at the club, so he’s kind of stranded between two worlds.”

If Cullen’s tender performance is the heart of Haigh’s film, New’s funny, funky, cocksure turn as Glen, who’s always ready, like a belligerent Peter Tatchell, to take on burly homophobes, is the film’s angry, politicised brain. In every scene where Glen and Russell are in the outside world there’s an underlying homophobia that they can’t escape from: a loving embrace at a train station receives sarcastic wolf-whistles from some off screen bigots; Russell overhears teenagers on a bus mock a gay schoolfriend; Glen's story about a disastrous date with a leather clad sadist goes down like a lead balloon with some beer bellied punters in a spit and sawdust boozer. “If you're gay and you’re saying something about gay people the politics become inherent to it a little bit, which, I suppose, is the same for any minority – politics become very important.” But Weekend is not an issue movie: it’s a love story that’s informed by its characters' social milieu. “It was about having that integrated within this story about these characters, rather than it being, as you say, just an issue movie,” Haigh says. “I don’t think anyone wants to see that.”

Films with gay themes that are as confident and assured as Weekend are hard to come by, in UK cinema at least. When I ask Haigh about the last British LGBT film that had a significant resonance with him he has to think back to his adolescence and the 1980s. “They certainly took more risks in those days. Like nobody would fund Derek Jarman nowadays if he was still with us, you know what I mean? Even someone like Terence Davies has such a hard time getting funding [see our forthcoming interview with the Liverpudlian filmmaker]. People were more willing to take risks with interesting British material, but now we have the tendency to think we should just be a bit more genre based, we should appeal to people across the pond. But that doesn’t make for interesting cinema. I don’t think so anyway.”

Towards the end of my time with Haigh I ask him if he thinks there will come a time when a film featuring gay protagonists won’t need to be labelled as a 'gay film'. “It’s difficult,” sighs Haigh. “I spend a lot of my time in interviews telling people that it’s a universal story, but really I want to say, ‘Of course it’s a universal story, it’s about two people falling in love,' you know?

Weekend is released by Peccadillo Pictures 4 Nov