Director Andrew Haigh on the State of Gay Cinema (Exclusive)

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Photo by Corey Nickols/Getty Images

Andrew Haigh's latest film, Lean on Pete, about a wayward 15-year-old boy who embarks on an odyssey across the vast America Northwest with a racehorse, premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September and won its lead, Charlie Plummer, the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor. In the month that followed, Haigh brought the film across the pond to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival and then back home for BFI London Festival. More recently, the writer-director returned to Portland, Oregon, where the film was shot, for a cast and crew showing at The Hollywood Theatre.

"They all seemed to like it," he humbly offers. Bearded and dressed in a blue, plaid button-down, Haigh grins as he tells me, "There were a lot of people there that helped us with all the horse racing stuff. But, of course, they're also people that wouldn't necessarily ever watch a film like this in normal life. I think a lot of them were like, 'Oh, we really liked it! But you know, we thought there'd be more horse racing. We thought it was all about horse racing?'"

Lean on Pete, adapted from the novel by Willy Vlautin, only begins at the tracks, where Charley Thompson (Plummer) finds some sense of belonging working under the tutelage of a hardscrabbled racehorse owner and his longtime jockey (played by indie stalwarts Chloë Sevigny and Steve Buscemi) and sparks a bond with the titular Quarter Horse, Pete. After a family tragedy and with the threat of a permanent retirement for Pete, Charley sets out to find a long-lost aunt and a new home for the two, unfolding in a lovely, lonely road movie. Ahead of the film's release, opening in L.A. and New York on April 6, Haigh sat down with ET in Hollywood to discuss his own frontier trek and being labeled a "gay director."

How did the novel first come into your life? Was it before the project or through the project?
It was a long -- long -- time ago. It was actually just after Weekend, my partner had read the book, he gave it to me and said, I think you'll really like it, and I read it back then, before 45 Years. It was before Looking. And [I] loved the book and then tried to get the rights. Then, knowing that it would take a while to be able to make it -- because I'd need a bit more money and no one was going to give me that money straight after Weekend -- it was quite a long development. You know, I went and did Looking and Lean on Pete got pushed a bit because of Looking. So, it came to me a good few years ago.

What about the story held onto you for all those years?
I think it's just that I really cared about Charley. That was the truth of it. I fell for him. I felt like in many ways I really understood how he was feeling. Even if my life is very different from what he has to experience, I could feel a really deep connection to that character. And I found it just heartbreaking. Even when I would sit and talk about Charley, I would start to, like, get upset. I felt like I could really feel him. And that doesn't come that often, so you just seem to have to accept, OK, there's something about this that really affects me and so I'm going to try and make it.

For me, you captured that experience in your film. I keep trying to listen to the end credits song, [Richmond Fontaine's] "Easy Run," and not even 30 seconds in, I have to turn it off, or I'll start crying.
[Laughs] It's true. And it's nice, because I've always tried to do that -- make a film that exists while you watch it and is one thing that then just leaves some little memory as you go on into your life, that if you listen to a song from it, it hits you again, emotionally. I love that when I see other films, when it doesn't all end and I never think about it again. I like it when a film can resonate a little bit longer.

I know you went and spent time with Willy. What did you take from that experience?
He's such a nice guy. He really is. He's such a kind, decent guy, and it was just that he knows that world inside and out -- I did not know that world inside and out -- so it made so much sense that I could spend time with him. And he was so generous with his time and he introduced me to loads of people who work on the backside of the track at Portland Meadows and we went to the local races and went to local fairs when they were doing local horse racing. He just showed me around, basically. Actually, the house that we ended up shooting where Charley lives, we went and looked at that house because Willy had said, 'This is where I thought he lived,' when he wrote the book, and we managed to get to shoot there. It was all those kinds of things that help you understand the world, and then I went driving for, like, three months. I actually drove all the way to Montana, all the way to Denver and then up, just to get a sense--

This was by yourself?
My partner came with me, but we just stayed in motels and camped out and stuff for three months and I wrote the first draft while we were doing the drive.

What surprised you most about the people you met along the way?
You know, you probably have an idea of who you think these people are and it's a stereotypical, clichéd idea, and then you meet them and I think what you realize the most is that it's a very difficult existence that they're living. There is so little money involved in, say, the racing part. These people are not making much money -- the trainers are making nothing, the jockeys are making nothing. It's a very difficult life, but at the same time, they have developed this really tight sense of community. I think the whole film, to me, is groups isolated in the world, clinging to each other, trying to find a sense of community. That's the thing. We all do that, throughout the whole of our lives, try to find people who we think can understand us and hold onto that rather than be left alone and terrified.

One of the things that surprised me watching the film is that -- we know the demographic, we know the polling numbers -- but in one of the fair scenes, I swear there's a Hillary Clinton campaign sign in the background.
There probably was, actually. Because we were shooting it before Trump was elected, but it was in the lead-up to that election when we were shooting in those kind of environments. So, there probably is, if you look hard enough, some Hillary signs and some Trump signs.

I did not spot any for Trump, actually.
It's also that strange thing, because there is no denying that in some of those communities that we were shooting in, there would have been Trump supporters. Absolutely. Out in Eastern Oregon, where all the desert stuff is, those communities were predominately Trump supporters. Now, I personally believe you can completely disagree with the fact that they have voted for Trump, obviously, but at the same time, it's important to me that you have compassion for everybody. There is a reason why they voted for Trump. I personally believe they made monumentally the wrong choice. [Laughs] But these are people whose lives are very difficult and are needing some belief that they can get out of their difficult situation.

How do you think that the material changed because of you? Or what did you bring to the story that wasn't there before?
I spoke to Willy about it a lot, like, the film is the film and the book is the book and I think, you know, he sees a different Charley in his head, he sees a different version of that story. Definitely this is my perspective on that story, and I think Charley is probably a slightly different character through my eyes. Not necessarily more sensitive, but certainly maybe a bit more fragile. Even though he still has resilience and he's tough, there's a fragility to that character, you feel like he's almost isolated within the world everywhere he goes. I think that was definitely something I brought. But also as a European filmmaker, I think you can't help but see America through the lens of where you come from. I love that about films. I love the fact that James Ivory made films about Britain, made Howards End and The Remains of the Day, or that Paul Thomas Anderson made Phantom Thread. They're about Britishness, but they're from an American perspective. And I actually think they're fantastic in the way that they understand Britishness. I think it's interesting watching filmmakers go somewhere else, because you see the world from a slight distance, from a slightly different perspective.

As seemingly modest and simple as the film feels when you are watching it, I imagine this must have been f**king difficult to shoot -- working with horses, shooting in the middle of nowhere. Was there ever a point during shooting when you felt like, What have I gotten myself into?!
I mean, definitely, there's challenges. And it's weird, because I feel like my films have a consistency in the tone, so they feel quite calm, I suppose. And relaxed. You're brought through the film, but it's not like I'm not drawing attention to the difficulties of the environment or something, necessarily. When you're there -- it's so hot and over 100 degrees and you're with a horse -- you're like, Oh my god. But I don't know. I quite like when you're in challenging environments. I feel like it helps your brain work better. It helps my brain work better when I'm under pressure. I think clearer. So, I quite like pushing myself in those environments.

And you'll go from that to a series set in the Arctic, right?
Yeah. That, for example, I think I might have done-- That may be too much. I get seasick. I'm going to be on a boat. It's icy.

You're not so good with middle of the ground, are you? Just a nice 60 degrees locale?
Exactly. I'm going to film somewhere nice next time. I don't know where it's going to be. Just L.A. in the winter. Perfect.

In terms of theme and tone, your films all have a melancholy that runs through them.
Mhm.

What were you able to explore in this that you hadn't in your previous work?
I think there's sadness essentially running through all of my material and in Weekend, in 45 Years, it's how you can feel at loss, how you can feel longing and wanting and needing some kind of love and protection within relationships. This was a way to explore similar themes in a wider context, on almost a socioeconomic context. Like, if you don't have people to look after you, what do you have left? If you don't have family to support you, friends to support you, the government to support you, how do you deal with that emotionally? I found that so heartbreaking. He's a good kid and he just wants to get on with his life, and because of his circumstances, he can't. He falls through the net and there's nothing there to help him underneath.

Charlie is so incredible to watch.
Yeah.

You hear directors talk about, I knew it as soon as he walked into the room, and I don't know if I always believe there's that love at first casting without any reservations. But with Charlie, I could see from the very first frames, how you would know this kid is special. What was it that caught your eye?
It was just, he sent a tape in and I'd watched, you know, 100 tapes back-to-back of kids and a lot of them were great and good, but you're looking for something that is like, 'Oh, I haven't seen that before.' He's doing something in a scene that I didn't expect. It was interesting casting. You'd give them a scene and a lot of kids would think, OK, I've got to be sad in this scene, so they would be very good at, like, crying, for example. And you're like, 'Oh. That's impressive!' But then you realize, when you talk to them, they don't really understand...

Why.
Why they're sad, or what it's about. From the first time that I saw Charlie and spoke to Charlie, you see that he's trying to work his way through the scene, trying to understand what it is that it's about. And that comes up on this pretty incredible face, I think, that is emotive but then keeps things hidden and you don't know what it is he's feeling. I find that interesting, and I like actors that don't give me everything, but lean in and want to look a little bit more. And he has that.

He wrote you a note advocating for himself for the role, right? Is that something you've kept?
I have. I don't know where it is, but I definitely kept it, because it was so perceptive. First of all, I thought, Did he write this? This is too smart! Because he knew -- and he did -- when you are a kid that doesn't have that sense of stability, it is what you crave. I think in so many stories, it is about people wanting to be free, it's about kids wanting to be free, it's about teenagers wanting to be let loose from their parents and travel out and do whatever, but here was a story about a kid that actually didn't want that. He felt like, you know what, I just want to feel safe, and then maybe I can decide I want to be free. He's never had security and I think all of us, whatever we say we want, at the heart, we need that. It's always fascinated me about America in that context: America is built on this desire for freedom, like in the American myth of traveling west and finding your freedom, and this was a story about a guy traveling east and wanting security. I thought that was really fascinating.

This is a sort of character study about a specific community. I could see this film being done, say, [The Florida Project director] Sean Baker-style and casting non-actors. Have you ever considered that?
With this film, we needed a bit more money to get it made, because the minute you start having horses and horse races and all that, you need to pay for them. And then you suddenly get to a stage where you can't make the movie unless you have some names. Literally no one will give you the money. So, you can make a movie, I think, for under $2.5 million, maybe, if you're lucky, with nobody famous in it. Get over that, it starts getting a little bit tricky. So, we knew we had to have some people, and then it was about finding the right people. Also, it's such a weird thing, isn't it? I think there's almost sometimes -- and I love Sean's film, actually, so I think that's a different thing -- but there's almost a fetishization of having real non-actors in your films, as if that means it's authentic. To me, it's about authenticity of emotion underneath whatever the character is. And of course actors can bring that. That's what a good actor does.

Your career began with movies about gay characters or that took place in that community -- Greek Pete and Weekend and Looking -- and then your last few projects obviously haven't. Was there any point around Weekend or Looking when you worried about getting pigeonholed as--
As a gay director? Not really. It's a really interesting one, this. Because I don't really talk about it much in relation to Lean on Pete, but there is no reason why Charley isn't gay in the story.

True.
And for many reasons for me, he is. He's not talking about girls. Here's a kid that can't communicate with people, doesn't talk to his dad, is scared of getting help from people when they offer it. The only scene when they talk about women is when the dad is talking about waitresses and Charley is sort of joining in and trying to impress his dad. So, to me, there is a world in which, easily, Charley could end up being gay. Now, the story is absolutely not set within that community or that world, so for me, I think my perspective as being gay is in all of the stories. Like, it's in 45 Years. I feel like how I deal with Charlotte Rampling's character in that comes from my perspective of being gay, maybe. I feel like that's always in my work, even if people don't know it's in my work. And then in terms of, like, very gay-specific things, in the future I have projects that are, projects that aren't. In the end, people will pigeonhole you if they want to pigeonhole you. It doesn't really bother me, actually. I'm quite happy to be known as a gay director. It's like, [He shrugs.] Yeah. Whatever, but my desire to tell stories are certainly not limited to only telling them within those communities.

You do have some upcoming projects that will bring you back?
Yeah, I've got a few that are -- which I can't talk about, annoyingly -- but a few that are, definitely. One is very much, if it happens, set among the gay community. Another one, the lead character is a gay person. So, I definitely have some of those projects, and then I have others that aren't. It's interesting, because a lot more gay-LGBT films are being made now, which is great, so for me it's like, OK, what is the version of that story that I want to tell? That makes sense to me?

You are such an important voice in gay cinema -- or a gay voice in cinema that has been important to me, personally, so selfishly, I'm very happy to hear that.
And I always do want to keep telling those stories. But it is like, What are those stories that now feel relevant to me? Or that I want to tell? I feel like I told a certain type of story in Weekend or a certain type of story in Looking. And also, the stories that I want to see about gay life on the screen!

What is your overview of gay cinema right now? Moonlight won the Oscar last year. This year Call Me by Your Name was also nominated for Best Picture and Love, Simon was released by a major studio.
Absolutely, a studio film. When I made Weekend, the idea that Moonlight would win the Oscar would be like, Whaaaaat? Like, That's not going to happen. And it's great! So, I'm really happy that those films are being made. It's fantastic. What's interesting is that those films are pushing the boundaries in terms of mainstream acceptance, which is fantastic. They're very much about love, about the universal nature of love, which I think is why they can go past a smaller audience, if that makes sense?

It does.
Like, Call Me by Your Name is essentially the universal nature of love. And Moonlight is about that as well, which is great! That is great! It's not that that shouldn't be made. I love that they're being made! I wonder how films that have a gay context and content but aren't necessarily about love will get a wider audience. That's interesting to me. And maybe they will. I hope they will.

And even in that regard, one of the biggest criticisms of Call Me by Your Name is that the straight sex in the movie was more explicit than any of the gay sex.
Absolutely. Absolutely.

A lot of people fall back on the peach. And even though I loved the film, I would agree that the gay sex was somewhat neutered to appeal to a broader audience.
The truth is there's a basic fact that if you have too much gay sex in your film, it will absolutely not get a wide audience. It just won't. Or not even that -- if your characters talk too much about gay sex. Or, like, I'm really interested in certainly my generation of being gay -- I'm 45 -- we still carry a huge amount of pain and shame and self-hatred, sometimes, that's in our subconscious from growing up in a community that wasn't accepting of being gay. I'm interested in how that affects us as adults. I'm interested in that aspect of gay stories, rather than younger characters finding love for the first time. Stories about middle-aged gay characters and how we navigate our lives now.

Talking about Love, Simon with my friends-- It's a beautiful movie, but even some people that liked it said they felt a pang leaving the theater, that they felt jealous of this kid on the screen because they never had an experience like that, so it made it hard to watch.
It really is hard to imagine now, when I grew up that a Love, Simon would be in the cinema. You'd be like, Excuse me? What? A feel good -- I mean, I haven't seen it, but I imagine it's a feel good version, and that's great. Those films should exist and need to exist for an audience. But I remember in-- I haven't actually seen the film, but is it 120 B.P.M.? The French film?

Yes, it's B.P.M. (Beats Per Minute) over here.
Which has made no money at all and no one's gone to see it. Now, maybe that's because it's foreign language or maybe it's because it's set during the AIDS epidemic or whatever it is. And I think it's quite explicit from what I hear. So, there are still certain films that can't break through, because they are still dealing with those kinds of issues. But there's room for films, gay material, that breaks through and becomes wide and then there's room for gay films that are seen by a smaller amount of the audience but deal with more limited ideas and themes that are perhaps too challenging for mainstream audiences.

It doesn't really bother me, actually. I'm quite happy to be known as a gay director.

As a filmmaker, is that something you take into consideration when you're setting out with a project? Do you care how far it reaches?
[Sighs] No, not really. I mean, you want people to see the film. You really do. But at the same time, whenever I think about, What would I need to make Lean on Pete for it to be huge? To be honest, it would be a totally different film. So, I can't do that film. Same with 45 Years. It's like, For that to make $50 million, what would I need to do to that film? Well, it'd have to be a completely different film. So, I just try to stick to what I find interesting and keep going with that, rather than worry too much about how big the audience is going to be.

Your movies are on the smaller side, but have gone on to be so well-received and Charlotte got an Oscar nomination [for Best Actress in 45 Years]. Have you had talks with or offers from studios about doing bigger properties?
Definitely. I get things sent to me. I mean, I don't get sent, like, a Marvel movie. [Laughs]

That's always my go-to gauge: Has Marvel come calling?
They've not come. They should do it! I don't know why they don't.

I would love to see your take on a Marvel movie.
I would love to see a Marvel story that was about superheroes and they couldn't use their powers and they were towards the end of their life and they were sitting in a house, discussing if they feel like what they did was worth it or not and whether it was justified, their actions about what they did and about how they feel in a moral sense about what they did. [Laughs] I would love to do that.

That's a little bit like Logan.
That's true! And I actually loved Logan. I really liked that film. I thought that was a really interesting version of a superhero [movie]. And actually, to be honest, I quite like all of those films. I do enjoy them and I quite like those big tentpoles, but Logan was an interesting version of that, you're right.

Coming up, you have the series--
North Water.

Is that your focus at the moment, or do you have other projects you're working on?
None that I can talk about, unfortunately. North Water was supposed to happen this year, but is now happening next year for numerous logistical reasons. I wanted to fit a film in [this year], but I can't because I'm starting prep towards the end of October. But I've got another TV project and two films at various stages. The thing is, it takes so long to make something, so I won't finish North Water until the beginning of 2020. [Laughs] That's when I'll probably then make the next film, which is good. I feel like, you know, you don't want to keep coming out with a film every year. I'll be as bored of it as they will of me!

I can't sit down with you and not ask about Looking. The show got a version of closure [with the finale film] but do you ever imagine what those guys are up to now?
Look, if someone decided to give us some money to make something in however long, I would certainly be really happy to do it. Because it was quite stressful at the time, to be honest, that experience. It was stressful about whether we were going to stay on air, whether we were going to be canceled, trying to work out what the show is, what did HBO want, what did we want, what did I want, what is it supposed to be, what did people expect. So much stuff around it, as you know. So much thought about it and talk about it. And then I look back and think, God, you know, it was so great to make. The guys are amazing. There were so many gay people on it -- actors, crew, all of the heads of department. I'd never experienced that on anything I'd worked on before, and I probably never will again, the amount of gay people working in high positions. That was such a fascinating environment to work, and it was so much fun. And I still see all the guys all the time, all of the actors and stuff. I'm still good friends with them all.

The characters themselves, do you ever find yourself sitting at home and catching up with them?
I'd like to think about what Patrick and Richie are doing. I like to think what they're up to, you know? Are they still together? Are they happy?

Do you think they're still together?
I'm not saying. [Laughs] In my heart, I am a romantic, even if I may be a realistic romantic, so I think that yes, they are.

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