A Weekend In Words The City By Avalon Lyndon
An Interview with Andrew Haigh & Chris New
“I feel like I’m in a job interview,” Chris New jokes, as four film bloggers crowd around a low-set coffee table and pile a mini-army of recording devices on top of it. Sat down next to him is Andrew Haigh, director of Weekend, the sleeper hit that took 2011’s festival circuit by surprise. Both, as expected, are sporting exceptionally well-manicured beards – one of Weekend’s more prominent visual hallmarks – and New has thrown on a fantastic pair of red braces that he later describes as “a tribute to Hockney.” Dressed-down and laid-back, Haigh and New are all smiles as they settle down to talk about the success of their little indie film that could. True, it’s hardly an organic set up. Six people huddled on stools for a round-table interview isn’t exactly a recipe for free-flowing, natural conversation. But any initial awkwardness is cast aside when Chris’ phone goes off mid-question and the room descends into giggles. The discussion which follows meanders around, with memories from the shoot (“I was desperate for a wee for like an hour”) and elaborate metaphors (“it’s like yeast or something”) popping up between the more serious discussion of inspiration, process and reception. Effortlessly relaxed and game for a laugh, these two make for incredibly easy interviewing.
“The problem with a lot of gay cinema is that it’s all about being gay”
It’s refreshing to see that they’re clearly still taken aback by the reaction Weekend has received. New says, “I always describe it like some kind of weird child that you’ve brought into the world, and it’s just gotten on a plane and is running around doing things. I’m constantly trying to catch up.” Haigh describes the moment, sat in a café around the time of SXSW, that he saw an interview with himself in the New York Times. Weekend was the critics’ top pick, even ranked above Oscar-nominated Moneyball. “We were like, ‘What the fuck? This is mental. How has that even happened?’” Its success doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Beautifully constructed, breathtakingly shot and profoundly moving, this story of a weekend in the lives of two men on the brink of falling in love was hands-down my favourite film of last year. It begins on a boozy Friday evening, when shy Russell (Tom Cullen) and outspoken Glen (Chris New) meet in a dingy gay bar. What starts off as a one night stand gradually turns into something more. It’s a story that’s unique but universal all at once. Featuring phenomenal performances from its two leads, Weekend really did knock me for six.
“I had a vague idea that I wanted to do something about the start of a relationship,” Haigh explains. “I think it’s such an interesting time in someone’s life, when you meet someone. It’s the one time you really open up or say to the other person, ‘This is what I want to be and this is who I am.’” It’s those recognisable feelings that budding relationships bring with them – the need to reconcile the person you want to be with the person you really are – which struck a chord with audiences, straight and gay. The film is full of little, perfectly observed moments that we all recognise, from deliberating over whether to end a text with a kiss, an exclamation mark or a smiley face, to the awkward silence of an exchanging of phone numbers in a flat hallway. The problem with a lot of gay cinema,” Haigh posits, “is that it’s all about being gay. And I think for a straight audience, when they think of being
gay in their head they basically are thinking about sex – gay sex. Of course, being gay is not about having sex, it’s about being intimate with someone of the same sex, it’s about falling in love with someone of the same sex.” While Weekend does occasionally tip its hat to these two touchstones of LGBT film – sex and politics – it refuses to let either take centre stage. Rather than pander to convention, Haigh simply lets art mirror life. At around one take per scene, Weekend moves at its own pace – a strange mix of unhurried nonchalance and the underlying inevitability of the ticking clock. Its dialogue is light, witty, much of it clearly improvised. “It is scripted,” Haigh says, “but it was always so important to me that there was a looseness and that there was a freedom to try different things.” He admits being heavily influenced by neo-realist American directors like Kelly Reichardt and Ramin Bahrani,
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and his decision to shoot the film in sequence injects the narrative with a dose of organic naturalism. “Films often feel so disjointed,” Haigh explains. “I’ve worked in editing long enough to know that that’s one of the biggest problems in the edit. And that’s because you’ve shot them two weeks apart and one thing before the other thing. It’s impossible.” With its balance of simple realism and stunning cinematography, Weekend seeks out the beautiful in the mundane, the extraordinary in the familiar. “Visually, I wanted it to be very kind of – almost quite controlled in how we shot it,” says Haigh. “But at the same time, it just felt very easy and kind of gentle. I’m not saying, ‘Look at me, look at what I can do with a camera.’ I’m just trying to keep it simple.” You know you’ve hit the jackpot when you can make a dingy highrise estate in Nottingham shine with tender,
tentative romance. This sense of beautiful simplicity also pulses through the film’s lead performances, which are so naturalistic you’ll almost forget that you’re watching a film. “I always find,” New says, “the most important thing you need to do is what I call leak information – you don’t want to say exactly what your character’s thinking, you want to kind of let the audience steal it from you.” New’s character, Glen, is a clear extrovert – an art student with a taste for making a statement – while Russell (Cullen) is quieter, hesitant, not entirely sure of himself. There’s a balanced yin-yang chemistry between the two – a constant pushing and pulling of quips and questions. Haigh remembers how “the scenes came alive” in the casting sessions when Cullen and New were put together. Weekend’s characters are so well thought-out and meticulously realised that by the end it’s hard to let them go.
Weekend toys with ideas of intimacy and detachment, of the viewer being let in and pushed away from this relationship at the same time. There are some inspired shots: of Russell and Glen on a tram, framed between the swaying bodies of fellow passengers, or filmed at a distance from behind a wire fence. At moments, the audience will be right there in bed with them, while in others we’ll be watching them from afar, without even hearing what’s being said. “To me it was more ‘public and private’, was how I saw it,” Haigh says. “So there were moments when they were together that were private and then there were moments when you were, essentially, the general public watching these people exist within the world.” And what reaction do its characters expect to get from the world outside? There’s a scene in the film where Glen describes talks about his upcoming art installation – a collection of confessional recordings from the morning after the night before. The gays, Glen claims, will only come to gawp at naked men – and they’ll leave disappointed. The straights, he adds, won’t bother coming because it’s nothing to do with their world. “We nearly made it a direct reference to film, didn’t we?” remembers New.
“you don’t want to say exactly what your character’s thinking, you want to let the audience steal it from you”
“Yeah,” Haigh laughs, “I actually thought I was going to make a direct reference to Peter Bradshaw in an early version of the script!” I take a moment to imagine what the Guardian would have to say about that. “But I was worried about it,” he continues. “I did think that was how it would be. I’m glad I’ve proven myself wrong, that it isn’t just gay people that go and see it and that straight people – it resonates with them too.” Just like the people who made it, Weekend is understated and unassuming. It makes no pretence to greatness. And yet, it’s precisely this humble, self-effacing quality that makes it so great. I left kicking myself that I’d forgotten about the beards.
Weekend is out on DVD & Blu-ray now