Following the local premiere of Norwich native Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, which tells the story of an unexpectedly significant encounter between two gay men, members of UEA’s MA Scriptwriting programme met with the writer- director at the Norwich Arts Centre to discuss his acclaimed, tightly realized film.
Interview conducted by Georgina Kuna, Tilly Lunken and Waleed Marzouk at the Norwich Arts Centre on December 19th, 2011.
Interview compiled and edited by Waleed Marzouk.
Q: Where was ‘Weekend’ first screened?
A: The first screening was last March at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Texas. And that was intentional. We knew if the film was to find an audience beyond the gay and lesbian film festivals we had to start off with a screening that wasn’t at one of those festivals. Also there are only three festivals in the States that have enough press and distribution company interest to warrant really going there – Sundance, Tribeca and SXSW.
Q: Is this your first feature film?
A: I’ve done another film, a few years ago, ‘Greek Pete’, which was kind of like a docudrama, a cross between fiction and documentary, completely unscripted. And that was based on male escorts in and around London. It was like a documentary within a fictional framework. I used real escorts to recreate their lives in a semi-fictional framework.
It was interesting how doing that changed the way I worked with script for Weekend. Because when you’re listening to real people just talk, you realize how different that is from scripted movie talk. So I tried to make ‘Weekend’ sound like that rather than a script.
Q: What was the initial spark for ‘Weekend’?
A: It started about three years ago. I’d done a short that played in Berlin and a lot of other really big festivals. And I was writing ‘Weekend’ at the same time. It was just a story about two guys and their relationship, and the start of that relationship. There are so many films like this that just never get to any deeper level in terms of character. So for me it was about doing a love story but also doing a character study, with the character study being more important than the love story. It was a film about two people finding themselves, not finding each other. It’s funny because when people call it a romance it seems weird to me because I never wrote it with that intention.
There was this film called ‘Old Joy’, by Kelly Reichart, which was just about a friendship between two guys. They go to these woods, and they’re talking to each other throughout and they go to these springs… and the plot is virtually non-existent. Throughout the course of it though you really get a sense of what these characters are struggling with in life, in terms of everything in their lives. Where they are, what they want, who they want to be and all these kinds of things. But it was in the format of essentially a buddy movie. That was the beginning of ‘Weekend’, in trying to do something similar, using the structure of a love story. There’s three acts, it follows a traditional kind of romantic structure, but plays on that a little bit.
It’s a struggle that almost everyone has. This is who I want to be, and I want the world to see it, but you just can’t achieve it. You go through life not achieving that and most people don’t. Or what you want to achieve is so far removed from who you actually are anyway that you’re never going to achieve it. You see that on ‘X Factor’. There’s all these people desperately wanting to be something, but they’re never going to be that person, which of course makes them miserable and depressed for the rest of their lives. It’s awful. But I think with these characters in the film they want to be something they can become. They’re not living in complete bad faith. They can be that person. But it’s just trying to become that person.
Q: But they have a different dynamic with the society they’re in and that’s part of the reason they’re not comfortable..
A: Yes. And that’s the reason why the gay struggle is the perfect way to look at themes of authenticity. Because the mainstream is so unhappy to let gay people be as equal as everyone else, or be themselves, or be open.
And that was really frustrating when trying to get it made. I’d say this is what the film is about – and I hate the phrase ‘universal story’ because the term just annoys me – but I’d try to say that everybody will understand the struggles these guys are going through even though they’re not gay and they’ve never been to a gay club and have never had to ‘come out’. It’s just the same struggle that everyone has.
Q: Were there many frustrations in the development phase?
A: When I was trying to get it funded the comments that would come out were just really irritating. From Film London – they fund low budget films, and at that point we were going to try and set in London because we thought it would help us get money – and they were like ‘Yeah we like it, but if you’re going to make it we think it should be not just about these two people, can we make it about a whole group of gay friends, so we can have, like, one of each type?’
Q: Like Queer as Folk?
A: Basically. They wanted it to be about ten people and you had maybe some lesbians there, and someone who was really camp and someone who wasn’t… And what can you say? I can’t say anything. Except, no, I’m not going to do that.
When ‘Greek Pete’ came out and people were responding to it, the fact that it was about gay escorts became the overriding thing that people were interested in. And the fact that it was very sexually explicit. That’s all that people talked about. And to me it wasn’t about that. It was about this one character that I was looking at, and his desire to work out what to do with his life. He had decided he wanted to be an escort and make as much money as he could. And regardless of whether you think that’s right or wrong that is what he wanted to do with his life, or thought he wanted to do with his life. And that all kind of disappeared under ‘Oh, it’s got sex in…’
So with ‘Weekend’ I wanted to bolster up doing a story that was about gay people. And bolster up the themes underneath those kinds of struggles. And make that empowered. That you could make a film that was a love story but that was about so much more than just that.
Q: In the Q&A after the screening someone asked if you saw the characters’ relationship continuing, even long distance, and you didn’t see it happening.
A: I just don’t think their relationship would work long term. And also, like I said before, what I thought was important about the film was these two people working out what they want. If they end up together, it kind of negates that that’s the idea of the story. It suddenly becomes a love story. If they get together and live happily ever after, that for me ruins what I think the film is about.
Q: Did it take long to conceive the whole film?
A: I wrote a draft quite quickly and it wasn’t very good, because it’s really not very plot-driven. The basic idea was there from the start. I think it was the opening scenes, where they’re on the bed and the tape recorder is there. That was always there from when I first sat down and started writing the script. I just liked this idea of a slightly aggressive person forcing this other person to answer questions, and you think a certain thing when it starts, you think ‘Oh, god, this is awful,’ but actually they’re really letting out some important things about their lives whether they know it or not. I just thought that was a good way to start a film about a relationship. This is who we think we are, and we’re giving you our version of each other, and then throughout the story it becomes something different.
The start of a relationship is a great way to explore character. Because they start it by saying ‘Oh, look, this is who I am, like me.’ And slowly the bits get chipped off, and by the end of it you hope the real self is revealed. I don’t think you can do that with many script forms.
But when you write something the first draft is usually quite shit. You have all these ideas in your head and they’re all about how you want it to be and how complex you want it to be and then your first draft is awful. It’s not complex at all. And it’s so frustrating.
I’m doing another script now and it’s the same thing. Why’s it not saying what I want it to say? It takes a long time to get to the basis of something. And then when you get to that you think there’s something there, even if it’s not entirely there right now. And for me it’s just slowly trying to build layer upon layer within each scene, each sequence, and try and make it more surprising at every turn.
Q: Are you able to articulate what you think ‘Weekend’ is about?
A: I think it’s about the search for authenticity. Just in an individual sense.
With me, with the shorts and the docudrama I did, it’s all about a person’s struggles to live authentically. Live true to themselves and be who they want to be rather than who they think they should be. And how they project that onto the world. That to me was always what both of those characters are struggling with in ‘Weekend’. It was really more a story about that than a story about them falling in love.
Q: Did getting money from the Nottingham Film Council mean you had to shoot it there?
A: Sort of. They wanted us to. By that point I’d wanted to shoot it outside of London anyway. The actual city was never set. When we got to the end of the second draft we went to Nottingham, spent a week up there getting to know the area, looked at locations, and then the next draft incorporated the city into it much more.
The scene where they’re walking through the fair, that was previously just walking through the streets. The fair was only there for a week, but it was the week we were shooting, so it was perfect. It provided a more interesting backdrop.
Q: What are you most pleased with in the film, and least pleased with?
A: I think I’m most happy with the central relationship and how I think in a way that it’s just completely believable. You can completely believe that they like each other. And you understand why they would like each other. And you understand why they would want to be with each other at that point in their lives. Or are fascinated by each other. And I think I’m really proud of the performances, although that’s mainly the actors. They enabled that to come across.
Least happy with… I think, because I could never spend much time with all the other actors in the film I felt their characters were slightly less developed. Just because of the inevitability of smaller characters. I think I probably would have liked to have invested more in them.
It’s hard. I try not to dwell on that, what I don’t like about it. I hadn’t seen the film since March. Since the editing, I’ve probably only watched it, finished, with all the sound done, twice. That’s it.
Q: What’s your favourite movie? What’s next to your DVD player now?
A: Ok, next to my DVD player now… I’m doing a Roeg-athon. I love ‘Don’t Look Now’. Actually ‘Don’t Look Now’ is probably one of my favourite films. But ‘Walkabout’ and ‘Insignificance’ and ‘Bad Timing’, I’ve got them by my player at the moment. There’s a film called ‘Uzak’ by a Turkish director called Nuri Bilge Ceylan, that’s a really fantastic film. I’ve got a box set of ‘70s films, so like ‘Five Easy Pieces’, ‘Last Picture Show’, ‘King of Marvin Gardens’, that period in American cinema. John Cassavettes. I’m a big, massive John Cassavettes fan.
I think if you look at any film you like, usually it’s because it’s about something. Even if it’s, whatever, ‘Bridesmaids’ or ‘2012’. There’s usually something that it’s about, it’s not just formulaic nothing. So that’s why those films work. However big they are. I love ‘Starship Troopers’, the Paul Verhoeven film. It’s so good. Because it’s actually about something underneath all the spectacle. So it works really well, and it’s really interesting.
The ‘70s was a really good period for film. They were just bold enough to try things that might not work. And I think people just don’t do that so much anymore. Maybe someone like Lars von Trier does. But everyone’s just trying to be a bit too safe.
Q: Do you think have we moved beyond considering cinema an art form?
A: I think it can be an art form. Have you been watching ‘The Story of Film’, the Mark Cousins series? It’s really good. It’s funny because you make films or write films and you think you’re being independent of thought, but you realize how you are just on a line of how cinema changes.
It is quite comforting in a way and you can’t help but think the films I wanted to make ten years ago, stylistically, they’re very different from how I’d do them now. And you realize that that comes from changes in how films are made.
Q: What’s next?
A: I’m writing three things at the moment. And there’s some debate as to which will go first. I’m in development with Film4 on all three of them. I’ve made the mistake before of saying ‘This is the project I’m writing next,’ and it turns out it’s not what I’m going to be writing next. So I try and not talk about what it is I’m doing. I want to finish writing them. But one’s an adaptation of a novel, another adaptation of a short story and then an original piece. All feature length films. Two are set in America, and the other set here. Ideally I’d like to do the UK one first, then the one set in America after that. I don’t want to do anything too big at the moment. I want to build up slowly.