Andrew Haigh, the co-creator of HBO's short-lived Looking and writer-director of the contemporary queer film classic Weekend, knows what his audience thinks of him -- what they want, what they expect, what they'd like to ask. Too often, this awareness makes an artist pander to a watercooler-crowd consensus, ranking the comfort of satisfaction above the risk of surprise. That's not the case for Haigh. In a comparison that underscores the fact that sexual orientation holds no bearing on creative clout, Haigh's sensibilities recall those of David Chase, another storyteller who's both worked in independent film (Not Fade Away) and piloted an HBO series, The Sopranos, which couldn't be more of a macho antithesis to Haigh's gay drama. And yet, if you're ever scrambling for a random way to compare gays to gangsters, look no further than the key criticisms aimed at both men's shows: As opposed to offering wall-to-wall gun fights or sweaty gang bangs, both dared (to quote the naysayers) to make their American archetypes "boring." Both dared to not acquiesce.
The Sopranos, of course, made it all the way to its cut-to-black final episode, and optimists among us hope that so-called boring realism wasn't Looking's cause of death after 2015's second season. Haigh -- ready for the question before it's asked -- can at least pinpoint the final blow. "The truth is, not enough people were watching," he says, huddled in a cafe booth in the back of New York's Marlton Hotel, and content with nothing more than a glass of water. "It's a hard show to make for the world, and it's sad for all of us. HBO was always supportive, and they made sure we could end it how we wanted, but if more people were watching it, it'd be on the air. It's that simple."
Haigh entered the public consciousness in a way not unlike the pioneers of America's New Queer Cinema movement. He's an openly gay writer and director who didn't gradually ease his way into LGBT projects, but rather put his queer foot forward and used it to make an enduring mark. A bittersweet sleeper hit, 2011's Weekend caught global attention despite its unhurried minimalism, and it led Haigh (and collaborator Michael Lannan) to HBO, which clearly wanted to translate that forthright gay shrewdness from big screen to small.
Meanwhile, 45 Years, Haigh's gorgeously observed new drama, offers a novel look at the befuddling secrets of long-term relationships, just scored an Oscar nomination for lead actress Charlotte Rampling (her first), and isn't queer in the slightest.
"It was never my intention to only make gay-themed films. Ever," he says, noting that 45 Years came to him before Weekend even wrapped. "And there was never a conscious decision that I must do something that isn't gay. Most filmmakers are interested in ideas. So am I."
This spring, Haigh is set to unveil HBO's Looking film, a two-hour special that he promises "has everyone in it," and brings events to a close that isn't so much compromising as it is complete enough to leave its creators fulfilled.
Yet there's much more to discuss with Haigh -- not about what's ahead for him, but what's propelled him in the past. What cinematic dreams have filled the head of this North Yorkshire native (now 43), who speaks in a way that suggests he'd dress in patterns much more rebellious than flannel? What stories have shaped the way he looks at the world, be it within the frame or beyond it? Some Like It Hot is part of the tale, as are Joe Swanberg and Lily Tomlin. And while there's no mention of The Sopranos, there's certainly no shortage of bunnies.
Out: Do you remember the first film you saw in the theater?
Andrew Haigh: The first film I can remember having an impact on me was Watership Down. I think I was about 5 when I saw it. It's an animated English film about rabbits. But, actually, it's an incredibly dark, dystopian, existential drama that just happens to star rabbits. It's a devastating film, but it's still for children, supposedly, following these rabbits as they try to understand where they fit into the world. It's the first film I can remember seeing when I was really young and saying, "Wow. OK." I've been obsessed with that film for a really long time, and it was just released on Criterion. Seeing it again now, though, I think it's really fascinating. It's still a really good film, but it's so bleak. I wouldn't show it to kids now -- it'll fuck 'em up! -- but it was interesting seeing it again, from a different perspective. It deals with kids who can't fit in at an early age, and it's films like that, precisely, which challenged my ability to untangle those feelings, and spoke to kids growing up gay.
It's interesting how you revisit things and see them with older eyes.
It's weird when I look back at all those films I loved as a kid. I loved The Goonies, and when you watch that now, it's such a sweet film, but it's also about young boys hanging out with other young boys, and going on an adventure, and being together, and feeling safe. I watch that now, and I of course get why I liked it so much.
What was your major escapist movie in your youth?
I loved 9 to 5 when I was a kid -- loved it. I'd watch 9 to 5 every day. That was my childhood escape: three strong women in a feminist '80s comedy-drama. It was my go-to, and I've always thought it was a great film. It set my love for Lily Tomlin in stone, and my obsession made my brother watch it, and he got obsessed, too. He didn't turn out gay, but I know 9 to 5 called to my homosexuality.
When did you come out -- or know you were gay -- and what was a film you turned to?
I think I knew I was at least different as early as 7 or 8, and kids would pick on me, not because I was gay, but because I didn't fit in. I came out officially when I was 25, but from the age of 13, I certainly knew I wasn't straight. During this time, I learned about films like Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now and Antonioni's L'Avventura, which wowed me and taught me how the visual medium could have a jolting emotional effect. Then I saw a small British film called Beautiful Thing, a beautifully crafted piece about two teenage boys who meet on a housing estate. I remember crying my eyes out in the theater, and that's probably, in terms of gay-themed films, the one I turned to for a while in order to feel better about how I felt inside.
And yet it was L'Avventura that sparked your cinematic awakening?
Oh, the power. When I was working in the theater as a teen, they showed an old print of the film and there were no subtitles. So everyone had to wear headphones, with someone doing a commentary to guide you along. I had to check the rooms in case anything was going wrong, so I couldn't listen to the headphones or understand anything. But you can just be watching this film like, Holy fuck. The visuals are so incredible that you don't need to know what anyone is talking about. You feel it.
After you came out, what was the next film that resonated with you and kept you inspired?
It has nothing to do with being gay, but I love Five Easy Pieces, a film I saw in the mid-'90s, around the time I was coming out. In a strange sense this movie ended up speaking to me more than a lot of queer films at that time. There's something about that protagonist, who's incredibly angry with the world, and tries to stand apart from it but at the same time find his place in it. My struggle to be gay runs alongside my struggle to work out who I am in everything. I'm not defined just by my sexuality. I'm defined by things like what I want from the world.
Is there a film you associate with breaking up?
There's a very low-budget, independent American film I like called Nights and Weekends, by Joe Swanberg. I saw it before I made Weekend, and it was a really interesting film about a relationship coming together and falling apart, and just the complicated nature of all that. That's relatively recent, but Scenes From a Marriage is, of course, a good one, too. When you think of most films about relationships, they're more about coming together than breaking down, which is a completely unrealistic version of love and fake in its understanding. I think if you want to understand what a relationship is really like, don't watch those films.
You're only 43 now, but given what you've explored in 45 Years, what's a film you associate with aging and the passing of time?
That's a tricky one -- getting older -- because there are different aspects to what that means. I'm going to choose Last Night, a Canadian film by Don McKellar, co-starring Sandra Oh. I love that film. The world is ending, but obviously, it's not about that. It's about people's lies and what people say when they cheat. It's about time and having to accept that you didn't achieve the things you wanted to achieve. It was released just before the turn of the millennium, so it kind of got buried in all of that nonsense, but it's simply a tender film about people trying to be happy.
What film do you like to watch when you want to feel sad -- when you want to feel drama?
Well, the thing is, every film I like is melancholic and sad anyway, regardless of what it is. Even if it's a blockbuster, the ones that I go to aren't cheery. I like sadness in films -- sadness makes me feel. Life is difficult and sad for a lot of people. There's a film I watch a lot called Uzak. It's a Turkish film by a director named Nuri Bilge Ceylan. I absolutely love it. I think it's one of the best films of the last 20 years, and it's a very melancholic tale about a guy and his cousin in Istanbul -- but I'll spare you the plot details. When I want to feel, when I want to relish in my melancholy, I'll watch that movie.
And what film makes you feel happy?
Some Like It Hot. For my 40th birthday, I just watched Some Like it Hot in my bed. It was perfect.