Russell and Glen have a one-night stand and discover it might be something more meaningful. Time Out chats to writer/director Andrew Haigh about making one of the year’s smallest and most affecting movies
Weekend started life at festivals, but is now appearing on more and more screens around the world. Are you surprised at how it has grown?
It’s really surprising. We made it off the radar within the industry, so no one really knew about it. You just hope people are going to get to see it. We released in American cinemas about three months ago now, and it played in places we never would have imagined. The middle of Iowa, small towns in Tennessee...
One of the characters in the movie says “the straights” won’t come to his art show. Was that you expressing your own doubts about whether straight audiences would watch your film?
Definitely. When I was writing the film, I thought it wouldn’t cross over... but I was more concerned that most don’t want to go and see something realistic and honest. Of course I’ve been proved completely wrong! I should shut up, really.
Groucho Marx once said that the secret to life is honesty, and if you can fake that you’ve got it made. Weekend really does feel honest – but that feeling is artificial, right?
I had to make it feel as honest as possible, but you’re right. Every decision we made was based around how to make it feel like real life. How I wrote it, where the camera was positioned, using real people instead of extras, shooting the film in order. All of those little tiny decisions slowly build up into what the film is.
Does deciding to make a movie that’s basically just two people talking feel like a bold choice? (Because it is!)
It’s funny, isn’t it? In the 60s and 70s there were more films of people just sitting around and talking, but now it doesn’t happen as much – though there are obviously exceptions like Before Sunrise. In film school screenwriting teachers teach you ‘show don’t tell’, don’t have people talking too much, keep your scenes nice and short. I’ve always found that quite frustrating, because in real life what do you do? You talk! You communicate through what you say.
What was the worst note you got on the script?
To be honest, most of the people we tried to get money from just rejected it outright. So that was the worst note: don’t make it. Which makes me quite happy now because I can go back to them and say “Oh, look, I made it! People like it!”
Did you ever lose your nerve and think “Well, maybe the characters should go out and, like, get in a fight or something...”
I think it was alright because I like things to be low key. Just the idea of doing things too big terrifies me. My nature is to tone it down, don’t be melodramatic. But when I was making the film, I would talk to people about it and you could see their faces: “Oh god, that sounds so boring...” So you do have to hold your nerve.
Not to diminish all your hard work as writer and director, but it seems like if you get the casting wrong in a film like this you’re screwed.
It was really scary. With the way I wanted to shoot it – long takes and essentially no editing within each scene – there’s no hiding space for an actor. I knew if there wasn’t chemistry between them or if they weren’t good enough, the film just wouldn’t work. When I saw Chris [New] and Tom [Cullen] together there was a real spark between them that I could turn that into chemistry. The first day of shooting, I thought: it’s fine. They know what they’re doing. I can relax a little.
Weekend shows how talking about sex can be more intimate than the act itself, but it also has what might be the best sex scene of the year.
I didn’t show the sex at the beginning because it was really important that when it did arrive, towards the end of the film, you’re emotionally invested in the characters. You care about them and want them to be happy, so when you see them having sex, you throw yourself – as an audience – into the scene. You’re not so much of a voyeur.
If you thought maybe straight audiences already wouldn’t want to see the movie, did you think about not including a sex scene at all?
It’s a film about two people falling for each other, and if you didn’t see the sex they have it’d just seem pointless. The funny thing is that a lot of the straight people I know who’ve seen it worried that the sex scene was going to make them feel a bit queasy! [Laughs] You know what I mean? “I was stressed because I thought it’d be really explicit – but then it was really nice!”
Cinema’s full of romantic comedies and romantic tragedies, but not much in the middle. How would you describe Weekend?
To me, more than anything, Weekend is a character drama – but because it’s about two people falling for each other it becomes, in some people’s eyes, romantic. I don’t like to define it in such strict terms.
You can’t resist a Notting Hill gag in it, though, even though neither of the men has seen it.
Our romantic notions of the world get spawned by cinema. And the weird thing is all of those films are so unrealistic. If you watch too many romantic films, you’re going to be so disappointed in life.
So what’s a film you think is genuinely romantic?
God, that is so difficult. Harold and Maude – that’s a good romantic film. That’s nice, because it’s not traditional romance. I’ll stick with that one.
Weekend screens from Thu 26 Jan 2012.