The rearview mirror of any relationship can be blinding, particularly one that looks back on more than four decades of shared history. In "45 Years," writer/director Andrew Haigh wonders what might happen if everything a couple has known suddenly crumbles. The movie begins with Jeff (Tom Courtenay) learning that the remains of the woman he once sought to marry have been discovered some 50 years after her death. His reflectiveness sends his wife, Kate (Charlotte Rampling), for a tailspin, and she begins to wonder whether the entire marriage has been tainted by the specter of her husband's lost love. All of this occurs as they are readying a party to celebrate their 45th anniversary.
A soft-spoken story that doesn't make grand statements about its characters, "45 Years" is a nice companion piece to Haigh's previous film, 2011's "Weekend," which followed a young gay couple as unexpected romance blossomed after a one-night stand. The Huffington Post sat down with Haigh a few weeks ago to discuss how the two projects relate, why ambiguity is essential to "45 Years" and how he feels about the fate of his HBO series, "Looking."
In many ways, this movie is the polar opposite of "Weekend." Did you write "45 Years" because you wanted to explore the inverse of what you did in "Weekend"?
It’s interesting because I do see them as very much connected as films. They are like polar opposites, but also they’re like bookends. They’re totally different, but also dealing with similar things. One is about two people trying to understand what they want by looking forward at the possibility of a relationship, and then the other one is two people trying to understand who they are and what they want by looking back at a very long-term relationship. And I always liked the idea that, in my head, if Glen and Russell from "Weekend" got together and got married, 45 years later they might be like Kate and Jeff. So there’s this strange similarity and they are both essentially two-hander relationship movies, Russell very much being the protagonist of that and Kate very much being the protagonist of this. It's two characters trying to understand their way to and within a relationship and trying to make those relationships work.
We get very little of Kate and Jeff's backstory in "45 Years," but I understand there was more in your original script. How do you decide what to cut? The reason they don't have children, for example?
Always the biggest challenge, I suppose, is knowing what to reveal and explain and what not to reveal and explain. And in this script, I would definitely say there were scenes we didn’t put in the film that were more about backstory. You can feel it when you’re shooting, to be honest. You’re like, "I’m not going to need this scene." And they still often are very important scenes to shoot because it means as an actor they can understand the emotional trajectory of the film.
For me, I wanted the issues of children to be obviously a fundamental part of the story without overwhelming the story, and also I just love that the audience can leave a film not entirely knowing everything, even half of everything. I love that because I’m sure it’s the only way a film can keep ticking around in your head. And you find very quickly that people put themselves into the movie. I’ve come out of the cinema and screenings and seen members of my family arguing with each other about things, and I’m like, “You’re going to go home and you’re going to lie in bed tonight and you’re still going to be thinking about this.”
I walked out behind a couple discussing whether Kate and Jeff even liked each other to begin with.
Right. "Should they ever have been together?"
I remember my key thing was, and it was the same with "Weekend," in films and in our idealized version of what a relationship is, it’s some kind of weird perfection. It’s deep, passionate love and you care about them amazingly, but I don’t think anybody would think that in real life. We like to think that, but it’s not. It’s very, very messy. The deep core of us all is fucking mess. A total mess. And we do irrational things and we think irrationally and we feel irrationally. Things that shouldn’t destroy us do destroy us, and I love that. I love that messiness.
How much sympathy do you feel for Kate? The story is mostly told from her perspective, but she also becomes irrational about the situation at times. Or at at least that was my take.
I like the idea of you changing your sympathies. I think it’s very much about what you would do personally. Are you the type of person who would be able to get over what’s happening? We’ve all been there. We’ve all been like, "Why am I so upset about this?" I don’t mind people feeling sympathy or lack of sympathy at certain points of the film. Hopefully, for me, by the time you get to the end of the film, you feel sympathy for Kate -- that’s the key. I feel enormous sympathy for her, even if it is irrational.
What's your attraction to relationship stories? The ones you tell always have a certain soul-searching to them. You explore similar themes with "Looking." Is that a conscientious interest?
Absolutely. You kind of said it because I think our biggest driving force in life is for us to understand ourselves and find someone else that understands us and then try to find our place in the world. And so I think I’d never really understood how in mainstream cinema relationships are usually the stuff of romantic comedy that ends in affection.
It's like the reward at the end of a struggle.
They’re struggling, they find each other and they’re fine. But life is just not like that and so I’m really interested in that deep desire that we all have to forge relationships, whether they’re with friends or with family or with lovers or whatever it is. We are like little lost souls, desperately trying to find someone. But it could be that you find a political organization that makes you feel less alone, or it could be that you find a person. But that’s what we’re trying to do. I’m drawn to those. That is just so part of human nature to not be alone. It’s kind of as simple as that.
With that interest comes frank depictions of sex, whether it's the one-night stand as the catalyst of "Weekend" or the open-relationship talk in Season 2 of "Looking" or the great scene in "45 Years" where Kate and Jeff attempt sex for the first time in so long. That scene is an anomaly in Hollywood because we rarely see geriatric sex in all its complications.
Sex is just very interesting to me in the different forms it can take and what it means to people. Sex when you first meet someone is very, very different than sex in a long-term relationship. I think in a long-term relationship it’s less about sex and more about reaffirming your connection. And then sex on a one-night stand is like, “Look at who I am, this is what I can do."
I never wanted to do a sex scene for the sake of doing a sex scene. It has to have a story point. Whether in “Looking,” it’s like Patrick and Richie on the day-trip episode -- that sex forges something deep between them. When Eddie and Agustín have sex and he ejaculates in his eye, there’s a story point for that. And in “45 Years,” it’s very much where they’ve had this moment of recollection and they’d been dancing downstairs and they can feel the passion of their youth again. It’s a moment of the two of them desperately trying to reconnect in that moment. And I genuinely think that if they’d been able to reconnect in that moment, the film would be very, very different. If that sex had been successful, he might just go, “You know what? I’m so sorry.” And she might have said, “Do you know what? I am too.” And they could have talked it all through. That sex scene makes me sad because it just couldn’t work and that’s just for reasons of anxiety. They haven’t had sex in a long time, and when you’ve not had sex with your partner for a long time, it’s anxious when you do it again. And the fact that they are older and physically he cannot perform in the way that he used to perform. The actors knew the importance of the scene -- they had no issues with it. I like to film sex without being explicit, in a way that feels close and intimate because that is what sex feels like to me. It’s about connection.
You were an assistant editor on "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down," movies that are pretty antithetical to your current sensibilities. Can you see a way that they might have influenced your work now?
Not really. You do those films because you want to earn some money. That’s the truth of it. But there were certain films I worked on as an assistant, like “Mister Lonely,” the Harmony Korine film, where you just see the director work and you see the choices they make. That certainly has influenced my way of thinking about films. You sit in an editing room and you look at how much footage has been shot, how many different takes and angles and coverage, and I don’t do that. If I can do a scene in one shot, it’s in one shot. Most of my shots are pretty long. I think with "Looking," what we have in the first minute is a whole episode of a traditional TV show. I like to let things breathe, I like to let things have a certain tone.
That's a lot of what's great about "Looking," but it also probably led to its demise. Ratings aren't always pretty for slow-burning shows like that.
Definitely. "Looking" was always a niche show for a niche within a niche. It’s a gay-themed show, so you’re not going to get millions of straight people watching it -- that’s the inevitability of it. That’s sad nowadays. Not all of the gay community is going to want to watch a show like that. Even in basic terms of aesthetics and how it feels, it is not going to be the right pace or the right tone that they’re looking for. I always knew that it was a certain type of show. I’m not going to turn it into something I don’t want it to be.
I never understood people who tuned out because they didn't see themselves in the show, as if there is some monolithic idea of the gay experience, or even the human experience. Or even as if that's the top priority when it comes to good fiction. Does that line of criticism bother you?
You do have to let it go because you can’t change what you’re doing. It doesn’t mean it’s easy when the response comes out. We shouldn’t be a bunch of sensitive filmmakers, but we are. We’ve all made what we thought is essentially a show about nice people trying to get happiness in their lives. Most of us who work on the show are gay -- most of the writers, most of the heads of department, most of the actors are all gay people working together, and we all love doing the show. Some of the criticism feels less about the show and more about the show people want it to be, and that can be frustrating. But in the end, it’s an argument that I can never win. I had a screening of “45 Years” the other day and a 16-year-old kid came up to me after the screening and started crying, saying how much the show had meant to him. I get that all the time. And you’ve got people in San Francisco like Armistead Maupin, who I adore, who loves the show. You’re like, “Do you know what? That’s really, for me, what matters.” It’s affecting some people and that’s what matters. What else can you do?
Did any of that criticism affect your approach going from Season 1 to Season 2? And from Season 2 to the movie?
Not necessarily. I think maybe it affected the approach slightly going into Season 2. For the movie, not whatsoever. For the movie, I felt like, “This is what we want to do.” I felt like, “We don’t listen to those things.”
Is the movie finished?
We wrapped last week.
Did HBO want to conclude with a movie, or did you have to cajole them into giving the show a proper ending?
I think the strange thing is, in their eyes, it was not about canceling the show -- it was about bringing the show to the end. And in the media it becomes “The show was canceled!” In reality, the phone call is, “We can’t go forward with another season. We want you to make a film.”
That’s great because plenty of premium-cable shows just end. HBO didn’t give “Enlightened” a movie, and there was certainly another story to tell there.
Yeah, lots just end. HBO was very, very proud of the show and loved working on the show, so they wanted as much as we did to see it come to some kind of conclusion. We weren’t concluded in Season 2. Patrick had a bad season on purpose. We want him to find some kind of ending.
"45 Years" opens Dec. 23. This interview has been edited and condensed.
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