Weekend was the darling at this year’s SXSW festival. Opening alongside Duncan James’ highly-anticipated Source Code – a tough film to be up against; the low-budget British movie triumphed – and the praise continues. Two men meet in a club on a Friday night and enjoy an alcohol fuelled one-night-stand. Their chance encounter matures into an intense bond and their lives become entwined. Passionate, gritty dialogue and intimate, the film has picked up film prizes throughout the US – and soon, it will come to Europe.
Set to be released this autumn, Electronic Beats caught up with director Andrew Haigh to talk about his acclaimed second movie.
For me, Weekend is a film about the human condition and it’s irrelevant what sex the two main characters are – it’s not a niche “gay movie” as some reviews have referred to it. Are you hoping to challenge people’s preconceptions with the movie?
I hope so. I always knew that if I told a story about gay characters, people would automatically try and pigeon-hole the film. People are very quick to try and define something in its narrowest terms. They sometimes forget there can be many ways to define a film just like there are many ways to define a person. It seemed obvious to me when I was writing the story that first and foremost it was about two people with very universal struggles, but simply being told within a gay context. I also think that I was quite excited at the idea that an audience would watch the film expecting one thing but that it would become something different, resonate in other ways. That was always part of my intention.
Are you frustrated that the movie is still referred to as a gay movie? Especially as that’s less important than the content?
I try not let it drive me crazy because you have little control over how people perceive it, but I do find it frustrating. The problem is that the minute the film becomes defined as a ‘gay movie’ it puts people off from going to see it. And I say this not for commercial reasons but simply because if you make a film you do actually want people to come see it. Plus I do want straight people to give it a go precisely because I wish this separation that seems to exist would disappear. I go and see films about straight people all the time and those films resonate with me and I’m gay – so I find it frustrating that it can’t always work the other way around. I also think there is a tendency among some people to look down on a ‘gay movie’ as if it is not as worthy, or equal as other films. There is certainly an element of homophobia attached.
Weekend went head-to-head with Source Code at SXSW – were you apprehensive about going up against such a highly anticipated movie?
Yes! I was convinced that no-one would come and in fact that’s almost what happened. The turnout was pretty small and I was sure the film would die a death. Luckily it was actually the perfect time to have the screening as all of the distributors had no interest in seeing Source Code (because they couldn’t buy it) so they came to ours instead. In fact I’m pretty sure we had more industry people than actual punters in the audience. I felt sick throughout the screening but luckily they all seemed to like it and the so-called ‘buzz’, whatever that means, came from that first screening. Being an underdog is a good sometimes, as is showing a film when no-one knows much about it or has any expectations.
How did the story of Weekend come about?
It initially came about from being frustrated with the films I had seen about gay characters. It was rare that they ever said anything about how I see the world. I also wanted to make something honest and real; that was about life as it is lived and not as it is seen in films. I’m also pretty obsessed about themes of identity and self-definition – how we as individuals work out who we are and how we decide to portray that to the world. Telling a story about two gay people seemed the perfect way to address those issues.
The dialogue is incredibly real – did you script or were many scenes improvised?
The film is pretty much scripted but there are elements of improvisation in the scenes. I always wanted the actors to feel free to try different things and nothing was sacred. I think it’s essential to allow actors the freedom to play around with what is written, and for me it is the only way the words can actually come alive and feel real. I did though spend a lot of time when writing trying to make it feel as natural as possible. I would walk around my bedroom having a lot of conversations with myself. It wasn’t pretty.
You filmed using mostly master shots – was this to enhance the documentary feel to the film?
It was always my intention to shoot like that. Many people told me not to but I completely ignored them. People worry that you will get yourself into difficulty but I knew the actors were good enough to sustain the style of shooting and it was certainly used to enhance the natural documentary style feel. It always makes me crazy how often people cut nowadays and usually for no reason whatsoever. I think shooting with these long takes actually draws you in. It makes things more intimate. You allow the audience to engage more with what is on the screen. You don’t hold their hand, forcing them to look at a certain thing, feel a certain emotion. It is also great for the actors. They don’t have to worry about continuity, they can try different things in each take; they actually get a chance to act for longer than a minute.
I’ve heard that it can be difficult to get backers for a gay film, what were your experiences?
It is difficult. We got turned down by a lot of people and some of their responses were interesting to say the least. I wouldn’t say it’s homophobia as such but there is certainly an element of fear. People worry that it will be to niche – although as I keep telling people at least the film has an inherent audience they will want to see it. I think people also feel that if you are going to tell a gay story it has to be about coming out or the effects of violent prejudice. It’s as if telling a story simply about two gay characters and the quiet dramas that happen in their lives – isn’t enough. Let’s just say there were a lot of times I wanted to go burn down some buildings and scream at people for being so narrow-minded. In the end we did get some funding from a great organization called EM MEDIA and they were completely behind us all the way, understanding exactly what we were trying to achieve.
Is there any particular reason that the movie is set in a provincial UK Midlands town?
Firstly that is where the money came from and secondly I was really keen that the film was not set in London. I wanted it to be in a provincial town that was virtually nameless. People seem to forget that people might live outside of the big liberal cities and have normal jobs and normal lives and don’t hang out in hipster bars and play in bands. Also one of the influences for the film – Saturday Night, Sunday Morning – was shot on many of the same locations, which was great for me
What’s next in the pipeline?
I’m working on a few new things but won’t really know exactly what they are until I finish writing them. I usually start out with a firm idea of what something is about and by the end of writing it, it becomes something very different.