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Melancholy, Love, and Time: An Interview with Andrew Haigh

Discussing the prize-winning "45 Years" with its director.
Director Andrew Haigh (left) and actor Tom Courtenay of 45 Years.
In his reflection on love and politics Alain Badiou argues that rarely in the cinema has there been a filmmaker who tried to discuss love and its complexity within the family structure. Cinema has always been more interested in reflecting upon this question in the hazardous encounter of two young adults. However, as Badiou argues, love is not only the emotion that happens after a hazardous encounter; it is also the emotion that we feel when we live together for a long period of time. Andrew Haigh’s drama 45 Years, which premiered in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, where both its lead actors, takes on Badiou’s implicit challenge by reflecting upon love in the form of a couple (played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, who each one won Best Acting awards at Berlin) that have lived together for 45 years. The Notebook has written the film several times; see Adam Cook, Daniel Kasman, and Fernando F. Croce for more on the film’s story and its pleasures.

NOTEBOOK: 45 Years is based on a short story. What aspects of the short novel made this story interesting for you as a filmmaker?
ANDREW HAIGH: The short story was very much about the past suddenly reappearing and breaking through and having an effect on both the man and the woman in the relationship. The whole was about finding the themes in the story, themes like looking back and having regret about making the wrong choices and then kind of enlarging that to make what the film is. When I first read it the book really hit me. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, and if you have that feeling you see something almost magical in that kind of notion.
NOTEBOOK: You changed some parts of the short story. For example, there was nothing about the couple’s anniversary party. What about other crucial factors, what part of short story you changed and why?
HAIGH: Aside from the anniversary party, I also lower the characters’ ages from their mid-80s to their late 60s and early 70s. I also give a contemporaneous aura to the movie; the original time frame had the story set in the 1990s but the couple in the film lives in the contemporary period. I think this means that the choices of this couple are about the choices that we all have to make in everyday life, not the choices of an older generation already gone. Finally, the story was told very much from the male perspective, so I shifted to the female perspective and enlarged the story. 
NOTEBOOK: You changed the perspective from the man to the woman, but at the end of the film Geoff goes to the ceremony and reads a kind of romantic text about his feelings. In a way, the film ends with the expression of his feelings, a male perspective.
HAIGH: For me, there is consistency. It is very important that you get both points of view. You have to be able to feel for both of those characters. I want to feel for Geoff and I want to feel for Kate, so in that speech you know that is what Kate has been waiting for. She has been waiting for the speech, she has been thinking this might be the thing that brings us all together and makes her feel like she is happy again. So for me the final scene in the film is very much about Kate instead of Geoff. But it is also important that you have both of those journeys working simultaneously.
NOTEBOOK: As Alain Badiou argued, very rarely in cinema do we see filmmakers represent love between an elderly couple. We mostly see two young people falling in love or feeling jealous in their relationship. I think what made your movie so interesting its reaction against that norm. An appealing love story from the long life of a couple can be made. I’m curious if you want to say something in this regard. Is there something unattractive about old couples and love that makes it difficult to film?
HAIGH: It makes no sense to me that people don’t tell stories about long-term relationships. All of us, or most of us, our lives are defined by our relationships and the beginnings of relationships are just the beginnings. They are like two or three days or maybe a year tops—but your relationship is something that spreads over an enormous amount of time. They become probably the most important thing in all of our lives and yet cinema doesn’t like to deal with it because… well, I don’t know. Maybe filmmakers are more interested in the excitement of getting together or the collapse of something tragic and awful. I think it is much more interesting to see how we adapt and change and how we grow and understand ourselves through relationships. There is a misconception that when we get to our 30s we should have figured everything out and know who we are. However, this is not the case for most of us. We are constantly changing. We are in constant moments of becoming. Our identities are always evolving.
NOTEBOOK: That is so true. As you suggest, even after a long period of being together as a couple, there is always the possibility that something terrible happens and breaks the stability of the union.
HAIGH: Yeah, well, I still think that there is fragility in all relationships. You love each other, you hopefully trust each other, but you can never truly know each other. We all have secrets; we all have things that we don’t talk about with our partners. You know we can’t jump into our partner’s head so we don’t know what they are thinking. We are still two individuals within a unit, and there things under the surface that can pop up and I think the tragedy is that this thing appears unreal even though it is real. It doesn’t have to affect what is happening in the present, but I think those things can certainly destroy and disrupt.
This is what happens to this couple. Of course, there is some sort of irrationality to Kate’s feelings, but at the same time they express something deeper. Because of focusing on her relationship, she has a nausea that she cannot overcome. She feels rejected and jealous. It is because under the weight of inspection all that she has built over the years has started to lose its values. She is unsure sure of how to piece back together the parts of her life.
NOTEBOOK: Under Kate’s questioning, Geoffrey states that he would have married Katya had she lived. This causes turmoil in his relationship with Kate. In a pervious interview, you hinted that sometimes silence is better to deal with such situation. Can you say more on this?
HAIGH: I think there are things you probably don’t say or shouldn’t say, but also I think it is about how relationships are forged in their conception. So in the first period of a relationship, when you get to know each other and you define yourselves in that moment, it makes no sense to tell everything. It made no sense in those early days when Geoff met Kate for him to turn around to her and say, “Oh, by the way, I knew this woman who was pregnant with my baby. She fell off the mountaintop and I was going to marry her.” It is also a risk to share your innermost feelings; it is always going to feel like a risk.
NOTEBOOK: This couple didn’t have any children. Did you feel that this gives a more romantic lure to their characters in the movie?
HAIGH: Yeah, absolutely, and you know it was obviously important that they didn’t have children. This always made sense to us; it was always the idea of the original short story. There were no children, and the fact that Katya was pregnant and all those things had an impact from this perspective. Also, I just think that everybody in the society has children in relationships. These two for whatever reason didn’t have children because the film is about two people looking back at their choices. You know they are looking back and wondering what would have happened if they’d had children. “Do I regret not having children? Should we have had children?” And not that this is what the film is about, but it’s one of those choices that we make in life that doesn’t necessarily seem so important at the time but looking back later it can be very important.
NOTEBOOK: After 45 years Kate discovered in the attic that Geoff’s former girlfriend was pregnant. As you mentioned earlier, nothing can be concealed forever. How do you think of the attic and its role in the narrative? Is it a kind of metaphor?
HAIGH: An interesting question. I always think that the house you live in is like a haunted house, especially if you have lived there for a long time. You are surrounded by photos and memories and the attic is where your past is stored; the whole of your history is up in the attic. For me, the metaphor I always like to think about—especially when the house is creaking— is that their past is up there and at any moment the rafters are going to break and that past is going to crash down and land on them and destroy them. I remember personally that I used to keep all of my boxes and everything under the bed at home, like old diaries and letters and photos, and I had to move it all somewhere else into storage because I couldn’t bear lying in bed at night thinking that my past was all underneath me. There were letters from my old partners, letters I would write to my mum and those kinds of things. I had to move it all, and I feel like our past holds us every single day. So that is what the attic felt like to me; it’s like history is up there.
NOTEBOOK: You picked Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, who are very iconic figure for the 60s generation. Can you say more about your casting choice?
HAIGH: I knew that I chose two actors of a certain generation and I knew that what they’ve done before would have an impact in the present. I wanted to make sure that the story of their past fit into the present so that in the story, you know that Geoff was politically active; he was angry when he was younger and he wanted to change the world; so the fact that Tom had been in those really great films made complete sense to me and I love the idea that people will think back and imagine them in that time. I love the fact that the audience could imagine Charlotte when she was younger in her films and see those things and her grace.
There was enough backstory for these characters in the script so I took that and went to Tom’s house and we chatted about the character. For me it is very important that you meet the actors, sit down with them and discuss the role. And then you just let it happen, let it be, and there is no point in me saying to Tom, this character has to be this and I want you to be like this. 
NOTEBOOK: And the choice of actors from a certain generation fits perfectly with the 60s pop music used on the soundtrack.
HAIGH: I think all of us go through the music of past decades to find periods of our lives. It made sense to me to use music from the 60s since Geoff was starting to think about his past again and they were also planning a party. I mean if they are having a party they are not going to start it with modern pop songs. They are going to have songs that meant something to them over the years, and so it made a lot of sense to me that the songs we chose meant something to these two people. And it brings so much when I think of songs that I love, it brings back so much emotion. I think we all do that. In certain moments of life we like melancholy, we want to go and listen to a song that we haven’t heard for decades, like this song you listen to when you go back and you are by yourself.For me, Geoff has gone through the record collection and thought, “I remember that song. The last time I heard it maybe I was thinking about Katya.” It is all about those strange things we do with music.
NOTEBOOK: And a final question. Your first feature film, Weekend, is about two lovers who want to see if they can live with each other for more than a short period of time. It appears that the question of tension in couples, the complexities of intimacy between two people, the risks involved in exposing oneself emotionally, and the difficulty of being truly honest about one’s fears are all very central themes in your work. Is this something that you want to continue in the future?
HAIGH: Certainly after making Weekend I wanted to continue exploring the same themes in a different way. Weekend was the beginning of something that we can think of 45 years later; not the end of something but the possible end of something looking back. And so here are two ends of a story and almost a very, very connected one and I think there are things that I tried to explore in Weekend that I continue to explore here.

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