• 'Lean on Pete' (Transmission Films)Source: Transmission Films
The director of 'Weekend' and '45 Years' turns his talent for relationship dramas to a different - but equally affecting - bond.
Stephen A. Russell

30 Nov 2018 - 5:13 PM  UPDATED 1 Oct 2020 - 3:02 PM

From initial spark, through funding to filming and then release, making movies takes an inordinately long time, especially if you work on the small but weighty scale of Weekend and 45 Years writerdirector Andrew Haigh.

Lovingly crafting two-handers that capture soulful faces rippling with quiet victories and flickering defeats, his intensely intimate films are essentially six-year commitments from start-to-finish. He’s usually securing the rights to his next project while about to start its predecessor.

“They take so long you worry that your initial passion for such things potentially has faded away by the time you have to make it, edit it and then actually talk about it for like a year and half,” he chuckles affably in his polished Yorkshire accent. “That’s why it’s so important for me to choose something that means something to me, otherwise it’s just not worth it.”

A bit like getting a tattoo then? “It really is,” he agrees. “Every time I start a new project, I think about getting one, but I’ve never done it.”

He momentarily considers inking a horse to mark latest feature Lean on Pete, but reconsiders: “It’s incredibly egotistical to put my own films on my body.” 

Adapted from the novel by American author and singer-songwriter Willy Vlautin (whose partner Andy Morwood handed it to him), Lean on Pete stars All the Money in the World’s rangy Charlie Plummer as 15-year-old Charley. Something of a lost soul largely fending for himself, Charley's life is upended constantly by his loving but unreliable single father (Travis Fimmel), who is on a constant hunt for better opportunities that never materialise, traversing the forgotten corners of America that have made their presence felt so keenly in the last couple of years.

Picking up odd jobs at the rundown stables owned by grumbling Del (Steve Buscemi), Charley finds stability in the quiet company of Pete, a past-its-prime racehorse entering the dangerously unproductive end of its working life, as Chloë Sevigny’s kind but blunt jockey, Bonnie, ominously warns.

This momentary peace is all-too-soon disrupted again, this time tragically, prompting Charley to load Pete in a stolen trailer and set out across the Pacific Northwest from a Portland he barely had the time to know.

“There are so many lives that are wasted, and not just in America,” Haigh says. “It’s the same in Britain. It’s the same everywhere. As a society we’ve just let people fall behind and not been there to help them, so for me that’s the greatest tragedy there is, this poor kid, a good kid tyring to get on with his life.”

Haigh has a keen eye for outsiders. Whirlwind romance Weekend, which cast Tom Cullen and Chris New as strangers falling into each other’s arms in a breathless 48-hours before setting out on separate paths again, came in a fallow period for queer cinema post-Brokeback Mountain. Older actors, older women in particular, are often sidelined in cinema, but the Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay-led 45 Years focused on a couple’s seemingly rock solid relationship unravelling.

Lean on Pete is similarly a two-hander, but one with only one voice. “Charlie knew I liked things to be internal, but to keep them internal you have to be able to express something that the audience can latch on to,” Haigh recalls on casting Plummer. “It’s not just having a blank face and looking miserable, you have to express something in the way you look at the world, and Charlie was very good at that.”

Casting the right steed for his silent partner Pete – aka Starsky – was also vitally important. “There was something so sorrowful about that horse,” Haigh says. “Maybe I could feel like he was the horse version of Charley. Not a spectacular horse, but a good one that is just going through life trying to be the best horse he can be.”

The pair works incredibly well together, and the audience invests heavily in their fates as the players surrounding them come and go, including Buscemi and Sevigny. “They loved the fact that they don’t have big barnstorming final scenes and were fantastic to work with, really generous and kind,” Haigh says. “They don’t have egos at all. They knew they were servicing Charley’s story.”

Wryly acknowledging that his fondness for upending the traditional three-act structure and embracing a more leisurely pace has aroused the ire of many a Twitter troll, Lean on Pete will likely poke the bear again. “I’m trying to make films that feel closer to real life,” Haigh says. “Audiences are really used to certain things, they expect them. If you hear it’s a film about a boy and his horse, you suddenly have a picture of what that is in your head, but this isn’t that film. It’s a challenge, because you know some people will go with that and some will prefer the other version.”

Haigh loves a challenge. Though it’s been in pre-production limbo for some time now, he intends to follow up his TV work on Looking and The OA with a miniseries adapting Ian McGuire’s dark and sweary sea voyage mystery novel, The North Water. “Of course I am making it harder than it needs to be by wanting everything to be very realistic,” he laughs irreverently at himself once more. “I want to film on a boat in the Arctic north of Canada, and in Svalbard. Insane locations.”

We can only hope he continues to choose such unusual projects and to tell his stories so uniquely. “I mean, it’s not even as though I am trying to be like this,” he says. “It’s just the way that my brain seems to work.”

No Marvel superheroes then? “Do you know what, if I made a Marvel superhero movie, they would fire me within a week. Ron Howard would be stepping in.”


Watch 'Lean on Pete'

Saturday 10 October, 10:25pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)

UK, 2018
Genre: Drama, Adventure
Language: English
Director: Andrew Haigh
Starring: Charlie Plummer, Steve Zahn, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Amy Seimetz

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