“I can never get used to the San Francisco weather.”
I’m sitting with Andrew Haigh in a high rise in San Francisco on a very crisp fall morning, remembering the ever-changing weather of his former Looking location (“Oh, well, it must be warm, because it’s summer and it’s sunny.” And then you go outside and you’re like, “I am freezing cold.”) as we talk about how easily our memory can deceive us. A thought is a huge part of his new film, All of Us Strangers, which looks at a film and television writer named Adam, a late-40s gay man in London (exquisitely played by Andrew Scott) who begins reminiscing about his parents who died in a car crash when he was 12 and returns to his childhood home to find his parents (beautifully portrayed by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) there, unaged like a memory and full of questions. To further muddy Adam’s crisis of memory, his mysterious neighbor Harry (an excellent turn from Academy Award nominee Paul Mescal) drunkenly flirts with him. Adams rebuffs him at first but gives in to a sense of possible adventure and even domesticity as he examines his life now through the lens of his past.
For Haigh, things got very personal, shooting the film in his own childhood home stirred up memories, senses and reacted viscerally to returning after 40 years. But it also allowed him his inroad to tell this story. Based off of the 1987 novel Strangers by Taichi Yamada, Haigh turns it into a coming out story, gay love story and one less of supernatural entities but of metaphysical and metaphorical being. The film is a huge critical success, kicking off at the Telluride Film Festival in early September and playing to enthusiastic and tearful crowds since then. It’s earned 14 BIFA nominations, winning three craft awards, and a field-best four Gotham Awards nominations: Best International Feature, Best Lead Performance (Scott), Best Supporting Performance (Foy) and Best Screenplay for Haigh. Searchlight Pictures will release the film theatrically on December 22.
I talked to Haigh about why and how he made All of Us Strangers his own, his stellar quartet of actors, the music that permeates the film and what old Hollywood movie he would do a gay version of if he could.
Erik Anderson: The adaptation of the novel makes some really big changes to the source material. What was the core thread that connected it with you, and how did you find your version of telling it?
Andrew Haigh: Yeah, it’s really unusual. I’ve tried to think a lot about it because when I read the book and that central idea of meeting your parents long after they have gone… Now, my parents are still alive. But that idea, I just became absolutely obsessed by that idea of reconnecting with a reunion. And with all reunions, whether it’s with your past or with people or whatever that is, you get to re-understand yourself. And there was something about that that I found a really fascinating idea.
And then from that it was like, how do I make this my own? And I knew in the book, it’s a heterosexual love affair that is going on. I mean, I knew that wasn’t going to be the case when I did the adaptation. And as I started working on it, I became really fascinated about that connection between queerness and family, and how wrapped up they are within each other and how complicated they can be with each other. And out of that, how complicated understanding love can be, and familial love and romantic love being informed by each other. So there were so many things that I felt like the conceit of meeting the long dead parents allowed me to explore all of those elements of queerness that I was interested in, but also feeling like it’s also tapped into something so universal at the same time.
EA: It’s kind of crazy, how do you re-litigate your own past? I think one of the fascinating things about the movie is that there is also the element of how your own memory can be deceiving, because memory isn’t a fact. It’s a recollection. It’s an impression. Did you, shooting in your childhood home and all of the things that that would conjure, find that your childhood memories were different now?
AH: Yeah. It’s funny, isn’t it? I’ve always been interested about this idea of nostalgia and how we feel when we look at a photo or we listen to a song. But it also hides a truth, nostalgia. And underneath that nostalgia is usually something complicated and messy and upsetting. And so I knew going into the script that for this to work, or how I thought it would work, would be I needed to investigate my own feelings about my past and relationships with my family and relationship with myself when I was young as well.
And so it was difficult. And going into that space again, which I hadn’t been to for 40 years, you are literally… It feels like you are in a haunted house. But the ghosts are your family and your parents, and yourself and that younger version of yourself. And you’re trying to reconnect with that younger version of yourself. And in many ways, the film is about that, is about that pain that you can feel growing up and how you store it away, and how it exists in the corner somewhere inside you, and out it can come again very, very quickly. It’s like time travel. You can suddenly fly back to how you used to feel, and there it is.
And in the house, I got eczema again when I was working in the house and I hadn’t had it since I was a kid. And Andrew as well started to feel like he got some skin stuff and we were both… Our bodies are reacting to how we used to feel. It really felt like that. And I guess the body does keep a memory of your old self.
EA: Absolutely. That is fascinating, and terrifying.
AH: Yeah, exactly.
EA: The way that our bodies and minds work with the senses.
AH: With trauma, essentially. And I think there can be lots of things that we… Obviously losing your parents at a very young age is a horrendously traumatic event. But lots of people experience all kinds of traumas, big and small, that become imprinted on your sense of self.
EA: Sure. And something you think is a small trauma isn’t when you become an adult. And I think that’s the kind of thing that surprises people, is that you focus on big traumas, but it’s…
AH: It’s a word that someone used. It’s how you felt about something. It’s something you tried to do. And I think there’s little traumas of the insidious awful ones that you sort of think, “Well, why am I worried about that? That shouldn’t bother me.” And you get to 50 and you’re like, “Why am I still being triggered or activated by something I should have been able to get over?”
EA: I think that happens in both of Adam’s coming out experiences with each of his parents, and his mother’s… “Oh, it’s a sad life, isn’t it?” I don’t know many gay people growing up that have not heard a version of that as, “Oh, here’s what you can expect.” And you can see it. You can see it on his face.
AH: Yeah. I mean, so many of us grew up feeling like that, and feeling like our lives would be filled with sadness and aloneness, and possibly death. Or probable death, actually, it felt like at a certain time as we were growing into… I was growing into my sexuality in the early ’80s, so I saw a world in which there was no possibility of me having a fulfilled, happy life. That’s a terrible thing for a lot of kids to have to have dealt with.
And so I feel like a lot of us felt like that, and still feel like that. It can be a very hard thing to shift. And then with the dad scene, this idea that, it’s so odd when you were a kid because you both want your parents to understand you and be there for you and come in and give you a hug and say, “Why are you upset? Why are you crying every night in your bed?” But at the same time, we lock that bloody door and we don’t want them to come in because we don’t want them to know the truth of us. So there’s this thing going on for a lot of kids, and that’s very complicated to have to deal with.
EA: I think that is why that scene is so effective in that it is always a two-way street and you don’t realize that it is.
AH: Yeah. And how often actually, and I notice myself doing it, this idea that we are separate from our family a little bit as queer people, which I think is how we feel. That’s also sometimes our fault. Not our fault. That’s probably the wrong term. But we feel like we want to push them away, that they won’t want to really know us. And that’s not our fault. That’s been put onto us by society. But it can feel like we also want to push them away. And that goes on into your adulthood. I see it with so many gay people that I know. I can still feel that they are existing on the boundaries of their family. If only people would have an honest conversation about, “This is how you made me feel. This is how I feel. Can we please talk about that and try and get past that?”
EA: Absolutely. With a cast this small everything needs to be really spot on, and I am still in awe of how perfect this cast is. Can you talk a little bit about getting to each Andrew and Paul and Claire and Jamie?
AH: I’m still amazed I got them all actually, to be honest. When we were casting, I had no thought that we would get four people as amazing as these four people. It seems like it’s the Avengers of independent filmmaking. I’m like, “This is incredible.” And we went to Andrew first. I always like to cast in order, so I don’t want to cast… It would make no sense to cast the mother first and then cast Andy, Andrew. So I cast him first, and I’ve always loved him as an actor. I felt like, “Why has he not had a leading role in a movie? It makes no sense.” He’s so brilliant, subtle, intuitive, emotional. I sat down with him, had a conversation with him. I think he felt like, “You’ve written a script about me, for me,” and he really understood it. And I was like, “Yes, you’re the right person.”
Then we went to Claire, and then Claire came on board. And she just feels like this perfect mix of being a mother, but also being a bit spiky and having an edge. I think you never doubt that that mother does not love her son wholeheartedly. She just doesn’t always know how to express that love for her child. And I think Claire really understood that. And then Jamie came on board afterwards, and I love Jamie Bell so much in it. I think he’s a dream in it. I just think he’s amazing. And I think we… There’s some relationship between this and him and Billy Elliot. Billy Elliot had a dad that wasn’t accepting of anything and now he gets to play that dad for his son. And I think he’s a beautiful actor, Jamie. Compassionate and tender, and I just love him in it.
And then Paul came last. He wasn’t available to start with and then he became available and I was like, “Send him the script, please.” And we’d thought of a lot of people for the role, and it’s an unusual role to get right because he’s there for Adam for a lot of the story, until let’s say he needs someone to be there for him. But for a lot of it, he’s there for Adam, and that’s going to be an unusual role for someone to play. They’ve still got to show elements of themselves and show the depth of that character, but you don’t know much about him, for a lot of the story. But I think that Paul is a very, very compassionate actor, and person. And so he understands what that role is and what Adam needs from him in that moment. And they have great chemistry and I could tell they had great chemistry and they felt good together. And they’re all just really good actors. I think when it comes down to it, good actors, it’s what you want.
EA: Exactly. Was there a proper rehearsal process for everybody? Because the scenes that they all have together are highly emotional and really volatile.
AH: Yeah. Not really. I mean, we definitely sat down and talked through things and we chatted through scenes and we all got to know each other better and talked about what it meant to us, the scripts. But I didn’t want to go in too prepared. I want there to be, in many ways… I like it when an actor is a little bit… Not to say under prepared. But it’s not being said out loud, because something fascinating can come in that moment, even if things don’t go quite how you expect them to, there’s something magical in those moments.
And I feel like when you’re trying to capture emotion, and you’re trying to make that emotion feel absolutely natural in its eruption to the surface, you can’t overdo that. And when you find it on screen, like with Andrew, when you feel it, when he’s coming out with the mum, he talks about running away to London, or with the dad, that emotion is so genuine, and it’s there. And even if you do it again, it’s not quite the same. I mean, those takes I have chosen are the first time that emotion erupted, and that’s what you’re trying to capture. So I do not want to waste that in a rehearsal. I wanted that to be there on the day, and I want to have the camera on.
EA: And I think it comes across because almost, especially Andrew, his emotional spontaneity is there in every moment and you just feel like you are watching this reaction happening in that moment.
AH: Yeah. And what happens is, it means, I think, that a vulnerability comes across, in all of their performances, actually, when it feels like it’s coming from a sort of unrehearsed natural place, because I imagine the actors are feeling vulnerable. They’re suddenly going on to set and being like, “I’ve got to do this now. This is terrifying. I’ve not prepared this endlessly with all of my cast and the directors.? And I think that that vulnerability is key to getting really gentle, beautiful, naturalistic performances. I feel like it’s the same with Charlotte Rampling and Tom in 45 Years. It’s the same with the guys in Weekend or Charlie in Lean On Pete. It’s like they’re working through the emotions in the moment.
EA: They all have to trust your instincts too. I think about Jamie’s introduction in the movie, which is very gay coded visual language. And if you’re watching it for the first time and you don’t know who this is, it reads as something totally different. Obviously intentional, but I think it’s just part of the gay language that exists in the movie, on top of and underneath the actual content.
AH: Exactly. And Jamie, I mean, we talked about it. I knew that it was going to feel like that and be like that. And of course Jamie, he trusts me enough to know that it’s a good idea. And actually, when we chatted about it, again, I’m trying to make these links between our sexuality, between our desire, between our need for love, and that comes from parental love. No one is surprised when it turns out a straight dude has married someone that’s a bit like his mum. No one is surprised. But no one thinks, “Well, maybe gay men also end up going for someone that’s a bit like their dad, in terms of whatever that personality is.” And they’ve both got mustaches. These are not coincidences. We’ve set it up like that. And it’s definitely about showing the connections between those things.
EA: Exactly. You mentioned the chemistry between Andrew and Paul, which is insane. And I was at the AFI Q&A where you were talking about them just hanging out and just leaving you third wheel.
AH: (laughs) Which has now become some meme. Someone showed me a meme of two guys making out and then a lonely other guy in the corner going, “What’s happened to me?” And I’m like, “How’s this happen?”
EA: I know the exact one you’re talking about. Yes. Because I swear, the internet loves a meme more than anything else, and people really picked up on that, the Q&A. Can you expand a little bit on the development of their chemistry? Because it is really incredible.
AH: Yeah. To start with, they really, really like each other. I think that helps. And they really get on with each other and they’re very, very good friends now after, which is a fantastic thing. But also my job, I feel like, it’s not about me, it’s about them. And I need to try and feel like I’m helping something along, and then just letting it blossom and exist as this thing and make sure that I’m able to capture it in the way that makes the most sense. And create an atmosphere on set that doesn’t stamp out that chemistry, because film sets can be a horrible place.
I’ve been on other film sets, and they can not be an emotionally safe place. And you are rushed and time’s running out and there’s thousands of people. So I just spend a lot of my energy trying to make sure that those guys can just hang out and have a nice time, and then they’re ready to go and then we shoot, and then they can go and the day’s over. I don’t go into overtime hardly ever. And I feel like it’s always at a level where everyone’s feeling supported, and all those kinds of things, because I feel like you’re trying to capture magic, and it’s very easy to destroy that magic.
EA: Let’s talk about sex.
AH: Let’s do it.
EA: I mean, I think people familiar with your work know your frankness and unapologetic nature of sex. Between Looking at Weekend, these are very sensual sexual stories. What did you want to do that was similar but unique for Strangers and the sex and the relationship that Harry and Adam have?
AH: I certainly want to do what I always have tried to do with sex, which means they’re actually there for a reason in the story. That they actually are not just like, “We’re just going to show two people having sex.” There’s something that is important about these two people coming together as characters. I like to depict sex in a way… you know sometimes you’re watching TV and thinking “I’m just watching two people banging away.” And I’m like, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. Go and do that.” But there’s other forms of sex that can happen. So I’m always trying to find something different to do within the sex scenes. But then with this, I really wanted you to feel it. You can feel it on your skin. You can hear the sound of skin, you can taste it, you can sort of smell it. You can read it on a sensual, phenomenological way. I wanted to try and depict sex as it can be for these two people as they are connecting for the first time sexually.
EA: And it very much does that. There are hands on hairy thighs, stubble, roughness and just, you are there. You’re in that moment.
AH: And it’s those parts of the body that you love and you want to touch and you want to feel and you want to… There’s a reason why guys like being with guys. So I want that to be what the sex feels like.
EA: There’s shoulders and armpits and there is… it’s a visual language…
AH: There’s something specific there.
EA: Absolutely. I love that.
AH: But I’ve always thought with sex scenes, if you make it really specific, queer sex scenes specific, I’m absolutely convinced that people that aren’t queer will also be like, “Oh, yeah, I get that. I know that. And I’m finding it quite arousing,” which is like, that’s all great for me. I can be aroused by watching a sex scene that doesn’t have men in it. If it’s done well, I’m like, “I understand where this arousal is coming from, because I’m feeling something.” And that’s what all sex scenes should basically… They need to work on a level like that.
EA: One of the, I think, winning elements of Harry and Adam’s relationship is that even though there is a very… It’s a generational age difference, they are way more alike than unalike. I think the conversation about gay versus queer is absolutely topical and perfect. And I think Harry’s, “queer takes the dick sucking out of it,” is one of my favorite lines of the year. I mean, again, what do you want to say with that?
AH: Yeah. I kind of want to be… Look, things are so different now than they used to be, but also lots of things are still the same. And I feel like every new generation essentially wants to tear down the generation above and say, “You’ve got it wrong. We’ve got it right.” But it doesn’t work like that. We’re all formed by the generation that comes before. And I think it’s really fascinating that there’s a generation of people that hated the word queer because it was an insult. And then there’s a new generation of people that hate the word gay because it meant lame, boring, shit. But it’s the same fucking thing. It’s someone else deciding that it’s a bad thing to be. And so we’re all coming from the same experience. It’s just a different situation that we’re in.
And so I do think that sometimes generations get pitted against each other, and it’s like, “Oh, no, this is outdated now because he’s still worried about this.” And I’m like, “No, hold on. There’s lots of complicated things going on here.” And I remember being young and being very critical of the generation above me. And I look back now and I think, “What a dick I was.” Because they went… I’m 50, but the generation above me who basically, let’s say, came into their sexuality before AIDS and then were then decimated by that thing. How dare I be critical of that generation? Do you know what I mean? And you can’t be. And I feel like we all are helped by what’s happened before.
EA: And again, I think this is why this story exists because it is a reflection of that. Of your own past as well as the past of people before you.
AH: Exactly. Collective past. Exactly.
EA: It really is. I want to ask a big music question, but I don’t want to take too much time. But yeah. I’m very obsessed with the music choices in this, both on a subtextual level… I mean, “The Power of Love,” Jesus Christ. And “Always On My Mind,” which is… It’s so very direct.
AH: So direct.
EA: There’s nothing-
AH: It’s there.
EA: Right there on the surface.
EA: Is there a personal connection to the songs, or was it just finding what you wanted for that moment?
AH: Definitely a personal connection with those songs. I mean, A, those two songs, for example, they’re both queer bands that came out in the ’80s, and were being really quite subversive without anybody realizing that they were being subversive, which I love. But also, pop songs have the ability to express things that we cannot express, especially when you’re a teenager, let’s say. You can’t express complicated emotions. And so pop songs do it in a way that allows you to understand complicated emotions.
And that scene with Always On My Mind, I mean, I was terrified it wouldn’t work. But I love this idea that people think of that as a love song, and it’s now turning into a song, and it is still a love song, but it’s a love song between mother and child, where usually that is seen as a love song about a romantic partner, which fits into the whole thing that I’m trying to explore. But also that songs can have the ability for us to express our feelings to people. And that’s why we listen to music. And that’s why I still love music, and love the music that I loved when I was a kid and a teenager and in my twenties, I still love now.
EA: It can be completely transformative.
AH: It’s time traveling. Yeah. You zoom back… I mean, there’s songs now that I suddenly am like, “Okay, I’m 28 and I’m drunk in a club.” And I remember how I felt in that gay club in my late twenties being like… I can feel it. I can smell the club I was in, just by listening to a piece of music.
EA: Absolutely. Oh my god. This is my last question, let’s have some fun. If you could remake or adapt any Hollywood movie and make it completely gay, what would it be?
AH: Oh my god. That’s a good one. I mean, I’m going to say a movie that… I loved 9 to 5 as a kid. Loved that film so much. But then it’s so gay already.
AH: I’m not sure that remaking it would do anything different. If you put three gay guys in that, you’d be like… But that would be quite funny, three gay guys working wherever. I don’t know. Some office somewhere. But that film is so gay anyway. So it’s so funny when you look back at films you’d watched as a kid. I loved Some Like It Hot. These films are sort of… You look at them now and you’re like, “Well, of course, that’s why I liked it. Of course, that’s why I liked it.” But then I’m going to keep thinking… What would you do? I’m going to ask you.
EA: I would probably want to do something that is so traditionally and canonically-
EA: Straight, yeah. Like a Casablanca essentially, which also has a subversive gay element thing. But something like that where the presentation is so very, very traditionally that. And just kind of like this and changing the genders and changing the sexuality.
AH: I mean, Brief Encounter again feels like it’s completely gay already.
EA: Yes. Or maybe Blithe Spirit.
Andrew Haigh: But if you did actually do it as a gay queer remake, it would be pretty interesting. But then I wonder if then it loses something, because what’s so beautiful about those films is that there is this undercurrent of something subversive underneath it that you are being attracted to. And I always think that there is such a debate that you want… That it’s got to be on-screen as what it is, type thing. But growing up, there were so many things that I responded to, other films that I responded to that weren’t queer films essentially, but there was something in them that I could completely see myself in and was hugely important to me growing up, because there wasn’t lots of queer representation going on.
EA: But that’s the story of our lives, is watching all of this strictly heterosexual content and finding where we are in that, or being smart people like we are and seeing the subtext that was put in there almost for us.
AH: Exactly. Exactly. Subtext is a good thing.
EA: It’s a great thing.
AH: It’s a great thing. Let’s make sure we don’t lose subtext.
EA: In context, totally. With each generation being different or more progressive or more than the one before, I don’t ever want to lose that language, because I think that was key.
AH: And it works on a different level within you. It works on a different level in yourself and in your brain and everything. You feel rather than get told. And that’s what you want. You want to feel things, even if you don’t really understand it or you can’t articulate it. You’re like, “Yeah, but I’m feeling something.” And that’s what we want. We don’t want to be told something. We want to feel something.
All of Us Strangers will be released in theaters from Searchlight Pictures on December 22.
This interview has been edited and condensed for content and clarity.
Photo by Chris Harris. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.