As a gay filmmaker, Andrew Haigh quickly rose to the occasion with such titles as Weekend and HBO’s Looking. His raw approach to human relationships makes for very real and relatable content, a quality that’s often lacking with queer representation in TV and film. With the following he’s earned from those projects, fans are constantly waiting to see what he’s coming up with next.
His latest film delves into slightly uncharted territories. Based on the book by Willy Vlautin, Lean On Pete follows Charley (Charlie Plummer), a teenager who finds work caring for an aging racehorse named Lean On Pete. After his father dies, he learns Pete is bound for slaughter. Together, they set off across the modern American frontier to find a new home.
I recently spoke with Haigh about the film. Although the film lacks the gay characters and storylines of his other titles, he finds just as much queer parallel as Looking.
What about the book resonated with you to want to adapt it?
It was definitely just Charley, really. I think it was that character that was so central to my desire to want to make the film, how I felt about him, how I wanted to protect him, how I wanted to look after him, and how kind of heartbreaking I found the story. It’s this good kid who’s just falling through the cracks and is being left kind of abandoned, and yet still has this kind of hope and resilience to find what he’s desperately needing, which is security and safety and love and protection. I found it just heartbreaking, and after I read the book, I would talk about Charley and sometimes I could barely even talk about him without like crying. It was a really strange effect it had on me. So, when you feel that about a character, you just feel like you want to try and make this.
Wanting to protect Charley, is that a connection you’d say you felt as a gay man who was once in the closet?
Yea, definitely. I think I certainly do identify that, not only that need to be protected and nurtured for who you are and accepted and loved for who you are. But also, I think in a strange sense, when I read the book, that notion that Charley doesn’t want to open up to anybody, that he’s scared to ask for help, that he’s scared to reveal how he’s feeling. That, from a gay perspective, I really felt like I could understand that. I think when you feel that you don’t fit into the world around you, you’re very scared of opening up in case you’re going to be rejected, rejected by your family, rejected by friends, by people you work with, all that kind of thing. I definitely can feel that in that story, in that sense of Charley’s isolation and his sense of loneliness and his need to not feel that anymore.
You really approach your characters and those relationships in a real way. How do you get to that place with the actors?
It’s funny. To me, the way that we are with people and the way interact with people and try to express ourselves with each other and how we want them desperately to understand us in some way, even if we’re not giving them any way to understand us, I think we’re all just flailing around in life, trying to find some connections and trying to find love, trying to find all those things that make us feel better about ourselves. So, they’ve become so important to me. And I used to love watching that onscreen, and I love trying to make that happen in how I’m shooting things. I love to just observe people. And when I’m writing, I try and make it that it feels to me as realistic as possible in how they’re expressing their emotions to each other, and to never be falling into kind of tropes of so many films that you see. I just try to keep it on a grounded level and allow the actors to bring themselves to it. Actors are amazing to me, and I think if you watch them long enough and you concentrate, they bring so much to the understanding of relationships. So, I just kind of try to make it work on that level.
You also had to work with horses on this film. What was it like trying to bring about their chemistry with the actors?
Basically, we let Charlie spend a good two or three weeks before we started shooting, looking after the horse that plays Lean On Pete, Starsky. Just grooming him, learning how to walk him, cleaning out his stalls, developing a relationship with him essentially, which you can feel in the film. What I found so interesting about doing this story about a boy and a horse, like the idea of doing a film about a boy and a horse is not something I ever thought about doing (LAUGHS). This movie is not the kind of movie I watch. So, it was really vital to me that I never made it feel sentimental or tried to pretend that this horse was anything other than a horse. It means a lot to Charley though. It’s his only connection at some point, his only friend at some point, but it’s still only a horse. So, I just tried to find that balance in the film of not making it too sentimental.
The film takes place across the modern frontier. Did you get to see a lot of the country to find inspiration for that?
Yea, I did. Just before we wrote the script, I spent some time in Portland and spent some time at the racetrack, meeting jockeys and going to races. Then, I drove into Oregon, into Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and up to Montana. So, I spent a good four months just like driving around, camping. I brought a tent with me. I stayed in motels. I just did that whole trip just to feel a bit of the environment, and it’s an amazing journey. It’s beautiful. The landscape’s incredible. It’s a fascinating place to be. But it was also just to get a sense of the world a little bit and a sense of the people that live in those kinds of environments. And I think it helped refine some of the small details or even just the feeling. I think when you’re there as an outsider in that world, you have a certain feeling about it, and I tried to remember how that felt, that kind of excitement and freedom, but also the fear of the unknown and a landscape that you don’t recognize. I tried to bring that into the film.
You’re definitely known for your queer titles. Are you trying to broaden your work with films like this and 45 Years?
Not really, in all honesty. I feel like I come up with an idea or something interests me, and I just work from a gut level of like, “Do I like this? Does it mean something to me?” And I personally, oddly think that to me, Lean On Pete or 45 Years says just as much about my queer or gay experience as something like Weekend. It doesn’t for many people or most people, but for me, it seems to be expressing something that I feel and something that I feel about my life. And being gay is very much about tapping into that. So, for me, I don’t even see a difference between them, oddly. Even though, Lean On Pete and 45 Years are clearly set in a very different world and a different context than Looking and Weekend. If I look at my projects going forward, there’s a mixture of projects that very clearly have gay characters and things that don’t. They all seem the same to me, so it’s never a conscious decision like, “I must move away from gay material.” It’s basically what interests me the most at the time that I want to make a film into.
I feel like a lot of fans are still upset at how abruptly Looking ended. Is that something you’ve reached closure with or would you revisit it if the opportunity ever arose?
Yea, I was actually with Jonathan Groff and Murray Bartlett last night, and we were talking about it. I love all those guys so much. It was such a fantastic experience making that show, and I’m so close to so many people who were involved in the Looking world, even on a basic level of making something with gay people. So much of the crew was gay. So many of the actors were gay. It was a really incredible experience for me. I’ve never experienced that on any other film set I’ve been on or even my own films. I’m usually the only gay person on 45 Years or i. But Looking was such an amazing experience for that, and if there ever was a chance for it to come back in 10 years or even less than that, then I would be more than happy to do it again. Whether that will ever happen is another thing. What I love about it is that I think people are actually starting to rediscover Looking who maybe didn’t watch it when it was first around or maybe didn’t watch it when it was on HBO or decided that it wasn’t for them at the time. And I think people are now reengaging with it. And that makes me happy, that people are still talking about it and maybe watching it for the first time.
Lean On Pete is now in select theaters. Watch the trailer below: