45 Years: ‘The UK has a blind spot for dramas about middle-class emotions’

Director Andrew Haigh and producer Tristan Goligher discuss their collaboration on 45 Years, an award-winning new film about an estranged marriage starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.

Joseph Walsh
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45 Years (2015): behind the scenes with Andrew Haigh and Charlotte Rampling

45 Years (2015): behind the scenes with Andrew Haigh and Charlotte Rampling
Credit: Agatha A. Nitecka

“There is a thread that goes through all of my work. Thematically the same things interest me, and they are in everything I do,” says director Andrew Haigh of his work to date.

Haigh’s work is laced with the themes of love and choice – potent subject matters in his hands, as shown with his 2011 breakout feature Weekend, which pushed the boundaries of the potential for LGBT cinema. The story, which was written, directed and edited by Haigh, is a compelling examination of modern love that follows two young gay men who find that their one-night stand blossoms into something much more significant. Haigh considers Weekend a career-defining moment. “After the release of the film my career changed dramatically. It meant that people were interested in developing my projects, which was a nice change, and it also led to working on the HBO drama Looking.”

Prior to Weekend, Haigh made a low-budget docu-drama entitled Greek Pete. It was made for less than £5,000 and was a turning point in Haigh’s career as a director. “I finally felt that I could call myself a filmmaker, which was a first for me. Whether or not the film was totally realised or successful, it gave people some confidence that I could make a feature.”

Andrew Haigh and producer Tristan Goligher on set

Andrew Haigh and producer Tristan Goligher on set
Credit: Agatha A. Nitecka

Along his filmmaking journey, Haigh has had the support of his long-standing producer Tristan Goligher who has been with Haigh since his first film. This relationship began when they worked together on the short film Five Miles Out (2009). Haigh explains: “Tristan is a creative producer in the very best sense. He cares first and foremost about the creative side of the project. He is always the first person to see any draft of an outline or version of a script or any kind of cut. His advice is always valid because we have the same goal – to make the project the best it can be.”

Goligher’s reasons for working with Haigh complements this ethos. He says: “Andrew has a rare ability to be confident about his intentions, while simultaneously questioning and challenging his own ideas. This means that part of our working relationship, especially during production, is a constant discussion on how this will impact on the story.”

Haigh has based his new feature film 45 Years on a short story by David Constantine called ‘In Another Country’. “I first read the short story about six years ago and I was instantly drawn to it. It is about love, both romantic and otherwise, but it is also a story about choices. It is about how these choices shape a life; shape the meaning of life,” says Haigh.

45 Years (2015)

45 Years (2015)

45 Years was seen to be a more attractive prospect to investors because of the success that Haigh and Goligher had with Weekend. Goligher reflects: “Thinking back to when we were taking Weekend out to people, showing it to funders, no-one was interested. I think that was for a number of reasons including the obvious questions around Andrew and myself. As a young producer it’s very difficult to finance a film like that until you’ve done it once and it works.

“In the UK we have a very big blind spot in our cinema culture when it comes to independent dramas about middle-class people dealing with emotional issues and existential questions. It goes two ways in the UK, where at the higher end it is romantic and sentimental, at the other it is gritty. I don’t think as a cinematic nation we are very good at the place in between.” However, Weekend and 45 Years are both films that occupy that space. “We both just stopped waiting for permission to make the films we wanted to make. Weekend was a huge success at SXSW, winning the Audience Award; I don’t think we could have opened at a better festival and in some ways that festival has been a huge source of inspiration for us,” concludes Goligher. 

45 Years focuses on Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) a week before her wedding anniversary with her husband (Tom Courtenay), as they are planning a party to celebrate their years of marriage together. Unsettling these happy tidings is the arrival of a letter for her husband, informing him that the body of his first lover has been discovered frozen in a glacier in the Swiss Alps. As the days pass, it becomes apparent that there might not be a marriage left to celebrate.

Arguably 45 Years may be considered a partner-piece to Weekend, following similar themes and evolving Haigh’s voice as an artist set at the other end of the age spectrum. “On a creative level, we [Andrew and I] look at 45 Years as a thematic sequel to Weekend,” says Goligher. Both titles examine relationships facing tough choices. Haigh’s passion for exploring such territory is what drives him: “I am interested in why people make certain choices, what guides them, what stops them, what scares them about making choices at all. It is very hard having the ability to choose and to take control of your life. It is both exhilarating and at the same time is enough to make you hide under your bed and never come out.”

45 Years (2015)

45 Years (2015)

When asked how he feels about his developing voice as director, Haigh says: “I don’t think that I can answer that until I have some hindsight. You try different things, you experiment, and you push forward certain ideas that interest you as a filmmaker. You become more confident about certain decisions and less about others. You stop making old mistakes but add a whole list of new ones. You certainly become more confident to the point that you can at least pretend you know what you are doing.”

Ultimately for Haigh and Goligher the films they make are about how the stories resonate with audiences and comment on how we live our lives. Goligher echoes the spirit of these sentiments. “I’m interested in stories that contribute something to the discussion of how we live our lives, politically, philosophically, and ultimately personally. 45 Years is all of those. Crucially it’s a story about people I feel are rarely portrayed honestly on screen. If we do that, then we have a chance to make a deep, intimate connection with people. What more can we aspire to?” 

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