The film Weekend, written and directed by Andrew Haigh, is about two men who start up a relationship after a random hook-up in a club on Friday night. It is a tender, unassuming, and ultimately powerful exploration of what happens when two people first realise they have a romantic connection, and it asks frank but also very human questions about what it means to be gay in the early 21st century. The BFI selected Weekend for its Best of the Year in the 26th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Polari Magazine interviewed Andrew Haigh, and actor Chris New, on the eve of the film’s UK release on DVD and Blu-ray.
Polari: The way that the film is shot is intimate, and almost voyeuristic. Was it a conscious decision to shoot it like a documentary to give it a greater sense of reality, or given that your last film was a semi-documentary, was it more of a natural exploration of the medium?
AH: It was a bit of both. I like that aesthetic, and after doing Greek Pete, yes it came out of that a little bit. Because the story is about two people who are becoming very intimate with each other, it was important to me that you feel the same way with them. So I always thought about it as almost like a foursome. It was me, Urszula who shot the film, and the two actors. We were having a relationship together. That’s how I wanted to approach it. Everything that we did felt very intimate. The semi-documentary style of the film came out of a desire to make it feel real, that it could be two normal guys you’d see in the street. I always think that when you watch a film there’s something quite powerful to feeling like you’re sitting in the corner of the room just watching, rather than being guided constantly with a “look at this, look at this”. And also it was a way to allow a naturalistic performance from the two actors, so they didn’t have to worry about hitting marks, and doing coverage, all those sorts of things. A film dies if the performances aren’t good, it’s as simple as that.
CN: The good thing for us was that because we didn’t have any restrictions on coverage, or having to match anything to anything, it meant we could almost do anything we liked. Every time we did a take we ‘d do it differently, we’d take a slightly different journey. With normal filming you can’t do that.
AH: Do you remember the first shot we did in the bedroom? We had different biscuits. It was a selection box. So each take we had totally different biscuits. You could never have cut any of it together, which was good. I could say that’s one criticism of the film, my criticism of the film, though, that there’s lots of eating in it.
CN: Eating, smoking, taking drugs, we’re just consuming. It’s what people do, especially when people don’t know each other very well, like the characters don’t. You’re constantly doing something to facilitate getting to know each other.
AH: You never sit across from someone on a date and just talk without doing anything.
Polari: It’s interesting you say that, it’s not something I noticed, or something that stuck out.
AH: It’s also a basic nice directorial thing to do because it means you’re giving your actors something to do.
CN: You always get good performances from people when you have something for them to do that knocks out a certain part of their brains and stops them monitoring themselves. I always find something to do, even if it’s off screen, and it’s scratching my leg, just so I’ve got a thing going on to get my head worrying about the big camera.
Polari: The dialogue in Weekend is very natural. Was there a certain amount of improvisation?
AH: Definitely. It varies in different scenes, the looser scenes. The dramatic scenes, the bigger scenes, are more scripted, but there’s always an element of spontaneity. Some of the long scenes that are one shot – you just want your actors to be able to go for it. If something comes into their minds you want to be able to create a situation where they can say that. That’s what makes it interesting to watch. But also in the writing it was about making it sound very naturalistic. Every night the three of us would meet and go through the next day’s shoot. It was important for all of us that it was a process.
CN: But it means that your script, Andrew, was slightly overlooked. I think that essentially, the script was so clear, not for words but the thoughts of the characters, what they were thinking, what they were desiring. What we’d always work on in the rehearsals was trying to refine the thoughts – what are they really thinking, what are they really trying to say, and what are they not trying to say, what are they trying to hide? I think that all comes from the script.
AH: We thought there’d be a lot more improvisation. If we had more time there would have been.
Polari: You can almost read their thoughts as you watch the characters talk.
AH: I think that, on the technical level, usually in a film there’s a lot more editing. You basically edit the emotions, you cut on a reaction so you see someone. The shift is in the cut rather than on someone’s face. When you’ve got to watch someone for 5 minutes you get drawn into their thought processes a lot more than you would if you were flitting back and forward between close-ups. You just allow your actors to be, and when you watch them for a long time you start to really concentrate on what they’re thinking, what they’re doing.
Polari: Does that give you more freedom? It sounds like it should. But what’s the reality?
AH: It’s quite scary! When you’re doing a long take it’s really depressing if three minutes in you fuck it up and you know you’ve got to use the whole take.
CN: I never really worry about that. I’ve done a lot of theatre, that’s my main thing. I can repeat something and make it slightly different. I always encourage that in myself. Or I find clues when we do it. I’ll think there’s something more there. I’ll say to Andrew, “Can I do it again, there’s something more here?” There was the moment with the hoodie in the doorway. There was something about it, I wanted him to duck out of the screen, to drop out of the frame because he can’t deal with it.
AH: It’s also about not worrying that things are shit. Sometimes things are shit. As a director you have to stop thinking about what other people are thinking. If it’s shit you try something different. You have to feel like you can try everything.
CN: Also, as an actor, if you try and get it right then you’re just going to be stuck. If you don’t get it right the first time you get stuck. Then you close down any possibility of shifting or changing.
Polari: How big was the crew outside of the 4 you mentioned?
AH: I don’t think there was any more than twelve. What I try and do when we’re shooting the scene, any scene, not just a sexual scene, is to say that if you’re not needed on the set you’re not on the set. I like it to be as intimate as possible.
CN: The weird thing is that a lot of the crew hadn’t seen any of the film. They’d come in and set something up, then the set would be cleared.
AH: I don’t like the idea of having a monitor out in the hall. I like to think that – and this sounds so wanky – this is a ‘sacred space’, that no one is outside watching and criticising.
Polari: The poster is pure art house. How did that come about?
AH: The photographers that did all the stills were Quinnford & Scout, they’re really great photographers. Then Sam Ashby, who does Little Joe magazine, a queer cinema fanzine, he does a lot of film posters. I got him involved early on. It’s important that the posters sum up the idea of the film. It was important to get that right, so it wasn’t just Tom and Chris with their tops off, smiling.
Polari: How far are you along with your next feature, Andrew?
AH: I’ve got a few films I’m working on simultaneously. One set in America, one in the UK. It’s early days, I’m midway through both scripts. Ideally I’d like to shoot the two films next year. They’re different from Weekend. They don’t have a gay subject matter.
Polari: Chris, how has the success of Weekend, especially in the US, impacted on your career?
CN: I’m never going to make a film again! I’ve had bursts in my career when something goes well, but I’ve been around long enough to know it doesn’t make that much difference. I only ever look at what’s coming next. I’ve got much slower in my work rhythm. When I started out I’d do play after play after TV. I like to step back a bit now.
Polari: Are the rumours true that there’ll be a sequel?
CN: Someone said we should call it Weekday.
AH: Or When Will It Ever End! I think it would be really nice to do something like Linklater’s Before Sunrise / Before Sunset. I’m not entirely sure that if I did it wouldn’t just be about one of the characters, not both. We’ll have to see who’s nicest to me.
CN: That’s dangerous! Anyway, I’m never making a film again.
AH: What if I asked you to come back in 10 years time?
CN: No – I’m going to do a Daniel Day Lewis and just make shoes…