Director Andrew Haigh Talks 45 Years

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45 Years, 2015Photography by Agatha A. Nitecka

The rising filmmaker on his mesmerising new drama, starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay

"I think the films that work the best are the ones that seem to be about one thing but then, under the surface, bubbling away, are lots more important questions that you're not really aware of," explains director Andrew Haigh, "and when you leave the cinema, your mind is ablaze with different thoughts!"

These are precisely the types of films that the 42-year-old Haigh – widely flagged as one of Britain's most exciting filmmaking talents – is carving out his niche with. His previous film, 2011's Weekend, was a subtle yet deeply affecting vignette, exploring a passionate encounter between two young men over the course of a single weekend; while his latest offering, 45 Years gets under your skin in a way that you would never expect a film about a septuagenarian couple as they approach their 45th wedding anniversary to do.

Haigh adapted the film from David Constantine's short story of the same name, which he read promptly after finishing Weekend. It tells the tale of Kate (played to perfection on screen by Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (a captivating Tom Courtenay), whose comfortable existence is shattered when Geoff learns that the body of his first love, Katya – who died in a tragic accident while the pair were hiking in the Alps – has been discovered, perfectly preserved in the ice, almost 50 years later. Haunted by the ghost of love lost, Geoff shuts himself off from Kate, who in turn embarks on a painful re-evaluation of her entire life with her husband to date.

On the day of its national release, we catch up with Haigh to discover more about the award-winning film, which with its exquisite, haunting cinematography and masterful performances is one of 2015's most memorable and stirring pieces of cinema so far.

On his initial attraction to the story...
"The book is really short but there was something very profound about it. It’s about those decisions and choices that we have to make every single day of our lives. When do we get in a relationship? Why do we get in a relationship? What do I want it to be? Is it what I want it to be? Big, big questions, but wrapped up in something beautifully simple."

On Charlotte Rampling as Kate...
"It was so important to me that Kate, who I suppose is the key protagonist in the story, had a strength to her; that she didn’t just feel like a weak woman in contrast to her angry husband. I didn’t want that at all. Charlotte is such a presence as an actress. She has a fascinating way of being that I knew would be perfect for the part. It’s English, but not too English and at the same time, it’s not pure reality, but it also feels real which is how I wanted the film to be."

On making a film about an elderly couple...
"Films get made about old people and it’s like, who are these doddery old things? I don’t think people are really like that. I just wrote it as if I was in their situation – how I’d live it, how I’d deal with it. I showed it to Tom and Charlotte and they said, 'This feels like how I would feel in the situation,' and that was key to me. Whatever our age, we are all pretty much, fundamentally the same: our fears, our desires for success, for happiness, our regrets that we have each and every day. My next film is set in the States and they’re saying, 'You’ve got to understand what it’s like to be a 15-year-old kid in America.' But I believe that although lives are very different, we have the same goals in life."

On prepping the actors...
"I went to Paris and met Charlotte for two or three days and we spent a few hours each day talking over the script and about the character. My preparation with actors is usually to talk about things other than the script – so we would discuss our feelings, our histories and our lives, and how they relate to themes in the piece. For me, all you want from your actor is for them to engage on a deeply emotional level with the material. If you feel like that happens, directing the actors is pretty much done at that point."

On exploring life's smaller moments...
"Our lives are largely made up of a series of mundane moments, but those little moments are often the finesse that shapes our entire existence; it’s not necessarily the big, dramatic events, although they do too of course. In 45 Years, for example, they could have gotten over it, it wasn’t actually a threat, but our minds are so muddled and complicated that the tiniest thing from the past can set you off in a different direction and change you fundamentally. Whatever films I make in the future, it’s always going to be that weird complexity of life that interests me."

45 Years is in cinemas from today.