Andrew Haigh explains how a stone face shows emotions

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Lean on Pete
Roxy Theatre
Opens May 11

There are many ways Lean on Pete could have become misery-porn. Just listen to the plot: Charley (Charlie Plummer), a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks, must deal with an alcoholic, philandering father and chronic lack of income. In need of food money, Charley takes a job as stablehand for racing horses. The glimmer of hope becomes something else entirely when a family tragedy leaves him destitute and in shock. The only thing keeping him from sinking is his bond with a horse (the titular Lean on Pete), but you just know this friendship will also go south.

In hands of director Andrew Haigh, the melodramatic premise leads to a true-to-life journey of a teen losing his innocence at hands of jaded adults who can barely stay afloat themselves. Haigh, who previously directed the HBO series Looking, has a knack for depicting characters enduring internal turmoil while keeping a straight face in public. Not a single emotion escapes the audience. It’s quite a feat.

A thoughtful, pleasant filmmaker, Haigh is all too willing to stay on the phone for a few extra minutes if the interviewer is running late (I don’t want to point fingers, but the journo’s initials are JIC).

The protagonists in your films — 45 Years, Lean on Pete — go through massive internal changes that aren’t noticed by those around them but are visible to us. How do you do this?

It’s true, the characters are dealing with huge internal struggles they’re afraid to show to the world. They believe the world doesn’t care… which is usually the case. How do I get that across? I want my films to be specifically about the protagonist. We are with this person the whole time: you see them alone in their rooms, keeping stuff in, and interacting with others. I suppose that’s the way we slowly get into their heads.

Every adult in the movie ends up disappointing Charley. Is that the message you want to get across? Don’t have heroes? Don’t trust anyone over 30?

I’m not saying people are bad, but they’re certainly disappointing. It’s the sad truth of the world. Everyone is dealing with their own struggle and trying the best they can. It’s just not good enough to help Charley. It’s a depressing worldview, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have amazing connections or people you feel safe with. Most of us are trying to find that. I think that’s what all my films are about.

How did you calibrate the film so it doesn’t become misery porn?

I never intend for it to become pornographic. Charley isn’t necessarily hopeful, but he’s resilient. From the first scene — when he gets up in the morning and goes for a run — until the end, the kid is determined to find what he is looking for. When a story is driven by that resilience, it stops me — as the director — from beating this poor kid into submission.

There is a long, continuous action sequence involving Charley and the horse that struck me as the most complex scene you’ve ever put out. What logistical challenges did you face?

It was difficult to start with, and we made it more challenging to ourselves by doing it all in one shot, at sunset, with real cars, bikes and the horse. I enjoy doing things like that, whether it’s dialogue or action. There’s a tension to the single shot that gets you going. It doesn’t adhere to traditional editing, and it gets people out of their comfort zone.

What about directing a horse?

The horses are so well looked after and trained, it was quite straightforward. All I needed was knowing beforehand what I wanted. The big advantage was that Charlie Plummer was acting against something that was reacting to him. It was fascinating to see.

Through your career you haven’t repeated collaborators. Do you like to work with new actors every time?

Given the projects I’ve chosen, it makes no sense to use people I’ve worked with before. There is that notion that when you work with someone, they become that character to you. So it’s really hard for me to think of them in another role. It doesn’t mean I won’t do it in the future, but the character comes first.

After all these years directing, what aspect of the craft do you feel most comfortable with?

Each time you get on set, you feel like you know nothing. I can’t say it gets any easier, but I do feel more confident in how I tell a story my way. If people like it, that’s fantastic.

Does the current direction of the industry concern you?

I do worry sometimes the industry is becoming safer, but good movies break through regardless. The biggest issue is the public. Are audiences going to see smaller, foreign language, more esoteric material? That scares me a bit, because you see movies you fall in love with and later find out they haven’t broken one million dollars. Films are still being made, so that’s something.