The Power of Love: Writer/Director Andrew Haigh Reflects on His Haunting Drama ALL OF US STRANGERS

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Opening in limited release this weekend from Searchlight Pictures, All of Us Strangers takes place in a contemporary London where Adam (Andrew Scott) has a chance encounter with his mysterious neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal). As their relationship develops, Adam finds himself preoccupied with memories of the past. He’s soon drawn back to his childhood home where he discovers his mum and dad (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell)–just as they were 30 years ago, on the day they died. 

Inspired by Japanese novelist Taichi Yamada’s book Strangers, writer/director Andrew Haigh’s film adaptation, All of Us Strangers, follows a similar contemplation about a screenwriter haunted by his past. In writing his version of the story, Haigh traced his own past, turning the production into a deeply personal exploration. He cast actors that reminded him of his own parents and even sought out his childhood home as a location for filming. The current owner obliged and Haigh described the experience of returning to a place he hadn’t been to in forty years, saying it was, “like stepping into a half-remembered memory.”  

Prior to his directing career, Haigh served as an assistant editor on Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Kingdom of Heaven, as well as on such films as The Count of Monte Cristo, Mona Lisa Smile, and Hannibal Rising. As a writer/director, Haigh’s richly drawn narrative feature work includes Lean on Pete, 45 Years, and his breakout hit Weekend. Building on the conversations he began in Weekend, Haigh delivers another intimate story and his most personal film to date. Prior to the December 22nd release of All of Us Strangers, Boxoffice Pro spoke with writer/director Andrew Haigh about his unconventional ghost story and how his personal journey is conjuring a shared experience for audiences.

In working as an assistant editor early on in your career, how did that training ground develop your eye and influence your work as a director?

I think it influenced it so much, actually. Just to be in those rooms while a director and an editor are working is so fascinating; to see what choices get made. How you navigate and plot an emotional storyline through a film. The film goes through so many iterations. You try everything. Scenes that you think are perfect you then pick apart and rebuild. You’re constantly trying to find the magic moment in every scene. Sometimes that changes and adapts or you lose any kind of objectivity. There’s so many things that editing teaches you when you’re working. To keep that kind of passion for the project and keep digging into, “What is it that I need to tell? What is important about this scene?”

I think it was really helpful and also, interestingly, I think when you’re a director and you haven’t worked in editing, you sort of feel like your assembly, your first cut, should be really perfect and good. Now the truth is, every time I’ve ever worked on a film (my own and other people’s) the director sits and watches the assembly and it’s like, “Oh God, is this what I’ve made?” It’s actually a really good thing to know that is a very common experience. Then slowly you and the editor make the film into what it becomes, but I found that there’s been lots of very useful things about it.

How do you balance between adaptation and inspiration when adapting material for the screen? Is there a responsibility to the material? Or does it provide a freedom of expression to share the story through your own voice?

There is definitely a certain responsibility. If I am going to adapt something, first of all, I have to really connect with that material. On a personal level I have to connect with it. I have to feel like I can tell a version of this story that makes sense for me to do and justifies me making this story. Then there is a freedom of expression that you need to embrace. You need to make it your own. Otherwise I kind of don’t see the point of adapting it. If it works as a book, you can just leave it as a book. Not everything needs to be made. Lots of very, very good books do not make good films.

I always think, “What is it the author is communicating that I respond to?” Then it’s my job to take that on and re-communicate how I see that idea to an audience. So for this film, it definitely was about making it personal to me. I think in many regards, what I liked about the original novel was that it felt personal to that writer. It felt like it was specific to his life. Maybe it wasn’t, but it felt like it was. I need to do the same thing for my audience; make it feel specific in the way that it feels true and honest and authentic. Then you hope that can expand and speak to an audience.

Like Adam in the film, you also embarked on a journey of devling back into your past. In telling this story, why was it important for you to be “uncomfortable emotionally” as you’ve previously mentioned? How did that impact the film itself?

It is a story about someone who has not been able to move on or deal with aspects of his past, ideas of grief or loss, all of those kinds of things. It made no sense to not go into my own past, especially as I was writing it. I did write it during the pandemic, so I felt like I was locked in my apartment. I wasn’t seeing anybody really, no family and friends, apart from my partner who I live with, but no one else. I think that kind of helped the process somehow, in allowing me to want to dig into my feelings about my past.

I felt quite fearless to start with as I was writing. I might put myself in it, it’s fine. I think that’s okay. Then as you start to make it, you’re like, “Oh God, I really am doing these things now.” I shot it in my old childhood home and I kept doing these things that made it feel more personal, but I think it was always about specificity. I love watching films that feel specific. I somehow can connect to that specificity, even if it’s not my life. There is a sense that this is a film about going internal and dealing with painful experiences. So I felt like I had no choice really, but to try and do the same thing.

All of Us Strangers continues some of the conversations that you started in Weekend. Do you consider them companion films? Did Weekend come up while putting this project together? 

Yeah, I think they are companion films. I feel like there were still things that I wanted to explore and talk about in terms of contemporary queerness. Our past and what a lot of us had to go through is still within us and can still cause so much angst if we’re not careful, or if we let it. So there were certainly lots of things I still wanted to look at. Also I’m 10 years older, so I feel like I see things slightly differently than I saw them then. I find that interesting.

I haven’t really made a film with such explicit queer content since then. That wasn’t necessarily a definitive choice or anything, but I just felt like it made sense. I would like to probably do it again in another 10 years time [Laughs] and see where my head is at then. I do feel like films, for me, are an exploration of where I am at that moment in my life. I think that’s what excites me about making films; I can explore things that I want to explore in my everyday life.

What is the significance of music in the film? It’s one of the elements that seems to reinforce a world that’s not entirely grounded in reality.

That was almost the toughest thing: how do I keep this film grounded in some kind of reality, but being very aware that it is not naturalism or realism? It’s so far removed from naturalism and realism in many regards, but I’m trying to meld these two things together. There is a sense that this is a manifestation of his subconscious, let’s say. All of these things are coming out of it and music, for me, is so powerful in terms of bringing you back to that space you were once in. It literally is like time travel. You can suddenly feel like, “I’m eight, 10, or 27 years old again and I remember loving that song.”

Then I love how the music speaks to something in the film as we’re going through it. It speaks to things that Adam can’t express or the parents can’t express. That scene around the Christmas tree; I love the way that it’s about the parents expressing how they feel about their son, but they’re doing it through a pop song that came out in 1986. I find that so interesting and I was afraid that it wouldn’t work. This is going to be ridiculous. But my instinct was that, yes, it will work. This feels true to memory or how we see our relationship. It just felt true to me.

As human beings, there are often things that we want to say, but don’t know how to say them. Music is one avenue that allows us to express or dive into what we’re feeling. 

Especially when you’re a teenager, I think. There’s a lot of reasons why teenagers love pop music. They’re big in their emotions, especially back in the 80s and 90s. They were quite big in what they were saying in the narrative of those pop songs. As a teenager, you can’t express those things, so you use music to be able to understand.

There are multiple generations in the story, you could even say that the ghosts of Adam’s grandparents are present as well. As much as the story is about generational trauma, it’s also about the healing power of love. Was this a cathartic experience for you and your fellow collaborators? Do you hope audiences will go on a similar journey?

I think you kind of nailed it there, because you have to lean into painful emotions in your life and in art as well. You have to live it. This is literally someone reliving painful emotions. Out of that can come liberation or catharsis. I did feel like it helped me even understand love a little bit better and understand those connections with the past. It is weird. As I get older–I’m 50 now–I think back a lot about my grandparents and even their grandparents and this love that has been passed through these generations of people. It’s not simple. It’s very complex. Often we don’t get it right in how we show our love to someone, but there is this love that is going through these generations.

Then they come out of our family and they come into our romantic lives. That’s how we learn how to love. I know when we were filming, you would do a scene and people were really emotionally engaged. The grips, the electricians, and people who aren’t often emotionally engaged. It felt like they were thinking about their own lives. They were thinking about their partners, their parents, their loved ones, and their kids–because it’s about parenting too. I could feel like there was something working in the room.

In both parental and romantic love, there is a desire to be seen and known. For our parents and our partners to see and really know us. That seems to reflect back on how we see ourselves.

Yeah it’s to be seen and to be known, which is so important. Also to realize that love is also about what you give to them. Not just knowing them, but being compassionate, understanding, and kind to them. That works in all directions within that relationship. Even for me, there’s a sense that Adam becomes more compassionate to his parents within this. It works in that way too. He understands that love is about not always telling the truth to his parents, but being there for them when they need him. I feel like it’s that two-way street of love that becomes really important to understand.

Given the intimacy of your work, along with the emotional reactions a lot of audiences are having with this film, can you talk about the importance of a shared theatrical experience?

I really do think it’s vital. Look, you can watch things by yourself and it can be a really interesting emotional experience, but when you are with other people, you’re connecting. For me, filmmaking is about trying to connect with an audience. If strangers in a room can sit and have an emotional reaction to the universal ideas and themes that are being discussed, I feel like that’s really, really powerful. We’ve all lived in a world where we haven’t been connecting with people on a larger scale like that. I think it’s amazing. I’ve been to a few of the screenings now and I don’t watch the film anymore [Laughs], but I do come in at the end. You can often feel it, even sitting next to a stranger.

Someone said something interesting to me. That they were sitting having a very deep emotional reaction to certain elements of the film. Someone very different was sitting next to them and had emotional reactions to different parts of the film. That was really interesting to me; that you can share an experience, even if it’s not exactly the same experience. That feels pretty special to me.

Do you have a favorite moviegoing memory or theatrical experience?

It’s funny, because as a kid, I sort of rarely went to the cinema. My parents weren’t cinemagoers. We didn’t live near a cinema. We’d have to come up to London, basically, to go to a cinema. After I left University for a while, I went and worked at the National Film Theatre in the UK (now BFI Southbank). It’s a rep theater and I suddenly got to see all of these amazing films.

I remember seeing L’Avventura by Antonioni. It was actually an earphone commentary, there were no subtitles. I was an usher, so I couldn’t wear the headphones. All I could do was look at the images. I remember sitting there and thinking that you can be so transported and emotionally affected by literally just the power of the image. I couldn’t understand the language. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but I was really feeling, in that film, ennui, isolation, loneliness, all of those things. I came out of that cinema and I was like, “You know what, I think I want to be a filmmaker. I really do think that I want to do this.” It was certainly a moment of change in me, thinking that perhaps I could follow this as a career.

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

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