ANDREW Haigh is one of the country’s most promising up and coming film directors.
Having delivered Weekend (2011) and BAFTA nominated 45 Years (2015), he has now come up trumps again with Lean On Pete, an unsentimental look at a 15 year-old Charley and his struggles to come to terms with loneliness and loss.
At a Q&A night at Curzon Mayfair in London hosted by a polished Francine Stock, 45-year-old Haigh gave a fascinating insight into how he goes about his work – and what underpins his films. Sentimentality does not get a look in.
Haigh is not interested in schmaltzy endings or filming beautiful sunsets, which he could have done with Lean On Pete given the film is about a teenager in search of the ‘aunt’ he has always loved – and the trip he goes on with the horse he has stolen (Lean on Pete, a quarter horse) across the Oregon Desert.
Haigh is a realist. Life is not just about happy outcomes. More often than not, it is about an unsatisfactory compromise. ‘On set, whenever I saw a beautiful stream of light, I did not shoot it,’ he said. Equally, the film’s ending is ‘not perfect’.
Although Haigh is happy to give his actors – in Lean on Pete famous ones such as Steve Buscemi and new ones (Charlie Plummer) – freedom to express themselves and does not demand rehearsals, he is a meticulous director. He does not leave anything to chance.
Prior to filming Lean On Pete, he spent a few months out in the United States speaking to quarter horse owners and writing scenes – before going on a road trip. He also traipsed across the Oregon Desert.
The film is set against the backdrop of quarter horse racing, a sport which is unforgiving on the participants. Sprinting is their speciality and when they can sprint no more, they are sold off to Mexico and turned into meat. The winnings are meagre and the horses are raced relentlessly until they almost drop. Make it to five – Lean On Pete’s age – and time is almost up.
‘The prizes are so low,’ said Haigh. ‘There is so little money in the sport.’ Keeping horses to graze peacefully in the countryside when they retire is simply not a reality. ‘I had to be truthful,’ he added.
It explains why quarter horse owner Del (a wonderfully grisly Buscemi) whom Charlie befriends and helps out is so pragmatic. As is his jockey Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) who has broken her back and bones in her pelvis in the quest for prize money. It also accounts for the fact that Del and Bonnie will stop at nothing to get Lean On Pete first past the line.
Vitamins for Lean On Pete? Pull the other one. A grimy, dirty sport in which there are few real winners.
A sport which eventually spits out Lean On Pete, triggering Charley’s decision to run off with the horse and cross the desert in search of ‘the aunt’ that always loved him (Aunt Margy). His own mother walked out on his father when he was a nipper – no surprise given Dad’s liking for women, a compulsion that proves his violent undoing.
While Buscemi and Sevigny shine (as do briefly Travis Fimmel as Charley’s philandering Dad and Alison Elliott as ‘Aunt’ Margy) Lean On Pete is Starsky’s film (Lean On Pete) and that of Charlie Plummer (Charley).
Starsky was chosen, said Haigh, because he was ‘the one at the back and was shy’. He added: ‘I like people [and animals] who stand at the back. I also liked the white in his eyes.’
Plummer got the green light from a casting list of 100, some of the wannabe Charleys ‘dreadful’. ‘He was so good and so smart,’ said Haigh of Plummer. ‘He sent in a tape and it blew me away with its sensibility.’ He followed this up with a letter describing how he understood the character.
Parallels were drawn with 1984’s Paris Texas where Harry Dean Stanton (Travis Henderson) wanders out of the desert and has to assimilate himself back into society. Haigh said Charley’s red tee-shirt was ‘homage’ to the red hat that Stanton wore in the film.
Haigh said the editing of the film was a painful process, starting at three and a half hours before being whittled down to two hours and 40 minutes. ‘I wanted it to be 2.40,’ he said. It ended up at two hours. A ten minute scene with Thomas Mann ended up on the cutting floor because the film ‘worked without him’.
There is a perfect symmetry in the film’s opening and ending where Charley is seen running – he is born to run. ‘Running is an important element of the film,’ Haigh said. But the overriding message is that Charley wants ‘a regular existence’. He added. ‘He wants parents and to be loved. I wanted an ending that said his life was not perfect. He has got a long journey ahead. This [Lean On Pete] is not a coming of age story.’
Lean On Pete, based on a book by Willy Vlautin, is certainly not the end of the journey for Haigh or for that matter Plummer for whom a long career beckons.
It is grim and not without its violence and shocking moments. There are also some beautiful shots (oh dear Mr Haigh) of starry nights and Charley walking with Lean On Pete through fields of green bushes.
But Lean On Pete wins (the film, not the horse) because it is authentic and real. Another quality film from the Haigh stable.