With 2011’s acclaimed Weekend and HBO’s more divisive Looking, director Andrew Haigh established himself as one of our most clear-eyed observers of interior life. His latest film, 45 Years, follows British couple Geoff and Kate Mercer in the days leading up to their 45th-anniversary party. The plot is a quietly tightening screw, with the torque supplied by a letter Geoff receives, a week before the party, informing him that the body of his former lover Katya has been found in the Swiss mountains where she died nearly half a century before.
What follows isn’t dramatic: For the most part, the couple continue their lives apace. But beneath the surface we see a slow, painful renegotiation of the terms upon which their marriage endures. Two profound performances by Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling give life to the script’s organic rhythms and pockets of ambivalence. The director talked to Slate about the film’s production process and that killer scene of Rampling at the piano.
What compelled you about David Constantine’s story?
It’s a very short story, literally like 15 pages or something. I read it while I was working on Weekend, and it was really that central idea that caught me: this body being found, which is clearly a metaphor, and how that affects a relationship in the present. And I figured I wouldn’t be able to adapt it—the story is so small—but it just kept coming back to me.
The story’s from Geoff’s point of view, and the movie is from Kate’s.
Yeah, when I realized that’s what should be done, it sort of opened up the story for me. It just made total sense. It felt like the right perspective, the one you don’t see so much. Most of these types of films are about men having a crisis, not about women having a crisis or about the effect of a man’s crisis on the woman. Then I enlarged the story to add the anniversary party, stuff like that.
And one of my favorite moments, the small one with Kate picking at the piano.
That’s actually the one scene that wasn’t in the script. We shot the film in order, and around that stage in the story there was a piano that had been put on set, and I saw Charlotte play it while we were doing something else and I said “OK, we have to film you doing this.” And it’s just improvised in the moment, that piece of music. The whole subtext of how she feels is just coming out in that moment, from her as a performer.
To me the scene was about Kate rediscovering her individuality—exploring past talents, sacrificed interests. Even happy relationships turn on agreed-upon compromises.
That’s exactly it. You define your relationship very early on, and if that suddenly shifts, either two years later or 45 years later, it can all just kind of collapse. Especially if you put a microscope to it.
You’re shooting in the same style as Weekend—longish takes, but the frame is never too fussy.
Yeah, and we do hardly any coverage at all, for most of the scenes it is what it is. I like that approach, the tension it gives you as a filmmaker, and as an actor and audience. “This is what we have.”
And I don’t work scene by scene, I work sequence by sequence. So each day, for me, is visualized as a separate sequence, all the visual language repeating. One scene you start in a wider two-shot, the next in a mid-shot, the next even closer.
It’s very cyclical. Each day begins with a wide shot of Kate and the dog outside, then the camera moves closer, tighter.
The film almost spirals in on itself. Each day, you go down a bit further, more is being revealed, and then you get to this final moment. Our lives are completely defined by routine, in the end, and I love the idea of a routine being shifted and collapsing, and that being a hugely traumatic thing for her.
That playing with time, the compressing of the story into a single week—is that just a way to lend forward motion to the plot? You manipulate time a lot in your work.
It’s both. My films are not plot-heavy, and compressing time does give them some kind of forward momentum. The viewer knows there’s a countdown—in Weekend, you know one of them is going to leave, and here you know that the party is coming. But I’m also generally obsessed with time: How it goes by, how we look back on our lives, how we put things in perspective. I love the idea of them being together for 45 years, but the possibility still existing that it could all break down in a week.
This seems like a thematic sequel to Weekend. The characters are obviously on different ends of the age spectrum, but what we see in Weekend is a subtext to what we’re seeing here.
No, exactly. To me it is the sequel. It’s just a different way of telling that story. I feel like one is about trying to understand who you are by looking forward at a possible relationship; the other is two people trying to work out what they’ve become by looking back at a relationship.
Part of that looking back is the music you use. The soundtrack is filled with “romantic” songs, like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” that aren’t actually that romantic.
They’re all in the script. I spent a long time listening to music from the period they’d have grown up in, the ’60s, and I became obsessed with the right type of songs. And with stuff like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” I love the idea of how, when they were young and full of passion, they used to hear that song and think of something profound. And the song is exactly the same 45 years later, but it has a completely different meaning. She’s opened her ears and listened to what the song is actually saying.
That ending, with her hearing the song anew: In a movie that’s all about ebbs and flows, how do you decide when to stop the story?
That final shot, that long zoom, was the first shot in my head while writing the script. So I knew that was the endpoint, and that I wanted to get to a place where you weren’t entirely sure what the character was feeling, but you knew something very dramatic is happening to her in that moment, though even she’s not quite sure what it means. The film is a tranquil, slow build, but I wanted it to end with a roar. Editing that sequence, we were literally going frame-by-frame to get to the moment where she’s almost looking at us.
What’s next, now that Looking is wrapped up?
I’ll shoot a movie in Portland next summer, based on a novel called Lean on Pete.
Centered on two people in a relationship?
No, it’s very different. It’s about a 15-year-old kid. There’s still a similarity of theme, and you’ll see how it connects, maybe, to my other work, but it’s a much bigger story, much bigger budget. I’m finally getting out of rooms! It’ll be more than people sitting around kitchen tables talking about things and not talking about things.