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Filmmaker Andrew Haigh’s year of ‘Years’

What could jeopardize a strong marriage in an instant after four and a half decades? In Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, based on a short story by David Constantine, the answer for Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) is simply a letter arriving a week before their 45th anniversary party.

The contents of the letter reshape the context of their lives together. Over the course of the film, we and Kate learn her husband was involved with a woman named Katya a few years before she met and married him. While on a hike near a glacier in Switzerland, Katya died in a fall, but her body was never recovered. Decades later, climate change has melted the glacier to reveal the body, preserved in ice. 

Kate will soon learn more than she ever wanted to know about Katya. Some of it comes from her husband, who is greatly affected by the news. Some comes from her own snooping, which leads her to a discovery that she is unprepared for.

Haigh, a gay filmmaker who has previously displayed a gift for creating cinematic intimacy in the film Weekend and the HBO series Looking, is at the peak of his skills here. Kate and Jeff’s relationship, with cracks showing both metaphorically and on their very faces, feels lived-in and genuine. Rampling’s subtle embodiment of Kate (for which she’s been nominated for an Academy Award) is simply breathtaking. 

I spoke with Haigh about 45 Years in January, shortly after the Oscar nominations were announced.

45 Years is based on a short story by David Constantine. What was it about the story that made you want to adapt it into a screenplay and film?

First of all, it was the central idea at the heart: this body being found perfectly preserved and how this past breaks through into the present and disrupts the relationship. I read the story after I was finishing up with and editing Weekend. It felt like a bookend to that film in many ways. It was another way to explore identity within relationships and how we understand ourselves within relationships and how fragile that can be.

Your first two full-length features, Greek Pete and Weekend, dealt with queer subject matter. What was the appeal of making a film with straight characters?

It’s so difficult when you make gay-themed films — it was never my intention to only make films about gay characters. If you started to make a film about two men who have been together for 50 years, there are a lot of different things that film has to become about. This wasn’t the film to do that. 

Was there a time when you considered making Kate and Geoff a same-sex couple?

I don’t think so. No, never. Obviously, they weren’t in the original short story. That would have changed what the story became. …Inevitably, telling a story about two people who have been together for 45 years — if it was two men it would have been a very different story. Forty-five years ago, it was not easy for two men to get together and have a relationship.

45 Years, like Weekend, is a very intimate film, with two characters as the primary focus. What do you like best about working in that kind of close atmosphere?

It’s a way for me to focus in on what’s important; to focus in on close details about relationships. Relationships are important to all of us. They define our lives; they define what we do with our lives. It makes sense to me to explore those kinds of things. Keeping it simple and keeping the focus tighter allows, for me anyway, (the opportunity) to explore more interesting things.

Charlotte Rampling, who plays Kate, has been nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. What does that honor mean to you?

It’s incredible! It’s not a big film. It doesn’t have a huge amount of money behind it — to get this is incredible. I’m incredibly happy for Charlotte. She’d never been nominated before. Also, it’s amazing for the film. It means that more people will get the chance to see the film because there will be more talk about it. …It’s certainly not anything I ever would have imagined happening for the film when I was thinking about making it. 

Did you always see her as playing Kate?

When I write, I don’t like to have people in mind. I try not to do that. But then the minute we had the script that we felt was ready, we started talking about casting and all that kind of thing. Very quickly Charlotte was in our minds. We sent it to her early on. 

The most important thing is casting. It’s so difficult. You have to feel like you’ve got the right person. There are so many things that go into making that decision; their past work, the idea of that person, their acting ability, everything. I felt like Charlotte was the perfect person to play this. She has a very interesting combination of intense strength as a person, but also a vulnerability behind that. I really liked that. In a film about knowing and not knowing, I think Charlotte is the perfect person to portray that.

What was it like working with a powerhouse duo such as Rampling and Tom Courtenay?

Obviously I was nervous before I started (laughs). They’ve worked with some great directors. They’re incredibly experienced. It was a really lovely process, actually. I think it made me realize that it doesn’t matter how many films you’ve done, when you’re starting a new one, you’re all at the starting point again. You’re all trying to figure out what the film is, what the best way is to do this. It’s very important for me that these things are collaborative. 

I’m sure that you hear this a lot, but I was very disappointed that HBO didn’t give Looking the chance that it deserved. On the whole, was it a good experience for you?

Yes, it was a great experience. I loved making it. I loved being with the cast and crew. It was pretty much the same cast and crew for three years. We were certainly like a little family for a while. We got to finish it off — the movie is coming out, I hope, on HBO in April. I feel like we got to end it in a way that we’re all happy with. That’s good. It does have an ending, which is nice.

What’s next after 45 Years?

I have a project that will hopefully be shooting in the summer in Portland, Oregon (an adaptation of Willy Vlautin novel Lean On Pete). It’s a different project, I would say. It’s not so much a relationship drama. It’s a bit more epic than what I’ve done before, but it’s still a singular protagonist point of view story. I’m excited about it.