Andrew Haigh on exploring the relationship between “queerness and family” in ‘All Of Us Strangers’

6 months ago
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When Graham Broadbent at Blueprint Pictures brought writer and director Andrew Haigh on board to adapt Taichi Yamada’s 1987 Japanese novel Strangers, he told the filmmaker he should, of course, make the story his own. But the producer may not have envisaged quite how far Haigh would run with that invitation.

The resulting film, All Of Us Strangers, stars Andrew Scott as gay Londoner Adam, a screenwriter whose aching loneliness is eased by a romantic relationship with his neighbour Harry (Paul Mescal) at the same time that he reopens to his own parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell)… despite the fact they died in a car crash when Adam was 11.

Reconnecting with the deceased parents (who appear the same age as when they died) is a story element from Yamada’s book — but Haigh excised the strong body-horror element impacting the protagonist, who ages rapidly after each encounter with his mother and father. And by making Adam gay, he changes the dynamic with the parents — who are sympathetically portrayed but articulate attitudes emblematic of several decades ago, when they were alive.

“I think I just said to Blueprint, ‘I’m going to make this super gay. Is that okay?’” Haigh says. “They’ve been very open from the beginning. They’ve never said, ‘I’m not sure we can do that.’” The film’s development financier Film4 proved similarly relaxed. “Film4 were really excited that my take was completely a leftfield approach to the material.”

Haigh was interested in making his first film centred on a male gay relationship since his breakout second feature Weekend in 2011. “I had always wanted to tell a story about the relationship between queerness and family, and how complicated that can be. Familial love and romantic love are so closely connected, even though they’re so different — and that’s complicated within a queer experience, I think.”

Haigh’s film, much more than Yamada’s book, is about generation gaps — articulated, for example, by the way Adam (actor Scott is 47 in real life) and Harry (Mescal is 27) view the words “gay” and “queer” differently, but also in the depiction of parent-child relationships. Haigh quotes clinical psychologist Walt Odets, who “talks about three generations of gay people — those that were gay before Aids, those who grew into their sexuality during Aids, and those that came into their sexuality when it wasn’t a life sentence anymore. Those generations really intrigued me about how they interact with each other and see the world differently.”

And although Haigh initially considered borrowing from Yamada’s novel by having his protagonist steadily sicken, “when you tell that from a gay perspective, there’s a difference to what that means. While Aids does appear within the story as a conversation at times, I didn’t want it to feel like it was about that.”

Yamada’s book was first made into 1988 Japanese horror film The Discarnates, which Haigh tracked down after completing his own script. Haigh’s film defies genre description — a fact, he knew, that would make it highly execution-dependent. “The time I felt most pressure was when I said, ‘I’m going to look at some other films and try and see what other people have done in a similar vein,’ and then I couldn’t find any,” he says. “I was like, maybe there’s a reason.”

But few would disagree that the filmmaker has navigated a path to a successful creative outcome, with the Film4 and Searchlight

Pictures-backed film picking up three nominations at the Film Independent Spirit Awards and 14 at the British Independent Film Awards, where it won in seven categories, including film, director and screenplay. Searchlight releases All Of Us Strangers — which Broadbent produces with his Blueprint partner Pete Czernin and Sarah Harvey — in North America on December 22 and in the UK in late January.

Haigh was born in 1973 in Harrogate, North Yorkshire but moved, aged one, with his family to Sanderstead, near Croydon, south London. Given the intensely personal relationship between the filmmaker and this story, he decided to place Adam’s family home in Sanderstead… and the production was able to secure the exact house Haigh grew up in, redecorating it to return it to the 1980s.

“When I was writing the script, and imagining a house, I think it’s obvious that you think of your first house — it’s imprinted on your childhood brain,” he says. “And so I thought, ‘Maybe I should just film there.’ Perhaps emotionally, that was a bit foolish of me, because it’s a strange thing to have to go back to your home. Having a crew in there, and filming scenes in my mum and dad’s old bedroom.

“It was emotionally complicated. I haven’t had eczema since I was a kid, and I started getting eczema again, in exactly the same places as a kid — behind my knees and elbows and on my stomach. It lasted a year after filming, and wouldn’t go away. I was like, ‘Okay, there’s something there I’m trying to excavate for sure.’”

In All Of Us Strangers, Adam obsessively watches old episodes of music chart show Top Of The Pops, and the film gains a particular power from deploying songs such as the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Always On My Mind’ and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘The Power Of Love’. These were specified in Haigh’s screenplay, and the latter song’s lyrics are used in consequential dialogue when Adam and Harry first meet.

“I wanted songs that are either queer or queer-adjacent, songs that I loved when I was 11, 12, 13,” says the filmmaker. “There is a power that pop music has, especially to kids, because it allows you to understand emotions that you cannot articulate. I listened to ‘The Power Of Love’ endlessly in my room, before I even knew who I was as a person. I knew there was something about it that made me sad and melancholy, but hopeful.

“Music, when you listen to it now, you can be dragged back to the past in such a profound way that you can literally feel how you used to feel at that age — you can, like, smell things differently. It’s like time travel.”

Since the film’s premiere at Telluride, Haigh — who has two new feature projects with completed scripts, one of which he hopes to shoot next year in the US — has been calibrating the responses of audiences to his time-travel odyssey. “Some people find the ending hopeful, some find it devastating. Some find it devastating and hopeful. People find it all different things. And it’s so based on their own personal experience.”

While emotional reactions have varied, Haigh’s creative intention was always clear to him. “It’s simple — what can we do to make sure that other people don’t feel alone? That’s what the film is to me. What can we do to stop that pain? And love and understanding and compassion and care and consideration are those things that soften all of that. If you leave the cinema and feel like, ‘Oh, you know what, I just want to call my mum or I just want to give my boyfriend a hug,’ then that to me is what I want it to be.

“A star dies, but the light remains for millions of years,” Haigh continues. “And someone can die a long time ago and the love you feel for them is as strong now as it ever was, and nothing else feels like that. There’s something about love that is doing something very profound in the universe — and for some reason, now, the age I am, I want to connect to it.”…Read more by

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