Director Andrew Haigh on making ’45 Years’ | AspenTimes.com

Director Andrew Haigh on making ’45 Years’

The past never quite passes in Andrew Haigh's "45 Years."

At the outset of the film, a letter arrives at the rural Norfolk, England home of Geoff and Kate Mercer, who are a week away from celebrating the film's titular anniversary. The letter reports that the body of Geoff's long-ago girlfriend, who fell in a crevasse on a hike in the Swiss Alps, has finally been found in a melting glacier. He'd been designated her next of kin.

As he debates whether to go identify the corpse, his decades-long marriage to the woman he met after that tragedy in Switzerland is shaken. The film, which stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay and plays today at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings, perceptively follows Rampling's Kate as she begins seeing the marriage in a new light shadowed by the woman who came before.

Haigh's two previous films, "Greek Pete" and his 2011 indie breakout "Weekend," were about young gay men. "Looking," the HBO series he created, is too. So a feature about a week in the life of a man and woman about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary might seem like a leap.

But it plays like a thematic continuation of the naturalistic "Weekend," which followed two men talking about love and life over the course of a weekend hook-up, at the dawn of a relationship that might or might not last. "45 Years" gives us a couple doing the same after nearly a half-century together.

"In many ways I do see it as a bookend project," Haigh said in a recent phone interview.

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The new film is based on the short story "Another Country" by David Constantine, which Haigh read while he was editing "Weekend."

"It did feel in some strange way that it was a sequel, and that it was continuing to explore those ideas of intimacy, of identity within relationships and how you understand yourself through them," he said.

Domestic dramas sometimes suffer from being too stagey, stuffy and dialogue-choked — too often they don't harness the power of film as a visual storytelling medium. "45 Years" doesn't fall into that trap. Set in the tranquility of the English countryside, much of the action — including a crucial, plot-turning detail glimpsed as Kate watches a slideshow of old photos — plays out in near silence, allowing Rampling and Courtenay's facial expressions and gestures to tell the tale.

About midway through the film, both Kate and Geoff sort of shut down emotionally and can't articulate their feelings to each other. This is where Rampling's performance turns marvelous — the acclaimed actress and glamour icon speaks volumes in her character's stony silence and with a climactic movement of her arm. It makes for a gripping cinematic experience, with tension building until the last frame.

"When you work with Charlotte, that really comes to the fore, because you realize how much she can do without saying anything," Haigh said. "It was just perfect casting for a woman who can no longer communicate how she feels."

Rampling's performance earned her a Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival, the Boston and Los Angeles critics and several additional nominations.

Haigh doesn't rehearse his actors in the traditional sense. Instead, he talks with them about their characters and the subject of his films. For "45 Years," he spent three days separately with Courtenay and Rampling,

"(We are) not necessarily going through the scenes but talking about the subject, talking about what the story means, what we want to achieve," he said. "I've found I don't know what to do with rehearsals when I do have them, they kind of confuse me."

They all went through the script together just once, then started filming.

"There's something I want to catch — that spontaneity or weirdness or whatever comes out in those early takes," he said. "It can be refreshing. And sometimes you see the actor from a gut level in those early stages, before they think too much about it. That can be really interesting."

When he began writing "45 Years," and talking to people about it, it proved difficult to convince people that there wasn't a gay element.

"Everyone was convinced it was going to end up being gay," he said with a laugh. "I was like, 'No, really. There's nothing gay about it. There's no secret that one of them is gay.' They were all like, 'Really!?' People were somehow disappointed."

As for what's next for Haigh, he's shot a feature-length "Looking" special, which will be on HBO this spring.

atravers@aspentimes.com

If You Go …

What: ’45 Years’ at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings

When: Wednesday, Dec. 23, 8 p.m.

Where: Harris Concert Hall

How much: $20; $15 Aspen Film members; free for AMPAS, BAFTA, guild members

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com