Some movies hit close to home. His was filmed there.
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Some movies hit close to home. His was filmed there.
The director Andrew Haigh in New York, Nov. 28, 2023. Haigh wanted to infuse “All of Us Strangers” with elements from his own life, which included shooting it in his childhood residence. (Mark Sommerfeld/The New York Times)

by Kyle Buchanan

NEW YORK, NY.- “I got called a gay elder the other day,” Andrew Haigh said. This title, bestowed by a group of younger gay men, initially rankled him. It’s true that Haigh — the director of acclaimed films like “45 Years” and “Weekend” — had recently turned 50, but he still found that landmark age hard to believe.

“I’m looking older,” he told me, “but it’s a strange thing to think that I’m not young anymore.”

That uncanny feeling is a key theme in Haigh’s latest film, “All of Us Strangers,” which he adapted from the 1987 novel “Strangers” by Taichi Yamada. Andrew Scott stars in the film as Adam, a screenwriter in his late 40s with a whole lot on his mind: As he entertains a tentative romance with his neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal), he returns to his childhood home and finds it somehow inhabited by the parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) who died when he was young. Though this reunion summons Adam’s inner child to the fore — a transformation Scott sells with heartbreaking subtlety, even when dressed in Christmas pajamas — there are still tricky adult conversations to be had with his parents about his sexuality and lonely middle age.

“I knew that for this film to work, I had to throw myself into it on a very personal level,” Haigh said. “So much of the things they’re talking about and the memories that Adam has of being a kid are my memories.”

That commitment even extended to filming much of the movie in the house where Haigh grew up, a notion that astounded many of his actors.

“I always have this image of him losing one of his baby teeth in that house where the crew were stamping on the floor,” Scott said. “Isn’t it extraordinary that as you shoot a scene downstairs in the kitchen about a man coming out to his mother, he could have gone upstairs after he had actually done that and been upset in a small bathroom?”

In November, I met Haigh at an old-fashioned cafe in Hollywood where, as a young film student, he used to plop down in the corner booth and order the blackened chicken sandwich and too much coffee. (Haigh no longer eats meat, so during our lunch he had the veggie sandwich instead.) As we spoke about the personal stories from his youth he excavated for “All of Us Strangers,” he said he had started to come to grips with the journey he has traveled since and the nickname that long voyage had earned him.

“I might get a T-shirt that says ‘gay elder,’” he told me, chuckling.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Q: A lot of this movie is inspired by your early life. What were you like as a child?

A: I think I was a sad kid. I was fine when I was younger, but my parents split up when I was 9, and I was being bullied at school. When you’re an unhappy child, it shapes everything. It doesn’t go away — it will always be there, the way you felt, and the instinct to repress yourself early on can affect everything.

Q: How did their divorce affect you?

A: There was so much that I was made to push down and forget and not talk about. I don’t think I ever spoke to anybody about how I felt. And look, it doesn’t take a genius to look at my films and think that all of those themes come out within the stuff that I make about feeling alone, about searching for stability, about trying to understand the past and change it somehow in order for you to move forward. Pretty much the filmmaker I am now is because of how I was as a kid.

Q: Why were you being bullied at school?

A: Because they knew I was gay, basically.

Q: Did you know you were gay?

A: No. They could see my difference before I could. And I talk about it in the film, but it was the early ’80s and the mid-’80s in the U.K., this incredibly homophobic time. Everyone was terrified of AIDS and the government had Section 28, which was a law against teaching homosexuality in school. I think most queer kids from the ’80s kept everything very, very hidden. I was in relationships with girls all the way into my 20s, and I didn’t come out till my late 20s, till after university.

Q: What happened when you told your parents you were gay?

A: They were good. They had to do a huge readjustment in their understanding of me, so that’s not easy for parents. You go through some strange questions, for sure, and it takes a bit of time, and you find your way through it. But it’s a strange thing because I know lots of people have very supportive families, and it doesn’t mean you don’t feel a little bit separate. Even in this age of acceptance, there is still often a line that you don’t want to cross. Or maybe it’s even that we feel uncomfortable, that we still want to hide elements of ourselves because we’re still afraid that they might not love us as much.

So frequently, we want to reassure everyone else not to worry. We’ve held this thing in, which almost makes you explode from being sick with the pressure building inside you, and still you’re like, “Oh, don’t worry, I’m really happy,” or “I’m going to be great.” And in retrospect I’m like, what was I doing? I wasn’t fine. I was a mess and I was terrified and all I was trying to do is make them feel better. For a lot of queer people, we’re doing that all the time, trying to walk this line of not pushing boundaries too much so we don’t get rejected.

Q: When you were reading the novel that “All of Us Strangers” was based on, did you sense immediately that you could explore all these themes in an adaptation?

A: It definitely took a long time. It’s a good novel, but it’s very traditionally a ghost story. I thought about doing it as that to start with, but then I knew that I wanted the romantic relationship in the story to be queer, and I wanted it to be about the associations of family love and romantic love and how they’re all wrapped up together.

Q: You shot the film in the house you grew up in, in Croydon in South London. Were you picturing that place when you wrote the script?

A: Yeah. I think I was rooting it to the idea of a childhood home, and then as we started trying to work out where to shoot it, I was like, “Well, why wouldn’t I go and shoot it there?” I knew it would be a strange experience, but I like how I feel when I’m a little bit terrified and emotionally fragile. The interesting ideas come from that.

Q: What was it like when you first walked through that door?

A: I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s a very peculiar feeling. When I walked around by myself and I sat in what would have been my old bedroom and looked out the window, you just remember things. I remember standing at that window when I was a kid. There were some enormous trees outside, but when we lived there, those trees were only knee-high. Somehow that freaked me out more than anything else, that those trees were pretty much the exact age as me and they’ve been on this planet for 50 years, as I have.

Q: You’ve cast Claire Foy and Jamie Bell as the parents. How much like your real parents are they?

A: Look, my dad’s from the north of England and sounds a bit like Jamie, and my mom sounds a bit like Claire. And they sort of look a bit like that and their personalities are quite similar. So there’s definitely a sense that they are related to my parents.

Q: It’s interesting that when we first meet Jamie’s character, before you’ve revealed the familial relationship, it almost seems like he’s cruising Andrew’s character in the woods.

A: It always made me laugh that no one’s surprised when a straight guy goes for someone who’s a bit like their mom — that’s just like a natural thing — but no one ever says, “Well, gay guys and queer guys, maybe they quite like someone who’s a bit like their dad.” I wanted to play with that because, to me, love is rooted in feeling comforted and safe and understood. That is what your parents give you, and it’s no surprise that you might want it from a lover, too. And Jamie Bell looks super hot. Who doesn’t want to cruise him coming out of the trees?

Q: Did the actors meet your parents?

A: No. I would never do that. I mean, my dad’s not well so he won’t get to see the film. But my mom’s seen the film and I’m sure she’ll meet the actors at some point.

Q: What did she think of it?

A: She saw it with my brother in a screening room in London, and I think it was hard for her to watch. There was a lot of stuff that feels personal to her, and I don’t underestimate how strange that must be. There’s a scene that I have now made with some twisted version of me talking to a mother in the bed that used to be my mom’s bed. That’s not an easy thing for them to deal with, so I really do appreciate it. But she loves the film, she’s super excited about it.

It’s a shame my dad can’t see it because I feel like he would like it. My dad has quite bad dementia and it came on while I was making the film, just a strange time for it to happen. During the shoot, I went up to visit him because he’d just been put into hospital, and he’d completely forgotten that I was gay. Had no memory of it: “Oh, so you’ve got a wife? Are you married?” I was like, “Oh, Christ.” I didn’t tell him, I didn’t say that I was with my partner.

Q: Why not?

A: I was terrified, I felt like I was 20-whatever again. I didn’t want to upset him because he’s in a care home now, but at the same time, you feel the same terror of, “Oh my God, is he going to reject me when I really don’t need this right now?” Then I came back to London and the next scene I shot was the scene with Jamie and Andrew talking (about his sexuality), a pretty tough emotional scene to have done the day after that. So it was a rough time.

I did see my dad again and I brought my partner with me, so he’s seen my partner now. It was interesting because he was like, “Well, as long as you found love, that’s the important thing. That’s all I care about.” I feel like some element of him still knew, and I’m glad I got to bring my partner to see him. It just shows how you always have to still keep coming out.

Q: There’s always something that can reduce you to the state you were in before.

A: Exactly. That’s what this film is: It’s absolutely about being reduced to that state. And that’s why I thought it was so interesting to wrap it up in grief, because I think grief is such a similar thing. When you lose someone, it’s always just there as something in you. It felt like this film has such a perfect way to express how we can’t move on from things unless we’re helped to move on from those things.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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