By Ramona Zacharias.
The story behind the critically acclaimed 45 Years is a simple one – Geoff and Kate Mercer (played exceptionally by Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling) are just about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary when Geoff receives a letter that throws them both into emotional turmoil.
After five decades, the body of his first love, Katya, has been found in the Alps, where she was lost to him in a tragic accident all those years before. While common sense may tell Kate that Geoff and Katya’s romantic history is firmly in the past and has no bearing on the long and successful marriage she currently enjoys, she sees the effect the news has on her husband and is now faced with overwhelming feelings of insecurity and a rival she never thought she’d have to contend with.
Writer and director Andrew Haigh first came across this short story by David Constantine while putting the finishing touches on his film Weekend, which is also heavily focused on emotionally charged relationships. Instantly drawn to the story, he decided to not only make it his next project, but see it as something of a sequel to Weekend.
I recently chatted with Haigh about 45 Years, the fascination he has for human relationships and his approach to writing a backstory.
When did you first become acquainted with David Constantine’s short story? What was it about it that made you want to bring it to the screen?
I came across it when I was editing my last movie, Weekend – so that was back around 2011. I’d made a short film out of a different story that his publisher had come across and he sent me this collection of stories by David. I was reading them while I was editing and this one just really struck a chord. It kind of lodged itself in my brain and wouldn’t leave!
It’s quite a short short story – it’s probably only about 12 pages or so. But that kind of central idea of this body being found and about this past having such a profound effect on a seemingly incredibly stable relationship was just really interesting to me.
And so I kept thinking about it and kept thinking about how I could enlarge it and adapt it…and then just decided to make it my next film.
I know you enjoy writing about relationships, but what elements of a relationship in particular most intrigue you?
I think they’re just so important. In the end, our lives are pretty much defined by the relationships we have. They become the most important element, pretty much of all of our lives, whether we like it or not. We like to think it’s all about our work and our jobs and what we achieve – but in the end, when it comes down to it, it’s usually our relationships. So it makes sense to me that I would want to explore them.
I think that more than anything, it’s about how relationships enable us to understand who we are. And enable us to understand our own identity and what we want to be. I think that’s what’s so fascinating about relationships – they’re not just about understanding a relationship, they’re a great way to understand the individuals within the relationship and who they are and what they want from the world.
In that case, do you perform any specific kinds of research for your writing, perhaps in terms of psychology? Or are the characters more based on your personal observations?
I try to do a relative amount of back history when I’m coming up with the characters. I think in most relationships, there are a lot of things that make the characters similar to each other but there are also differences between each other. So it’s about me working out the different psychology of the character.
To do that, I like to look at their past – in my head. I usually consider “OK, what would have been some key events in that person’s life?”…and they can be very small things. They don’t have to be major events. They can be little turning points in the character’s life that I think have affected their psychology as a character.
Then I also like to work out other things, like what are their political beliefs, what are their religious beliefs (if they have any), what are their favorite films perhaps, what kind of books do they like to read…all those kind of strange little backstory things that I think help understand who a character is.
Once you’ve done that, it’s easier when you’re writing conversations and dialogue because you kind of understand who these people are and what they want.
Speaking of backstory, there’s a scene in the film where Kate is visiting the venue for their anniversary reception and the employee says “This place is so full of history, like a good marriage”. As an audience, we don’t get to see Geoff and Kate’s history – so what kind of a backstory did you write for them?
It was important not to over-articulate. There’s a long backstory you’d have to write for 45 years! But in my head I certainly thought about how they met and what the earlier years of their marriage would have been like.
I thought about where they moved and the kind of house that they wanted to live in…I thought about any conversations they would have had around children, about having children, about whether they wanted to have children…you just look at the course of their relationship.
It’s not even that I necessarily had to talk to Tom and Charlotte about that either – there were certain things we definitely did talk about when we were preparing for the film. But you don’t want to overburden it, I think, with an enormous amount of backstory. Because it can then become confusing – confusing to me and confusing to the actors.
So it was about having key things: like the idea that they met at a dance hall in Leeds and they were dancing when they met each other. That even becomes a part of the story, they talk about it. It’s about trying to find those small moments that have an effect.
I found it interesting that Kate’s name is so close to “Katya”, the name of the woman her husband is mourning. But in hearing David Constantine read his short story, he always refers to Kate as “Mrs. Mercer” so it seems that we don’t know her name…was that your addition to the original story?
Do you know what, that’s so interesting – because someone asked me that the other day and I couldn’t remember! I couldn’t remember if in the original story she was called Kate.
But yes, it would have been intentional. And some people don’t get it, that their names are similar, and they don’t even talk about the fact that their names are similar in the film.
But at the same time, it’s just one of those other things, lurking in the background, that makes Kate feel off-balance and makes her feel like “God, has everything just been a lie, does everything have an alternate meaning?” I just love the idea that it’s disconcerting but it’s not necessarily something they even address.
We automatically sympathize with Kate; but how did you see the experience as having affected Geoff’s character?
It is very interesting talking to how men feel about the film and how women feel about the film, and they do have different sympathies throughout. I like that idea – I did want to play with gender a little bit within the film and the perceived notion of what a man should care about and a perceived notion of what a woman is supposed to care about.
We live in a society where as a man, you’re told that you have to achieve greatness. You have to be the best person you can possibly be, you have to change the world. And I think for Geoff, him looking back at what happened with Katya and looking back at the person he thought he would be when he was young…he’s kind of thrown into chaos. Because he’s realized that he’s had to actually live a life and compromise and this is how he’s turned out.
He isn’t this dream version of what he thought he would be. So I feel like that’s the sort of crisis that he’s being thrown into. More than just “I want to be with this woman that’s dead” – because I don’t think it’s about that. I think it’s more about him than it is about her.
You had mentioned in a 2013 interview that you were working on a sequel to Weekend…do you still consider 45 Years to be a sequel to that film?
Absolutely, I definitely think of this as a sequel. It’s funny, I would never make a traditional sequel to Weekend…but for this, I feel like it is. It’s the bookend to that story.
One is about looking forward and one is about looking back – and how you define yourself through your relationships. So yeah, I definitely see it as a sequel.
It’s probably not the sequel that some people were hoping for or expecting! And I say that sometimes when people ask – I’ll say, “I made the sequel! It’s just with two older straight people.” That’s funny to me.
Early on in your career you worked in the editorial department on some very large-scale films, such as Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. What did you learn from those experiences and bring to your own career now as a screenwriter?
It’s interesting – you realize how incredibly important the edit process is in really telling that story. Often you find out in the edit what really is important and what is really truthful about this scene.
What I’ve tried to do is take that knowledge and put it in my scriptwriting to try and make those scenes at the very beginning feel as truthful as they can be. And not make them about too many things, but also give them enough layers.
So it’s definitely infiltrated into my screenwriting – because you work on a film and you realize how many scenes you just do not need. “I don’t need that scene”…“why did we spend all that money shooting that scene, we don’t need that scene”…and I make the same mistake myself when I’m shooting. I shoot scenes that don’t end up in the movie; you realize you didn’t ever need them to start with.
But it’s part of the process you learn. And also working in editing you realize there are so many different ways to tell a story. Each director and each editor is trying to find the way that works for them – and with me, I’ve tried to find a style that works for me.
Looking at various reviews of your films, there’s obviously something about them that resonates with people. But I know this is a difficult industry to navigate and you have spoken openly about challenges you’ve encountered in terms of just getting your work read and funded. What kept you going through any early rejections and even on an ongoing basis?
It’s really a tricky industry. First of all, it’s very, very hard to get anything made and get past that initial hurdle. It’s incredibly difficult for everybody, I think.
But then it’s also just as hard to stay true to what you want to do. When you have even a little bit of success, everybody’s thinking you should do one thing or be doing something else, or maybe you should make this film or try and do something more commercial in this world, whatever it is…and I think for me, I have just always, from the very beginning, said to myself “Look, if I don’t want to do it and it doesn’t really speak to me and it feels singular to what I want to do, then I shouldn’t be doing it”.
I make films and write things because I want to express how I see the world. And so I always want to just keep doing that. It may change genre and I might do films about different kinds of people that might be surprising to viewers…but it has to have the kind of common thread that feels very true to me. Otherwise I’m not going to want to do it.
And I have to believe that every project I do has at least the ability or the possibility of being incredible. Even if it doesn’t turn out that way, I have to go into it thinking that.
I think in Hollywood people want to persuade you just to do something “that might be good” or they’ll say, “That’ll be alright, just go and do that”. But for me, I don’t want to go into any project unless I believe that it could be incredible. Whether it turns out that way is a different matter, but you have to go in with that belief.
You’ve worked in both the UK and the US. What kinds of differences have you noted in terms of the climate for writers?
The good thing about the UK is that there’s a lot more public funding for the development of writing, which helps. There’s money that goes into your first draft of scripts and while it might not be a lot of money – there’s definitely much more in America – it’s enough that you can concentrate on your work for a while. That’s nice.
And also, if you get into development in the UK, you’re far more likely to see your film be made. I think in America people buy a lot of scripts and they work around in Hollywood for ages – but the likelihood of them actually becoming films is still pretty low. Whereas in the UK the likelihood is a lot higher. The funding bodies will only take a script on if they really think it’s going to get made. That’s the difference.
But I think in the end, despite the clichés of what people think Hollywood is, there are still a lot of people here who really want to make good work and they do care about cinema and TV. So I feel like there’s still a lot of enthusiasm for trying to make good films. It’s just hard to get them funded!
Finally, do you have any other advice you can offer our readers?
I think the thing is, just keep trying and just keep at it. I’ve written a lot of scripts that haven’t worked, or I’ve started story ideas that haven’t worked. Once you realize they don’t work, it’s like “Well that’s ok, I’m just going to start another one”.
And just keep always trying to be truthful to what you want to do – don’t try and hit a market, or try and do something that you think someone else is going to like. Because in the end, it’s not going to feel individual. And I think really, what anybody wants from a script is that it feels individual to the person that’s written it.
Featured image by Agatha A Nitecka