Writer-director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years, Looking) on his meticulous blocking and how he used it to express the journey of a boy searching for home in Lean on Pete. This is the first feature in our Special Issue on Lean on Pete.
At first glance, Lean on Pete seems like a departure for British writer-director Andrew Haigh. Unlike 45 Years and Weekend, which are mostly set within their respective protagonists’ homes, Lean on Pete is about a boy constantly on the move. Where 45 Years, Weekend, and Haigh’s TV series Looking were preoccupied with characters in search of intimacy and connection, much of Lean on Pete finds 15-year-old Charley (Charlie Plummer) completely alone as he wanders across America, with nobody but his trusty horse, Lean on Pete, for company. Charley’s needs — a roof over his head — are more basic, but his emotional journey is no less potent. It’s his connection with Pete that lets the withdrawn Charley finally unfold himself and pushes him to keep moving, in search of somewhere to call home.
But Lean on Pete is really just an expanded version of what Haigh has always been doing: subjective storytelling. Haigh’s films are emotionally rich because they show us events through the characters’ eyes, giving us deep insight into a single protagonist’s pespective. Lean on Pete take the subjectivity one step further with a subtle but evocative soundscape that lets us hear the world the way Charley does, immersing us in his headspace.
Haigh’s ability to craft such rich character studies goes hand-in-hand with his rare gift for blocking: designing how actors move with respect to each other and the frame, and how the camera moves around them. Every movement reveals something about the characters’ psychology and relationships. It’s what allows Haigh to make films about small moments with major ramifications: the emotional revelations are the plot.
I talked to Haigh about his approach to blocking and how it plays into his writing and filmmaking processes. We also discussed his editing process, subjective storytelling, and the importance of sound design.
Seventh Row (7R): The blocking in Lean on Pete seems more complex than your previous work, but the individual scenes are generally shorter. How did you adapt your blocking and preference for longer takes for this story?
Andrew Haigh (AH): Blocking is everything for me. In my head, when I’m working on a scene, the blocking always comes first.
Especially when you’re not cutting, you have to find that relationship between your camera and your characters. You have to develop that shot. You have to make it feel like there’s some kind of progression. So blocking is absolutely essential.
You can’t make it all up on the day. You have to think a lot about it beforehand. I spend a lot of time trying to understand how Charley is going to walk into this room, and go to the fridge, and get to the table, and speak to the girlfriend who’s in the house, and where is the dad going to come out, and how are they going to sit down. The minute you have any kind of longer take, you have to think about these things.
I love how people exist within space and how they manage the space around them: how they feel comfortable in that space or embrace that space. So blocking can say a huge amount about character.
This [Lean on Pete] was definitely trickier [than Haigh’s previous films]. There are certain scenes with horse racing, like Charley running out of a stadium, down the track, as the horses pass all the extras. We only had one chance of doing that in the film because we couldn’t race the horses again. We didn’t have money to get new horses. So we had one take. Later in the film, what happens to the horse is one shot — two takes — and it takes a lot of work. I love the preparation that goes into that work, which you don’t get doing standard old boring coverage.'Especially when you’re not cutting, you have to find that relationship between your camera and your characters.'Click To Tweet
7R: If you’re doing so much planning of the blocking beforehand, how does that play into location scouting, especially for this film? You’re not just in a couple of locations like 45 Years and Weekend.
AH: I spend a long time. You’ve got to find the right location. Sometimes, something looks great, and then you go there, and you’re like, “I just don’t think my blocking can work in this situation.” Even if it’s just Charley walking into a stable: how am I going to do this shot if I don’t have somewhere to put the camera?
I think long and hard about those things and whether the shots can work in their entirety. I don’t like to be limited too much, where I’m stuck here, and all I can do is standard coverage. That doesn’t excite me very much when I’m approaching a scene.'I love how people exist within space and how they manage the space around them.'Click To Tweet
7R: When do you conceive of the blocking, and how do you adapt it through the filmmaking process?
AH: It’s almost from the script-level, actually. There’s a scene in 45 Years when Kate gets the letter. I knew that I wanted her to come through the door, to go to her husband, to walk over to get some water that was away from the husband so we didn’t see the husband in the shot. All of that is sort of planned in writing, and then you try to find a location where that can be possible. That’s not always the case, but a lot of the time it is.
All I’m trying to do, at every point, is to reveal something that feels truthful about the character. The way the character moves around someone else, turns their back on someone else, or does something else in order to stop thinking about what they should be thinking about, or whatever it is, is so important.
I think some directors go on set, and they have no idea of blocking. Then, them and the actors come up with what the blocking is. I go on set like, “So, you’re going to walk from here to here. And then you’re going to go do this. And then you’re going to go do this. And then you’re going to go and do this.” That usually is my direction rather than “this is your motivation” or “this is how you’re feeling”. It’s about finding action that is going to reveal character.'We only had one chance to get that shot because we couldn't race the horses again. We didn't have money to get new horses.'Click To Tweet
7R: If you’re thinking about blocking as early as the script stage, how do you conceive of that?
AH: I draw a little diagram, sometimes, to try and work out how someone might be doing something. It’s almost how my brain works. I’m not very technical. In a big, complicated scene, if I was going to cover it from a bunch of different angles, it would probably be a disaster. Even though I’ve edited in the past, I’d be like, “I don’t know!”
I’m the kind of person where, if I’ve got a map, I have to turn the map in the direction of the location to understand what road I’m on. I have to step on the map to understand where I am. I think, oddly, my thought process when I’m making movies is similar. I need to see it, in my brain, in a very simple way, and the blocking lets me do that.'It’s about finding action that is going to reveal character.'Click To Tweet
7R: Weekend and 45 Years both emphasize a lot of repetition and rituals of home, but Lean on Pete is about a boy who is searching for a home and has no stability. He keeps almost getting into rituals, with a bit of repetition, but something always gets in the way. How did you think about creating cohesion in a movie that’s essentially about that lack of stability in Charley’s life?
AH: Exactly. I think that’s what Charley’s always doing. He’s always trying to make something feel like it’s safe, create his surrounding.
There are simple moments that you think about in the blocking. When he’s leaving the house on the first morning, he’s not just leaving the house and then going running. He’s leaving the house, and then he puts a bit of a box back in the recycling bin, to cover it up so that it looks a bit nicer. That was in the script.'I draw a little diagram, sometimes, to try and work out how someone might be doing something.'Click To Tweet
Little moments of blocking help you understand the world a bit better. It’s always about trying to find those subtle details to help tell a bigger story. On the second and the third round of my scripts, I’m looking for those extra details that can poke through the surface and tell a bit more. Often, you forget them on the day. I’m very clear that if I put them in the script, then they’re there, and I remember them.
My scripts are quite detailed in the action of things. Whether someone is looking in the mirror, or doing something with their hands, I put them into my scripts. To me, that’s the plot points of the story. My films aren’t driven by huge, overarching plot. So it’s the little, emotional action beats that I try to get right.
In this film, I knew I always wanted Charley to travel from one direction of the screen to the other direction of the screen, whenever we could. When he gets to Denver, he becomes homeless, and he starts to walk the other way, in the other screen direction. It’s little things like that that I try to do to give it some cohesion — and then some surprise, later on, when that changes.
7R: For 45 Years, you talked about deciding on how to shoot the final scene and then working backwards to make it fit with the rest of the film. Lean on Pete also has a really striking ending with Charley running for pleasure and not for escape. He’s finally able to stop and just breathe. Did you go through a similar process? How did you conceptualize the final scene and shots of Lean On Pete?
AH: The ending always comes to my mind first when I’m trying to write things — actually, the beginning and the ending. I have a beginning shot in my mind, and I have an ending shot in my mind. The final image of this film, even with the music that played, was always in my head as I started working. I don’t know why that is the case, but everything just leads up to that point. I think you do, visually, go backwards to understand how you feel.
There’s definitely a sense that here is a character who is turning away from us: wanting us to help him, and then running away from us when we’re offering him our help. There are a lot of times in the film, like with the police, where he escapes.'My films aren’t driven by huge, overarching plot. So it’s the little, emotional action beats that I try to get right.'Click To Tweet
But at the end, he’s found a kind of security. The other versions in the story are of him looking at us and then running away from us. At the end, he’s running away from us and then looking at us. There’s some difference and progression.
The final moment isn’t everything he thought it was going to be. The look on Charley’s face and how he feels is certainly not one of those silver screen ‘all the dreams come true’ moments. But things are certainly better.'The final image of this film, even with the music that played, was always in my head as I started working.'Click To Tweet
7R: You often film Charley in or through doorways to create a frame within a frame.
AH: I love those frames within frames. My style is more objective, I suppose, than subjective in how I film things, especially in the beginnings of my films. I like you to feel like you’ve just turned up, as an audience, and you’re watching life unfold. So to start with, you’re quite distant from the [protagonist], on the edge of the frame, looking in. Then, really slowly, as you get to know the character, you are slowly drawn into the world of the character, and maybe the film becomes slightly more subjective.
I don’t like anything to be too subjective at the start. You have to earn that in movies. You have to earn that understanding of the character. You can’t be more subjective until you can understand this person a little bit better. I feel like you have to watch someone for a while before you can even begin to understand them, in real life as much as in films. I’m always playing around with that a little bit.'I feel like you have to watch someone for a while before you can even begin to understand them, in real life as much as in films.'Click To Tweet
In this film, I feel like the imagery becomes a little bit more fluid and less solid as the film progresses, but it starts very, very naturalistically. Same in 45 Years: it starts to get almost sort of dreamscapey, at times, as it gets onwards in the story. It’s about moving something objective to something slightly more subjective without suddenly being inside the character’s head.
I try not to think about it too much. If it comes to my mind, the scene, in a certain way, I will trust that that is the correct way to make that scene, rather than analyzing it too much. I think if you analyze it too much, it can break down and become too academic. I want my films to be felt.'I want my films to be felt.'Click To Tweet
7R: The sound design feels very subjective in Charley’s perspective.
AH: With Joakim [Sundström], the sound designer, we talked about how even though the camera might be objective, the way to feel like we understand Charley more is by making the sound more subjective. I’m obsessed with sound: what it can do, how it can make you feel. We spent a long time, as we did for 45 Years — the amount of time we spent trying to find the right winds.
I do put a lot of those sound ideas into the script, because it helps me develop a more naturalistic world. There will be descriptions of sound that Charley’s hearing. Even just running past the warehouse and hearing the drilling and sawing. That was in the script at the beginning of the film.'Even though the camera might be objective, the way to feel like we understand Charley more is by making the sound more subjective.'Click To Tweet
My editor, Jonathan Alberts, is fantastic: he understands how sound, fundamentally, is important. Even in the assembly, he’s got like 25 layers of sound that builds up for a certain sequence. I can’t even watch an edit if there’s not enough sound there to make me feel it. It becomes so important in the process.
Even myself, I will bring sounds that I like: different types of wind, creaking, and horse sounds that I like. I love the mix because you really can bring those to the fore, and they can just create such a different feeling. It can really get under your skin.
Haigh talks about the importance of collaboration. We’ve got interviews with the DP and editor coming up, but our members only interview with production designer Ryan Warren Smith is also key to understanding the film’s aesthetic. Become a member now and you’ll also gain access to free eBooks and our entire back catalogue of content.
7R: Though you’re within the subjective perspective of one character, there are a lot of supporting characters that have to be rich, make an impression, and then disappear.
AH: In this film, you only ever see everything when Charley’s there. You don’t go off into the world of Steve Buscemi or Chloe [Sevigny]. I just base it on that very simple assumption that the films are single-protagonist and we’re not going to really experience anything other than what the main protagonist experiences. It’s the same in 45 Years and Weekend. You never go off into the other characters’ worlds.
So I suppose having one supporting character or seven is almost the same thing. They’re all acting on the same thing. It’s our account of how he relates to them that’s important to me, not their lives separate from Charley’s.
7R: Lean on Pete really draws your attention to the landscape and how Charley is connected to the landscape. But re-watching Weekend and 45 Years, the same thing is happening there, with the way the protagonists are connected to their homes in comparison to the outside world. How do you think about capturing the landscape and the character’s relationship to it?
AH: I think I’ve always dealt with it in the same way. I like to think of it as environment, not landscape. To me, whether you’re in a house, or in an apartment in Nottingham where Weekend is, or if you’re in the countryside in Norfolk, or if you’re Charley in the middle of the American landscape, it’s how do they feel in that environment? How does that environment reflect how they’re feeling? How do they respond to it?
In Lean on Pete, there aren’t just random landscape shots. It’s a shot that has Charley very clearly in that shot, whether it’s a specific zoom shot that starts close on Charley and comes out to wide. It’s about trying to understand his feeling within that environment. I try to deal with it in roughly the same way.'I can’t even watch an edit if there’s not enough sound there to make me feel it.'Click To Tweet
7R: When we talked before, you talked about how your blocking is a bit like editing within the frame — like, moving actors toward the camera for a close-up. What does that mean for your editing process, since you’re not working with coverage?
AH: It’s funny because it often becomes just as complicated in the edit as when you have lots of coverage. You’re trying to work almost in a bigger sequence. You have one shot, but how does that shot relate to the following scene? I do coverage for certain scenes when it’s needed. But also, how does one scene relate to the next scene? Does it actually work in unison with each other? When do we come out? When do we come in? How do we do it?'Having one supporting character or seven is almost the same thing. It’s our account of how Charley relates to them that’s important to me.'Click To Tweet
Also, what take do you use? I do quite a lot of takes when doing these long shots because there are different things you want to do. So the amount of times Jonathan and I might go endlessly through a certain scene going, “Is this the best version?” “I like the beginning of this take, but I like the ending of that take, but we’re using the whole take so how do we do it?”
I often shoot coverage in scenes, and then don’t use it. We’ll try versions with coverage and try to work out what is working best for the story. I don’t want it to be that I’m just not cutting because I don’t want to cut. There has to be a reason not to cut. If there’s a cut version that’s better for the story, then I’ll choose the cut version. There’s a lot of debate that we end up having about what works better for that. It’s hard though. If you don’t cut a lot, and then you cut, it stands out that you’re cutting.
7R: When you’re conceiving of the blocking, are you thinking about how this is going to work in the edit? Or is editing a completely different process, where now you have some distance?
AH: I definitely always think about how it’s going to relate: how the next scene is going to work against this scene — whether I’ve shot or have not shot the next scene. Is the next scene going to be shot closer? Because I feel like you need to get closer to a character if you haven’t been there in a certain scene. In the next scene, you can start from a different camera position and develop it in a different way.
When I’m working on my notes before I make the film, it’s trying to see it as a whole sequence, or a whole act, or even the whole film. It’s about trying to go through it as a whole flow rather than just dealing with it on a scene by scene basis.'If you don’t cut a lot, and then you cut, it stands out that you’re cutting.' Click To Tweet
7R: What are you working on next?
AH: I’m hopefully doing a five-part limited series called The North Water, which is set on an 1850s Arctic Whaling Mission. So I’m working on that, at the moment, which will be shot in the North of Canada. It’s very exciting. That’s why I’m in Canada right now. I’m scouting up in Iqaluit in Nunavut. I went there last October to have a look. It’s way up north. It’s incredible up there. It’ll have it’s challenges: shooting with a boat on ice and icebergs with whales and polar bears.
Want to read the whole of our Special Issue as soon as it’s available, including our interview with production designer Ryan Warren Smith in a few days time? Become a Seventh Row member now and you’ll also gain access to free eBooks and our entire back catalogue of content.
We last talked to Andrew Haigh in 2015 about his previous film, 45 Years, where he described blocking as “editing within the shot.” In her review of the film, Alex Heeney analysed what made the blocking so effective. When we spoke to Lone Scherfig about directing Their Finest, she talked about the importance of blocking when directing a scene featuring many characters. At the other end of the spectrum, director Sally Potter never works out blocking in advance, preferring instead to respond to what the actors are doing.