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 It’s his connection with Pete that lets the withdrawn Charley finally unfold himself and pushes him to keep moving, in search of somewhere to call home.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.
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