Cinematographer Ula Pontikos and production designer Sarah Finlay reflect on the making of Weekend, ten years down the line.
This essay is also part of our 10th anniversary celebration of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. Read all our articles on the film here.
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“I remember, when we finished, I knew that we probably will never do a shoot like that ever again,” Ula Pontikos reflected on her first feature film as a cinematographer, Weekend (2011). It was a shoot like no other she’s worked on since. Made with a miniscule crew and budget, “It was so tiny and so friendly. We had lots of giggles.” Often, the crew was just fifteen people crammed into a tiny Nottingham tower block apartment. But such a low-budget production also allows certain freedoms: the freedom to experiment, to collaborate, and for writer-director-editor (plus overseer of the costume design) Andrew Haigh to tell the story in the way he felt was right. I caught up with Pontikos and production designer Sarah Finlay to get their perspective on the shoot that shaped their careers ten whole years ago.
Weekend, now celebrating its tenth anniversary, was a tiny film that has had a huge impact on many people, slowly but surely becoming a queer classic over the past decade. Andrew Haigh told us about getting emails from young queer people, even today, who love the film, some even confiding that they came out after watching it. “I know it’s important to a lot of people,” remarked production designer Sarah Finlay, reflecting back on Weekend. Pontikos echoed, “It had such an emotional impact on people. Being a tiny cog in the process of making the movie gave me such a sense of achievement.”
Weekend launched the career of Haigh, who then went on to work on the HBO show Looking (2014-2016), and has made two subsequent features, 45 Years (2015) and Lean on Pete (2017). His latest show, The North Water, recently aired on AMC+ in America and the BBC in the UK. Weekend was also a launchpad for a number of talented crew members. Ula Pontikos went on to shoot beautiful-looking films such as Lilting (Hong Khaou, 2013), Second Coming (Debbie Tucker Green, 2014), and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Paul McGuigan, 2017), as well as season two of the TV series Russian Doll. As well as also working on Haigh’s 45 Years, Finlay has been the production designer on many recent Seventh Row favourites, from The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach, 2016) to Ammonite (Francis Lee, 2020).
Ula Pontikos and Sarah Finlay on prepping Weekend
“I wanted to do the right first feature, one I really connected to,” remembered Ula Pontikos. That film ended up being Weekend, which tells the story of Russell (Tom Cullen), a introverted gay man in Nottingham, who shares a romantic weekend with the extroverted Glen (Chris New), before Glen moves to America. “The script read as small, intimate, and poignant. I loved the fact that Andrew had put John Grant music in the script. It really triggered my imagination. I did another project recently where the music was written into the script, and it’s just so nice to get into mood boards with it, because you feel the textural, non-verbal side, which is hard to put into words. The last few pages of Weekend made me emotional.”
The prep for the film was so quick, it was like a whirlwind for both Pontikos and Sarah Finlay. Finlay wasn’t even involved in location scouting, “which is not normal,” she said. “I think because of the budget, and because of the time constraints, they just found somewhere that worked.” Pontikos didn’t have much time to prep after her initial meeting with Haigh, because she “went to Budapest for a shoot and then came back and I was in Nottingham,” starting to film almost immediately thereafter.
What helped was working with a director with an extremely clear vision. “Andrew very much knows what he wants,” remembered Pontikos. “He likes people to veer off and convince him, but he will have a clear idea.” Finlay recalled, “We had a little chat and talked references and showed each other images, and then he kind of just lets you get on with it. He comes and goes and checks in, but his work on those two films [Weekend and 45 Years] that I’ve done with him is about the actors and the performances. You don’t really want to be doing anything that’s going to detract from that. You’re really into the characters when you get the scripts, which are always quite clearly defined. You know the characters when you read the script.”
With such little time to prep and shoot Weekend, it was crucial that Haigh had thorough initial conversations with his collaborators to get them on the same page about his vision. Pontikos remembered their initial meeting: “Andrew gave me a document with the emotional beats and meanings of each scene which was a really useful starting point.” She also remembers the films he provided as references: “Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2004) is one of them. Cloud 9 (Andreas Dresen, 2008), which is a sort of simply but beautifully photographed film, shot on a tiny little camera. A German movie about a couple. Andrew suggested Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006). I think I had just seen Wendy and Lucy (Reichardt, 2008). And then Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002) and Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani).”
Photography was also a huge influence, particularly Colin Quinn and Oisín Share’s work, as Pontikos described. “[Quinn and Share] were documenting their lives together as a couple. They influenced a lot of the colour scheme. They were shooting on film, though,” whereas Weekend was shot digitally, during the early days of the digital boom. “We were trying to get that softness. We wanted it to feel delicate and sensitive, but without being too fluffy, I suppose. That was the desired colour scheme, [inspired by] the way they documented their lives and their relationship.”
In Weekend, as in all of Haigh’s work, space was vitally important. It was crucial to create a distinct sense of place, because the film was all about how Russell feels surveilled by his environment and the people around him, as if he can’t be himself in his sexuality outside the safety of his flat. In Pontikos’s words: “Andrew wanted [it to seem like] Russell’s story [could take place] in any city of the UK, and Nottingham was pretty perfect for it. It doesn’t say London, and it’s quite cinematic.” But how to create a sense of place? Sarah Finlay mused that “it’s a balancing act between what you see outside, and then bringing that into the homes and the houses:the sense of the exterior within the interior.” That could mean, for example, making sure that colours or even plants from outside the character’s home are also present inside.
Sarah Finlay on the production design of Russell’s flat
A crucial job was making Russell’s flat feel like home, because in the film, it’s his safe space where he hides away from the world. He lives in the middle of an anonymous tower block, a real location that has since been torn down. Sarah Finlay recalled how “you kind of live in the space itself when you’re doing [the job] to make sense of it. It’s really quite reflective. I’ve got still pictures on my phone that I flip through now and again. It’s just the sun setting outside that flat, but it was so calm up there, and just really lovely.”
Dressing the flat was a race against time — again, with a budget of £65,000, time and money was of the essence. But Russell’s preference for a home full of second-hand items made working within the budget a little easier for Finlay: “Andrew talked about him collecting things that have meant something to other people. Just [to create] his own history. It’s kind of an extended family in some way, that he’d got these nice things as part of someone else’s life. It was a lot of charity shops and market buying and stuff.” Russell grew up in foster care, and so he’s always felt unmoored from any kind of family history. But his flat feels warm, lived-in, like it’s populated by heirlooms passed down from generation to generation. Furniture and objects don’t really fit together — he’s got quite modern wallpaper and an old, saggy, floral sofa — but every item feels like it has meaning, which is comforting to Russell.
Finlay remembers “being in the flat the night before they started shooting until about two in the morning, laying the carpet, which had to be done in pieces. One of the biggest things was I needed to wash the sheets. I wanted to make sure the sheets didn’t look as though they’d been ironed or come straight out of the packet. It was all a bit of a rush. It was just me and an art department assistant on that job. It was just the two of us trying to get it all done and stripping the wallpaper and painting it all, putting down the carpet, lugging the props up to that floor. It was all good fun.”
Russell’s flat is full of little knick knacks that quietly tell you a lot about him. He even admits his charity-shop collecting habits to Glen, describing how he’s made up an entire story in his mind about how a particular mug he owns might have been some old woman’s favourite, until she died and her family gave it away. There’s also a particularly memorable collage of photos and ticket stubs behind Russell’s bed that tells us he’s someone who likes to keep mementoes, however small, holding onto those memories. Finlay told me, “I used to do that in my room, in my student accommodation: collecting things that meant something to me. I think most of those things are from my own box of rubbish.”
Ula Pontikos on shooting Weekend
Now that the space was ready, the question remained, how to shoot in it? The crew was aided by one unusual factor: Haigh shot the film mostly in chronological order, which is not typical for a film shoot. Shooting in order is mostly regarded as a helpful thing for the actors, but Ula Pontikos told me how it aided the crew, as well. “It helped to [show] the growing intimacy between Glenn and Russell from the beginning to the end as well as for the operator to capture the scenes. That all translates onto a screen.”
On her approach to capturing the actors, Pontikos explained that “the immediate reaction was that the camera has to feel like a participator and voyeur, stealing the private moments of Russell’s and Glenn’s life. But it was never intrusive or uncomfortable. It’s just observational.”
Pontikos and Haigh chose a more objective look for the outdoor scenes, in which Russell’s paranoia about being himself in society is felt through the camera. Pontikos mused, “I don’t know if Andrew was influenced by [Robert] Altman, but he had this idea of doing long, zooming in sections. I loved it, but the Canon 5D [which most of the film is shot on] couldn’t do slow, creeping zooms. We decided to add Sony FX3 with the Cooke zoom lens to add the outside perspective to Russell’s gaze. Sony FX3 had such a different colour spec to what the Canon 5D offers, which is very saturated. In the grade, we found somewhere in the saturations somewhere in between of the two dramatically different specs.”
One of Haigh’s strengths as a filmmaker is his blocking, and the fact that, as Pontikos put it, he “doesn’t believe in movement for the sake of movement.” In Pontikos’s words, “Blocking is such a big part of making movies, because you can block a scene in so many ways. I think an important job for the cinematographer is to participate with ideas for blocking.”
Pontikos continued, “I realised I’m almost like a third participant in these scenes, just an invisible one, a watching one. There were a lot of scenes where it’s all about the instinct of operating. You feel so much more vulnerable, especially when it’s your first project. But it was great. I remember the tram scene, which actually ended up being in the publicity stills. I just crowded everyone around my lens. We had so few background artists, so I used crew members in the foreground [around the camera to create the feeling of a bigger crowd]. The moving tram caused the bodies to obstruct or reveal Russell and Glen and increased the sense of public gaze and intimacy.”
Weekend was shot and edited so that most scenes take place in real time: almost without exception, each scene is shot in a single, unbroken take, and every time there’s a cut, it signals that time has passed in the story. This put a lot of pressure on Pontikos to operate the camera reliably and in a way that allowed the performances to shine. That pressure only intensified when Haigh, who was editing as he shot, showed her a rough cut of the film in the middle of the shoot. “I realised that if my camera work is botched and wrong, there’s nothing Andrew will do to make it smoother. He will not care. It’s all about the actors. And quite rightly!”
Operating sensitively was particularly important in the film’s explicit sex scenes. Pontikos recalled, “We all sort of dreaded the sex scenes. They’re fairly tricky to make. We wanted to capture the mood rather than the reality of it. [Andrew] had a very, very clear idea of how to film it. If my memory doesn’t fail me, there was one sex scene which is sort of silhouetted and [features] mirror reflections. It was actually relatively quick to shoot, but quite tricky. We were all nervous shooting it. One has to be very tactful and calm and respectful to the difficulty of it.”
One of Pontikos’s favourite scenes, and one of mine, is towards the end of the film, when Russell and Glen say goodbye to each other for the last time. They’re at the train station, where Glen is waiting for a train to the airport. We watch their hurried, emotional goodbye through a chain-link fence. Pontikos explained, “I really loved the end scene which is shot with our zoom slowly creeping-in to an intimate two shot. I think Andrew got last minute jitters before shooting that scene, and I was like, ‘No, no, we need to do it! It’s the best part of that script!’ It’s so poignant for the story, because they’re making their first display of affection in public. There was a real emotional reason for it. We did it, and it’s just such a beautiful scene. We did it through the mesh of the fence. By the end of the shot, the zoom was really soft, and then the mesh of the gates just made it even more romantic.”
Pontikos loves the scene for how it merges “the public gaze of the world around Russell, and the feeling of surveillance” together with the more intimate gaze of the rest of the film, when Russell and Glen are alone together. “It all merged together with the last kiss,” when the feeling of being watched through the gates melts away for a moment, as the mesh softens, and we get closer to Russell and Glen as they embrace. Visually, this scene tells us everything about what being with Glen meant to Russell: their brief time together allowed him to shed some of his insecurities about his sexuality, resolving, if even just slightly, his public and private selves.
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