The Existential Crisis of ’45 Years’
A 2015 British drama film directed and written by Andrew Haigh, 45 Years centers on Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) preparing to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. Based on the David Constantine short story In Another Country, it came out in the UK last year and then made its stateside debut at the end of last year. It’s currently showing at select art house theaters. Haigh phoned us from Los Angeles where he was editing the finale of Looking, the HBO series about a group of gay friends living in San Francisco.
Talk about how you came across the David Constantine short story and what made you want to adapt it into a movie.
I was editing my last film, Weekend, and the publisher sent me a collection of short stories. I read it. It was very short . . . like 12 or 13 pages. At the heart of it, there’s a body and the effect it has on a relationship haunted me. I wanted to adapt it and alter it and enlarge in a way that makes sense for me to tell it on the screen.
It’s partly based on a true story?
I read something about that recently. I didn’t know about that. I knew that there was some strange truth in it perhaps. It seems so unlikely because it’s about this body being found. It feels unbelievable but at the same time make sense. I found that to be very interesting.
People bury their pasts. That’s part of the problem, right?
Weirdly, the more you’re in a relationship, the harder it can be to talk about certain things because you have more to risk. If you don’t talk about these things in the early formation of the relationship, it becomes a very, very difficult thing. You define yourself in those early days. It makes complete sense to me that there might be things you haven’t discussed or talked about. It’s harder 30 or 40 years later.
You said you wanted to tell it from the female perspective. What challenges did that present?
The story is from the male perspective in the original short story. It’s like an existential crisis movie. A lot of them are told from the male, middle-aged perspective. It seemed more interesting to tell it from the female perspective. Of course, a woman can have an existential crisis too. It made complete sense to me. I found it was interesting that it was something that hadn’t happened to her and yet it was unraveling her whole life. The things that disrupt the understanding of ourselves can come from very strange, unknown places that don’t make sense and shouldn’t be a threat but end up threatening things. That’s fascinating.
Did you have difficulty telling it from that point of view?
Not really. For both the characters, I understood both of them and I understood the differences in opinion they might have. Obviously, there are differences between men and women but there are things that connect the two sexes as well. I found it interesting to look at the different ways people might react to things. It didn’t take much for me to identify with a female character or with an older character for that matter.
Did you intend to make a movie that didn’t sentimentalize the subject matter?
Whenever there are ever older people in films, they’re used for comic effects or they don’t treat it seriously. They’re not treated as people who are asking questions and trying to find answers and discovering their own identities. There’s this notion that once you reach the age of 50 everything is set in stone and sorted. That doesn’t make any sense to me. The older people I know aren’t like that and I don’t feel like I will become like that. It was important to me that they’re two people searching for the answers.
Are there other films about elderly people that you look to for inspiration?
Not really. I think there are other European films that deal with aging in a different kind of way. I tried not to look at other films. There are definitely movies that inspire me and that are in the background of my mind but I don’t look at specific films.
How’d you go about putting the soundtrack together?
It was all scripted. So from the early stages of writing, I spent a lot of time listening to a lot of music and working out who these people are and what they might listening to and what books they might read. The soundtrack became a part of that. It helps me understand that. It’s so important to most of us. Songs define a period to us. It was working out what that music would be. I was listening to it all on a loop. At the time, I thought, “If I have to listen to ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ one more time . . . ”
Did you grow up listening to lots of music?
Yeah. I was a teenager in the ‘80s. In my teenage years, Britain that was a great musical time. I’ve always been obsessed with music.
What do you think Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay bring to their respective roles?
They bring so much. It’s the first time I’ve worked with actors of that kind of experience. They’re both so expressive and show strength and vulnerability in equal measure. They were perfectly matched. There’s a lot of silence in the film. You need people who can express themselves physically through their eyes and gestures. It’s all you can hope for when you cast. You want somebody to bring the story to life. Both of them did that for me beautifully.
Did you have them in mind?
I try not to write with anyone in mind because it can be depressing when they say no. They’re just versions of me but then you start casting. We approached Charlotte first. It was important that the female lead was cast first and then worked out who was right to go alongside the female lead. I sent her a copy of my last film. We spoke on the phone for an hour and a half and she said yes. And we asked Tom quickly afterward. It came together quickly, which is great. It’s funny now. I can’t imagine anyone else. Once you make the film, you think, of course, it’s them.
What do you hope people take away from the movie? Do you think in those terms?
I do a bit. I want people to take away questions more than answers. I want to express that’s it’s difficult whether you’re in a relationship or not. It’s hard to understand yourself and what you want. It’s hard to live truthfully. I want those things to be milling around in people’s brains as they leave the cinema. I want them to think about their own choices and whether their life has been everything they want it to be. Also, it’s just difficult. It’s hard and messy and doesn’t end how we want it to. That’s the overarching theme.
Have you started your next project yet?
Yeah, I’m trying to get something up and running. I want to shoot in Oregon. I think it’s going to happen but I don’t want to say it’s definitely going to happen until the camera has switched on. Making any kind of film is always difficult. I don’t want to mess it up.
You worked as the co-producer and occasional writer and director of the HBO drama series Looking. Canceled after two seasons, the series is planned to finish with a two-hour TV movie set to air in 2016. What has that been like?
We got to finish with a wrap-up movie. It’s an interesting amazing experience. I loved doing it. It’s hard working on anything that you don’t know when it’s going to end. That’s definitely a challenge. My films are really contained. You know the end. When you do a TV show you don’t know the end. It’s a challenge. TV is a great medium but it’s different than film. You make a film and know what the audience is. You make a TV show and it has to have a slightly wider audience. That has its own challenges. It has been a good experience.
I thought the audience would be there.
I always had a notion that it would be a tricky thing to get an audience for it. Not only is it about gay people but it’s specific in its feeling and tone and I knew it wasn’t going to be a massive mainstream hit. I would have loved for it to continue a little bit longer but it is what it is. Time to move on.