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Andrew Haigh on ‘Lean on Pete’, horse wrangling and that R Kelly track

The acclaimed British director tells me about heading across the pond for a roadtrip movie with a difference

By Sarah Bradbury

After earning acclaim for British-set dramas ‘Weekend’ and ‘45 Years’, director Andrew Haigh has crossed the Atlantic with his first film set in the US: a slow-burn, elegiac adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel ‘Lean on Pete’. It’s about a troubled teenager (Charlie Plummer) who heads cross-country with a past-its-prime racehorse in Oregon.

How did you come across Willy Vlautin’s book?
‘My partner read it and loved it and he thought I would too. It was just after I made “Weekend” and I really fell in love with the novel. I’m quite picky about my projects but it lodged itself in my head and refused to disappear.’

What was it that you connected with?
‘I loved the way it plays with your expectations of genre: it’s an on-the-road journey set in the American West about people living on the margins, and it’s about [a boy] coming of age. But it’s more than that. Like my previous films, it explores our need for understanding, acceptance and stability, only in a very different, larger context.’

‘‘Emotionally complex scenes are a challenge. The horse was actually very well-behaved.’

The film rests on Charlie Plummer’s shoulders. Did it feel risky to rely so heavily on such a young actor?
‘It was scary because Charlie is in every frame of the movie. But I saw an audition tape he sent in and knew he was the person. He’s very good at drawing you close without giving everything away.’ 

Charley (Charlie Plummer) and his pal head across country

You were working with horses and sprawling landscapes. What were the filming challenges?
‘The most challenging scenes were the emotionally complex ones. Whether it’s two people sitting in a front room or someone in the middle of the desert, finding something that feels truthful is the hardest thing. The horse was actually very well behaved.’

How did a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy cover version of R Kelly’s ‘The World’s Greatest’ make it onto the soundtrack?
‘The song was in my head as I was writing the script. It’s a very bombastic, American song but then it’s sung with a real sense of disappointment and sadness. Sometimes we are so desperate to prove our independence in the world that we forget we all need help, all the time. Somehow that song seemed to sum that up for me.’

The film touches on some deep social issues.
‘I always thought of this story as being one about the American dream in the way it has fundamentally failed so many people, even as it promises to help them. It’s about a kid who has been abandoned not just by loved ones and family, but by society. To me, it is always the biggest tragedy that people can fall through those cracks. We should be there to help people like Charley.’

And, of course, homelessness plays a big part too.  
‘I lived in San Francisco for three years on and off and the homelessness problem is atrocious – and this is a very wealthy city filled with huge amounts of tech money. There’s very little help for people with mental health problems, so it’s very easy to get yourself in a situation where there’s no one there to help you. The homelessness problem is atrocious in London, too. It’s very clear that something is broken in the system that in wealthy countries that we are allowing people to not get the help that they need.’ 

You’re adapting another novel, ‘The North Water’ for the BBC. What can you say about it?
‘It tells the story of an 1850s whaling mission to the Arctic. It’s a challenging piece of material. I don’t like to say too much until I’m actually there shooting because things don’t always happen!’

‘Lean on Pete’ opens Fri May 4.

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