Andrew Haigh: 'People like to say they love horses and I never quite understood that connection... but they really do feed off your emotions'
Acclaimed director Andrew Haigh tells the story of a teenage boy's connection to a special racehorse in Lean on Pete. He talks about casting his lead Charlie Plummer, creating a story about loneliness and finding connections in some unlikely places
People often say they love horses. But not British director Andrew Haigh, so it's perhaps surprising he makes an Oregon racetrack the unlikely setting for his new film.
Before he signed on for the movie, he didn't entirely get people's enthusiasm for declaring themselves lovers of all things equine.
But working on Lean on Pete, about the bond that develops between a teenage boy and a racehorse bound for the slaughterhouse, has changed all that.
"I'd certainly never worked with horses before, neither on a personal or professional level," he admits.
"I think I was nervous about it, but we used one horse for the whole film and it was very well trained and very well looked after and, weirdly, I quite enjoyed having the horse on set.
"I like to work in quite a quiet way, I don't want too much noise on set, I want everything to be peaceful and when you have a horse on set, you have to be quiet and peaceful. No one can shout, no one can scream, part of me thinks I could have a horse always on set, whether there's a horse in the story or not. It would be a good way of bringing everyone to a nice, calm level.
"They are amazing animals. People like to say they love horses and I never quite understood that connection, but there is something about horses that you can strongly connect with them, they feed off your emotions."
That powerful connection is the emotional undercurrent of Lean on Pete, which tells the story of a teenage boy who befriends an ageing Quarter horse while working at a racetrack.
The pair hit the road together when the horse's card is marked and embark on an adventure through the American frontier.
The film is based on the novel by Willy Vlautin and stars All The Money In The World actor Charlie Plummer as 15-year-old Charley Thompson.
"When I first read the book it broke my heart," Haigh says.
"I was gripped and horrified and found the story tragic, moving and emotional.
"I want to make films that make people feel something, even if you're not entirely sure what that feeling is.
"That's how I knew I felt reading it, so I knew that hopefully it would come across when I made the film.
"I went out and spent some time with the author and spent some time at the racetrack up in Portland, meeting jockeys and trainers and the people who work around that environment and then I just went driving for probably about four months."
The trip helped Haigh get a sense of the vistas he wanted to portray, as well as the feeling of life on the road.
"I wanted to experience the landscapes, meet people, sleep in motels and camp out, just to get some sense of the environment."
Exploring that transience also gave Haigh the chance to look at social classes that aren't often depicted on the big screen.
"I feel like this world and people living under a certain socioeconomic climate are not seen in films," he says.
"If they are seen in films it's often for comedic effect, or it's not treated seriously and with tenderness as well. It's not about judging these people and their lives. It's about trying to express a little bit about what it's like to live essentially on the margins of society where you are losing out on a hell of a lot of things, and the decisions that you have to make when faced with very difficult financial and economic situations.
"For me, it's about having compassion. I think Charley is a kind, compassionate person and I want us as an audience to feel kindness and compassion for him and for everyone in the story.
"I think if we could go through our lives trying to understand people's situations and trying to be a bit kinder in those situations, the world would be a better place."
Carrying that kind of narrative responsibility was a big load for the teenage Plummer (18), especially given that Charley is in every scene.
"It was terrifying, I was like, 'Oh God, it's a lot to ask a kid', and he was 16/17 at the time, and he is in every single frame of the film.
"He goes through a lot of different emotional states and also I needed a certain type of performance that holds back but gives when I need it to give.
"But he was incredible, he was so dedicated and mature, understood what the story was and understood what his character was and just approached every scene with a real kind of maturity which you don't see in adult actors a lot of the time.
"To see it in someone so young was really special, I think he's incredible and I think he will be a big star at some point because he is so incredibly talented."
The film also examines the themes of loneliness and finding connection in unexpected places, with an insistence on hope and resilience in the face of struggle.
"I'm trying to tell a story that's grounded in reality, so to not try and understand that reality seems to me a mistake.
"Charley goes on this really difficult journey to try and find some kind of stability in his life. I like films to be very specific in their environment, whether it's two old people in a house in Norfolk or whether it's Charley in Oregon out on the road.
"In the end, all of us, whoever we are, wherever we are, we are struggling with a lot of similar things.
"I think we live in a world where everyone's trying to define us as different and separate but the truth is, underneath all that, we all want the same things, we all need the same things.
"We need love, need protection, need to feel safe, need all those things.
"And so I think it's important to me to tell films in different environments but at the same time have this universal thread."
Lean on Pete is out in UK cinemas now