Environment as Emotional State: Andrew Haigh and Charlie Plummer on 'Lean on Pete'
Shooting on-location and with minimal takes helped elevate a story of a boy and his horse.
Andrew Haigh's familial tale of love and grief, Lean on Pete, will certainly be cited as one of 2018's best films by year's end. Following the teenage Charley, a young man who lives with his caring but conflict-ridden father in Oregon, the story is equally about a boy who loves his dad and a boy who can only open up to a silent friend: an old racehorse who goes by the name Lean on Pete.
Amongst family, the soft-spoken Charley reveals less than he feels, but as he takes a liking to his four-legged friend, a quiet bond develops that guides the story through tragic and uplifting circumstances. The two must protect each other, and when they cannot, the story evolves beautifully.
Both incredibly moving and emotionally subtle, the production merges the talents of a director (Haigh) and lead actor, Charlie Plummer, both very much in command of their craft. Charley is a quiet young man who internalizes his emotions and tries as hard as he can to remain selfless—your heart aches for him because you're waiting for a release, a chance for the boy to grieve—and Plummer trusts Haigh's camera to accentuate what's building up under the surface.
No Film School sat down with Haigh and Plummer in Austin, Texas—the film was screening in the "Festival Favorites" section at SXSW—to discuss the emotional complexities of the story, the unique obstacles involved in filming a horse, mapping out long takes, and the benefits of shooting on location. Lean on Pete is currently in theaters.
No Film School: Lean on Pete is based on the novel by Willy Vlautin. Had you both been familiar with the source material before taking on this project?
Andrew Haigh: I had read the book six years ago when it first came out and had read some of Willy's previous work. I really liked his way of writing, his humane, unsentimental way of approaching characterization and approaching stories. So, I loved his style of writing, loved the book, and pretty much within 50 pages of reading the novel, was like, "Yeah, I'd like to make this."
It's a weird thing, sometimes, how these things just hit you. It really affected me on quite a profound level. I felt like I wanted to help Charley, to reach through the pages and try and look after this kid going through this kind of nightmare environment. It's quite rare, to feel like that, when I read a book, and so it just made sense to try and make it, to persuade Willy to give me the rights.
NFS: And Charlie, were you familiar with the book beforehand?
Charlie Plummer: Nope, not at all in fact. I mean, the first time I heard about it, I just knew that Andrew's name was attached. I then read the script and was blown away.
I had this really deep connection to the character, to the story, and that's immediately when I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I called my dad after I finished reading the screenplay and was like, "Oh God, if I could just be a part of this in any way, that's what I want," and so I wrote Andrew a note detailing why I connected with it so much and what it meant to me.
"[The story] makes people want to call their parents and go, 'I love you, by the way..'"
I went through the casting process and ordered the book that weekend, even before I found out whether they liked me or not. And then I started reading the book and, of course, it's even more detailed in some of the really painful stuff Charley goes through internally, and so it was helpful for me to be able to go back to that throughout the course of filming.
NFS: Given the story, it's really appropriate that you called your dad...
Plummer: Yeah, no kidding! I know.
Haigh: It makes people want to call their parents and go, "I love you, by the way.."
NFS: When we're introduced to the title character, Lean on Pete, he's coming out of the barn and is placed at the center of the frame; he's almost staring at the camera. As a horse cannot actively be discouraged from breaking the fourth wall, were there ever moments where you had to redirect the animal's attention in order to give the performance you intended?
Haigh: Yeah, you do a little bit. It is interesting, the horse looking at the camera though, like if someone does something that you can't use, the whole take gets ruined. I find that frustrating. Sometimes the horse would look straight at you and you're like, "Oh God, no".
The thing I found interesting was that I might have a shot in my mind before realizing that if you're walking a horse and leading a horse, you only need it from one side; you can't get it from the other side. Horses get used to being led on one side. So, I'd have a shot in mind, and would then realize, "Oh no, I have to change either the direction of Charley's travel or where my camera is, because otherwise, I'm not going to see Charley because he's going to be on the other side of the horse." There are really, really small things like that, that I hadn't thought about, and then suddenly realize when you begin working with a horse.
NFS: And Charlie, as a "scene partner," were there times where you had to direct the horse's attention toward you? Did you have to direct him on camera, in a sense?
Plummer: I mean, I had done a couple weeks of training with Starsky (who plays Lean on Pete) before we started filming. That's where I was able to learn the basics of how to move and control him. I was also able to be comfortable and get him to move this and that way.
I think I actually had the best time because he's such an instinctual animal. He's really smart, but at the same time, if he felt like walking forward, he would do that. That was kind of the greatest thing in the world for me, because the last thing I would want is to feel like I'm acting opposite a brick wall. That's not the case with an animal like that. There's always stuff to play and bounce off of.
NFS: Andrew, how did you work on getting Charley's pain across so that it appears on camera in a subtle fashion? Did you have to trust Charlie's strengths as an actor as well as what your camera picked up?
Haigh: It's a really fine balance of trying to get that right. Not all actors can give you that. It's about me being there to capture it in a way so that the audience feels it and it's also about allowing time and space in how the scenes unfold. I want the audience to have to lean in a little bit and, essentially, give part of themselves and be willing to concentrate on watching Charley.
That's what I love about Charlie's performance, that it draws you in. You want to understand him and you want to see. The minute that you, as an audience member, start to do that, you start seeing all of those subtle things and start watching the smallest movement of his face that's giving something away. Not everybody will get that when they watch the film.
"I didn't have to be informing my audience what I was thinking every step of the way. I just had to be knowing that it was truthful to me."
Plummer: After I saw Weekend and 45 Years, I was able to really get a sense of the kind of work Andrew did and also, in terms of his actors, the kind of performances he really focused on. We had a conversation early on and I just remember Andrew saying, "I don't really want to know everything that's going on. I just want to to know that something is going on and that it's truthful and that I'm interested by it."
And I think for me as an actor, I felt so free with that because I felt like I could do things and I didn't have to be obvious about them. I didn't have to be informing my audience what I was thinking every step of the way. I just had to be knowing that it was truthful to me.
I think a lot of Andrew's set-ups were just one set-up at a time. A lot of the scenes would just play in a wide shot or from certain angles. In terms of continuity, it wasn't like I was having to match certain things. I'm sure all of the actors on the set felt like this, like we could all really play with it each time.
Haigh: It is quite strange sometimes because you do a scene and then everyone is like, "What's the next set-up?" and you're like, "No, there isn't any. I think we've got it." And they're like, "Okay, we're done? That's weird." [laughs]
Plummer: I started doing theater as a kid and that's kind of how it goes in theater as well. There is no set-up. You're on stage and that's it.
NFS: There's a scene in the film where Charley and Lean on Pete are taking a very, very long walk through the vast, open lands of Oregon. Charley starts opening up to the horse and confides in him. Andrew, how did you block that sequence so that you're allowing the intimacy of the moment to come across?
Haigh: That whole sequence was a tricky thing, when he starts talking to the horse. What I like about it is the sadness of the fact that Charley desperately wants to open up to someone. He really does, and the only person, in the end, he can open up to is a horse that can't understand. Maybe the horse can understand his emotional state, but it can't understand what he's saying. That, to me, is the heartbreaking nature of it, that he's just alone in this wilderness talking to the horse.
I don't think we needed to talk too much about those scenes. We shot them all relatively quickly, in just two days. They were quite long, complicated tracking shots, and they took ages to set up in the middle of the desert.
I just knew I wanted to make it feel a certain way so that at first you're like, "What's happening? Why is he talking to this horse?" and slowly over that sequence you realize, "Oh, he's really opening up now and saying something quite profound about his experience and what he's been through."
"We were way up on a hill, like miles away from him, and there was one other AD hidden in a tree somewhere. That was it."
NFS: Did you have a limited crew for those sequences?
Haigh: Really limited. Charlie was in the middle of nowhere! I know we left off with like, "See you Charlie," and off he goes with a horse in the middle of nowhere, We were way up on a hill, like miles away from him, and there was one other AD hidden in a tree somewhere. That was it.
NFS: To get the length and scope of that journey across, did you and your DP map out how many shots you wanted to include?
Haigh: Hmm, no, I think, for example, in that scene in the desert where Charley is walking and he's a tiny speck, we just shot it in one shot; it's just a slow zoom out. I wanted the environment to represent Charley's state of mind within that sequence. I think the whole of that sequence, all of the stuff in the desert, is six shots. I think that's all it is.
When Charley's coming up the hill and talking about his mom, that's just one shot, for example. We tried as much as we could to limit it to as few shots as possible. That's essentially how we managed to do it all in a day.
NFS: The scenes that take place at various racetracks have a very authentic, breezy carnival feel to them. Were those shot on-location?
Haigh: Yeah, and some of the match races were shot at a real fair in Burns, Oregon at the time. We planned to be there. It's real people in the background and so it's great, you know, because it gives a sense of authenticity. It's not always easy.
There's a scene with Charlie and Chloë Sevigny walking towards the stand to get the elephant ear donut. and there are real people around them. They're not extras. It's just real people walking by with our cameras essentially hidden in a donut booth, zooming out and watching.
"It was like, 'Please get it right.' And it was fine, but also a nightmare."
NFS: There's a striking unbroken shot where Charley runs out to the track to watch Lean on Pete in an important race that I imagine was pretty meticulously mapped out?
Haigh: That was definitely mapped out and we used extras in that sequence. That was a nightmare shot to achieve. It's essentially one shot, and so we had to get the steady camera right, we had to get Charlie coming out on to the track, we had to get all the extras doing the right thing, and we had to have the horses racing. We only had enough money to let the horses race once. You can't waste doing it again and again because the horses would get too tired. We had one opportunity to get that shot right.
[For the sake of the story], Pete had to come in last, and so the other horses have got to be [ahead of him], and the camera has to reach the....I mean, it was a nightmare. We planned it for like five hours. We even had an ATV pretending to be the horses on the track so we could try and get all of our timings right. We had one go at it...
Plummer: One take.
Haigh: And it was like, "Please get it right." And it was fine, but also a nightmare.
NFS: And the film goes from being in these very large, open locations to the complete opposite, like for example, a claustrophobic mobile trailer.
Haigh: Yeah, it was tiny in there for that sequence. I was sitting on the toilet in the bathroom with the boom guy above me and then the DP and Charlie. I love that because I feel like environment is so important to the emotional state of the character. Being in the desert with Charlie is one thing and then being stuck in this little trailer for a fight sequence...you feel that intensity.
For me, it's so hard to get reality on the screen. I feel like all of those decisions you're making, which seem really simple, are really complicated. To make something feel real is so complicated. It's odd, isn't it? You make those choices that you could've done in a studio but it wouldn't have felt the same to me.
NFS: And as an actor, Charlie, does being on location help your performance? Does it make it easier?
Plummer: So much easier. I mean, I've only basically done tiny films, so that's all I've ever really known.
Haigh: Apart from Ridley [Scott]'s film [the recent All the Money in the World]...
Plummer: Yeah, but even that we entirely shot on location. I think that's just what I'm used to and it helps so much, you know? I was just doing this film in Vancouver and there was this one scene we were rehearsing over and over again and it got to the point where I felt like we just needed to just be in the actual space [where the scene takes place] because it adds so much and really grounds the scene. For this film, like Andrew was mentioning, I think so much of it was about the environment and how the environment is really reflecting what's going on internally within the character.
And in that moment, in the trailer, it feels like everything is closing in and it has to feel like a tight, nightmarish space, with all the violence and everything, closing in on him. And I don't think I could've been as "in it" if it were in front of a green screen or on a soundstage.