Andrew Haigh on Looking: 'Melancholy exists in most people's lives'

The bittersweet HBO drama about gay friends in San Francisco may air its final episode this weekend – but its British director, who also made 45 Years, will continue his investigations into the ambiguities of human relationships

Jonathan Groff, Murray Bartlett and Frankie J Alvare in Looking: ‘we all cared passionately about it’
Jonathan Groff, Murray Bartlett and Frankie J Alvarez in Looking: ‘We all cared passionately about it.’ Photograph: Melissa Moseley/HBO
Jonathan Groff, Murray Bartlett and Frankie J Alvarez in Looking: ‘We all cared passionately about it.’ Photograph: Melissa Moseley/HBO
David Shariatmadari

Last modified on Tue 19 Dec 2017 16.02 EST

One of the best lines in the feature-length finale of Looking, HBO’s show about the lives and loves of a group of early middle-aged men in San Francisco, skewers such a large chunk of the gay experience that it might end up chiseled in marble on the facade of the Stonewall Inn. Doris, a longtime straight friend, hovers at the edge of a dispute between hero Patrick and his ex’s new boyfriend: “Ooh, I love it when gays argue with other gays about being gay,” she trills.

It’s tempting to imagine that writer and director Andrew Haigh conjured that line in response to the more piquant criticisms of his series, whose lack of an obvious agenda led some to label it “post-gay”. In a 2014 article about the first season, Slate’s J Bryan Lowder wrote: “Straight critics and viewers seeking liberal cred will find an easy tool here; Looking is, after all, gay without any of the hard parts (dick included), gay that’s polite and comfortable and maybe a little titillating but definitely not all up in your face about it.”

Despite the brickbats, Looking was renewed for a second season, and matured into a layered portrait of contemporary gay friendships and relationships. Haigh showed himself able to orchestrate some truly gut-wrenching moments (the disastrous Halloween party Patrick throws is referred to by fans in hushed tones). It gained a devoted following, but HBO eventually decided to cancel it, offering Haigh the opportunity to close with a movie. I ask him whether the network had really been after something else, perhaps the “Girls for gays” it was initially touted as. “They always knew what the show was,” he says. “I’m sure they would’ve preferred it to have a larger audience, but it wasn’t that they wanted us to make a different show.”

Despite the disappointment, Haigh seems content with the way things have turned out. “Even though we did get cancelled, there is an endpoint. Lots of shows get cancelled, and then they never get to end their stories, it’s just over. It was a really interesting, wonderful experience, and I think we all cared passionately about it.”

That shows. The Looking movie is as honest, funny and affecting a depiction of gay life as I’ve seen in years. The performances are disarmingly natural and Haigh’s skill as a dramatist clear. In one scene a casual meeting between Patrick and Kevin – their affair formed the backbone of season two – switches from small-talk to a profound emotional reckoning in seconds. It leaves you feeling almost winded.

And though the story is to a certain extent rounded off, there are no neat endings – that’s not Haigh’s style. He agrees that his characters often reach “phantom conclusions” that turn out to be far less stable than they anticipated. The imagined place of safety is attained, but it comes with a fresh set of dilemmas. Just as in life.

“Sometimes that can be quite bittersweet,” he says. “You can achieve one thing but because of that you have to adapt or lose something else. If you end up in a relationship, you sometimes have to lose the closeness of your friendships, for example, or you have to move away somewhere … For me that creates the sense of melancholy which I think exists in most people’s lives. Certainly in my life, and in maybe the things that I do as well.”

Haigh is now back to “proper” film-making, working on the adaptation of a book called Lean on Pete, and which will star Steve Buscemi and Chloë Sevigny. “It’s very different. It’s not so much about relationships, it’s about a 15-year-old kid working at a horse track up in Portland.” There are no gay storylines. “When I started making films, it was never that I had this great ambition to only do gay-themed material,” he says, acknowledging the success of his breakout feature Weekend (2011), which told the story of a one-night stand that turns into something much more for the men involved. “I mean obviously it’s hugely interesting to me and hugely important because I am gay, but my stories … they are about people trying to understand who they are.”

Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and Augustin (Frankie J Alvarez) attend a gay wedding.
Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and Agustín (Frankie J Alvarez) attend a gay wedding. Photograph: Melissa Moseley/HBO

In 45 Years, released last year, a couple in their 70s find themselves unexpectedly plunged into self-doubt on the eve of a big anniversary party. What if they had never got married? If one or two apparently innocuous choices hadn’t been made, how would life had turned out? This is Haigh’s obsession. He talks about meeting his partner. “I don’t believe in fate, so I don’t believe that I was destined to go out that night. I feel like I just decided well, fuck it, I may as well go out because I’ve got nothing else to do. And that changes the course of your life.”

It’s not an unusual experience, he admits. But it’s the emotional toll that interests him. “I think it is a burden … that we constantly realise that there isn’t that much rhyme or reason to why something happens,” he says. “If we think about that too much, it can make all of our decisions very stressful … if you don’t believe in fate it’s easy to think that life is inherently meaningless, and that’s a very stressful thing for people to have to deal with.”

This stress descends on Kate, the character played by Charlotte Rampling, with a vengeance. She is haunted, and her performance haunts the viewer. Her expression in the final scene is all that’s needed to turn the film on its head. Rampling was nominated for an Oscar, but may have scuppered her chances when she stated that the row about lack of diversity in the Academy was “racist to whites”.

Haigh says it’s “pointless” to think about whether her comments cost her the award. “I’m not responsible for what someone says or doesn’t say. I can have my opinions on what was said.” I ask him what they are. “Clearly there isn’t enough representation [of people of colour]. I can totally understand why people are angry that there isn’t that representation. And I think it’s not just a question of representation on the screen, it’s about behind the screen, and I don’t just mean directors and writers and producers, I mean throughout the industry. There needs to be more opportunities for minorities, whatever that minority might be.”

Andrew Haigh: ‘I’m not responsible for what someone says or doesn’t say’
Andrew Haigh: ‘I’m not responsible for what someone says or doesn’t say.’ Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Representation is personally important to Haigh. When I ask him if he thinks his work, frequently about the minutiae of relationships, is political, he says that it is. How he chooses to depict gay people has an impact. “In the 80s when I was a teenager, there was nothing. There were pretty dreadful stereotypical characters on some TV shows and that was about it.” Jonathan Harvey’s 1996 film Beautiful Thing marked a turning point. “I wasn’t even out when I watched that. I was a cinema usher. And I watched it sitting in the back of the cinema and I was blown away by it, it was so emotional and overwhelming.”

“I think it’s amazing how much things have progressed,” he continues. “The fact that gay people can get married now is something that I think most people would never have believed … But you’ve always got to be wary of things reverting again. We live in a society now where it is easier to come out” – he catches himself – “not for everybody. But it is easier for some people.”

Everyone’s different, after all. In any “community” there’s privilege and the lack of it, promiscuity and puritanism, thrill seeking and playing it safe. If you don’t like Looking’s particular brand of gay, remember: arguing about it can be half the fun.

  • Looking is on HBO at 10pm on 23 July in the USA, and 2 August on Sky Atlantic in the UK.

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