What would it be like to have conversations you always dreamed of having with someone you lost? This existential, deeply human question sits at the centre of All of Us Strangers, Andrew Haigh’s soulful, BAFTA-nominated adaptation of Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel.
In a London tower block, a screenwriter struggles to put words to the page. That screenwriter is Adam (Andrew Scott), a fortysomething looking back at his childhood as the basis for a script, but falling prey to crippling melancholia. Searching for inspiration, he heads back to his old home and, to his shock, meets both of his parents (played by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell), perfectly preserved at the age they were when they died in a car accident when Adam was just a boy.
Sitting between the real and the fantastical, All of Us Strangers chronicles Adam’s conversations with his parents, as well as his blossoming relationship with younger neighbour Harry (Paul Mescal), allowing Haigh to beautifully explore the common threads between parental and romantic love. Here, we speak to the British director about the meaning of love, the value of the theatrical experience and the physicality of intimacy.
RAFA SALES ROSS: With All of Us Strangers, you explore the idea of meeting your parents when you are around the same age as them. Was this something you’d thought about before working on the film?
ANDREW HAIGH: We always think about what would happen if we could go back and have a reunion with our past, conversations with people that we never got to have and what would have happened if we had these conversations. I don’t even think it has to be about your parents, it can be about anybody that you’ve loved or has meant something to you — they don’t have to have died, either. Lots of people in our lives fade away and you never see them again. As you get older, you think more and more about past friendships, relationships, your relationship to your parents and how often you never got to discuss things that were really important. I think we all go through our life not talking about the things that are really important.
RSR: You shot the film in your own childhood home, and it explores very personal themes. Did you feel you needed any sort of emotional safeguarding?
AH: Not really. I like not having any emotional safeguarding because I want to see where it leads to. The emotions in a space can be difficult and complicated, but they don’t have to be terrifying – they can be productive. I was more intrigued about how I would feel. In many ways, I was looking forward to it. It wasn’t always easy being in that space, that house that had been there for 40-odd years. I didn’t necessarily have happy memories of being in that space. But at the same time, I knew it would be interesting – not just for me, but for grounding the film in felt reality – and that’s what I wanted. That’s why I wanted to throw myself into the film. Not because I wanted to have it as a therapy session, but to root it in something that feels real and genuine, and the only way I could do that was by being genuine.
RSR: Do you think being allowed back in the house changed the film in any way?
AH: I think it did because I understood that space and its details. I spent a lot of time wanting to make sure the wallpaper was exactly the same as the wallpaper we used to have, and the same sofa, and many other things. When the actors came in, they knew it meant something to me. Then, in a strange way, they were more open to bringing themselves into the project. It’s like if I start talking about my life, you would probably start talking about your life. That’s what happens in a conversation. From there onwards, we got this really interesting, intimate space where we weren’t afraid to feel vulnerable, and I feel this has helped with the texture of the film.
RSR: Talking about bringing people together, this film is quite emotional to watch in a cinema. Is the theatrical experience something you value as a filmmaker?
AH: I value it so much. This is a film about connection and about people sharing something collectively, an emotion that we all experience and that we don’t necessarily know how to communicate with each other. Putting people in a cinema, where you are sharing something with strangers, is important. You could be sitting next to someone that you don’t know and you will probably never see again, but you are both sharing an emotion. I think that’s really powerful.
RSR: I can’t imagine it’s easy to make such a personal film and then have to go through a press cycle and expose your vulnerabilities over and over again. You still remain so open about the film, why is that?
AH: It’s been quite a strange process. Weirdly, at the beginning, I said to myself I wasn’t going to do any press, and now I’ve done loads and loads of it because people wanted to talk about the film, and I can’t talk about the film without it feeling personal. I am sort of torn about it because sometimes you can have a really nice conversation with someone and connect with them but, sometimes you feel like you’ve exposed yourself in a way. It’s a bit backwards and forwards with how I feel about it. But in the end I know the film is about vulnerability, about speaking to each other and connecting to people that you care about, so I feel like it’s something I have to do for this film.
RSR: Harry and Adam’s conversation about the term queer reminded me of the scene in Weekend when one of the characters is called queer in such a venomous, cruel way. What do you make of this parallel?
AH: I actually had forgotten about that scene in Weekend. It’s interesting because I think the world has changed so much in the 12 years since I made that film. To be queer now in the world is so different to what it was, and certainly much different to what it was 10 years before, and 10 years before that. I think if there is a conversation between the films, it is about how much can change, but also how much an experience that you had growing up becomes so entwined with your very being that it can be very hard to get rid of that pain. Again, it’s something you feel like you should be able to escape from, but you can’t escape it unless you look it square in the face and say: ‘Why am I still feeling this?’ I find this conversation between the two films very interesting. Adam is 45 in the story, [Weekend’s] Russell is a bit younger, in his thirties. For me, it's almost like, how do I feel about queerness 10 years on?
RSR: In All of Us Strangers, as in Weekend, there’s this idea of orphans being deprived of physical touch because of the loss of their parents. How do you reconcile that grief with the yearning for intimacy?
AH: Orphanhood is an interesting way of looking at loneliness because the people who are meant to love you the most are not around. Lots of people feel that, regardless of whether they’re orphans or not. They can still feel isolated from their family and experience that loneliness. What are you missing? Touch. Intimacy. And what is intimacy? It’s about being known, accepted and understood. Moments of intimacy are about reaching out, they’re about connection.
In this film, what was really interesting is that the intimacy between Adam and his parents is just as intense as the intimacy between Adam and Harry. There was so much touch between the parents, and to me that is the fundamental thing. Love between parents and children, and romantic love are almost the same thing. You have a sexual component to romance, but the two are so closely connected. They are about compassion, about understanding the intimacy of being known. You can’t understand romantic love without understanding parental love and how you felt being loved as a child. To me, that was really fascinating to dig into with this film, in order to understand the actual, essential nature of love.
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