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Director Andrew Haigh talks about love and loneliness in 'All of Us Strangers'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The new movie "All Of Us Strangers" is a love story where something feels slightly unreal.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALL OF US STRANGERS")

PAUL MESCAL: (As Harry) Hello.

ANDREW SCOTT: (As Adam) Hi.

MESCAL: (As Harry) Saw you looking at me from the street. I'm assuming you're not with anyone. I never see you with anyone.

SHAPIRO: Adam and Harry, played by Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal, appear to be the only two people living in a high-rise building in London. And what are the chances? Both of them are gay, single, attractive, kind and wounded. You can't help but wonder, is this a metaphor or some kind of fairy tale?

ANDREW HAIGH: I always saw it as allegory, as fable, as a trip through his subconscious, whatever it might be. But at the same time, I still wanted it to feel grounded in some reality.

SHAPIRO: Andrew Haigh is the film's writer and director. He has told stories about queer joy before - the movie "Weekend," the TV show "Looking" - but "All Of Us Strangers" is a different kind of story.

HAIGH: I think it was always a film about someone trying to escape loneliness rather than be - wanting to stay within it. And I think all of our decisions sort of came around, like, what does it feel like to be alone? And then what does it feel like to be intimate again with someone? What does it feel like to connect?

SHAPIRO: It's also a very personal story. Andrew Haigh told me he filmed the scenes where Adam reconnects with his parents in the house where the director spent his own childhood.

HAIGH: It was just another example of wanting to somehow just feel really deeply connected to the material. And if this was a story about someone going back into his past, it felt like I had to go back into mine at the same time. So it was a strange environment to be shooting in - you know, scenes in my old parents' bedroom or scenes in my bedroom, you know, kind of recreating how that used to feel.

SHAPIRO: Did anyone on set ever say, why are we doing this in the home that your parents used to live in?

HAIGH: (Laughter) They would basically be like, are you insane? Like, why would you do this? Why would you put this - put yourself through this? And occasionally, people would come up to me and be like, are you OK? This must be very strange for you. You know, like the scene between him and his dad when they sort of come to terms with some things. That's, you know, in my old front room. But it was - you know, it was cathartic, if I'm honest. Like, it was cathartic. I think as you get older - I'm 50 now, so the idea of going backwards to see where the rest of your life should be is quite interesting.

SHAPIRO: I mean, if you don't mind my asking, were you OK? What was it like for you?

HAIGH: I didn't have a particularly happy childhood, no. I mean, I certainly wasn't a happy kid. My parents split up when I was young, and I was coming to terms with my sexuality. And, you know, this is the '80s. It's not the best time to come to terms with your sexuality back then. So, yeah, I was a troubled kid, let's say.

SHAPIRO: And so the experience of revisiting these incredibly intimate scenes in the room that you, as a child, were in, I mean, what did that feel like?

HAIGH: Yeah, it was just - it was powerful, I guess. And I think, you know, the film is so much about, like, the pain that we keep buried. Like, and that can be from big or small trauma. That can be from loss and from grief, but it can be from something a father might have said to his son when he was young, or something a mother might have said, or something they heard on the television. Whatever it might be, there's so many things that can cause trauma in us as we go through our lives. And I think it is about, like, staring them in the face sometimes and, like, trying to excavate that pain in order to sort of find some liberation. And so being back in my house was - sort of helped that. It really did. It kind of - it's like I couldn't escape it.

SHAPIRO: One theme that comes up in the film is something that I think all gay men of a certain age have in common. You, Andrew Scott, the actor, and I are all within five years of each other in age. And growing up gay in the '80s and '90s, for the most part, meant being told that you would likely be lonely, bullied, ostracized and probably die of AIDS before your parents were old enough to retire. This is something that Andrew Scott's character tells his younger boyfriend, where Adam says, for a long time he wasn't into sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALL OF US STRANGERS")

SCOTT: (As Adam) For obvious reasons.

MESCAL: (As Harry) Obvious reasons?

SCOTT: (As Adam) I felt that if I [expletive] anyone, I might die. That's probably pretty difficult for you to imagine.

SHAPIRO: Andrew Haigh, what kind of legacy did it leave for you to survive to see the other side of that?

HAIGH: Look, I think it's so - because the world has moved on so much, let's say, and things are very, very different. It's easy to forget how we actually used to feel in that time. I mean, I was terrified for 15, 20 years, you know what I mean? And growing into my sexuality in the shadow of AIDS and in the shadow of really intense homophobia, I genuinely thought that my life would not be possible, that I would never find love. And if I did find love or I found anybody, I would probably die. And I think that's a horrendous thing for a generation of people to carry around with them. And I think it's important to remember that that is how we felt because it doesn't go away. It's still there, embedded within us. And I think for a younger generation, they may think on that with slight surprise that that's what we had to kind of go through and feel. But I think it had a huge legacy on a whole generation of gay men especially, and they are still dealing with it every day. They're still trying to kind of get rid of the shame that they felt and the terror that they felt growing up in that time.

SHAPIRO: Did you and Andrew Scott talk about how growing up in that stew affected each of you differently, and how it affected his character, Adam?

HAIGH: We definitely talked about it. I think the great thing about when you sit down with someone that's also gay and of a certain generation, you barely need to say anything because you understand that you have a very shared experience. It doesn't matter where you live. It doesn't matter if you're in America or if you're in the U.K. You have that shared experience of growing up at that time. So of course we talked about it, and we did talk about how it still affects us now in small ways that you don't quite realize, how that kind of shame can suddenly bubble up again or that fear can suddenly bubble up again, even though you think you've got past it and moved on. And so for Adam, it was such a fascinating thing because he's going back to meet his parents, but he's also going back to meet himself in a certain time. So he's being reminded of so many things that have been buried within him.

SHAPIRO: So you describe the process of making this film as cathartic, and I'm curious if you can tell us more about what was the before and what was the after? Like, what have you left behind and where are you now, if that's the right way to characterize it?

HAIGH: Yeah. I think what I wanted the film to be was compassionate to everybody. So I wanted it to be compassionate to people who have gone through an experience of, say, growing up gay and saying, listen, I understand what that feels like. This is my version of that story. But I also wanted it to be compassionate towards parenting and how difficult that can be and how you are a product of your time. And you learn and you change and you grow. And I think in a strange sense, I've managed to sort of forgive a little bit - forgive myself for being angry and unhappy at times, forgive my parents for not saying the right things always. And so I feel like that's been quite cathartic to me. And also, I suppose, understanding on a deeper level kind of even what I think about love and what I think love is about, and how I think it's about being there for someone else almost more than it is them being there for you. And I think the film has really helped me understand the connection between parental love and romantic love and how so closely entwined they are.

SHAPIRO: Andrew Haigh directed the new movie "All Of Us Strangers." Thank you so much for talking with us about it.

HAIGH: Thank you. Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL SONG, "GREYHOUNDS (FEAT. USHER)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Marc Rivers
Tinbete Ermyas
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.