‘Lean on Pete’ offers tragic Oregonian odyssey: An interview with writer-director Andrew Haigh

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English indie writer-director Andrew Haigh had trepidations about making a boy-and-horse-centered film. After all, the worn-out genre carries some embarrassing baggage, ranging from the uninspired “Seabiscuit” to the hammy “War Horse.”

These films consistently disappoint because they rely on a cheap trick — sentimentalizing animal suffering to jerk tears from the audience. The directors will show a close-up of the horse’s eyes, inviting us to project human feelings onto an animal that is incapable of complex emotional thought. Surely this is one of the crudest forms of filmmaking, because our empathy for animals is instinctive — causing the audience to shed a few tears is an easy feat.

In his new film, “Lean on Pete,” Haigh decided to totally avoid the mawkishness that most animal films emphasize.

“People want sentimentality, because sentimentality does make things easier,” Haigh said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It makes it more palatable. It makes it simpler emotionally, because you understand: ‘Oh, I’m supposed to feel sad now.’ … I don’t necessarily want the audience to know exactly how they should be feeling.”

The film, which centers around 15-year-old Charley Thompson’s (Charlie Plummer) attempt to save a racehorse from slaughter, feels like a radical departure for Haigh. His second feature and first large success, “Weekend,” was an intimate character study of two gay men in England over a couple of days.

In contrast, “Lean on Pete” feels almost like an epic, spanning hundreds of miles and many weeks, all while hosting a large cast including Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny and Travis Fimmel. According to Haigh, no producers would have given him the budget to make “Lean on Pete” in the beginning of his career, but his early successes paved the way for him to make a larger film.

While both “Weekend” and his subsequent film, “45 Years,” took place in England, “Lean on Pete” unfolds in the Pacific Northwest. And yet, despite his English background, Haigh demonstrates a palpable feeling for the American landscape. Although he partly attributes this familiarity to re-watching Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” — another film about America from a European perspective — he also decided to immerse himself in Oregon culture before beginning to work on the film.

“Before I even wrote the script, I was out traveling around for four months. Just going to racetracks, going to diners. … I stayed in a motel in Burns, down in Eastern Oregon, for a week. Going to the Apple Peddler, eating their food and writing the scene that was set in the Apple Peddler,” Haigh explained.

Haigh’s extensive research also involved searching for and casting the lead character, Charley. Out of the hundreds of auditions, Haigh instantly knew that Plummer was right for the role, as his tape displayed the perfect blend of “sensitivity and subtlety.” Part of what Haigh liked about Charley as a character was his emotional distance. He’s not quick to reveal his feelings, so much of his thoughts are left for audience speculation.

“I don’t want you to be able to understand every single thing that this character is thinking, because you can’t. Just like I can’t understand everything you’re thinking, you can’t understand everything I’m thinking. And I don’t like it in films when I understand too much,” Haigh said.

And yet, much of the allure of Plummer’s performance is his emotional sensitivity; he acts with an impressive balance of restraint and depth. Haigh explained that he loved Plummer’s ability to both keep the audience at a distance while also drawing them in emotionally.

Haigh fell in love with the character when he first read the novel of the same title by Willy Vlautin. “You just feel it in your gut when you know that something feels right,” Haigh said. “And I try not to analyze it too much in the early stages, because you end up analyzing it to death, and then it kind of destroys itself for you. But there was just something about this book.”

That “something” that makes the book special has clearly translated into the film, which is imbued with a sense of both tragedy and passion. As Charley traverses Oregon with a racehorse, Pete, one gets the feeling that he’s more alone than he thinks. In fact, Haigh’s ability to create true tragedy without sentimentality is the true achievement of “Lean on Pete.”

“It’s very sad to me that the only person he can really be honest to is a horse that cannot understand him and cannot help him,” Haigh said. “He hasn’t even got a friend that he can sit down to and talk to. He’s got nobody. He’s only got a horse. And to me, that’s pretty tragic and sad.”

Contact Jack Wareham at [email protected].