Willy Vlautin is a Portland institution, the author of five novels and the lead singer and primary songwriter for the band Richmond Fontaine. Andrew Haigh is a rapidly rising figure in international cinema, having made a splash with his debut feature “Weekend,” in 2001, and steered Charlotte Rampling to an Oscar nomination in 2015’s “45 Years.”
For his third feature, Haigh has adapted Vlautin’s third novel, “Lean on Pete,” which centers on Charley Thompson, a teenager living in Portland with his less-than-perfect dad. Charley gets a part-time job at the Portland Meadows horse track, helping out a grizzled, ethically suspect trainer (Steve Buscemi) and befriending a jockey (Chloe Sevigny). When his home life grows intolerable, Charley takes off with Pete, a played-out old horse he’s taken a shine to, on a trip across the American West in search of family and stability.
“Lean on Pete,” the book, is, like much of Vlautin’s writing, spare, heartbreaking, and utterly human, sparing neither its characters nor its audience from the cruel realities of life. It’s this stringent unsentimentality, though, that makes their hard-earned, potentially trivial triumphs so emotionally potent. Charley Thompson is played by Charlie Plummer, the young actor who also recently starred in Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World,” and the relatively inexperienced Plummer handles a difficult role with astonishing skill. “Lean on Pete,” the movie, which is currently playing at Portland’s Living Room Theaters, captures the clear-eyed empathy that makes the book so impactful.
Haigh and Vlautin sat down recently for a wide-ranging discussion about the making of “Lean on Pete,” the experience of shooting in Oregon, and why there won’t be a sequel.
Andrew, you recently did a list of your top ten films from The Criterion Collection, and there were a couple titles that seemed particularly appropriate or influential in relation to “Lean On Pete.” One was Lynne Ramsay’s “Ratcatcher” and the other was Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces.”
Andrew Haigh: “Ratcatcher” is one of my inspirations for wanting to make films to start with. It’s pretty grim and depressing, but really lyrical and tender, sweetly emotional without being sentimental. And I think Bob Rafelson is an oddly underrated director. I suppose there’s something about both of those films and their unsentimental depiction of the world, especially “Five Easy Pieces.” It’s set in the American landscape—I think some of it was even filmed in Oregon—but it’s about a person’s struggle to make their way through that landscape and understand themselves within that landscape without being overpowered by that landscape.
Prior to making “Lean on Pete,” the two of you took an extended road trip through the American West, retracing in large part the journey that Charley takes in the story. Before that, what was your experience and perception of Oregon and the Northwest, and how did that perception change?
Haigh: I’d been to Portland before. So I knew it a little bit, but not particularly well. What struck me about Oregon is the variety of the state. The difference between being in Portland and then driving over the mountains into the desert, is so dramatic: economically, culturally, socially, as well as in terms of landscape.
The first part of the story is set in Portland, but it’s not the Portland a lot of people would recognize from the pop-cultural depiction of the city in recent years. How important is it to you, Willy, as someone who lives here, to showcase the socioeconomic and physical diversity of the city?
Willy Vlautin: When I moved to Portland in the mid-’90s, it wasn’t the “Portlandia” Portland. My first job up here was at a trucking company, so I always wanted to know what it was like to live in a condo, but I just didn’t. I was attracted to the track—I spent fifteen years gambling there. There was a big pink house next to Portland Meadows. They’ve torn it down since, but that was my dream. If I could live in a castle, that was going to be my castle. I used to always park near it—not right across the street because I didn’t want to get arrested—but I used to stare at it all the time. Portland has changed. St. Johns is my Portland now.
Is it especially important to feature that aspect of the city since other parts have gotten so inflated in the popular imagination?
Vlautin: Personally, I always feel like working-class people and neighborhoods are the most important to write about, just because those are the ones that make sense to me. I think those parts of town should be the focus of every movie!
Haigh: It’s important to tell those stories in a grounded way. A lot of movies either vilify those lives or get obsessed with glorifying that way of life. It’s very rare that you actually see an honest depiction of working-class life. Not so much anymore, at least.
Willy, was there interest in adapting or optioning the book prior to Andrew’s involvement, and what was your experience once that process began? What led you to believe that you could trust him to turn “Lean on Pete” into a movie?
Vlautin: There was interest. I was trying to figure out who to trust. It’s like trying to figure out how to give your favorite dog to somebody, or your favorite horse. So I was cautious, and then I saw “Weekend.” So I knew he was a good writer, and he was interested, which was really cool. And then I talked to him, and I liked him, and my gut just said that he was the right guy. And then I saw “45 Years,” and I was like, “Hell, yes!”
Was the deal signed on the dotted line before you met in person?
Vlautin: Yes. So at that point, when he came out, I just thought, “I hope him taking a chance on my story doesn’t screw up his life.” I’ve lost people money, so I didn’t want to do that him because he’s a cool guy.
Was Willy involved in writing the screenplay?
Haigh: He would read stuff and send me some notes. It was really helpful for me. We talked a lot during the process about what we could lose. There’s a lot in the book that you couldn’t put on the screen, just time-wise. There was stuff I didn’t want to lose, but Willy said “Yeah, you can lose that.”
Vlautin: The only sort of thing [I’d object to] would be something like an overweight jockey’s not going to eat a doughnut in front of anybody. That was in the script, where [Chloe Sevigny’s character] was eating an elephant ear, and I was like “No.”
Did you use a lot of Oregon-based cast and crew on the production?
Haigh: Pretty much all the actors, outside the leads and the main supporting actors, were Oregon-based. Most of the crew were based up here, I’d say 98%. I don’t want to come to an area and bring a hundred people from L.A. or wherever. It doesn’t make any sense to me to not have people who know the area.
Location is so key in this movie, and you were able to shoot at a number of the actual locations mentioned in the book, including the Apple Peddler restaurant and, of course, the Portland Meadows racetrack. There’s almost a documentary feel at times.
Haigh: The hardest thing about making a film is that you can’t escape that you’re making a film. You’re trying to make it as grounded and real as possible, but almost every step in the filmmaking process works against that. So things like using real locations and trying to have background people who make sense for the area, they at least try and bring it back into a more grounded place.
And yet there are also some very cinematic moments, including one amazing long tracking shot during which the camera follows Charlie through a crowd at a racetrack as he moves up to the rail just as the horses run past. How many takes were you able to do of that?
Haigh: One. Willy was there that day. It was a tough shot, because we could only race the horses once, maybe twice. So we knew we really only had one chance, and a lot has to go right. Charley has to come out at the right time, the horses need to pass, Pete needs to come last in the race, plus all those extras have to do the right thing without messing up. We rehearsed it a bunch of time, with ATVs instead of horses, a good six hours of trying it. And then when you do it for real, you’re just hoping that an extra’s not going to fall over or look at the camera, or the Steadicam’s not going to fall over, or Charley’s not going to get there in time. There’s just a lot going on.
Would you have had the ability to go in and tweak it in post-production if something minor along those lines should occur?
Haigh: There are couple things, yeah. We added a few people in that crowd, to sort of mask the route that the camera ends up going down. So a few little visual effects things.
Vlautin: A lot of jockeys are gone during the summer, so it was sort of a ragtag bunch of jockeys, but everything went right with the horse race, which I was terrified about. I lost sleep, and I don’t have anything to do with it. But you don’t want a horse to get hurt, or a jockey to get hurt, for a movie, or for any reason. And I didn’t want Andrew to have to deal with that. And nothing went wrong. It was great.
Willy, how closely did Charlie Plummer align with your vision of Charley Thompson?
Vlautin: Well, he’s better looking! I always assumed my Charley was a little rougher, but I don’t know that much about actors and he was amazing. I was there watching for the scene where the dad gets thrown through the window, and I just started crying because I just bought into it. The way he breathes when he’s worried, this hyperventilating thing. And then the scene ends and he goes back to just being a kid. It didn’t make sense to me, but he’s really good at it.
Haigh: It was a really tricky casting process. When I read the book, I also pictured someone rougher. But then you start meeting kids who are maybe capable of doing something like this, and they’re not. We saw so many kids. Some of them would look great, but just didn’t have the acting ability. And if you don’t have that—he’s in every single scene. [Charlie] managed to find things in scenes that were unexpected, that a lot of those young actors couldn’t. They may be able to cry on cue, or look angry on cue, but there was not as much bubbling away underneath. And Charlie has that. It was also hard age-wise. If he looks too young, you’re not going to believe that he can steal a horse and drive a truck. Too old, and he’s not a kid anymore. There’s like a two-month window there. I was a little worried that Charlie was going to get too old after we cast him and before we shot.
Vlautin: It was amazing to see him carry this whole movie. I could barely tie my shoes when I was his age.
Andrew, your next project is based on a book called “The North Water,” and it’s been described as “Jack London on steroids.” What more can you say about it? It’s being made for television, which you’ve worked in previously. Is there still a difference between shooting for TV and for theatrical release?
Haigh: I think there still is a difference. It’s a different way of telling stories, more than anything. This is five hour-long episodes, based on the novel [by Ian McGuire]. When you’ve got five hours, you’ve got more time to tell that story. There are also basic, technical things that are different. You have to mix your sound for a bad TV, not for a cinema with great 5.1 speakers. But I like both of them, and “The North Water” is really interesting to me. It’s set in the 1850s, on a whaling ship in the Arctic. There’s a killer on board who rapes and kills a young cabin boy, the ship gets shipwrecked up there in the ice, and they’re stuck on their own.
So you have yet to make what one would call a full-on comedy.
Haigh: I would have to say, even with Willy’s stuff included, “The North Water” is the bleakest thing I’ve ever read. There is no redemption for anybody. It’s pure misery.
Andrew, some of your earliest jobs in the film industry were as an assistant editor on some major Hollywood films. How did that work prepare you for directing your own films?
Haigh: The biggest thing you learn is that directors are terrified all the time. When they sit down and they watch the first assembly of their film, I’ve yet to see any director who doesn’t say, “Oh, God, I’ve fucked up.” Everybody struggles with that. You work all day to make a scene work, and then you’ve got to make the film with what you’ve got. When I started out I thought I’d never have the confidence to actually make a film, and then you learn that every other director is just as insecure. It’s really quite liberating.
For all the bleakness and tragedy that permeates “Lean on Pete,” the book and the film, it’s important to note that there are glimmers of hope—more than glimmers, in fact.
Vlautin: For me, Charley is a saint of perseverance. The reason I wrote it was that I was having trouble getting out of bed: I was breaking up with horse racing, and I was trying to figure out my life as a kid, and I liked that he would get up every morning and no matter what came his way he would keep on trying. Which I was struggling with. For me, the ending is a fairy tale ending. I have an Aunt Margie, and my dream would be to live with her, or a person like her. She doesn’t have a husband or a weird boyfriend, and she works in a library, so she picks out your books, and she likes cooking for you. That sounds pretty heavenly to me. That’s why I would never write about Charley again, because I just want him to live in that house with his aunt, and I don’t want to beat him up anymore.