Andrew Haigh

“Lean on Pete”: Horses and heartbreak in film version of Willy Vlautin’s novel

British filmmaker Andrew Haigh keeps true to the spirit of Vlautin's story about a horse and his boy

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.

Charlie Plummer in “Lean on Pete”

“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.

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