- Director Andrew Haigh and editor Jonathan Alberts delve into the making of “All of Us Strangers,” revealing how the film holds a deeply personal significance for both filmmakers.
- They explain that the tone of the film was tricky, noting the challenge of blending supernatural elements into its otherwise straightforward drama.
- Haigh and Alberts wanted the audience to feel dislocated and consistently questioning the story’s reality and found music a creative help in achieving this effect.
Loosely inspired by Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel Strangers, Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers has garnered critical acclaim as a romantic-ghost story with a deeply personal touch. The British writer-director explored the film’s themes during a panel discussion at the New York Film Festival, describing it as an exploration of the desires, fears, and traumas unique to a specific generation of gay men.
“It was the most expensive therapy I’ve ever done. And it did feel like therapy, in many ways. The story is clearly not autobiographical but it’s definitely does come from a personal place. I wanted to tell an experience, as I see it, from a queer experience but not just my experience.”
The film is about Adam (Andrew Scott), a melancholy screenwriter living alone, who meets and begins a passionate relationship with the more extroverted Harry (Paul Mescal). At the same time, Adam begins another parallel journey to confront his troubled past and perhaps reconcile his unsettled present.
“A lot of the elements in the story are personal to me,” he revealed. These include filming in Haigh’s actual childhood home, that he last visited 42 years ago.
“But it was always about trying to tell a wider story about what it means to be a parent, what it means to be a child, what it means to be a lover and how we try and negotiate those complicated relationships that kind of come and go through our lives.”
Haigh’s script notably diverges from the original source material, where the character played by Paul Mescal was originally written as female.
“It has a different type of thing going on which works as a traditional ghost story,” he told NYFF programmer and panel moderator Florence Almozini. “It really does fit in with that traditional Japanese kind of ghost story style, which I like. But I knew that wasn’t the film I wanted to make. That wasn’t what was interesting to me about it. I wanted to find a more grounded reality of the story and then take it to somewhere different.”
In the film, Adam is preoccupied with memories of the past and finds himself drawn back to the suburban town where he grew up, and the childhood home where his parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell), appear to be living — just as they were on the day they died, 30 years before.
“We shared the experience of growing up in the eighties, growing up gay, kind of growing up with the specter of AIDS happening and trying to deal with all sorts of feelings of grief or trauma and shame and all of these things.”
While All of Us Strangers was tricky, both tonally and as a story rooted deeply in internal experience, another challenge of the project for Alberts was figuring out how to grapple with the way in which the protagonist ends up “slipping between these worlds of the 1980s and contemporary London” in the story.
“We wanted the audience to feel dislocated, but anchored, not mired in confusion, but consistently questioning, is this real? Is this not real?” says the editor. “I feel like you always want to have an audience ask those questions, and you want to keep them active, and to keep putting the puzzle together.
“But when you’re creating a film that is essentially a bit of a puzzle, it’s always a question of, is this puzzle going to fit together? Because you can create a puzzle that doesn’t quite fit together, and people are just like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’”
READ MORE: ‘All Of Us Strangers’ Helmer Andrew Haigh & Editor Jonathan Alberts On Crafting An Extremely Personal “Puzzle” Of A Film – The Process (Deadline)
Alberts came to All of Us Strangers after collaborating with Haigh on numerous projects over the last decade, from films like Lean on Pete and 45 Years, to shows like HBO’s Looking.
During a separate NYFF discussion with Almozini featuring both Haigh and Albert, the editor delved deeper into how he embraced and expanded upon Haigh’s vision for the film.
“We’ve been working for about 10 years together. So when we’re busy working on a television show or film, he’s busy typing in the background, and I’m cutting. That’s when I first hear about the script. Then, typically, he’ll share with me a few months later.”
When they get to the first cut of the film, about a week after shooting, he says the director and he never sit in the same room and watch it together, “because you’ve worked so hard, it’s like you’ve spent a lot of time yourself and your assistants putting it together. It’s an extremely vulnerable time for a director and seeing all the problems or seeing all the things they didn’t quite get.”
Alberts explains that the tone of the film was tricky in not being a straightforward drama but one that introduces supernatural elements.
“We never wanted to be moving to a genre, we always wanted to keep it in a very subtle space. And it’s a very delicate line. I think music helped to draw that out.”
Through screenings they experimented with a lot of different notes to find what was working and what was not before hiring a composer.
“When we were shooting this film in London I would take the tube and the train and every day and I was listening to this Italian composer Caterina Barbieri, which we ended up using as temp soundtrack. She’s an amazing composer, we met with her and we thought about her doing a score. But eventually we kind of went in a different direction [hiring London based French pianist Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch]. But that evolved over several months and many discussions.”
Haigh adds, “It’s obviously quite an unusual film and I was always very scared that the central conceit wouldn’t work. There are a lot of turns in the story that I was worried would not work. I wanted, even in the present day of the story, to feel slightly shifted from reality, even though that is based on an apartment block in London. It was really important to me that the tone just felt [to an audience] like ‘I’m not quite sure when and where this is set’.
“We thought really long and hard about trying to create a tone that made you feel like you were somehow separate from time. And that would allow you to understand the kind of conceit of the story and make it feel real when you suddenly go back and see parents.”