Venerable Japanese Taichi Yamada's Strangers centers on a middle-aged screenwriter who has a chance encounter with strangers who bear a striking resemblance to his deceased parents, only to discover that they are specters sapping the life-force from him. The novel, which was first translated to English in 2003, isn't an obvious choice for adaptation by Andrew Haigh, the filmmaker behind contemplatively devastating films like 2011's Weekend and 2015's 45 Years (for which Charlotte Rampling was nominated for the Best Actress in a Leading Role Oscar).
"This is a story about a guy who is lost, who is lonely, who needs to go back into his past to understand it and meet his parents again, and then find a way to move forward through that," Haigh tells A.frame. "That was the thing that was most important to hang onto. So, regardless of the changes that I made to the story, I think in many ways, the essence is still the same."
The lonely writer in Haigh's film, All of Us Strangers, is Adam, who does indeed return to his childhood home where he finds his long-dead parents exactly as he last saw them decades prior. In his translation to the screen, however, the story moves from Tokyo to London, and the central romance in the film becomes a queer one. Gone too are the more literal supernatural elements, transformed into something more ephemeral. "I've turned something that ends up being a more traditional ghost story into whatever my film is," says the British filmmaker.
What is All of Us Strangers, exactly? "You know what? I've never been able to describe it," says Haigh with a chuckle. "I feel like it slips between all the cracks of genre, and I quite like not knowing what a film is."
The film is at once a family drama, a love story, and yes, a ghost story. It also may be Haigh's most personal film to date, which is saying something when you consider the vulnerability on display in his past offerings. "It seeped its way in," he says of infusing his own personal history into Yamada's story. "I wrote it during the pandemic, so I think all of us went inside a little bit emotionally and thought about our lives, and our relationships, and who we've loved and lost. It seeped in, I think, and when you're writing, it's very private, so you sort of forget that then you have to make it and show it to the world."
Andrew Scott was the first actor that Andrew Haigh cast. "I really liked him as an actor, and then I sat down with him and he really understood what the story was." Like both Haigh and Adam, the character that he would be playing, Scott is a gay man who grew up in the 1980s, which was important to the filmmaker in this specific instance. "He understood what it was about. He connected with it on a really deep level, and that's what you listen to."
"I bawled crying when I read this," Scott says. "I just thought it was sort of unlike anything I'd ever read, and I recognized the character immediately. I knew that I was working very hard at the time and I was thinking I wasn't planning on working anymore — I needed a little break — but I was like, 'F**k that! I'm going to do this film. I have to do this film."
Having grown into a recluse, Adam lives in a tower block on the outskirts of London, empty but for his charming neighbor Harry, with whom he begins an intense romantic relationship. Haigh hoped to cast Paul Mescal in the role, but the actor wasn't available. He began what would be an extensive search for Harry — only to return to Mescal, whose schedule had fortuitously freed up.
For Mescal's part, "I didn't really think about it, to be honest, in the sense that I just couldn't live with myself if somebody else was playing the part," he confesses. "It would be incredibly upsetting to me and the jealousy would go up to level 100, I think."
"I met Paul and he understood it," Haigh says. "It's not his life, but he completely understood it. And there were elements of the character that were his life. We talked long and hard about it, and I just knew that he was right, and he was desperate to work with Andrew, and there was chemistry I could see between the two of them." (Mescal agrees. "It just felt like it naturally existed," he says, "and it goes a long way when you're being asked to do the things that you're being asked to do in this film.)
Casting Scott and Mescal as love interests allowed Haigh the chance to explore something he'd long wanted to depict onscreen: Generational gaps in queerness. Adam (played by 47-year-old Scott) and Harry (by 27-year-old Mescal) represent different generations of gay men, and as the two get to know one another intimately, they also discuss their differing views on their identity, on alienation, and on their relationships to their families. "I'm just so interested about it, because look, everything has changed so dramatically," Haigh muses.
"I'm 50 now, so growing up in the '80s and the '90s, it's a very different situation, and people my age, we had to deal with a lot of shame that was put on us by society. The younger generation has a lot less of that, which is really, thank god! But that doesn't mean that there isn't still a shared pain, let's say," he explains. "I think we live in a society where we're told we should be so grateful and happy that everything is better now and we're supposed to forget everything that's happened. But that doesn't mean we can forget. It's all still there in a lot of us. So, I find those conversations really interesting, and I think it's good for older people of my generation to know that it's different for younger people, but it's important for younger people to know that it was different for older people and be passionate about that on both sides."
The other half of the story is more metaphysical. Adam is writing a screenplay about his youth, which prompts him to travel back to the home he grew up in. There, he discovers his parents, who died in a car crash when Adam was 12, going about their lives, pleased but unfazed to see their now-adult son. As he spends time with Mum and Dad, as the characters are called, Adam gets a second chance at the time that was taken away with him, but also a chance for his family to know his true self. In separate scenes, he comes out to his mother (played by Claire Foy), who frets about the AIDS epidemic, and his father (Jamie Bell), who atones for past mistakes.
"I think Andrew [Haigh's] part, there was a lot of real hesitancy about, 'Is this going to work? Is this going to be actually absurd and ridiculous?'" Bell says of playing dad to someone 10 years his senior. Haigh admits as much himself ("There's a lot going on which doesn't really feed into traditional ghost mythology") but threading that needle between nostalgia and something that can't be explainable but grounding it in pure emotion is the very point of the film.
"You sort of forget the age stuff. It becomes irrelevant," Haigh says. "And I think that's because when we think about parents, we do think of them when they were younger. We don't necessarily think of them how they look now, and they probably think of us as when we were younger. So, in some strange sense, we all exist in this place we were when we were kids and they were parents, and that never vanishes."
Perhaps even more than in All of Us Stranger's love story, Haigh's own life seeped into its ghost story. When he wrote the script, he wrote the character of Mum and Dad as versions of his own parents, and when it came Adam's childhood home, Haigh suggested shooting in his actual childhood home. Despite having not set foot in the house in 40 years, he returned to his former residence in a suburb outside of Croydon and asked to film his movie there.
"I think I'm a bit of a strange person because I feel like I'm both pretty sensitive and careful, and then at the same time, I like to throw myself into things that make me feel uncomfortable," Haigh considers. "Every time you make a film, you're throwing yourself into something that's uncomfortable, and I knew this was a film about someone going back into his past and being haunted. So, I felt like I had to do as much as I could to join that character along for the ride."
Bell remembers Haigh sharing his plan and thinking to himself, "Oh my god, are you really laying yourself bare here? Jesus Christ, you're brave." Shooting there proved both as surreal and emotionally intense as one might image, Bell says. "Days are long and it's tricky and things go well some days and don't go well other days. When that's happening in a place where I'm sure so much is coming up for you emotionally? He started getting eczema. He said he hadn't had eczema since he was a kid, and suddenly, when he's in this house, it all starts coming up again. So, he's having some genuine physiological spots. It's coming out of him."
Having wrapped filming some time ago, Haigh can now say that the experience was certainly cathartic, while also providing a specificity to the film that he hopes feeds into something more universal. And still, "I mean, I wouldn't do it again!" he exclaims. "When I left that house, I shut that door and I was like, 'I am never going back to this house.'"
One of the most personal details in All of Us Strangers is one that was in Haigh's script all along. The romantic ballad "The Power of Love" by British pop band Frankie Goes to Hollywood plays a pivotal role in the film; first, playing in the background via an old episode of Top of the Pops and then returning in a more profound way in the final moments of the movie to offer some parting words to the audience: "Purge the soul / Make love your goal."
"It was a song I loved as the little queer, 11-year-old boy that I was. You know, hiding away in my bedroom, singing that song as if it had some answer to the universe for me, but not really knowing what that answer was," Haigh says. "When I was writing the script, I was like, 'That's going to be the song." For me, it's almost to show where I've come in my life and how my life has moved on and changed. It had lots of personal meaning, and it's big! Sometimes when you're a queer kid, your love is made to feel very small and insignificant, and so I wanted it to be like, 'No, it's of cosmic importance. I'm going to go as big as I could possibly go!'"
As close as Mescal is to the project, he says he still finds himself in awe of what the filmmaker was able to realize on the screen. "The feeling I got from reading the screenplay for the first time was the experience I had watching it for the first time. The spirit of it remained very true," he reflects. "It's just a testament to the world that Andrew built."
For Haigh, releasing All of Us Strangers into the world isn't just revealing a side of himself as an artist. It's revealing a piece of his soul.
"You've always got to take risks. So even if they're personal, emotional risks, you have to take them," he says. "I think you want to go into a project afraid, and I was quite afraid going into this project. You have to listen to that voice, because it's wanting to uncover something and unpick something. I think you never want to go into something that you think, 'Oh yeah, I've got this. I can do this.' I want to go into something thinking I could make an absolute mess of this."
By John Boone