Entertainment :: Movies

Looking at ’Looking’ with Andrew Haigh

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Friday Jan 17, 2014
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Frankie J. Alvarez, Jonathan Groff and Murray Bartlett in a promotional photo from "Looking"
Frankie J. Alvarez, Jonathan Groff and Murray Bartlett in a promotional photo from "Looking"  (Source:HBO)

When Andrew Haigh’s romance "Weekend" premiered at the SXSW Festival in 2011, the buzz was immediate. The film, which follows the random hook-up of two British men on a Friday night and follows them through Sunday, won the Audience Award for Emerging Visions. It went on to win awards at festivals in London and Los Angeles, and became both a critical and audience hit, making numerous 10-Best Lists at the end of the year. "...it is one of the most satisfying love stories you are likely to see on screen this year," wrote critic A.O. Scott in the New York Times.

The film caught the eye of HBO, which contacted Haigh to see if he was interested in being part of a new series they were developing about gay life in San Francisco. He agreed and joined filmmaker/screenwriter Michael Lannon, who came up with the idea of a story centered on three gay men living in San Francisco, in developing "Looking", which premieres this Sunday night on HBO at 10:30 following "Girls."

The "Girls" connection shows shrewd marketing. The show acts as a Left Coast, gay complement to Lena Dunham’s acclaimed comedy about 20-somethings in New York. The men on "Looking" are older: its main character Patrick (Jonathan Groff) is a 29-year old video game developer; Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez) is Patrick’s college roommate, an artist struggling to find his voice; and Dom (Murray Bartlett) is their close friend, a waiter facing 40 and a career crisis.


Andrew Haigh  

Over the first four episodes, Patrick awkwardly looks for love, finding sparks with a hot hairdresser he meets on a bus and his new boss -- a British hunk already in a relationship. Agustín moves in with his new boyfriend and loses his job; while Dom feels pressured to find something more in his life than being a waiter.

The hand of Haigh, who acts as an Executive Producer, is apparent in the series’ visual style, which resembles the realistic style he brought to "Weekend." Haigh wrote and directed half of the eight episodes of this first season -- eight episodes that run through March. One of the key decisions made in developing the series that Haigh had a hand in was to make sure the show be shot in the city, informing the show with a sense as to why it remains the shining city on the hills for many gay men.

EDGE spoke to the 40-year old Haigh, who has relocated to California to work on the series, about the influence of "Weekend" on the show; how he collaborates with Michael Lannon; and what he thinks of the inevitable comparisons to "Girls" and "Sex and the City."


Cast members of "Looking" in a selfie  

A ’Weekend’ connection?

EDGE: Did the series come about because of ’Weekend’ -- was there a connection?

Andrew Haigh: Not really. This is something that Michael (Lannon) had been developing for a number of years and took to HBO. It was something they already had tested, but I think HBO responded to the tone of ’Weekend’ and felt that it would support what we are doing here.

EDGE: Being British, was there any trepidation on your part to do an American series?

Andrew Haigh: I hadn’t really thought of doing television, to be honest. I had done ’Weekend’ and other movies; and have other movies I am working on. And so I hadn’t really thought about it; but when you get a phone call from HBO, you think about it seriously, obviously. I thought it was a great opportunity to do a long-form story about gay characters, which aren’t that common on television. So I thought it was a project that I wanted to be involved in.

EDGE: Do you enjoy working in the long-form?

Andrew Haigh: Yes. It is interesting and very different. You get a lot more space, obviously, to delve into characters and explore them. But there is also that strange thing that you don’t know where it is going to end because you don’t know if you’re going to be picked up for a second, third or fourth season. So it’s an unusual format -- when you do a movie, you have a beginning, middle and the end; but television is different from that. And it takes some adjustment, but it is interesting and exciting once you get started.


Russell Tovey in "Looking"  

Characters in flux

EDGE: Your collaborator Michael Lannon came up with the idea for the series. Were his three protagonists -- Patrick, Agustin and Dom -- set in stone by the time you became involved, or did you have a chance to develop them?

Andrew Haigh: There were always three protagonists -- that was always the idea and I responded to that. And it’s interesting how you develop characters on television, because you shoot the pilot and the rest of the episodes are unwritten at that point. So you have a writers’ meeting and discuss where you want the characters to go. And they change and are always in flux, which is exciting, because nothing is really set in stone, which is good.

EDGE: Was it intended that the series have the visual look of ’Weekend?’

Andrew Haigh: It wasn’t that I wanted to duplicate the look of that film, but I feel like this is an adaptation of that style. This is slightly different, but has a similar feel. I think that is maybe how I see things, more than anything else. It’s obviously an aesthetic choice -- but it is how I like to shoot things. For me it is to try to make things feel real and spontaneous, and that is wrapped up in the visual style. I want to make it feel authentic.

EDGE: Was it important to film in San Francisco?

Andrew Haigh: Yes. Absolutely. I remember weirdly that when I first came on board there was talk of shooting in L.A. with just exteriors in San Francisco, which I thought was a terrible idea. But they came around to shooting the entire thing in San Francisco in the end and it makes such a difference. When you’re trying to tell a realistic story, you want to be in the city. And we didn’t really have any sets, so we shot out-and-about in the city ... the apartments and bars and clubs and on the street. I think it gives it a real sense of place that you can’t achieve from shooting someplace else.


Murray Bartlett, Jonathan Groff and Frankie J. Alvarez in "Looking"  

Why S.F.?

EDGE: I’ve watched four episodes and haven’t seen the Golden Gate Bridge once. Was that intentional?

Andrew Haigh: (Laughing) That was very intentional. We try not to show the picture-perfect postcard version of San Francisco. I think we do show the Golden Gate Bridge briefly later on, but we continually try to get out in the city and see different parts of it, which is nice. I spent a little bit of time there -- my films have played there. I spent three-or-four weeks there at one point; I didn’t know it incredibly well, but really liked it when I did.

EDGE: You said that San Francisco is different than other American cities, in what ways?

Andrew Haigh: Yeah, it is. It is such an interesting city and feels different than other cities I’ve been to in America. It has a very distinct tone. Everyone from San Francisco is very proud to be from the city, and it is quite a special atmosphere when you’re there. Obviously there are problems, but there are also some great things about it. It is beautiful, to begin with, and there’s so much going on. And it is an open, liberal city, which makes it a good place to be.


Michael Lannon, Andrew Haigh and Jonathan Groff at an exterior shoot for "Looking"  

A gay moment

EDGE: Despite this being ’the gay moment,’ the entertainment industry still shies away from gay-themed films or television shows. Why do you think that is?

Andrew Haigh: The truth is that people are nervous about doing shows about gay people. There’s a fear that people won’t watch it, or only gay people would watch it. And I think there’s a nervousness about it, which is a shame. I think it is getting better. More shows are being made, and as more shows are made and people will see them, it will persuade studios and networks to make more shows. And then we will have a wider representation of gay life on the screen, which is a good thing, obviously.

EDGE: Speaking of that ’gay moment,’ are we at one today?

Andrew Haigh: I think it is a really interesting time. And it is pretty much the same in the U.K. We just got gay marriage as well. It’s amazing to me. When I came out fifteen years ago, I couldn’t get married. Now I can, and that’s incredible. With that, though, come more choices, which is daunting. Now that we can get married is something we have to deal with as gay people. What that means. Now that we have more acceptance in the mainstream, well it brings its own series of issues and problems. But obviously we are in a much, much better place as a community. It’s fantastic. We still have a way to go, though. But it is good.

EDGE: Do you feel pigeonholed to make ’Looking’ representative of the entire LGBT experience?

Andrew Haigh: There’s obviously a lot of pressure, and you feel that pressure. I understand the desire for representation on the screen. And I know there are going to be people that are going to say, ’that’s not my life on the screen.’ It’s a little bit frustrating because the idea of the show is not to represent every gay person in the world. It is a story about these people in San Francisco. It’s not even about every gay person in San Francisco; it is about these three people in San Francisco. I think the only way you can make a good show is to focus in on those characters and not try to check boxes of everything that we want to fulfill. So we don’t really worry about that; and hopefully people will respond to it. If it doesn’t reflect their lives, they can still enjoy it.


Jonathan Groff and Raúl Castillo in "Looking"  

Like ’Girls’?

EDGE: And what about comparisons to two other HBO series, ’Sex and the City’ and ’Girls?’

Andrew Haigh: That’s another thing. Before a show comes out, people like to say things like, ’it’s the ’Sex and the City’ for gays’ or ’It’s a gay ’Girls.’ It’s fine. I understand how people like to define things, but I think it is different than most shows. If it has similarities, then it is about friendship and being frank and realistic about things. I don’t mind being associated with those shows --they are both great shows. But I think we stand-alone and are different. In the end there will be another show that will be compared to ’Looking.’ It is inevitable.

EDGE: As Executive Producer, are you setting the tone for the show and are you hands-on involved in shaping every episode?

Andrew Haigh: Yeah. I directed five episodes and wrote some of them. And I am in the writers’ room kind-of guiding everything. Me and Mike (Lannon) are in charge of getting it to the right place. Luckily we have the same instincts, so we work well, so it’s not too complicated. We have the same instincts about what we want for the show, so it’s pretty easy.

EDGE: The hot topic issue of gay marriage is barely mentioned at all so far -- was that a conscious choice?

Andrew Haigh: We certainly deal with it within the season. It is discussed. We didn’t want the show to feel like a political show in that sense. We aren’t trying to dispose the issues of present day gay life. But it has an effect on the show. There are things like the bachelor party in the first episode, and there are discussions later on about gay marriage. It’s certainly there, but only part of the world. It’s not a show about gay marriage. It’s a show about three people. While it is there, the show isn’t about that.


Frankie J. Alvarez in a scene from "Looking"  

Looking for...

EDGE: The titles of the individual episodes are unusual -- they are each prefaced with the word ’Looking...’ ’Looking for Now,’ ’Looking for Uncut,’ etc. How did you come up with that concept?

It’s a funny thing about those titles because you never see them on screen. You might see them in print or the web, but we don’t include them in the show. That’s something we came up with after we shot each episode; sometimes they are amusing, sometimes they are more serious; but it was something that came after we completed each episode.

EDGE: Are you influenced by "Tales of the City" and the works of Armistead Maupin?

Andrew Haigh: I love the books and I love the TV show. It’s part of it. I like the fact that this is set in San Francisco and this is set in San Francisco in a different time period and the different world we live in now. But it feels really nice to me. The two projects feel like book-ends to me.

EDGE: Was it intentional to have one of the three leads a decade older than the other two?

Andrew Haigh: I think what is interesting about gay friendships is that they are not necessarily limited to friends that went to college together. The thing that glues them together in the early stages is their sexuality. I think that is quite interesting and that’s why groups of gay friends can be different ages and social backgrounds, all of that kind of thing. I think it is interesting to have a character turning 40. I’m 40 now. And I think it’s a nice age. The idea that you can have your life sorted out by the time you’re 40 isn’t always the case. You can get to 40 and still not know what you’re going to do with your life.


Murray Bartlett in a scene from "Looking"  

EDGE: So far we see them as friends, but have no idea how they met. Do you reveal that in an upcoming episode?

Andrew Haigh: Yeah, we do later on.

EDGE: Was casting difficult?

Andrew Haigh: It is difficult. It is always difficult. You see so many different people and it is hard to make those choices. We needed three great actors that had chemistry together that you could believe would be friends. So it was very much about getting groups of people together and looking at them as a threesome.

EDGE: I was watching this with a friend who thought the actors are too pretty? What do you think of a comment like that?

Andrew Haigh: It’s a funny thing. When we were coming up with casting, we first thought we need to make everyone look normal and average. But it is a television show and in the end, actors are an attractive group of people; so we went for the best actors in the roles. As it turned out they were all pretty good looking. So it wasn’t that we looking for attractive people. That was never our goal. It was like, "let us find the best actors for the role." As it turned out, the three of them are attractive guys.

EDGE: Dom -- the oldest of the trio (played by Australian actor Murray Bartlett) has a retro-1970s look -- was that intentional?

Andrew Haigh: A little bit. I think just what people are wearing now is a bit retro stylistically. But I think it might be subconscious because I’m a massive fan of how things looked in the 1970s -- 1970s cinema and things. But I think there’s something a little bit retro about San Francisco -- a faded beauty. So the visual style and the color palette is meant to reflect how we see the city. And the climate also dictates what people wear -- it is a layered look, very different than how people dress in LA.


Jonathan Groff in a promotional pic from "Looking"  

The social media connection

EDGE: Are you enjoying living in the States?

Andrew Haigh: I love it. I miss home some of the time. It’s great to be in San Francisco and we edited in L.A. There are worst places to be than California!

EDGE: Will there be more involvement with social media? I love the reference to Manhunt (referred to as ’Mancunt’ in one of the episodes).... Will there be more of it?

Andrew Haigh: Yes. It is so entwined in life now, whether you’re gay or straight. Social media and the Internet and stuff; it’s part of the world. We won’t focus too much on it, but will keep it in the background all the time.

EDGE: Were you a fan of ’Queer as Folk?’

Andrew Haigh: I was. The English version was there first and I loved it. But I really like the American version. I always hear people say they prefer the British version, but I loved the American version. I thought it was fun and radical for its time. It was a good show. I think that any representation on the screen is pretty good. I was also a big fan of ’Will & Grace’ -- it was a different way of presenting gay life.

EDGE: Is television where it is happening now, in terms of quality?

Andrew Haigh: I think there is quality work in both. There is good television, there is bad television; there are good movies and there are bad movies. I would hate to think that movies are disappearing because that would make me very, very sad. But when you look at the great movies coming out at the moment, I think that cinema is still alive and thriving. And I hope it continues because I love movies as much as I love television.

EDGE: Back to making movies -- are you developing any right now?

Andrew Haigh: Definitely. It is really important to me to continue doing my movies. I am shooting one in March back in England, hopefully before we start to shoot the second season of this. So, yes, I am making sure I keep doing the movies.

"Looking" premieres on Sunday, January 19, 2013 on HBO at 10:30 pm. For more on the show, visit the show’s website.


Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.

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