“I was interested in exploring the complexities of both familial and romantic love, but also the distinct experience of a specific generation of gay people growing up in the 80s,” says British filmmaker Andrew Haigh, who infused his screenplay for All Of Us Strangers with a contemporary and personal touch, placing the story in a world more recognizable to his own.
All Of Us Strangers, a hauntingly poignant and hypnotic story of loss and love (and everything in between), is inspired by the novel Strangers by venerable Japanese author Taichi Yamada, first penned in 1987 and translated into English in 2003.
“It was important for all of us to invest in the emotional core of the story, perhaps more so than the traditional ghost elements of the story,” says producers Graham Broadbent and Sarah Harvey of Blueprint first pitched their creative vision for the film to Yamada and his family in 2017.
They immediately sent the book to Haigh, with whom they had wanted to work with for some time. They felt he had the right sensibility – he had shown a great aptitude for nuanced character work in his films Weekend and 45 Years, as well as TV s ‘The North Water’.
“Sarah and I tried to match talent to material to see if we could find some thread,” says Broadbent. “Andrew had never done anything in this area before, but he responded to the book and I was beautifully surprised, because I’d wanted to make a film with him for ages.”
Recalls Haigh, “What I loved about the novel was its central conceit: what if you met your parents again long after they were gone, only now they’re the same age as you? It seemed such an emotional way to explore the nature of family. That became my starting point.”
By late 2017 – and with Yamada’s blessing – he along with Blueprint pitched the project to Daniel Battsek and Ollie Madden at Film4, who came on board and funded the development.
One night in his near-empty tower block in contemporary London, Adam (Andrew Scott) has a chance encounter with a mysterious neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal), which punctures the rhythm of his everyday life. As a relationship develops between them, 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.
From Page To Screen
“Adapting the book was a long and sometimes painful process,” Haigh admits. “I wanted to pick away at my own past as Adam does in the film. I was interested in exploring the complexities of both familial and romantic love, but also the distinct experience of a specific generation of gay people growing up in the 80s. I wanted to move away from the traditional ghost story of the novel and find something more psychological, almost metaphysical.”
Haigh has masterfully stuck to his word, transcending the tropes of a ‘ghost story’.
“We really needed an auteur who had a clarity of vision to adapt the story,” says Broadbent. “He had a very clear vision of what he was trying to say, the themes that he was exploring, and that doesn’t always happen.”
Yamada and his family were incredibly respectful of Haigh’s vision, which changed the central character of the story to a gay man, and when they ultimately read the script, they gave their blessing to make the film.
The project then attracted the remarkable acting quartet that is Andrew Scott (Spectre, ‘Fleabag’), Paul Mescal (Aftersun, ‘Normal People’), Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool),Claire Foy (Women Talking, ‘The Crown’).
There’s a textured, indelible sense of pathos that runs through All Of Us Strangers, and the vast majority of the film’s complexities sits firmly on the shoulders of the protagonist Adam, played with a stunning conviction by Andrew Scott.
Adam is a forty-something gay screenwriter living in a new build apartment block in London. He’s an orphan. He’s single, lonely. He carries around the burden of grief from a traumatic episode in his youth that saw both parents killed in a car crash. A ‘cliché’, he claims.
“Adam is a very solitary figure,” says Scott. “He’s described by his mother as a very gentle and compassionate person. It’s been a tough role to play, in the sense that you have to go to very vulnerable places. But that’s a kind of privilege, in a way.”
Producer Harvey explains that it was a no-brainer casting Scott in the lead role. “Andrew was our number one choice, so it was a dream that we got him. There are very few people who can carry off a lot of these internal emotions, and he was perfect for that.”
Adds Haigh, “Andrew Scott was in my mind from the start. I have admired him as an actor for a long time. And while it is not the case with every queer role, it was important for me that our lead shared the same sexuality as the character. There are many nuances I was searching for in the film’s exploration of queerness, and I needed someone who could understand that on a profound level.”
A part as multi-faceted as Adam is always going to be something of a challenge for any performer. Continues Haigh, “I think Andrew very much enjoyed the process, but I don’t think it was easy. He had to access the child in him as well as the adult. How Andrew oscillated between the two was a wondrous thing to watch.”
“I’ve known Andrew for a very long time and I love him very much,” says his on-screen mother Foy. “I already said to Andrew Haigh that there’s going to be absolutely no problem with me having a very deep relationship with Andrew – I already feel that for him.”
Harry lives in the same apartment block as Adam, and after propositioning his neighbor one drunken evening, the two eventually become romantically involved. Their intensely passionate and transformative love affair has a transcendent power for them both.
The role of Harry belongs to one of the most in-demand actors working today, the recent Academy Award® nominated Irish actor Paul Mescal. As producer Harvey says, “We were just very lucky to get him at the right time.”
“I think their loneliness mirrors each other,” Mescal says of his character’s relationship with Adam. “He feels like a little boy, to me – like somebody who should be a lot happier than he is, and the world tells him that he should be, but he’s not. He hides behind being sex positive and sex forward, and being fun, and he has a somewhat casual but problematic relationship with drugs and alcohol – he’s trapped,” he continues. “I recognize him in little bits of myself and friends and young men in the world.”
Mescal is undoubtedly a gifted actor and, much like the quartet of actors in this film, he has plenty to work with that stretches his talents and ability. With the story being driven by its strength of character, Haigh knew he could depend on Mescal.
“Paul’s just a great, very naturalistic actor, I’ve liked him for a long time,” says Haigh. “He has a really interesting mix of sensitivity and strength. That is a fascinating combination to me. There’s something about him that draws you to him, and that’s what you need Harry to be: you need Adam to feel like he’s being drawn to Harry.”
While on-screen chemistry between two exceptionally talented actors can be unpredictable and an intangible force
Haigh explains how he ensured the characters built up that relationship to enrich what we see on screen. “We went to a gig, we hung out, we talked about our lives. The chemistry was there from the start, and my role was simply to harness it.”
Scott too was thankful for the casting of Mescal, affirming Haigh’s belief that their off-screen trust for one another helped enrich their performances.
“Paul is incredibly gifted, and I would have found this a very different situation with someone else. He’s very instinctive and sensitive, he cares an awful lot,” says Scott. “We had to do quite a lot of intimate scenes together, and it’s very important that you have someone you can laugh with, and someone who’s got your back. There’s a lot of sadness to this story, but he’s got an ability to play lightness, which not a lot of actors have.”
Navigating the Profound
The distinctive tonality of All Of Us Strangers at times takes on a sort of ethereal quality. It is also grounded by the way in which it tackles the human experience. Its many layers and textures carry a profound, emotional undercurrent.
Haigh creates a tone rich with nostalgia and yearning, a powerful emotional pull for Adam.
“Adam is yearning to see his parents again, aching to be known by them,” says Haigh. “Perhaps finding them again will bring comfort and closure after the terrible loss. But it’s no easy task, nostalgia can often hide a different truth, and his parents were a product of the time they lived. Adam must also confront his fragile sense of self, battered by growing up gay in the 80s and 90s. Two traumas perhaps, closely entwined, stopping him from finding peace.”
Says Haigh, “I wanted the film to have the texture of the past, which is one of the reasons we pushed to shoot on 35mm film. I wanted the film to feel, if not quite like a dream, then like the moment just before you fall asleep or the moment you wake from a dream, not quite sure what’s real. A more liminal space.”
Rather than play up to the supernatural elements, Haigh instead wanted to focus on the notion of memory and how it works.
“Memories define us; they define what we become, our character, both for good and bad. I dug deep into my memories of growing up. It was a painful but cathartic experiment.’ He continues, “Adam gets to be a child again. I think everybody can relate to that idea of wanting to go back and redefine what your relationship is with your parents. I wanted it to be cathartic for Adam but a complicated catharsis. I want the audience to feel a similar thing.”
He adds, “In many ways, the film is about how you integrate emotional pain into your life. That pain will never vanish, it will always find a hiding place, but that doesn’t mean you can’t move forward.”
“I’ve made enough films now to know that people respond to things differently, but what I want to do is provoke questions, provoke emotion,” says Haigh.
“All of us have been children, and most will lose our parents. Many of us will be parents ourselves and have kids who will grow into adults in the blink of an eye. Many of us will find and lose and hopefully find love again, even if it doesn’t last an eternity.” Haigh continues, “And all of us understand the complexity and importance of these relationships, and hopefully, when you leave the cinema, what you feel more than anything, is the power of love.”
Andrew Haigh is an award-winning British writer director, whose feature films include Lean on Pete the poignant story of a 15-year-old boy who befriends a racehorse (2017), romantic drama 45 Years (2015) and breakout hit, Weekend (2011), about two men who meet and begin a sexual relationship the weekend before one of them plans to leave the country, and The North Water (2021) that deals with a disgraced ex-army surgeon who joins as the ship’s doctor on a whaling expedition to the Arctic and encounters a brutish harpooner. He also served as an executive producer as well as the lead writer-director on HBO show Looking’ (2014-2016) that centered around the lives of gay men.