In 2011, Andrew Haigh made a film that changed his life. Previously the editor- turned-director had been part of a great shoal of up-and-coming writer-directors, dreaming of their big break. His first feature film, 2009’s Greek Pete, a mockumentary about a London rent boy, had received mixed reviews and little attention outside the festival circuit. But then came Weekend.
A subtle, tender and funny story about two men in an unnamed British city whose one-night stand blossoms into something more, the low-budget romance was a sleeper hit, winning him acclaim in both the UK and the US. Last September, Haigh was the only British entrant on The New York Times’ list of 20 Directors to Watch, with the paper describing Weekend as “one of the most persuasive and revelatory depictions of what it feels like to be alive today”. Meanwhile HBO came calling on the back of it, asking him if he’d like to help writer Michael Lannan turn his eight-minute 2011 short film Lorimer, which tracked the lives and loves of three gay men in Brooklyn, into an eight-episode television series.
The result, Looking, starts on HBO tonight before arriving on Sky Atlantic later this month. It sees the action transferred to San Francisco and, like Weekend, it has a low-key, naturalistic feel. “It’s so important to me that it feels like real life not a TV show,” says Haigh, adding that HBO “definitely saw Weekend as a very big touchstone – they wanted something that felt grounded in the reality of [contemporary] lives”. Something, in other words, different from more obviously dramatic series about gay life from years gone by, such as the much-loved adaptations of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, also set in San Francisco, Russell T Davies’s game-changing Queer as Folk and its more gaudy US remake.
“I love Tales of the City, both the books and the show, but we didn’t feel any pressure despite filming in the same place,” says Haigh. “It was such a different time and that’s true of Queer as Folk as well. The British version of Queer as Folk is so good, but times change. Gay people can now get married – when Queer as Folk started [in 1999] that didn’t seem possible. Since then the gay community moved into the mainstream and with that comes a new set of challenges and stories.”
In the run-up to Looking’s launch, however, the show that it has found itself most frequently and lazily compared to is fellow HBO series Girls, thanks to their shared focus on middle-class metropolitan angst. “I understand [the comparisons],” says Haigh, admirably managing to quell any hint of frustration. “People will say what they say and Girls is a great show but it’s very different and not just because our characters are older.”
The spotlight, indeed, is on thirty- and forty- rather than twentysomethings: a decision partly driven by the writers’ own ages (“I’m 40, Michael’s in his late thirties”) and partly by a desire to avoid telling another gay coming-out tale. “So many gay stories focus [on that] but what I found really interesting is that in your early twenties you think that at 35 or 40 your life will be sorted, and it just isn’t. People’s lives often don’t turn out as they expect.”
Looking is also notably astute on the politics of class. In the second episode one of its lead trio, white middle-class video game designer Patrick, starts dating Richie, a working-class Mexican, and the small differences between them (and crucially the awkwardness each feels about those differences) are slowly and subtly exposed.
“It was really important to us to look at ethnicity and class within the gay community,” explains Haigh, stressing that, contrary to online rumour and blogs attacking its white-centric trailers, Looking reflects San Francisco’s cultural diversity. “In the early stages of being out you meet all these people from all kinds of backgrounds and the one thing you have in common is you’re all gay, but then you start to realise how different your experiences actually are.”
That said he’s aware of the futility of trying to please all of the people all of the time. “That’s the biggest thing I struggle with. We could never hope to represent every gay person in America. There will be people who will say ‘well my experience of being gay isn’t like that’, to which I can only say ‘that’s fine’.”
Meanwhile, the very existence of another major television series about gay experience is something to be happy about. During the press for Weekend, Haigh said: “I know a lot of very liberal straight people and… they still won’t necessarily come to see a film like Weekend. There’s an uncomfortableness that still exists around gay issues and gay subject matter.” Does he worry about Looking finding an audience beyond the gay community? “Actually it turned out lots of straight people did go to watch Weekend so…” he laughs. “You go online and people are tweeting about how they’d never watch, but I hope that some people will tune in and realise they can relate to the stories without being gay themselves.”
‘Looking’ starts on Sky Atlantic on Monday 27 Jan