It’s a coming of age story about a teenage boy named Charley (Charlie Plummer) living with his underemployed single father Ray (Travis Fimmel). Charlie finds work via a smalltime race-horse stable owner named Del (Steve Buscemi) caring for an aging racehorse named Lean On Pete. He takes to horse-care enthusiastically, but when he learns the horse is bound for slaughter, Charley and Pete embark on a journey across America in search of a new home.
The film premiered last summer at the Venice Film Festival in competition and also played at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals.
Original-Cin’s Bonnie Laufer spoke with writer/director Andrew Haigh about adapting the novel for the big screen and why he thought Charlie Plummer was the perfect young actor to carry the film.
ORIGINAL-CIN: I had the opportunity to see Lean On Pete during the Toronto International Film Festival last September, and it was one of those films that just stuck with me. The film is based on the novel written by Willy Vlautin and I wanted to know what it was about it that prompted you to turn it into a film?
ANDREW HAIGH: “I’m glad that it stuck with you because that’s exactly what the novel did to me. There was just something about the main character Charley, what he needs and what he wants and his resilience in the face of some real hard suffering that really just broke my heart, I suppose. I couldn’t put the novel down and I just couldn’t stop thinking about this kid and I would start crying when i thought about it. I think when something affects you like that, one knows there’s something there to pursue.”
OC: The story is set in the world of the horse racing that takes place in small country fairs, which really took you out of your comfort zone. Where did you begin to research this world and understand it better?
AH: “Getting it right was really important to me. So the first thing I did was spend a significant amount of time with Willy Vlautin. He was initially nervous about assigning the film rights, and one of his stipulations was that I made sure that I understood that world if I were to direct the film.
I went to Oregon for about three or four months where he took me around to local race tracks that had inspired the novel. He introduced me to many of the people like the trainers and the jockeys in the community that he based his characters on in the book. I knew nothing about any kind of horse racing. There was no way that I could write anything about this world unless I experienced it for myself. It really helped me visualize the small details, which is something that I am a bit obsessed with. I take note of the smaller things that go on and how they affect these people on a day to day basis.”
OC: I think that this is a world that not many people are familiar with. Was there anything that particularly shocked or surprised you while doing your research?
AH: “It’s a really tough world and I think that’s what struck me most when I actually got there. I spent time behind the scenes with the trainers and the horses, and they have it really hard. It’s also an industry that is completely dying out. They’re not making any money. Jockeys are pulling in maybe $80 a race, which is not a lot of money at all. People push their horses, maybe more than they should be pushing them, because they need to make money to feed themselves. And that was really fascinating to me.
“They’re not in the industry for their love of horses. It’s just their way of making money. I was also taken with their sense of community. This is a close-knit world and they are very much like a family. Everybody knows each other and they travel around together. It’s passed down through the generations of a family and everyone partakes in one way or another.”
OC: After seeing hundreds of teenage male actors you went with Charlie Plummer to play the lead. We recently just saw him in Ridley Scott’s, All The Money In the World, where he really stood out as Getty’s grandson. What was it about Charlie that made you decide to cast him? It’s a huge role seeing how he is in just about every scene.
AH: “He was just so good. I think it was a simple as that. He is such a good actor and I immediately saw Charley from the novel in him. It was a really a fascinating process because I met a lot of kids who were very good. They understood that they had to be emotional in a scene, and they would generate the correct amount of emotion when they were asked.
“But then there was Charlie. He sent me a tape to watch and he just did the scene in a completely different way. He wasn't going for the easy emotional angle. It felt like he was trying to find something more truthful in that scene. Whenever I see an actor doing that, I just lean forward, because you’re drawn into them and I want to experience what they are trying to work through. And Charlie just does that. In many ways to me, he is exactly like Charlotte Rampling, (who starred in Haigh’s film, 45 Years). They both approach scenes in a similar way, trying to find something different and interesting within it. He’s so dedicated as well. He’s a serious kid who is really nice and has some great people around him. And he cares about his choices. He was just amazing.”
OC: I understand to clinch the deal, Charlie sent you a letter detailing his own connection to the character?
AH: “Yes, he told me that as a young boy he had moved around a lot and felt like he had a personal connection to Charley in the story. Ultimately Lean On Pete is about a boy searching for a home. He told me that he really identified with the idea of somebody transient who is reaching for stability in life.
“Once he got the role, as I mentioned, he spent a lot of time bonding with the horse. He did everything from cleaning out the stalls, learning to walk with him and taking care of him. They really did have a quite a connection once we began to shoot. It was funny because you could immediately tell that the horse was genuinely happy when Charlie was on set. They became great pals.”
OC: You mentioned Charlotte Rampling. Do you think that you might not have been able to make Lean on Pete had you not had the success with 45 Years?
AH: “No, I’m sure I couldn’t have done it. It’s not easy to get these types of films off the ground because you need a bit of money to get started. I knew that we would be travelling around. We had horse races to shoot and there was a lot riding on the setting and location. Not that we needed a lot of money because it was relatively a low budget production, but it was a tough film to sell as well. So there were a lot of challenges that I had to face. This is not a Disney movie about a kid and his horse.”
OC: No, it’s definitely not that!
AH: (laughs) “However, people might have the impression that it is. I always knew that it was going to be a challenge, but you know what? 45 Years was a huge challenge to get off the ground and so was my previous film, Weekend. The minute you have a film that doesn’t progress the way that regular films do, it’s always a challenge to secure financing.”
OC: Shooting in the desert had to have had its mishaps. You have scorpions and snakes to contend with. Plus, you’re dealing with the horses who can be difficult.
AH: “You know what, it really wasn’t that bad. I wish I could say it was crazy but it really wasn’t. The truth is that the main horse that we used was so well trained and the trainers were incredible. They were always there with the horse, always looking after him and making sure that he was comfortable and not stressed out. Charlie spent three weeks working with the horse to understand how to be with him so they established a trust and a connection.”
OC: What about the actual horse racing scenes?
AH: “I’d have to say that those scenes were the most challenging to shoot. First of all the staging of the horse racing scene at the track was complex, because we had to get hundreds of extras employed as spectators alongside multiple horses and jockeys. We had to do those all in one take because we couldn’t race the horses and then race them again.
“Standard practice is that they actually had to rest for weeks in between races so you've got to get those shots right. I sort of love that tension, the passion and the concentration it takes from everybody to get it right. When we shot Pete’s last scene in the movie, it was a very complex shot but we had the whole cast and crew willing it to work and it’s just a special thing when these kinds of things happen and they turn out exactly how you envisioned it.”
OC: The rest of the cast is pretty special too. You have Steve Buscemi and Chloe Sevigny - the King and Queen of the indie world, starring alongside Steve Zahn. It was refreshing to see Steve Buscemi showing some vulnerability which is not something he does too often.
AH: “I was thrilled when Steve decided to come on board for exactly that reason. I also thought he was wonderful in it and I loved that we get to see this vulnerable side. Steve and I had long talks about his character and he was adamant about making him grounded.
“He’s trying to be a decent guy, but he needs to make money and he doesn’t ‘want’ to care about this kid but he sort of does. He knows he only has a few years left doing this kind of work before everything turns to crap and I loved how Steve took it on. It could have been a bigger performance, but he wanted it understated and it really works.”
OC: Is it true that you are actually scared of horses?
AH: (laughs) “Yes, they’re not my favourite animals, so I guess you’d think it was strange that I even wanted to tackle this subject! Years ago I rode a horse and fell off of it, so it sort of tainted my feelings towards them.
“I believe that they truly know your emotional place, how you are feeling and that scares me. I’m the kind of guy who tends to hide my anxieties and fears behind a smile or whatever, and I think horses can see through that. You go near them and they are like , ‘Oh no, I understand you, and I know what’s happening.’ It’s a bit weird.”
OC: Watching Charley’s special bond with the horse is the core to helping him get through a very hard time in his life. In general, there’s no doubt that having an animal around is something that many people can relate to and it will undoubtedly strike a chord.
AH: “We all have a desperate need to have somebody in our lives who will comfort us. And whether that’s a friend or an animal, we cannot exist alone. That’s why I love the relationship between Charley and the horse in the story because Charley is feeling desperately alone. And when he meets Pete, he feels that this is the only thing that gives him some sense of love, security and a purpose almost. So I find that quite exhilarating but at the same time, totally heartbreaking.”