Since its debut screening at Telluride, All Of US Strangers has been greeted with critical raves, multiple awards nominations and filmgoers moved to tears by its quietly devastating story. Set in modern London, though featuring periodic detours to one of its southern suburban towns, it tells of a screenwriter, Adam (Andrew Scott), who tentatively begins a relationship with a charismatic neighbour, Harry (Paul Mescal).
As the romance develops and deepens, Adam is drawn back to the place where he grew up and the suburban childhood home he left when he was 11 after his parents died in a car crash. There, both his mum (Claire Foy) and dad (Jamie Bell) appear to still be alive, just as he remembers them from decades earlier.
Writer/director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 45 Years) used the home he himself was raised in as the location for the scenes featuring Adam and his parents. It lends a deeply personal resonance to a film that received seven prizes at December’s British Independent Film Awards and is now in contention for six Baftas, including for outstanding British film.
Screen International spoke to the director about four key scenes from the film – spoilers follow.
Adam and Harry meet for the first time
The scene: When a fire alarm drives him from his tower block apartment, Adam sees Harry looking down from a window. Soon after, a drunken Harry turns up at Adam’s door. The pair have a flirtatious conversation, but Adam turns Harry away.
Andrew Haigh: “We found it complicated to find a building to double for Adam’s tower block, because they are usually owned by multinationals who don’t want you to film in them. But we found a building in Stratford, on the edge of London, which suited a person like Adam who has locked himself away from the world and has a routine that keeps him in that aloneness.
“We did the interior of Adam’s apartment on a soundstage, and had big LED panels with the outside of London projected on them. I wanted the film to have a sort of strangeness from the very beginning that felt slightly shifted from reality, and those LED panels gave it that. Director of photography Jamie Ramsey was able to do something slightly different with the focus – the deep background outside is more in focus than it ever would be if you were shooting in a real apartment. That was enormously useful in bringing a slight oddness to being in this room.
“When Adam opens the door on Harry, we first see Harry’s face in a mirror on the wall. There are a lot of mirrors and reflections in the film, and I like it here because it’s as if Adam is being faced with a reflection of himself — someone else who is intensely alone and is reaching out and looking for help. It was a hard scene for Paul — he’s got to play drunk, be flirtatious and sexual, but also some desperation has to be leaking out underneath the surface. It can’t just be a ‘meet cute’, there has to be a reason why Adam shuts the door on him.
“I can’t tell you how many different sounds we listened to with Joakim Sundström and the sound team. There are so many levels of sound going on within this scene — different air vents, different tones, the deep rumble of a lift coming up and disappearing. I love also the moment of silence between them when it gets really quiet. If people are eating popcorn in the cinema, they are going to have to stop eating at that moment.
“There was a bit of dialogue at the end of the scene where Harry got quite angry with Adam. But it just didn’t feel right in the end, it felt like it was pushing it too far in one direction.”
Adam comes out to his mother in the kitchen
The scene: Returning to his childhood home in Sanderstead, Croydon, for the second time, Adam finds his mum alone. Over tea and flapjacks in the kitchen, he tells her that he is gay. Her discomfort and judgmental attitude make for an uncomfortable encounter.
Haigh: “What is important about this scene is that it is doing two things. It is about a son telling his mother that he is gay, but it is also about an adult living now being reminded of what it felt like to be gay in the 1980s. I remember growing up at that time [Haigh was born in 1973] and how Adam’s mum feels is how everybody thought about gay people. It was a rough time to be gay, and suddenly Adam is back there again – all this icky pain starts to bubble up as his mum is talking.
“I didn’t want to demonise the mother. It is clear to me, and Claire plays it exactly like this, that she absolutely adores her son. But she lives in a time when her opinions have been formed and forged by the culture she lives in. Claire knew she had to be that person from the ’80s, and she absolutely threw herself into how her character would have felt. It’s a hard thing to do, and she did it beautifully.
“The role of tea is paramount and we talked a lot about it. When does the mother pour? When do they just hold their cups? When does Adam play with the flapjacks? They’re all fundamental to understanding the subtext. The mother has made flapjacks, something he always loved as a kid, and at the end she decides not to eat them. That’s quite brutal, as if this beautiful, nostalgic thing has been fundamentally altered.
“Costume designer Sarah Blenkinsop wanted all the costumes to have texture. You know what the teal velour tracksuit Claire wears in this scene feels like to touch, and that is another way to drag you back into the past. The whole film is trying to find ways to transport us back to a past, and if your mother had worn something like that, it would be something that you would always remember. The costumes and the way the house is decorated are to remind the audience we are in the middle of the 1980s.
“The house we shot in was not a big house. It’s a small, semi-detached house with a whole crew in there trying to film the scene. But I love the limitations because it means no-one can be in the room apart from you, the actors, the camera [operator] and the boom op. Everyone else is away, and it makes it feel so intimate.”
Adam and Harry go to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern
The scene: After having sex in Adam’s apartment, Adam and Harry go to a nightclub. There they drink, dance and snort ketamine. The evening becomes dreamlike and euphoric as the drug kicks in. They kiss passionately on the dancefloor.
Haigh: “Before this, there is a beautiful moment with Adam and his dad where you feel a deep connection and that something has been solved between them. There is a lightness to Adam at this point; a burden has been lifted and he wants to go out and show the world he’s in the early stages of a romantic relationship.
“I used to go to the Vauxhall Tavern all the time in the 1990s. There was a night called Duckie on Saturday night, which I was always going to. I lived in nearby Kennington at the time and it was a special place. It was an alternative venue that played such a wide range of music, so for me it felt the only choice to shoot in.
“Club scenes are difficult to get right, and the only way to get them right is to feel like you are in a club — that it’s late at night, you’re sweating and you’ve been dancing too long. So we played music for ages, and everyone was dancing before the camera was even rolling. We shot during the day in the height of summer with 150 people, so it was really hot and sweaty. But it needed to be loud and feel like you were being pushed from one side to another.
“The lighting in the club was limited, so we put in lots of vibrant pinks and deep purples. There is something sexy and dark and erotic about that colour scheme that speaks to gay clubs of the past. The scene feels so different from the rest of the film, but it also recalls colours that we use elsewhere. I love how the lighting scheme develops and how we start to make it stranger and a little bit uncomfortable.
“I don’t think we planned the shot where Adam and Harry kiss, with the light streaming behind them. But I wanted them to kiss each other and the light was behind them and it felt like such a magical moment. It’s like the whole world disappears around them and you’re just focusing on this beautiful, sensual, wondrous moment. They’re gay people in the safe space of a queer club and they can be exactly who they are, in public.
“There’s no point pretending the club scene is not associated with drug-taking — it has been since the dawn of time. You may as well be matter-of-fact about that, rather than try to make a moral argument.”
Adam and his parents go to the High Hat diner
The scene: Sensing their time together is drawing to a close, Adam goes with his parents to an American-themed diner he enjoyed visiting as a child. There they ask about how they died, before departing.
Haigh: “I knew there would have to be a goodbye scene. This film would make no sense if the parents were constantly going to be there. They’ve come back to help Adam, and he has got to the stage where he doesn’t need them anymore.
“Beginning the scene with ‘If I Could See (Through The Eyes Of A Child)’ by Patsy Cline was a bit of a random choice. I wanted a song that spoke to the Americana of the location — a theme restaurant in a brutalist shopping centre that was actually a TGI Fridays. When I was a kid, the height of glamour was going to a Happy Eater or Little Chef by the side of a motorway, which were the British version of American diners. The most exciting moments from when you were young can be so strange when you look back at them.
“I love the triangular composition, where you see all three heads. You’ve got the parents on both sides of Adam, helping him move forward like angels on his shoulder. They’re like an extension of Adam’s mind, and of course you could see the film that way if you wanted to – that all of this is only existing within his head.
“We had a lot of questions about how the parents would vanish. I wanted it to be simple because that is what happens when you lose someone. We used an optical effect to have the light in their eyes gently fade. And then they are gone, and it’s just Adam alone with three milkshakes on the table and nobody else around him.
“Crying on camera is a strange thing — it has to feel real and honest or it looks like it’s been forced. With Andrew, there was no holding him back; there was nothing he could do but cry in that moment. It was an emotional scene to shoot and it took some stamina. We spent a whole day on it, and half of the crew were crying.
“Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch did a wonderful job with the music. She was smart in saying we didn’t want much in this scene, and that overplaying it would make it far too sentimental. It is on the edge of sentimentality anyway, but you’ve got to stay on that edge; you can’t fall over the top of it. It was a real balancing act, and I think the way her score builds and shifts and rises is really powerful.”