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About The Production
For his fourth feature film, British-born writer-director Andrew Haigh (45 Years; Weekend; HBO's "Looking") turned to an adaptation of the book by Oregon-based novelist Willy Vlautin, whose works include The Free (2014), Northline (2008), and The Motel Life (2006). Vlautin's 2010 novel Lean On Pete, set in Portland, Oregon and across the western United States, tells the story of a teenage boy who befriends an aging Quarter Horse while working at a racetrack, hitting the road together when the steed becomes marked for the slaughterhouse. In the course of their epic journey across the modern frontier, the pair develops a profound bond. Haigh discovered the novel in the months leading up to the U.S. release of his 2011 breakthrough feature Weekend, which, like Lean On Pete, examines themes of loneliness and finding connection in unexpected places. Seeing cinematic potential in the novel's emotional bonds, wide-open spaces, and insistence on hope and resiliency in the face of struggle, Haigh, through his big-screen adaptation of Lean On Pete, creates an American odyssey for the ages.


Vlautin's novel centers on a lonely, self-reliant 15-year-old who is continually let down by the world but refuses to give up in his search for stability, connection, and a loving home. Lean On Pete locates profound grace in the friendship and bond between its protagonist Charley Thompson and the titular Quarter Horse he cares for while working for Del Montgomery, the gruff horse racer who hires the teenager to sweep the stalls and care for Pete between races.

"Willy brings alive the reality of daily life at the local track in his novel," says Haigh. "This type of place is not like the top tracks. The purses are low and nobody makes a lot of money. They're just getting by. But there's also a community behind the scenes-a family almost."

Vlautin, who grew up in Reno, Nevada but moved to Portland twenty years ago, prefaced his novel with an epigraph from John Steinbeck, America's foremost novelist and essayist of the Western experience: It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth.

Using the epigraph as an inspiration for his own adaptation of the novel, Haigh began to consider Charley's indefatigable resilience in the face of constant struggle and setback, particularly during the novel's second half, as he roams the American countryside in search of a home.

"Lean On Pete is a story about a kid trying to find stability and a sense of belonging," says Haigh. "He wants to be cared about and cared for. As the story progresses, and he becomes less safe and less stable, it becomes a perilous journey about finding those essential things. Willy's novel is heartbreaking but never sentimental, and Charley's relationship with Pete reveals the inherent kindness of this kid- and his deep understanding that we all share a very basic need to feel protected."

Vlautin himself found an unexpected home at the Portland Meadows racetrack, which came to figure prominently in Haigh's adaptation of the novel. Over the years, Vlautin became friendly with the figures at the track, including the jockeys, handlers, and gamblers that inspired him to create indelible, nuanced characters like Del Montgomery. He even went so far as to adopt an aging Quarter Horse named Meritable Dash, which planted the seed for the fictional Lean On Pete. "I love gambling on horses but I also get crushes on them and find myself wondering what happens after they stop racing," admits Vlautin. "I wrote Lean On Pete as a way of figuring out my relationship with horse racing, but it's also about being 15 years old-Charley's age in the novel. He's so close to having independence, whether it's a job, a car or simply a voice, but he finds himself hitting the road in order to save this horse he loves."

Lean On Pete, in its second half, becomes an odyssey documenting Charley and Pete's journey across the frontier, serving up vivid snapshots of the side roads, byways, and rural strivers in a hardscrabble American West similar to the one depicted by Steinbeck, Raymond Carver, and Sam Shepard. One of Steinbeck's most enduring works remains Travels With Charley: In Search of America, the writer's 1960 travelogue detailing an unforgettable road trip across the U.S. with his beloved Standard Poodle. Vlautin's novel swaps Steinbeck's formula for a boy and his horse on the road together, finding poetic grandeur in their struggle to endure on their own in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest.


For Haigh, it wasn't simply Lean On Pete's distinct world of small-time horse racers and gamblers that made the novel feel cinematic-even more palpable and immediate was its sense of yearning and loneliness, dovetailing with the tenor and themes of his own work. In Weekend, two strangers come together for a 48-hour period after meeting in a night club, finding unexpected intimacy and friendship in their brief encounter; in 45 Years, a married couple grapples with their history together over the course of several days leading up to an anniversary celebration of their nearly five-decade union; in the HBO series "Looking," which he helped write, produce, and direct over two seasons (including the 2016 Haigh directed feature-length finale, "Looking: The Movie"), a group of close-knit San Franciscans come together and fall apart as they navigate personal and professional challenges in a gentrifying metropolis. "There's a simplicity to Lean On Pete that I wanted to capture in the film. Charley's struggle is less a coming-of-age identity quest than something more fundamental: what drives him is his desperate need to find that feeling of home-somewhere he can feel safe and secure."

A strong through-line in Haigh's work is his humane approach to characters and their struggles. In Lean On Pete, Haigh warmed to Vlautin's distinctly nonjudgmental approach to his own characters, whether the young protagonist Charley or supporting characters like Del, Bonnie, and Silver, the drifter Charley meets in Laramie, Wyoming during his travels. "Willy does not vilify any of his characters, even when they act in less than admirable ways," says Haigh. "He is acutely aware that these are people struggling to keep their head above water, and that has a profound impact on how they act. In many ways the novel is about the need for kindness and compassion to those that are in need."

The novel was already on the radar of several other filmmakers, prompting U.K.-based producer Tristan Goligher and Paris-based outfit The Bureau-with whom Haigh made both Weekend and 45 Years-to option the film rights. Lean On Pete stayed on his radar through 2014 as he directed 45 Years, featuring award-winning turns by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, and multiple episodes of HBO's "Looking." Soon thereafter, he flew to Portland to meet with Vlautin and begin adapting the Oregon writer's novel.

In Portland, Vlautin showed him some of the locations that inspired his novel, including nearby Portland Meadows, where Charley meets Del, Bonnie, and Lean On Pete. Haigh then set off on a road trip around the Western United States, observing the same trajectory that Charley and Pete take in the novel. He traveled across Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, visiting county fairs in remote Oregon towns like Tillamook and Burns, watching horse races along the way, and immersing himself in regional culture. "I stayed in the motels named in the book," says Haigh. "I camped, ate cans of chili, and took rolls and rolls of slide film. It's ridiculous to consider that I could ever experience what Charley goes through on his epic journey, but spending three months driving around at least gave me some idea of the world Willy writes about in his novels."

He sent drafts of the script to Vlautin, who replied with his thoughts on Haigh's slightly abridged version of the novel, which condenses some of the travelogue scenes and combines several characters into one- including the jockey Bonnie, who was combined with a waitress from the book. "There were tough decisions to make about what to keep and what to lose, but Willy was indispensible in that process," he says. "He was also tremendously forthcoming with contacts, including the trainers, jockeys, and managers who work the track at Portland Meadows."

While Haigh was on the road, researching, and drafting the script, Goligher met with the Oregon Film Office to talk about shooting the film in the locations described in the source material; capturing the local and national truths of the novel became important to both producer and filmmaker. "This is a deeply personal story about one boy searching for a home and a family, but it also has an epic scale with political importance," says Goligher. "Charley is at the center of the story, but it's also about how we've come to abandon some of the most vulnerable people in Western society. Our protagonist embodies this-his journey to survive and find a home is something we are struggling with on a large scale right now."

Haigh found himself enchanted and inspired by what he discovered on his journey into the remote pockets of America. "It's a staggeringly beautiful country and I think it would take me years to come to grips with it as a nation," he says. "But it has an identity and drive that's radically different from Europe." One of the most striking aspects for the filmmaker in this regard was the country's rich cultural and geographic diversity. "The personality of Utah is very different from Colorado," he says. "Portland itself feels miles away, socially and politically, from Eastern Oregon. It was sometimes shocking while traveling around to see the intense patriotism some Americans have for their country, even when faced with intense economic difficulties. People still seem to believe in the American Dream, even as it continues to fail so many."

Lean On Pete adopts a wistful, nostalgic and peripatetic approach to its story of friendship and survival on the road. In the simplest terms, it's a love story about a boy and his horse trying to hold on in an unforgiving but resilient America. "The story is contemporary, but it's more connected to the classic American movies of the 1970s, like Midnight Cowboy," adds producer Goligher. "We don't see these types of human dramas much anymore."


When the script was complete, Haigh and company set about casting the lead roles, including the central character, Charley Thompson, who appears in every scene of the movie. Renowned casting director Carmen Cuba (The Martian; "Stranger Things"), was tasked with finding the perfect Charley, putting out a national call for teenage boys who exuded the kind of soulful resilience that's a key feature in both script and novel. "We saw the young actor Charlie Plummer early on, but kept looking at other actors because you have to be rigorous," says Cuba. "We'd seen him in his indie breakout, King Jack, and knew he was someone special."

Plummer had a recurring role as a child on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" before breaking into features as a teenager, including King Jack, which won the Audience Award at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, earning notable accolades for Plummer's bracing depiction of a vulnerable adolescent tough guy. Subsequent works include a recurring role in the Netflix Cold War drama "Granite Flats" and a small role in Oren Moverman's The Dinner, costarring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall and Chloe Sevigny. In late 2017, he appeared as John Paul Getty, Jr. in Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World.

For his Lean On Pete audition, Plummer submitted a tape and followed up with detailed letter addressed to Haigh, describing why he was the ideal person to play Charley Thompson. "In his letter Charlie showed me how fundamentally he understood the story and the character," says Haigh. "It was incredible how perceptive he was from the beginning. He's a remarkably subtle actor, able to keep his emotions and pain buried deep, which I like in a performance."

Plummer, who hails from the Hudson Valley in Upstate New York, turned to his own youthful hard knocks to help him shape the fictional Charley. "I traveled around a lot as a child, attending eight or nine different schools," says Plummer. "I connected to Charley's search for home and what that means to him." The character's tenacity in the face of hardship deeply impressed the young actor, prompting him to aggressively pursue the role. "What stood out for me most of all is the fact that Charley never gives up," Plummer adds. "I haven't been forced to deal with everything Charley goes through over the course of this story, but I've felt the struggle of persuading yourself not to give up when things become unbearable. I saw him as such a hopeful character."

For Haigh, Plummer was the leading candidate to play Charley after the casting team looked at hundreds of other teenagers. "I always look for the same thing in my actors, which is sensitivity and subtlety, and Charlie has both of those things" says Haigh. "Plenty of actors can locate and act the appropriate emotions, but with Charlie there is always something happening behind the eyes-something very delicate and hard to articulate, but it feels truthful and honest at all times." The result is a breakout performance from what is certain to be one of this generation's greatest talents.

Lean On Pete took further shape as Haigh built the supporting cast around Plummer. Brooklyn-born Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs; Fargo) was the next to come on board as Del Montgomery, the cantankerous Quarter Horse racer who gives Charley a summer job caring for Lean On Pete. The indie film veteran, who began his career with Parting Glances in 1986, and who played Tony Soprano's cousin Tony Blundetto during the fifth season of "The Sopranos," exploded in the public imagination with his lead role in HBO's critically acclaimed period crime drama "Boardwalk Empire," playing Atlantic City political boss Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, a role that earned the actor two Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe Award. Conveniently, Plummer had already worked with Buscemi on "Empire" and had even talked with the veteran actor on set about the acting life.

For Buscemi, Del Montgomery was an intriguing addition to the vast arsenal of lovable losers and downwardly mobile strivers he's played over the years. "Del's a guy who grew up around the racetrack, following in his father's footsteps most likely, and it's kind of all he knows," says Buscemi. "He laments the glory days, but, since he's getting older, he's catching the tail end of all that, and he struggles. He's got a good heart, but he's not a sentimental guy. He's had a hard life and that informs everything he does." Adds Haigh: "I didn't want Del to be the obvious bad guy because he's someone who is trying to get by. Steve is a naturally sympathetic actor, supportive of everyone around him, which was essential to me in casting him."

Next to join the cast was Chloe Sevigny (Kids ; Boys Don't Cry; HBO's "Big Love") as Bonnie, the jockey and close confidant of Del Montgomery who becomes a maternal figure to Charley after they meet at Portland Meadows. Sevigny appeared in The Dinner with Plummer, but the two actors never met on set. She also had previously worked with Buscemi, who cast the actress in what was only her second feature film, 1996's Trees Lounge, which also marked Buscemi's directorial debut. For Lean On Pete, Sevigny initially read for the role of Charley's aunt, Martha, the elusive figure he searches for during his long journey across the Western states. But she also read for Bonnie, the kindly but hard-living jockey who warms to the film's teenage protagonist as he yearns for family and community. "Bonnie is salt of the earth, grounded, and maternal," says Sevigny. "Although you'd expect the only major female in the movie to be more nurturing, she's more like, 'whatever, kid-I'll buy you a soda.' She doesn't treat Charley like a little boy, which I thought made for a nice relationship."

In Haigh's adaptation, Bonnie became an amalgamation of two characters in the novel, culminating in the kind of tough-yet-vulnerable role that Sevigny has readily pursued for two decades. "She's a real horse person, coming from a world she's known all her life," says Sevigny. "She's been thrown from horses a few times but still gets back up and goes for it again and again, because otherwise she'd be waitressing. She loves the excitement of the track and has a long history with Del Montgomery. They have a kind of camaraderie and ease, working together when it's convenient."

Having made her feature debut in Larry Clark's hard-hitting youth drama Kids in 1995, and having reached mass appeal in HBO's polygamy drama "Big Love," Sevigny found Lean On Pete an obvious addition to her considerable and eclectic body of work. "I like female characters who are more hearty, like Nicki on 'Big Love,' who was very capable," says Sevigny. "I've always liked playing women who take care of business and get things done and who aren't damsels in distress. I like to be on the same level as the boys."

For Haigh, seeing Sevigny and Buscemi on screen together again was a particular pleasure. "I was so excited to see them together for the first time since Trees Lounge, a film I greatly admire," says Haigh. "They have an ease and chemistry that is hard to fake. And Chloe has always had a great mixture of toughness and vulnerability, which is perfect for the role of Bonnie."

Rounding out the cast are smaller turns by former Calvin Klein model turned TV and movie star Travis Fimmel ("Vikings"; Warcraft), as Charley's hard-living, philandering father Ray, and indie stalwart Steve Zahn as the drifter Silver. "These are two very similar characters at each end of the story," says Haigh. "Both are big kids who can't grow up and who can't protect those they are meant to look after. Both characters are instinctually good people that make bad decisions, and Travis and Steve nailed that complexity."


The casting of Lean On Pete continued with its non-human cast members, including twenty Thoroughbreds for the Portland Meadows racing scenes and six "performing" horses, including Starsky, who makes his feature film debut as Lean On Pete. Animal trainers Lauren Henry and Roland Sonnenburg and horse racing adviser Terry Bechner worked with cast and crew in the weeks leading up to production to ensure safety and sensitivity during the monthlong shoot, which wrapped in September 2016.

"It's a challenge when you're trying to get two different things from a horse," says Goligher. "One is a performance entailing interaction with our human actors-the emotional part of the story that needs to be told- and the other requires physical actions, like horse races or the accident that arrives at the story's midpoint."

Both required extensive training for the actors as well as the horses. Plummer arrived in Portland three weeks prior to shooting to meet with Haigh and discuss his character while at the same time becoming comfortable working with his co-star, a fifteen-hundred-pound horse. This was achieved through trust-building exercises that over time developed unmistakable chemistry between boy and animal. "Horses are smart and can sense whether or not you're comfortable with them," says Plummer. "After I got to know Starsky, I knew immediately that it was going to be difficult to say goodbye to him later. He's so smart and compassionate. Hopefully that shows up on the screen."

Over time, and in particular during the trust-building exercises, Plummer came to see Lean On Pete as a unique love story between a boy and his horse. "Obviously not a love story in the romantic sense but in the way that they become true friends over the course of the story," says Plummer. "Charley is constantly in search of love-from his father, from Del and Bonnie, eventually from his aunt. When Pete gives him that kind of love, it's the most amazing feeling in the world to him." Adds Haigh: "Every morning Charlie got up and learned how to look after and care for the horse. Once I saw the connection they had together, and how protective he felt towards Starsky, I knew we'd be fine."

Sevigny also traveled to Portland prior to filming to work with Henry and Sonnenburg and practice leg-ups with Plummer and the horses Starsky and High Pockets. Additionally, she did extensive training in Los Angeles to become more comfortable around horses in general, watching movies like the horse-whispering documentary Buck in order to better acquaint herself with the vernacular of horseracing and equine handlers. "This helped me get over any fears I had about being around horses," says Sevigny. "You have to learn a lot of sensitivity when you're around them because every environment they go into is different to them. You learn where to nuzzle them or stroke them to make them feel more comfortable. This was a great opportunity."

A particular challenge for Haigh and his director of photography Magnus Nordenhof Jonck (Bridgend; A War, A Hijacking) was filming the racing scenes at Portland Downs, many of which had to be shot in a single take. "The races were especially stressful in that we usually only had one chance to get it right," says Haigh. "We couldn't afford to run more than one set of horses, and we had to mix professional horses like Starsky with actual race horses. Luckily we had very few problems with the animals. Starsky in particular was a complete professional who had been trained incredibly well by his handlers."


Lean On Pete was shot in and around Portland in late summer 2016, at the Portland Meadows racetrack, and in the Delta Park suburb north of the city, moving to the mountains around Mount Hood for the film's driving and river scenes, and on to the desert for three further weeks in the remote hamlet of Burns, Oregon. Working with Danish cinematographer Jonck, Haigh set out to capture the lush green tones of the Pacific Northwest and the parched, sun-drenched, wide-open spaces of the high desert terrain that marks Charley's later journey toward Laramie, Wyoming and Denver, Colorado.

Haigh and Jonck watched a wide range of movies for inspiration, from John Huston's Fat City and Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. They also looked at realist photography from the likes of William Eggleston, Steven Shore, and Joel Sternfeld, finding in their works a sense of epic desolation in America's remote corners. Haigh and Jonck worked together to push the emotional effect of the film's visuals, striving to elicit to maximum feeling through their images.

They center-framed Charley as much as possible and shot in the 1:85 aspect ratio instead of the more traditional 2:35 in order to emphasize height above, rather than width on either side, resulting in screen characters that become almost dwarfed by the vast landscape surrounding them. "I liked the idea that we're watching this boy's life unfold, close at hand, but we're unable to help him," says Haigh. "Magnus and I talked about how to give the film the right kind of movement-to use tracks and dollies alongside slow zooms, with a rule of always following the action without drawing attention to itself. I wanted the film to possess a gentle beauty and a tender realism."

Principal photography on Lean On Pete began on August 13, 2016 and concluded on September 10, 2016. "It was a very challenging shoot," admits Goligher. "We were dealing with twenty horses, three races, and our lead was a minor. The geography was unpredictable, and the desert weather meant it could be 92 degrees during the day and absolutely freezing at night."


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