x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Against the stream

Andrea Arnold, the British director of the celebrated films Fish Tank and Red Road, reveals her inspirations and her unconventional methods.

The director Andrea Arnold after receiving the Jury Prize for her sophomore film, Fish Tank, at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival in May.
The director Andrea Arnold after receiving the Jury Prize for her sophomore film, Fish Tank, at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival in May.

When Andrea Arnold picked up an Oscar for her short film Wasp in 2005, not even her most fervent supporters could have imagined the director, born in Dartford, Kent, would become such a darling of the European art-house circuit. This year, her sophomore film, Fish Tank, played in competition at Cannes and won the Jury Prize, just as her debut feature, Red Road, had in 2006. This would be a remarkable feat for any director and is a clear acknowledgement, if any were needed, of the 46-year-old filmmaker's prowess.

Those growing up in Britain in the 1980s might have come across Arnold long before she won her Oscar, on the Saturday morning children's television show No 73, an eclectic mélange of sitcom, chat show and magazine programme. When the series ended in 1988, Arnold worked for the next two years as a presenter on Motormouth, another Saturday morning programme. After that, she wrote and presented A Beetle Called Derek, an environmental awareness show for teenagers. Given her background, it's unsurprising that Arnold is full of quips when she's in conversation. She is a sprightly interviewee who made a hilarious Oscar acceptance speech.

Her films, though, are miles away from her early TV work. Both Fish Tank and Red Road are dramas involving working-class female characters trying to deal with life on a limited budget. After the thirtysomething revenge mission of Red Road, Arnold takes a teenager as her focus in Fish Tank. The main character, the 15-year-old Mia, is played by the 17-year-old acting debutante Katie Jarvis, who was discovered while she was having an argument with a friend in a supermarket. The film follows her coming-of-age when the arrival of Connor (Michael Fassbender) disrupts her home life and forever changes her relationship with her mother (Kierston Wareing).

It was an interesting casting choice, but Arnold reveals that her original ambition was to cast all the parts with non-actors before she employed Fassbender, Wareing and Harry Treadaway in key roles. "First of all, I was going to cast all real people for the film and wasn't going to use any actors," she says. "I really love real people. I'm not saying actors are not real people - of course, actors are people too. But people who haven't been in front of the camera before have a sort of unconsciousness. They are themselves, so there is something really lovely about that."

There has been a tradition among European art-house directors of using non-actors. The legendary Robert Bresson and Bruno Dumont spring to mind. However, Arnold soon realised such a choice would be problematic. She says: "When I started to think about what [Jarvis] would have to do - that she would have quite a big job to do - I thought it might be quite interesting to have someone who has got some experience and confidence who can help her and get her through that filming process."

Arnold also refused to give the actors the full screenplay. "They didn't know what was coming in the story because nobody saw the script," she says. "I know with Kierston Waring she's worked with Ken Loach (on It's a Free World), and that's what he does. She loves working that way and they really like to work in sequence." Working in sequence refers to the practice of shooting scenes in the order in which they will be screened, a relatively unusual and expensive way to make a film.

She says she came up with the idea to film that way when making Red Road: "I shot the last scene on the first day. I never want to do that again because I always think the ending of Red Road, the weight of what has happened is not really quite there and that's because we shot that scene on the first day when we didn't even know each other's names. That was not good." The process of casting the enigmatic Fassbender to play the charming rogue was also an unusual one for the director. "We didn't even meet," admits Arnold. "I just saw him in Wedding Belles, which was an Irvine Welsh film. He played a character in that who had a lot of charm. And I wanted Connor to have a lot of charm. So he was in South Africa doing a film and I was supposed to go and fly out and meet him and on the day of my flight I discovered my passport had expired - that was really organised of me - so I didn't get to go and then we didn't have another opportunity. Really we only met when we started filming. And he was very busy right up to that day so there was no research, no planning, no rehearsal, nothing."

She admits that she can be didactic on set, which seems against the grain of her personable character: "I always have the idea that I'm going to improvise, and I try but I never have time. We discuss things a little bit and talk a little about the character but not very much. Because I have faith that the words, the clothes and the places will say what you want to say without their having to be someone else. I don't want them to be someone else. I want them to be themselves."

There is also no space for rehearsals on an Arnold film, although the director sees this as a positive. "I really don't like rehearsal anyway. You don't know how the day is going to be, what the weather's going to be like, how you're going to feel, who's going to have a headache and whether 80 dogs have got loose from some house and are going to be running in front of the camera. You know, you have to go with those things on the day and no amount of rehearsal will prepare you for that."

When writing a film, the director has no master plan or idea of what she wants to achieve. It's only when talking about her films that such thoughts start to enter her head. She explains: "I don't think so hard about things before I make them. What is interesting about coming to festivals like Cannes and everyone asking about your film is that you think: 'I never thought about that.' They ask: 'What are the themes of your film?' I never thought about themes in my films. I just write a character and try and follow them around. I don't have an agenda or a bigger picture. And I guess, you know, my life and who I am influence everything I do, so it's there, but it's not like I think about it consciously. I try to be unconscious, in fact. I think thinking is the enemy of all kinds of things."

Nor does Arnold believe that she is carrying the torch of "kitchen sink" directors from Britain, explaining: "I must be influenced by filmmaking in the UK. How could you not be? We are all influenced by everything around us. But I think if I'd never seen a Ken Loach film or never seen any British cinema, I'd still be making the kinds of films I'm making because these are the things I'm interested in. I'm not thinking: 'Oh, I'm going to make films like this; this is going to be me!'"

One of the common traits of the tradition of British working-class drama into which Arnold fits is a sense of hopelessness. In Fish Tank, the 15-year-old protagonist seems to wander from one mishap to another until the final scene, yet even then there is not really a feeling that her life will get better. Arnold disagrees with this analysis, however. "A lot of people say they don't think it's hopeless at all. I don't think it is, because people are not hopeless. That is how most people live. I tried to fill the final scene with contradictory moments and different sounds. Life goes on, you know?"

She says that when she makes films, it's the story and characters that will always take precedence over special effects. "I liked the stripping of things that made films fancy and taking it down to the story and the way the story is told. I really liked the Dogme films for this reason. That movement was really smart and it made you realise that what really matters at the heart of a film is the people and the story. It also made it possible for people, I think, who were wanting to make films. These people went out and used hand-held cameras and they didn't need much money. That was very liberating for a lot of filmmakers."

Don't expect Arnold to have her head turned by offers from Hollywood anytime soon. She's determined to carry on making films on her own terms.