The director of Fish Tank and Red Road shares the secrets to low-budget authenticity.
Andrea Arnold's characters are—like Arnold herself—restless spirits. Trapped in lives that are too small for them, they push boundaries to break open their worlds. From the volatile Mia in Fish Tank, Arnold's most celebrated film to date, to Wasp's Zoe, a single mother of four who wants to live her own life, Arnold has compassion for women with a devil-may-care attitude and the desire to live an untethered life.
Arnold's new film American Honey will have its premiere at Cannes next month. "I never imagined my life like this," Arnold, who grew up with a single mother in a large working-class family, told Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On), during a Tribeca Talk moderated by Sachs yesterday. "Every once in a while I just think, 'Wow, this is weird.'"
Here are some tips she shared during the talk about filmmaking and living an unexpected life.
"I love chaos because it brings life. I don't like being in control of the set; I like going to shoot not knowing what's going to happen."
1. The one film school takeaway? Trust yourself
Arnold, who attended the American Film Institute, said, "The one thing I learned from film school was to trust myself. People are always saying, 'Do this, do that.' Being at AFI allowed me to listen to everyone and then work out my own way."
Although it admittedly took her a while to hone her craft, the shorts she made at film school allowed her to exercise her creative muscles. "It took a little while to learn the ropes," she said. "I made my first short and didn't quite get the camera right; I was exploring. But I look at that now and I think there were lots of things I did that were really me, like the images and the way I filmed."
2. Life can be the greatest source of inspiration
When asked about her influences, Arnold said, "a lot of my filmmaking hasn't come from other films; it's come from life. The things that inspire me are things that I see every day. Sitting on the bus listening to a conversation, I start to invent stories about people's lives."
3. A movie begins with an image and a mind map
Each of Arnold's films was born from an image that lodged itself into her mind's eye. "What starts driving me is an image that won't go away," she said. "I keep these images close to my heart, like a medallion. They keep me going when it gets rough making the movie."
Fish Tank, for example, began with a very specific and unusual image. "I had an image of a girl pissing on the floor in someone else's house," said Arnold. "I thought, 'What is this girl doing?' I start thinking about what that means, who she is, and where she comes from."
In order to organize the myriad trains of thought that can evolve from a single image, Arnold creates a mind map. "You write down all the different possibilities under each decision or element," she explained. "It's like, 'Do I go to film school, or do I learn skateboarding, or do I go to Montana?' And then you just follow each thought like a spider's legs and write down everything you can possibly think of. The one that's the longest, with all the good and bad things, is the one you should choose."
"My scriptwriting always begins with the mind map," she continued. "I'll start with images and piece it together. Only when I've got a rough idea of the story do I start writing."
4. Use non-actors to help write the script
"I'm starting to wonder whether I should cast before I start writing," mused Arnold, who often casts real people in her films. "Sometimes trying to squeeze people into an idea in your head doesn't work," she said. "I do adapt to try to fit who these people are, but that's not always possible far down the road in the script. On my next film I might write the mind map, cast, and then write the script based on who these people are."
But sometimes she hits the nail on the head: Fish Tank's Katie Jarvis was perfectly in sync with the character Arnold had envisioned. "We looked for a girl who came from that area and who felt quite authentic," she said. "I didn't change the script very much. I was going to cast a real person for the Michael Fassbender role; I actually had my eye on a bin collector from the park. But then I decided that the combination of actor and non-actor would be better."
"When we wrapped American Honey the very first thing I thought was, 'I'm so glad nobody died.'"
5. Chaos can yield great surprises
In keeping with her fiery energy and characters to match, Arnold's sets are frenetic places. "I love danger and risk," she said. "I love chaos because it brings life. I don't like being in control of the set; I like going to shoot not knowing what's going to happen. I like to be surprised. That's why I like dogs in films. You can't make them go anywhere; they go where they want."
Working with non-actors brings its own breed of unpredictability. "It's like a recipe—you don't know if it's going to come out well," Arnold said.
"Sometimes I fantasize about hiding my cinematographer in a cupboard and telling the actors and the cast to just do the scene, and then bringing him out of the cupboard and just shooting and seeing what happens," she said. "I want him to follow the characters as if it were a documentary."
"I don't really block the scenes. I want it to be organic and I like to do it when we're there."
Arnold doesn't shot list. Even the lens choice and scene blocking are very much left to chance. "We take more lenses than we need and we'll follow the characters and then adjust for what works," said Arnold. "I don't really block the scenes. I want it to be organic and I like to do it when we're there. You don't know the day; you don't know what it looks like; you don't whether the actor will have a stomach ache. I like to let those things play into it. I try not to control it too much. I try to keep it alive without squashing it."
Being surprised, of course, has its limits. "I don't like doing things to upset people in the film," Arnold continued. "I like them to be in collaboration with me. I heard that in Alien, the stomach explosion was a surprise to the actors. They didn't know they were going to get guts on them. They did that for a more horrified reaction. I don't like that."
There is one element of chaos on which Arnold won't compromise. "I like to shoot in sequence," she said. "On Red Road, I shot the first scene on the last day, and it was such a painful thing to do. It never felt it had the gravity it needed and there was no chance to redo it."
6. Sometimes shoots are a near-death experience
In addition to featuring Shia LeBeouf and Riley Keough, Arnold's new film American Honey is mostly comprised of non-actors. "I cast all sorts of wild kids, and they didn't really do anything I asked," said Arnold. "We did a real road trip in the midwest. It was an adventure. At the very end, when we wrapped, the very first thing I thought was, 'I'm so glad nobody died.'"
"We didn't do the same take twice," she continued. "It was a bit of a nightmare to edit."
Before she made the film, Arnold embarked on nearly ten different road trips to experience the texture of its midwest setting. "Some of the poverty in some of the places really shocked me," she said. "It seemed more intense than Britain."
"I really do think I pushed it [with this film]," Arnold said. "We lost our lead girl two weeks before we started filming, so I had to find someone else. It was very tough; there were scenes when I had loads of non-actors and we were running out of time, and I thought, 'I really don’t know how I’m going to get this done.'"
"Someone said the other day that if you shoot an empty room digitally, you think someone's just left the room; when you shoot an empty room on film, you think someone's about to come in. "
But at the end of the day, Arnold feels American Honey to be the best representation of her personal style. "This is the most me I've ever been," she said. "I was really trusting myself."
Though she had intended to shoot film, Arnold had to abandon the idea after the first few days of the road trip. "We traveled in the back of a van and it was too difficult," she said. "I like film a lot. Someone said the other day that if you shoot an empty room digitally, you think someone's just left the room; when you shoot an empty room on film, you think someone's about to come in. There's nothing quite like film."
7. It's okay to hate one of your movies
When Sachs asked Arnold about her experience shooting the adaptation of Wuthering Heights, she blanched. "I don't like it," she said. "People keep saying one day I'll come to like it. It was a difficult time making that film because I was in a bit of a dark place. When I think about it, I associate it with a lot of unpleasant personal stuff. Anytime anyone mentions it, I shudder."
8. Don't try to please anyone
Irreverence suits Arnold well: "When I'm writing, I'm aware of what you reveal and when you reveal it, and I'm trying to always make the audience work. But I'm not trying to please anyone. I'm trying to show things."
This sense of liberation guides her process. "If it feels right for the character and it feels right for the story, I don't worry about what anyone's going to think. People worry about people not being likable. I don't."
9. Have a badass cinematographer
Arnold's greatest collaborator is her long-time cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, with whom she's worked on every film since her first short, Wasp.
"He's fantastic," she said. "I love him. We're good friends. When we shot Wasp, the very first thing I asked him to do... There's a shot where a mother is walking down some stairs, and in my mind, we were always on her face. But it was the top flight of stairs. I wasn't thinking about what that practically meant. It meant he had to run backward down the stairs. And he goes, 'Yeah, alright,' and runs down the stairs backward with a big camera. We never looked back."
"He's like a goat," she added. "We shot Fish Tank on 35mm and I remember him just hopping on these rocks next to a cliff with the camera."
10. Write what you care about
"Every time I make a film, I feel like I'm beginning again," Arnold said. "It never feels like it gets easier. When I talk to young filmmakers, they face the same obstacles that I do now."
"What would I say to someone making their first film? Be yourself. There's only one of you. Don't try and copy anyone else. You can inspiration from anywhere, but write what you care about. Trust that."
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