Her first short film won an Oscar, and Arnold has been astounding ever since. The firebrand Englishdirector talks to Donald Clarke about her latest (long) feature American Honey
“I saw a woman the other day walking aheadof me,” Andrea Arnold says. “Her shirt was too short. So her back was exposed. She was walking slow and looked tired. I see somebody like that and I wonder why she is tired. Before I know it, I’ve made a whole story. I’ve always done that.”
This makes a kind of sense. Overthe past decade, since the release of the abrasive Red Road, the Kentish director has become the UK’s most interesting teller of ordinary tales. Fish Tank, released in2009, cemented herreputation as a neo-realist of note. A wild, battered, unkempt version of Wuthering Heights in 2011 then proved an ability to surprise.
But American Honey announces the director’s biggest swerve yet. Clocking in at more than two-and-a-half hours, the film follows a bunch of kids selling magazine subscriptions across the Midwest .( It still happens, apparently .) Scored to bellowing hip-hop and contemporary pop, the film has a loose-limbed energy that could fit any sized package. It could be 20 minutes longer or 20 minutes shorter.
“It could be 20 hours. It almost was,” Arnold says, laughing. “But, see, I don’t think it could be 20 minutes shorter. What would you cut?”
That’s not a fair question. I haven’t got the film in front of me.
“You cut and you lose something that makes sense of the next piece. People talked about it being long. A lot of cinema slots are two hours. But why are we always thinking films have to be a certain length?”
Arnold has been known to not suffer fools with unqualified gladness. But she is in sparkling form this afternoon. American Honey has done well for her. Starring Shia LaBeouf as the most aggressive hustler, and stunning newcomer Sasha Lane as a new recruit, the film premiered at Cannes this year to largely positive notices and went on to win the Jury Prize.
Arnold thus became the first person to win that award – essentially the bronze medal – on three occasions. “Yes, I think I have the record,” she says. “What do you call ‘getting three things’. There must be a word for it.” Triple crown? Trifecta? Hat-trick, surely. “Yeah, let’s call it that. Ha ha!”
Arnold did not get to this point by the conventional route. Raised by a single mum in an outer ring of Dartford, she first entered the public eye as a cast member – opposite Sandi Toksvig – on the zany BBC kids show No 73.
She remembers no ambitions to become an actor or a presenter. She liked films, but she wouldn’t describe the young Andrea as any sort of film buff.
“I loved films, but no, I wasn’t a buff,” she says.
So how on earth did she end up on No 73?
“I went for an audition because I had just left home and I was 18 and didn’t know how to support myself,” she says. “I had three or four auditions and couldn’t believe it when I got it. It just dropped out of the sky. I was never very comfortable in front of the camera.”
Arnold presented TV shows throughout the 1980s and early 1990s before throwing it all in and lunging towards film school. She studied directing at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and screenwriting at the PAL Labs in Kent.
The Arnold sensibility came together in her stunning short film Wasp. Starring Natalie Press and (no, really) Danny Dyer, the film followed a group of children entertaining themselves while their mother drinks in a nearby pub. The acting is utterly engaged. There is a hint of menace. The images, shot in her trademark academy ratio, are glassily seductive. Few partnerships in recent cinema have been quite so fecund as that between Arnold and Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who also shot this year’s Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake.
“Oh, I love Robbie,” she says. “From the first moment I worked with him, I realised we were very much in tune. I remember, on Wasp, the first thing I asked him to do was her running down the stairs. I suddenly realised that meant he had to run backwards down the stairs. He did not flinch. He just did it. And he’s still running down the stairs.”
Wasp went on to win an Academy Award for best live-action short and Arnold’s second career was properly launched.
She seems very much in charge of her productions, but there is also a sense that an impromptu family, working in noisy harmony, is helping the films towards completion. Established actors such as Michael Fassbender, star of Fish Tank, are treated similarly to fresh faces such as that film’s hypnotic lead, Katie Jarvis.
None of Arnold’s discoveries has been quite so impressive as Sasha Lane, the young Texan who sets the screen aflame in American Honey. The story goes that she was plucked from the street.
“Sasha and I decided we’d tell a different story at each interview. But we couldn’t keep it up,” Arnold says. “We were at the beach looking at girls. Sounds dubious, doesn’t it? Ha ha! She was messing about with her mates and she just stood out.”
What does Arnold make of the continuing under-representation of women behind the camera? We’re still asking her this question after 10 years. We shouldn’t be.
“Well, I’m not having difficulties,” she says. “I know plenty of women in the industry. I know writers and producers. I even knowquite a few directors of photography. But they’re not getting to direct. You can be at a festival and 80-90 per cent of the films are by men. That’s a shame. Because women have a different sensibility and it would be nice if that were reflected.”
It’s hard to argue with that.
American Honey is out now on limited release and is reviewed on p10
People talked about it being long. A lot of cinema slots are two hours. But why are we always thinking films have to be a certain length?
Andrea Arnold “You cut and you lose something that makes sense of the next piece”