A taste of ‘Honey’
Film festival darling ‘American Honey’ comes to Philly in October
Even after spending seven weeks on the road, crisscrossing the Midwest filming “American Honey,” director Andrea Arnold still feels as if she has plenty of fuel left in the tank.
“I’m actually missing it a bit, being on a road trip,” she says. “I want to go. I’m feeling the need. I’m in the mood for it right now, actually.”
A Jury Prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival, “American Honey” is the saga of Star (Sasha Lane), an impoverished teenager who leaves her small Midwest town behind to join “a mag crew,” or a gang of itinerants who peddle publications door-to-door.
Star instantly becomes enamored of one of the crew members named Jake (Shia LaBeouf) even as she runs afoul of the hardboiled manager Krystal (Riley Keough).
As they travel all over the United States, the gang of misfits becomes a surrogate family to Star, offering hope, love and the freedom that comes from a life on the road. “American Honey” is scheduled to open in Philadelphia in early October.
It was after Arnold directed the acclaimed features “Fish Tank” and “Wuthering Heights” in her native England that she stumbled upon a New York Times feature about “mag crews,” and became determined to tell the story of these hard-working, hard-partying kids.
As she began researching the inner workings of the organizations, Arnold began a series of solo jaunts all over the United States.
“I didn’t really know the United States intimately,” she told IndieWire. “I did a whole lot of road trips by myself because I needed to get to know it and make a connection with it. I haven’t done every single state, but I’ve done across the South, down the East, and down the middle.
“When I talked to the [real] crews, they told me that everywhere they went was really flat, so then I started doing the East and Texas. It’s quite interesting when you’re traveling by yourself through those places. It does have an impact on how you feel.
“I had some quite difficult times by myself traveling and being in all that open wilderness. It did make me think about what it was like to be on these crews where you go door to door. They
would say that they spent so much time in the van looking out at these empty [landscapes].”
An Oscar winner for her short film “Wasp,” Arnold remembers being struck by the income disparity she witnessed in the United States.
“I got quite upset about some of the towns I went to,” she recalls. “It seemed really different to me than in the U.K. [In the U.S.], when people don’t have money, they can’t get healthcare and they can’t do things like go to the dentist, and those kinds of things really shocked me.”
One of the elements of “American Honey” which makes it so special is that the film features a mixture of professional actors and newbies who’ve never performed before.
Among the better known thespians is Keough, who is the granddaughter of Elvis Presley and starred in the Steven Soderbergh series “The Girlfriend Experience.” When the project was in the early stages, the actress sent Arnold a series of tapes in hopes of being cast in the movie.
“We met and from the first moment I met Riley, I just really loved her,” says Arnold, 55. “Then I met her again in New York. And she was so kind to the other actors. We had a casting session in New York and we had some people there who hadn’t acted before and we were trying them out with her, and she was just so generous and understanding. I just love that about her.
“She also had this feeling like an ex-mag crew kid who had done well and had been made a manager. She felt completely right ... as if she’d come from the same place as everyone else. I just completely loved her from the moment I met her.”
Arnold never thought of anyone else to play Jake after running into LaBeouf in London. “All of my casting is usually about meeting people and not really looking at show reels much. I like to meet people and just feel how that goes.
“Casting Shia was about that. He had a lot of the qualities I thought Jake had, and I could see he could bring that [to the movie]. We had a very energetic kind of chat and from that moment on, I just thought, ‘Yeah, I can see him playing Jake, easy.’
Finding a leading lady for “American Honey” proved a bit more problematic for Arnold. The filmmaker was, in fact, in the midst of auditioning actresses when she happened upon Sasha Lane on the beach during Spring Break.
“Sasha was with her mates and they were messing around,” recalls Arnold. “She just stood out. I remember she walked off as we were discussing [her] and we were saying, ‘Oh yeah, she looks great.’
“Sasha then disappeared behind some deck chair or something. I can’t remember what it was, but she disappeared, and then we all legged it around to try and catch her, because it’s very easy to lose people on that beach.”
When Arnold finally caught up with Lane, she explained “American Honey” to the young woman and asked her to try out for the starring role.
“We did some improvisation that evening, with her friends,” recalls Arnold. “She was going home the next day so we did some dancing in the parking lot with [some other cast members] and I could see that she could do this thing, and was game and would try things.”
Arnold even asked Lane and company to try to sell magazines door-to-door, just as their characters do in the film.
“When I was sending them improvising, I said they could keep any money they made,” says Arnold. “They got chased away by dogs once and someone was going to call the cops on them.”
While filming the movie, Arnold estimates she travelled more than 10,000 miles with her cast and crew members. Not surprisingly, the experience made the entire company feel like an extended family.
“Everyone got really close because we went on a real trip from beginning to end and we stayed at the same motels and we all traveled together, and nobody came and went,” says Arnold.
“We all went together, did the whole thing together and we’re all making something together, this big project that we’re working on, and we’re also living together. So I think the combination of all those things, spending all that time and also trying to achieve this very challenging thing, made us all grow very close.”
Riley Keough and Shia LaBeouf in “American Honey.”
Sasha Lane and Shia LeBeouf “American Honey.”