Andrea Arnold has an Oscar, two BAFTAs and two Jury Prizes from Cannes cluttering up her mantelpiece at home, making her one of the most garlanded of contemporary British filmmakers. Despite this, in conversation, she is amazingly self-deprecating. Indeed, her success seems to have taken her rather by surprise; perhaps because, in some ways, it was quite sudden. One of the first shorts she ever made bagged her the Academy Award. Her second feature film, Fish Tank, put her on the global map, and now she is a shining light in a bold new generation of British auteurs, producing some of the most challenging, innovative and talked-about work hitting both festival circuits and multiplexes.
Last year Arnold took on a sacred cow when she accepted a commission to adapt Wuthering Heights; bringing her already distinctive imprimatur to a much-loved classic. The result bore the now-recognisable Arnold stamp, placing a visual language centre stage and in charge of the story. “When I was asked to do the film, I just instinctively said yes,” she says, explaining how a woman oft-compared to Ken Loach for her handling of gritty social realism became entangled with Emily Brontë. Initially, another director had been attached. “I’d seen that they were developing a film and had felt very envious of the director who was doing it,” she recalls.
“I thought, ‘I’d really like to get my hands on that book.’ When it came up again, and that director left, I was asked about it and sort of leapt at it; even though I really didn’t know what I was going to do, or how I was going to deal with it. It’s not a book you can push into shape very easily.” Ultimately, it was the big, messy, unwieldy challenge of it that appealed to her most. Arnold’s work is known to make uncomfortable, provocative viewing (“I don’t do easy rides,” she recently told The Guardian), and it seems that the same prickly principle applies to her own working life. “It’s one of those things you almost can’t do justice to,” she says of the source material. “I must have been mad, but I just couldn’t help it. I just had to go on this journey and it was like I almost didn’t think about it. I think I had a curiosity. I wanted to learn and it was almost out of my control.
I often say that about the ideas when they come; when you end up doing something or writing something. It’s the same with my own ideas. It’s like one comes, it knocks on your door, and it knocks and knocks and won’t go away. It wants to be heard and you have to go along with it. It draws you in.” Her first step was to completely rewrite the script to make it her own. But it’s through the visuals that you can see the Arnold signature most distinctly. In Wuthering Heights she uses them to grab the viewer by the lapels and push them face-first into a vivid reality.
Her skill for conjuring physical sensations and emotions with intensity has become something of a trademark. She did it in an equally forceful way with Fish Tank; rooting each scene in almost tangible feelings and textures: from bare feet squishing through riverbank silt, to the throat burn of vodka necked straight from the bottle. In Wuthering Heights, the pressing sense of the physical is just as potent, and was written into the script from the beginning by Arnold. “Robbie Ryan,” she says, “the cinematographer, is from Ireland. He looked at it and said it was a very punk script. It had spit and blood and tears; mud and violence and sex. Nature – and the fact that it was set on the moors and living so close to it – was always going to be a factor in the way I approached it visually,” Arnold explains. “From the moment I wrote it I wanted it to be a very visceral film. I very much included that in the writing.”
The result is powerful, rooting the viewer firmly in the experience of the characters. “I tried to really feel myself into every scene and how it was to be in that moment,” she says. “I thought about how it feels to be young and sitting with someone in a room; when you are looking at them or thinking about them, or maybe lying in bed with them. I think there is a very tactile aspect to that. The moment is something that you can imagine in pictures.” Although Arnold appears to have burst from obscurity straight into the film world’s golden circle, her route to becoming an Oscar-winning auteur wasn’t a direct one.
Born in Kent, she – like Mia, her protagonist in Fish Tank – grew up on a council estate. While still a teenager she was launched into a different world entirely, however, after winning an audition for a job as a dancer on TV. “I’d left home, I didn’t have a plan for myself and I needed to find a way of earning a living,” she explains. “I was sort of struggling really and I didn’t know what I was going to do. Somebody showed me this audition and I went along for it, never thinking in a million years that I would get it. Somehow I did. I think the producer at that time was somebody who was looking for people who were quite raw and untrained. I think I did a Max Wall impression, told some jokes and did a bit of roller skating. It was a mess. It wasn’t anything planned out.”
Four or five auditions later, however, she got the job and went on to dance on Top of the Pops, as well as present the ITV Saturday morning children’s TV show, No. 73, alongside the comedian Sandi Toksvig. “I went on this journey which I thought would last two months, and it lasted years,” she recalls. “I learnt such a lot in that time. I grew up, started to earn a living, travel, stay in hotels and made lots of really good friends who became like family to me at the time.” In the midst of all of this, however, she began to feel creatively frustrated. “As the years went by I started to feel dissatisfied and not quite comfortable doing it,” she explains. “I’d always written and I started to see a kind of connection between writing and making my own stories somehow.
I started to feel that it was possible for me to make my own stuff. Once I had that idea it was like a light bulb went on. So I just decided that I was going to stop what I was doing, apply to film school, learn what I could and make my own things.” Now 50, she came to filmmaking relatively late. “I didn’t have some great plan in mind,” she says. “I just wanted to make my own things. I went to film school, which gave me the confidence to make my own things, and that’s where I started writing scripts. When I came back I just started applying to short film schemes.” From the beginning there was something fated about this new venture.
One of the first things she ever wrote won funding. “I had the idea on a train and I literally wrote the script on a train, in about two hours. I put it in for this commission, and I was lucky enough to get it,” she remembers. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Arnold’s been through the usual industry carousel of applications and rejections. Everything changed however, after her short film, Wasp, won an Oscar. “Getting an Oscar really helped me get my first feature film made, there’s no doubt about it,” she smiles. “I’ve been rejected loads and loads and loads. I’ve been writing for a long, long time; putting things in and getting rejected.
When you get an Oscar, people are more likely to take a bit of a risk, or give you some money to try something else. So in that way it helps. That’s why they [Academy Awards] are so good; because they help you get the next thing made. And that’s all I want to do; get the next thing made.” Another artist in her position might allow themself to relax a little bit, but not Arnold. For one thing, she barely seems to have caught up with her own success yet. “I was doing an interview the other day and was surprised to hear myself saying, ‘In my films’, like I’ve made more than one. I thought, ‘Wow, look, you’ve made more than one film’. I find myself surprised to be here really. I could never have imagined this in a million years. I never imagined I would be doing this. It’s a privilege really.” For another, plaudits and awards might be nice, but Arnold’s main motivation is just to keep going. “I’m always worried, every time I make a film, that nobody will let me make another one,” she says. “But if you think about it, cameras, editing equipment and all that stuff are all around us now. So maybe I don’t need anyone’s permission!”
For her, the work itself is always its own reward. “For me what matters is being able to carry on and keep making films,” she says. “It’s taken me so long to get going, I feel like I’ve just got so many things I want to make. I can’t keep up with myself really. Whenever I’m thinking about the next thing, I’m actually feeling frustrated with which one I should do. Every film feels like it might be the last, so I think, ‘If it’s going to be the last, what shall I make?’ But actually, the bigger picture is, hopefully I might get to make a few, and that’s a lovely thought.”
© Julia Molony 2012