Film

‘American Honey’ Director Andrea Arnold on Improvisational Filmmaking: ‘I Love Chaos’

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The month before Fish Tank writer/director Andrea Arnold premiered her film American Honey at this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival (where it won the Jury Prize), she spoke before an audience with director Ira Sachs as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. The following are excerpts from her remarks, edited for clarity and concision.

On how she got into filmmaking:

As a kid I always wrote. When I left home, I launched into anything: like dancing in Top of the Pops. I got this job where I was in front of the camera doing a Saturday morning children’s series. I was nineteen. It wasn’t a plan, but I had a good time and I had money. I got to learn a lot about cameras and actors. And because I was always wanting to express myself, filmmaking seemed like the next step.

On British directors who influenced her:

I love Alan Clarke. Rita, Sue and Bob Too has the best sex scene in a car ever.

On her previous film, Wuthering Heights:

I don’t like that film. I think you’re allowed to not like your own film.

On surrender:

Surrendering’s a good thing to do. Because sometimes things aren’t what you expect, like in Wuthering. My image for Wuthering, what I had in my mind to keep me going, was a misty moor. And on the moor, it was a wide shot of a big animal climbing the side of the moor, and then you saw that it was a man carrying rabbits on his back.

When we got to film it we had about half an hour before the day was over. To get a wide shot in Wuthering you needed half a day to walk. We had no vehicles. We had about three rabbits. It was bright sunshine, blue sky. So I just shot it.

On how she starts writing a script:

Usually, what’s driving me is an image. Like in Fish Tank, I had an image of a girl pissing on a floor. And I thought, “She’s young. She’s pissing on the floor, but it’s not her house.” I start thinking about who she is and where she comes from and why she’s doing that.

On where she found the non-actors for American Honey:

American Honey is about teenagers, so I found my lead on spring break at Panama [Panama City, Florida]. I sat on the beach and watched thousands of teenagers go by. When we were in Panama, we were having auditions in the Walmart parking lot. It’s exciting, the Walmart parking lot in Panama during spring break: music and people twerking on cars. Many people were passed out. We’d end up putting them in the car and taking them to their condo, because they have these backpacks with a tube to the mouth that they have alcohol in.

On casting non-actors with actors:

I was going to cast a real person for the Michael Fassbender role [in Fish Tank]. I had my eye on a bin man in the park who I thought would be good. Then I decided with Katie [the lead, a non-actor] it was maybe too much. The male role in the film would suit an actor: He’s supposed to be knowing and older.

On chaos:

In American Honey I cast lots of kids, so they didn’t do anything I asked. I love chaos because it brings life. I don’t like being so in control when I get to the shoot that I know everything that’s going to happen.

On chaos again:

In American Honey the cast didn’t do the same thing twice ever. It was a nightmare to edit. I never storyboard, don’t shot list. I have a thought in my head and I write things down, to not forget.

On shooting American Honey:

We were in the Midwest. We did a road trip together, the crew and the cast, all over America. We started in Oklahoma and went up to North Dakota, staying in the same hotels. But before I made the film, I did road trips by myself to make an emotional connection to America. I went on six or seven.

On worry and obstacles:

On American Honey, I was worried someone might die. I’m joking, but I was worried. I like obstacles, but there were days when I had scenes with non-actors and we had little time and I would be thinking, “I don’t know how the hell we’re going to get this done.”

On money and films:

I make low-budget films, and I like it that way. I think the money can stop you from taking risks. It’s such a lottery making a film. I always cook whatever’s in the cupboard: I don’t ever follow a recipe. My filmmaking’s like that too.

On keeping performances spontaneous:

I don’t rehearse. On American Honey I tried to give them a script every day. I didn’t tell them where we were going. We would just get in the van and say, “Right, we’re leaving today. We’re going to Kansas.”

On what never changes in filmmaking:

Every time I start a film I think, “I don’t know what I’m doing. How do I do this?” I was talking to a young filmmaker about difficulties making their first short and I thought, “Well, that never changes.”

On the one non-actor who didn’t work out:

It’s only happened once that being in front of the camera froze them. I tried everything. I feel bad talking about that. I’m not going to tell you who it was. It was Michael Fassbender! [Laughs with the audience] No, it wasn’t.