Andrea Arnold, along with Shane Meadows, is part of an exciting tide of British directors who are redefining the kitchen sink realism of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh for a new post-punk generation. I sat down with the critically acclaimed director of “Fish Tank,” the follow up to her Cannes-winning debut “Red Road,” at the Soho Grand to briefly discuss the importance of detail, female insight and listening to imaginary horses.
LW: First off, one of the things that most impresses me is how concise and precise the images are in your films. You say everything you need to say within the least amount of frames. Obviously a lot of people are going to think of the kitchen sink realism of Loach and Leigh but there’s also a poetic, nearly Neorealist quality to your work. Can you talk a bit about your filmmaking influences?
AA: Ooh, I have quite a lot. Everyone from Terence Malick to the Dardenne brothers to David Lynch, Michael Haneke –
LW: “The White Ribbon.” Everyone hated it but me. (laughs)
AA: Yeah, I saw it at Telluride. I don’t know if I was just in a funny mood that day, but it was the first time during a Haneke film that I wanted to leave the cinema.
LW: That’s good!
AA: Yeah, I know. He wants me to feel that way.
LW: Well, you direct in a similar way. I mean, you don’t have a comfortable filmmaking style at all. That seduction scene between older man Connor played by Michael Fassbender and Katie Jarvis’s teenage Mia, which is the centerpiece of “Fish Tank” – that’s damn hard to watch.
AA: Yeah, one of my friends described it as “everything I didn’t want and everything I wanted.”
LW: Let’s talk a little bit about that disturbing scene, because interestingly, I found myself smiling during it.
AA: (laughs surprised) Oh, really?
LW: Yes, but what made me smile was the realization that this is a director who actually “gets it” – how seduction can turn to coercion in the blink of an eye. I can’t remember when I’ve seen this rite-of-passage aspect even depicted onscreen and yet it’s something a lot of teenage girls go through. It was like a catharsis for me to see it. It’s also a situation few teenage boys ever experience, which is maybe why male filmmakers wouldn’t think to depict it. Can you talk a bit about its importance and how you developed it? It also happens to be the most visually stylized scene in the film.
AA: Well, I think a lot of it just starts with the writing. When I’m writing I try hard to imagine that situation and how it would really be. And a lot of the details, I think it goes back to what you were saying about being precise. I’m able to concentrate on details, to really think them through, to really imagine them. Quite often there will be some strange detail that I don’t even understand. There was an earlier short where I wanted a shot of a balloon floating across this wasteland. And I’m getting everyone to do the shot, and I don’t think they understood quite what I was getting at, but I somehow knew it was really important.
LW: David Lynch works that way.
AA: Oh really? Does he? (laughs flattered) Well, like with the horse in this film. When I was writing about the horse –
LW: Was that the first image that you had when you started writing?
AA: No, it wasn’t the first. But when I started writing at the beginning always there was that horse. I actually wrote two different beginnings, just trying to find my way into the story, to try to see this person, to ask, “What is she doing on this day?” Yet every time I started writing about her, every time I came at it a different way, the story still came from the horse. And the horse in the script was always an old, dirty brown horse. It wasn’t a white one. But she just kept meeting that horse so I thought, well, the horse is supposed to be there. I didn’t question it. A couple people said it was a metaphor – a heavy-handed metaphor – but I never meant for it to be a metaphor for her situation. The horse just wanted to be there.
LW: Sometimes a horse is just a horse.
AA: Maybe so.
“Fish Tank” is now playing at a theater near you. My review and interview with lead actor Michael Fassbender is now playing at Slant Magazine.