British filmmaker Andrea Arnold started out writing and acting for television before turning to the big screen and the director’s chair. Her 2003 short Wasp catapulted her onto the world stage after it won Best Live Action Short at the 2005 Academy Awards. She has since gone on to write and direct three features including Red Road (2006), Fish Tank (2009) and Wuthering Heights, which opened the Venice Film Festival in 2011, taking the Golden Osella Award for cinematography.
In a conversation with FilmLinc Daily ahead of today’s announcement that she was named the first Filmmaker in Residence, an initiative spearheaded by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Jaeger-LeCoultre, Arnold said that she will be turning her focus to America with her next project. The filmmaker said that the timing of her Residency, which will coincide with the 51st New York Film Festival, is “perfect” and gave some insight on her still developing story and how she hopes the initiative will play a key role in its journey to the screen. She also talked about her creative process, gave a hint at her active imagination and how she sees the program evolving her work as a “Method Director” and the benefit of failure…
FilmLinc Daily: Congratulations on being named the first Filmmaker in Residence… What were your initial thoughts after being told the news?
Andrea Arnold: It’s very exciting. I’m very excited. The timing is perfect. I’m just coming to the end of writing something set in America. I know it has another level to go to and the idea of actually being in America while I’m writing was just something that landed right in front of me and felt like the perfect thing. I [submitted] my project [plans] thinking it was a nomination but that would be it. But when I actually did get it I, of course, was delighted.
A friend of mine said I’m like a “Method Director,” like there are Method Actors—I need to live the thing I’m writing. So it’s great for me to be there. My next [project] is set in America, though it’s not New York, but I think just being there will be of great benefit.
FD: What was the process for becoming the Filmmaker in Residence?
AA: From what I understand, people were asked to give nominations. I was nominated and then asked to submit a sense of what I’d like to do if given the opportunity. So I gave a description of what I was working on. Aside from what I’m working on right now, I have another idea I’ve been thinking about that is set in New York, so I submitted that too. There’s quite a lot of things I can do as [Filmmaker in Residence] that relate to the things I’ve been working on. I submitted my past films as well and I then learned that I had gotten it. It wasn’t long ago that I learned, though I’m trying to remember. I was just in Venice so I’m still coming off of that.
FD: How was Venice?
AA: Fantastic! It’s a hard life watching films and drinking champagne hanging out in the Lido [laughs]. Someone has to do it of course [laughs]. I was on the jury this year. The winner is a documentary called Sacro Gra by Gianfranco Rosi. [This year’s Venice winners can be viewed here.]
Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights.
FD: You are the first Filmmaker in Residence and therefore you’ll be a part of creating a template for the program. How do you see this benefitting both yourself as well as those who come after you and developing generally?
AA: I think every filmmaker is going to be so different. My hope is to push something forward. Anyone who gets nominated is going to have a reason for wanting to do it and part of that is to make it work for you. We’ve been talking about me going to schools, doing some teaching and talking… perhaps writing with kids. My project is actually about teenagers, so this would feed back into what I’m doing.
I’m excited to be involved with the filmmaking community, meeting people and evolving my project. I’m the kind of person who likes a framework. I like some boundaries. The idea that it’s over a certain amount of time and there are a certain number of things I have to do is something I quite like. I don’t like going into a project and there being a sea of time ahead of me and deadlines that are not serious. I don’t want, “Oh whatever Andrea… Whenever you’re ready.” I like this idea of six weeks and structure to achieve something. I think that will be good for me. I like that environment.
FD: Have you spent much time in New York?
AA: A bit. I went to film school in L.A. so I haven’t spent a lot of time there. I went back and forth during my year at film school—a week here and there. My film is a sort of road movie; every time I went to a film festival [in America] I would be asked to be flown to a different city. When I went to the Miami International Film Festival, I flew into Texas and then drove across the South into Miami. When I went to Sundance, I drove there from L.A. And the last time I was in New York, I was there for three days and down to North Carolina which was fantastic. And then the last time I was in New York, I was doing press for Wuthering Heights in a hotel, but that was more of a posh area.
I’m looking forward to being a resident and actually living there. I had actually asked if I could maybe live in the Bronx, but apparently they have somewhere already set for me… It’s a sort of place I come from, but I heard it’s a few stops on the subway [from Lincoln Center].
FD: The Residency coincides with the New York Film Festival, of course. What sort of things are you looking forward to specifically with that?
AA: I know I’ll be on some panels and attending events. I’d imagine that’s the time I’ll be meeting a lot of filmmakers from around the world. That’s always my favorite things about film festivals—meeting people who do the same thing as you and seeing their films.
Andrea Arnold’s Red Road.
FD: I saw a quote somewhere in which you said that real life inspires you and that you may begin a story by just seeing someone on a bus. So let’s go with that, maybe expand on that mantra a bit…
AA: It’s where things come from in my films—though that’s not always exactly true because sometimes it comes from an image in my head that I expand on. I’ll see someone interacting with their kids or just looking sad and I’ll just begin with imagining their lives and what they’re like. Why is this person looking out the window? Why are they so skinny? I just imagine what their whole lives are like based on a look on their face.
I was actually thinking about that today. I had just returned from Venice where it’s so sunny and hot and got back to England where it’s grey and raining and I do like that. I was happy to get back to the rain and the grey. I heard this man walking down the street and he had a hacking cough and immediately I’m laying there [in my apartment] and I begin imagining his cough and where he’s going to work and who is his girlfriend. I was already fantasizing for 10 minutes about his life. I went down to make tea and was thinking, “Oh maybe he has lots of girlfriends but can’t commit to any of them and is just all over the place…” It came from this image of a man walking to work with a hacking cough feeling sorry for himself on a grey day. His life is probably something completely different, but my mind was just off…
That is why I’m looking forward to being somewhere completely lively, because my next project is about a bunch of working class kids and I want to find something stimulating. I can’t wait to see how these kids interact, what they say. I’ve been thinking that rather than sitting in a room writing alone, which is very hard work, that I might do something different. I would like to find the character first and start talking to them and base my projects on the people I find. It would be sort of a documentary. I think it would suit me better. It’s hard being alone in your head for a long time and I’ve been doing that. So I’m really excited about coming to New York and being in a different environment.
FD: What filmmakers present and in the past do you look to or are inspired by?
AA: I have plenty of filmmakers that I love. I am a huge fan of Michelangelo Antonioni and Andrei Tarkovsky. Two of their films are in my top five at least. The Passenger [by Antonioni] and Stalker [by Tarkovsky] are probably in my top five. The Conformist by Bernardo Bertolucci, who I was with in Venice is also probably in my top five. I love people who struggle to tell their own things. I think audiences don’t want to just be pleased. There are things that are just predictable and when you try to just please an audience they know it and feel manipulated, but if you tell something that’s inside, from the heart, those are the kinds of stories I know I like. That’s my favorite kind of filmmaking.
In Venice I saw 20 films and the ones I really related to weren’t the ones that were obviously trying to please you, but were saying something of themselves and I really respect that. They were really struggling to say their own thing even if they couldn’t perfectly adapt. It may not be totally perfect, but there is a great feeling about it.
FD: The Filmmaker in Residence is a program designed to “further the goals of filmmakers at an earlier stage in the creative process,” but of course you already have a number of accomplishments under your belt including your three feature films and your Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film for Wasp. What advice would you have for filmmakers who are looking to make their first film or filmmakers with a short or two under their belt who are now striving for that first or second feature?
AA: I always think there are plenty of reasons not to make films. But there are a lot of films being made, as you can see from all the film festivals. I think there are something like 4,000 being made a year. But specifically, I think it’s important to be brave and tell the kind of thing you want to tell and trust your instincts. All these things are important; don’t second guess. I think everyone is unique. We’re always shown examples of success and there’s a tendency when a film becomes popular for people to say, “Oh, I’m going to do that now.” But I think the best work comes from people who are brave and look to themselves and have courage—and also risk failing.
Failure is a part of it. One of my favorite quotes from Samuel Beckett goes: “Fail, fail, fail again better.” I may have gotten that a bit wrong, but it’s basically to go fail and try and be brave. It’s true every time you make a film. I have had a little bit of success and that can also be terrifying in and of itself. I remember talking to Stephen Frears who said that some people think success makes things easier when it actually makes things harder. I think there’s something to that because you start worrying… You don’t know when you make a film whether it will be received well or not, you just have to go for it.