The Brit director talks us through her adaptation of the Emily Brontë novel, her previous job as a TV presenter and why she didn't need a musical score for Wuthering Heights
The last two encounters we’ve had with the Oscar winning director, Andrea Arnold, were on council estates. Flats in Glasgow provided the setting for her debut, 'Red Road', which follows a CCTV operator who becomes obsessed with a man she spots on her monitor; and the Mardyke estate in Havering, east London, acted as the suitably bleak backdrop to the award winning 'Fish Tank', a drama which tells the story of an isolated 15-year-old with a talent for hip hop dancing. Now, the director who once commented she “never liked the idea of adaptations,” has exchanged urban gloom for rural misery having just released her own take on one of the most adapted period dramas ever, Emily Brontë’s 'Wuthering Heights'. So why did she decide to rework the story about a young couple’s doomed infatuation with one another? “Once the idea was in my head I could not put it down,” Arnold explained. “Even when things became very difficult, I couldn’t let it go."
There are two things which set Andrea Arnold apart from her contemporaries. Perhaps most significant, is that she prefers using ordinary people over trained actors. Starring opposite Kaya Scodelario who plays Cathy – the only member of the cast who isn’t a newcomer – is James Howson as Heathcliff, discovered by chance after accompanying a friend to an open audition in Leeds. He is also the first black person to take up the role of one of history’s most unfathomable characters, whose ethnicity, Bronte appeared to leave open to debate. Her unconventional approach to casting is, according to Arnold, the result of a demand for “authenticity,” and it is evident in other areas of the film, too. Instead of softening the moors, Arnold has depicted them in their natural, rain swept and turbulent state. She doesn’t use music scores either; in this instance, the realist enlisted the help of nature to form the audio. “When I was up on the moors I felt the wind was like music,” says Arnold. “And I think we underestimate how amazing those things sound: the wind, the creaking wood, and birds.” Dazed met up with the innovative British director for a chat about her latest film...
Dazed Digital: You previously worked as a TV presenter, so what made you want to switch to the other side of the lens? And why a director?
Andrea Arnold: Forever I’ve been writing my own stories. Pages and pages and pages of stories. When I got into TV presenting it was by accident, it wasn’t a plan; I was 18, I went for an audition, and just ended up doing it. During that time I sort of grew up a lot and realised that there were ways in which I could do my own work and so I think I just put those two things together. I don’t know why not anything else, I think it was the storytelling thing.
DD: What was it that you saw in James Howson that gave you confidence he could take on the role of Heathcliff?
Andrea Arnold: Well, I don’t know, I didn’t know. Whenever I use somebody who’s never acted before, it’s always a risk on some level for them, and for me. James is quite quiet so he’s not somebody who would tell you how he was feeling, he keeps a lot to himself, but I think he had days when he found it very challenging. The days are long, even just the physical nature of the days, you know being 10 or 12 hours long, it’s tough.
DD: Your previous films have been really successful in Europe, why do you think small British films don’t do so well over here?
Andrea Arnold: I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know what my films are more successful in Europe, but Fish Tank was third at the box office in France. In France they really care about film and they grow up, I think, with a big film culture. I think partly because we speak English we get lots of Hollywood films so our film culture has been very much swayed by them, and I think once you start feeding everyone Hollywood films that’s all they expect and come to know. Where as I think if people were to seek out some more challenging films, more European films, like those by the Dardenne brothers or Lars von Trier, I think people would love those films.
DD: Why, once again, have you chosen not to use a musical score?
Andrea Arnold: Because I haven’t used music in any of my films so far, in terms of a score, so it was not something I would naturally do. I think the sounds that we used were really beautiful, and subtle. You have to tune in on a different level. I think a lot of music can be quite heavy handed and force you towards emotions, they say, “this is how you’re supposed to feel right now”. I’m also quite interested in pushing cinematography and how the images can speak without you pushing it with fake emotion on top.
DD: If you could start filming all over again, is there anything you’d do differently?
Andrea Arnold: I’ve been saying I’d maybe cast Heathcliff as a woman, but I thought about it too late. Every film is a journey and you learn about it as you go along. Wuthering Heights is such a complex and untameable book; you’re constantly learning about it.
DD: Do you think you’ll continue to use un-trained actors? What do you like about them?
Andrea Arnold: More thank likely. I’m always looking for authenticity and that can come from an actor or non-actor. The worlds I explore are normally quite small and quiet worlds. Sometimes I think that with big actors, their persona can be bigger than the film. I met Ed Westwick because the director before had attached him, and at the beginning when I had just started I went to meet him, but that was before I had formed my idea about what I wanted to do. He would have made a great Heathcliff in that grand tradition of Heathcliff, but I think it would have been a completely different film.
DD: Have you had any offers to make more commercial films?
Andrea Arnold: I get scripts all the time to do those kinds of films, but I want to make my own, small films. As I said earlier, I started making films because of the stories I wanted to explore, and that’s not changed.
Wuthering Heights is out now