Compelled to reach for new Heights
Oscar-winning director Andrea Arnold was driven to remake a classic she tells Julia Molony why
Andrea Arnold offers me a seat in the hotel drawing room where she's been hosting the press for most of the day and asks if I'd like a cup of tea. It must feel, by now, like this is her living room. "My living room looks absolutely nothing like this," she says with a dry laugh, casting an eye around at the edgy, overstuffed furnishings.
It's not that the filmmaker behind a new version of Wuthering Heights is new to this world exactly, of press junkets and five-star hotels. After all, she spent her 20s as a television presenter and dancer on Top of the Pops. It's just that it's quite a long way away from the world she came from, and those experiences she focuses on in her films.
Arnold came to global attention in 2009 when her film Fish Tank won the Palme D'Or at Cannes. She'd been a success for some time by then -- the third short film she ever made won her an Oscar, and her first feature also took home the top prize at Cannes, but it was Fish Tank, feature film number two and a global indie hit that really put her on the map as an auteur.
She might have become a darling of Cannes and Venice but no doubt there, among the smooth suits and luxury lunches, her strawberry blonde hair and puckish face, which has retained an insouciant teenage quality even though she is 50, sets her apart.
She doesn't, I'm warned beforehand, give many interviews. There's a suggestion that she might be wary, a bit closed. But once I'm in the room with her, it's not the case at all. She chats away easily, in her slight estuary twang.
Taking on Wuthering Heights, she says was less a decision than a compulsion. But then it's like that for all of her films. The way she describes the arrival of inspiration sounds almost like a haunting.
"It was almost out of my control, it's the same with my own ideas as well, it's like it comes and then it knocks on your door and it knocks and knocks and does not go away. It wants to be heard and you have to go along with it. It draws you in."
Even when she's not actually working on a film, like the phase she's in now, she can't escape completely. "You think you are going to do all these things, she says. "I'm going to go walking and press loads of leaves, and write poems. But I'm straight on the next project and that's already troubling my dreams."
Wuthering Heights had started troubling her dreams the first time she saw the original film as a child. It was the enigmatic, almost problematic, soul of the story which really appealed to her when she was offered the director's job.
The film had been in development for some time, but the original director left and the producers came to her. "I sort of leapt at it," she says, explaining how she completely rewrote the script to accommodate her strong voice. "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.
"It's one of those things you almost can't do justice to. I must have been mad, but I just couldn't help it. I just had to go on this journey."
The result is a beautiful, almost intensely sensual film, rich in visual poetry, and visceral texture, "spit and blood and tears and mud and violence and sex," which bring the viewer right into the physical experience of each scene.
If there are themes in common with Fish Tank; an intense exploration of adolescent sexuality being among the most striking, Arnold doesn't necessarily see it. When I raise the subject with her, she seems surprised. Does she have particularly vivid memories of her own adolescence? I ask.
"It's not something I consciously think about, but ... now I'm thinking, God, am I interested in adolescent sexuality? Maybe I am! I haven't noticed. But now you say that -- my next project is along similar lines."
She will concede to repeating certain motifs -- dogs and dancing being the main ones. "The dog count is getting higher. I actually, on this film, got taken to one side and asked to cut down the dogs, because of the budget. They couldn't cope with it," she says of the former. The latter reflects a long-held personal passion. "I just love to dance," she says simply. "There aren't many places in life where you just lose yourself, it's really important to lose yourself sometimes. I can think of only three things, sport, sex and dancing ... One of those three -- or maybe all three -- I've got to have more in my life. Well," she says wryly, after a pause for thought, "I could do without the sport, to be honest."
Like her lead character in Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold grew up on a rough council estate outside London. She moved away from that world after winning a job as a television presenter through open auditions when she was 18.
"I'd left home, I didn't have a plan for myself and I needed to find a way of earning a living. I was sort of struggling really and I didn't know what I was going to do," she says. "Somebody showed me this audition and I went along for it, and never thinking in a million years I would get it, and somehow I got it. I think the producer at that time was
somebody who was looking for people who were quite raw and not trained."
She doesn't see that piece of luck as an escape from any kind of privation. On the contrary, she seems to resent the notion that life on a council estate must necessarily be bleak and grim. "I love the communities there. People live close together. They're connected to the world more than in some gated, isolated middle-class place. I know where I'd rather live," she said in an interview in 2009. Still, she admits that making Fish Tank, which had close ties to her own experience, offered a sort of catharsis.
"I would say that's true of every film I've ever made. It feels like something sort of released. Like a tension released. Maybe that's why people find some of them hard work," she adds, letting out a long, throaty, back-room-of-the-pub type laugh.
Arnold came to film making relatively late.
"I think as the years went by I started to feel dissatisfied and not quite comfortable," she says, of how she fell out of love with presenting. "And I'd always written. I started to see a connection between writing and making my own stories somehow ... I started to feel that it was possible for me to make my own stuff. And once I had that idea, it was like a lightbulb went on. So I just decided I was going to stop what I was doing, apply to film school and learn what I could and make my own things. I didn't have some great plan in mind. I just wanted to make my own things."
That is the simple principle that continues to guide her, that is the sole benefit of all the awards and plaudits she's gathered. "I'm always worried every time I make a film that nobody will let me make another one. But if you think about it, cameras and editing equipment and all that stuff are all around us now. So maybe I don't need anyone's permission."
Wuthering Heights is in cinemas from November 11.
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