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Interview: Director Andrea Arnold Talks 'Fish Tank'

by Kimber Myers
January 12, 2010 5:15 AM
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"Everytime I see a film with a car chase, I always want to fast forward the car chase," director Andrea Arnold says about the traditional thriller model. It's not a shocking answer from an average maker of low-budget British dramas, but Arnold has created enough tension in her two features to make anyone but Hitchcock jealous.

With its focus on a closed-circuit-camera watcher stalking a mysterious man, her first full-length film, "Red Road," was unsettling and surprising, and it took home the Cannes Jury Prize for all the discomfort it brought to the audience. Her second film, "Fish Tank," centers on aspiring dancer Mia (newcomer Katie Jarvis) and her uncomfortable relationship with her mother's boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender, "Hunger"). Last month, the British Independent Film Awards gave her their paperweight for Best Director for the film, and IFC puts it out in limited release, starting this Friday. After The Playlist named her one of the seven directors to break through in 2009, we were excited to sit down with the filmmaker to discuss her latest festival favorite, which we'll review later this week.

"Red Road" and "Fish Tank" are experiments in discomfort, so it's not surprising that Arnold mentions Michael Haneke as one of her favorite filmmakers. However, she doesn't necessarily try to create tension in her films. "I guess the one thing that I could think of is that I'm telling it from one person's point of view," she explains. "I think that that can be quite an intense experience because you're always going with them and seeing the world through their eyes and experiencing things as they experience them....When I wrote 'Red Road,' and I gave it to someone to read first of all. They said, 'Oh, it's a thriller,' and I said, 'Oh, is it?' And it's not really. I don't think it's really a thriller....It doesn't occur to me. I just try and write the characters and their journey as truthfully as I feel it."

Arnold also names David Lynch, Terrence Malick, and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne as favorites, and it's not hard to see the touches of those men in her work. The filmmakers who direct their own scripts draw most of her adoration, and she raves about Jacques Audiard's "Un Prophete," her top film of last year. But it's Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky that seems to earn most of her praise. " I know he's not everyone's cup of tea, but I love him," she gushes. "I don't know what it is he does, but I have really emotional responses to his films....They sort of hit at a deep level."
Screenwriting is key for Arnold, who has been writing since she was a child. The words "organic" and "grow" show up repeatedly in conversation, and despite having malleable outlines for her films, she allows them to develop on their own. In "Red Road," a character points to his carving, and he says, "It doesn't know what it's going to be yet," and the director applies a similar approach to her art. "I loved that line," she says. "Well, they say that about people who do sculpture. I read somewhere that...the shape is already in the stone, you just have to find it. I love that thought, and I feel like that can be applied to anything that you make, on some level. I do think when you start writing something, I feel like it does already exist on some level and it is about finding it...I love the idea that he's trying to find it and see what it wants to be and he's allowing it to be whatever it wants to be, and he's not forcing himself on it too much." This tactic makes it tough to telegraph exactly where her films are going, while most movies are content to make their intentions known from their first few minutes, if not from their trailers, which do more than just tease. Arnold herself seems surprised by the directions her films can take, saying, "I will write out a sort of outline, a rough idea, but that's not set in stone at all, it's just a guide to help to start with. It changes, it will always change once you get all the characters up and walking about, it changes as you start following them around."

The two main characters in "Fish Tank" are brought alive by actors at very different points in their careers. Though Arnold cast Fassbender as Connor before seeing his gripping performance in "Hunger," the actor has since been cast in the acclaimed "Inglourious Basterds" and the upcoming "Jonah Hex." Meanwhile, young Jarvis was discovered at a train station while fighting with her boyfriend."I knew it was going to be an interesting process because I had somebody who had absolutely no experience, and people who were very experienced," Arnold begins. "But I think everyone helped each other, and everyone learned from each other as well. When Katie [Jarvis] behaves very naturally, and that kind of influences everyone around her. And I think Katie learned loads off of Michael [Fassbender]. He was really great with her."
Characters and strong performances undeniably drive her films, but music plays an essential part as well. "I worked really hard on the music," Arnold explains. "The music...is like a character, and it's very much part of the story. And then it's storytelling, music, on some level." "Fish Tank" doesn't have a predictable soundtrack for an indie British film. All the music is diegetic, but what's most surprising is that it's largely hip-hop and reggae, with a bit of '70s-era Bobby Womack provided by Connor. Mia's passion for dancing has her watching music videos starring artists like Ashanti and Ja Rule, and bass constantly throbs through her headphones as she practices her steps. Unsurprisingly, all that recognizable music wasn't easy to secure for Arnold and her music supervisor, Liz Gallacher. She describes the experience, "Liz said to me, 'You're a girl who knows what she wants.' I remember her saying that. I can get quite uncompromising if something feels right, and I've absolutely nailed it, I hang on to it like a pit bull. Usually money is the reason you end up not being able to have something. If it's politics or if there's someone to talk to, or it's something like that, then I would just keep trying and trying, and Liz very much understood that I kinda had things that I badly wanted and tried to hang on to. But a lot of the choices didn't end up being always my first, but sometimes you discover something better."

Though Arnold couldn't get everything she wanted — Bob Marley was a choice for Mia's party-loving mother to listen to — she did score a particularly tough get for a small movie. Nas's "Life's a Bitch" perfectly punctuates the film's end, and the director's pit-bull-like tenacity came in handy in her efforts." That was one I hung on to," Arnold says. "That was one I felt was absolutely right, and I hung on and hung on and hung on, even though I think it wasn't cheap. And then it felt right for the end credits as well, and then that meant more money, but I hung on and hung on and hung on and hung on, and in the end some money was found to have it. It breaks your heart when it's something that's absolutely right to lose it, and that was one, I really, really wanted badly." It's an unexpected choice, but it's fitting with Arnold's refusal to make a film that fits neatly into a single category.

"Fish Tank" hits theaters in limited release this weekend (January 15).

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