Although Andrea Arnold had sworn never to film a period piece based on a novel, directing "Wuthering Heights" was about remembering what she felt when she first read Emily Bronte's classic: upset about Heathcliff. That was the hook. Her first interest "was to tell his story," she says.
In advance of the film's opening (October 5 in NY; October 12 in LA), I interviewed Arnold one-on-one, but also joined a roundtable with a handful of other reporters. One of them started out by saying that "choosing a black man is a different take, especially for a female director."
Arnold answered that her decision to make Heathcliff dark-skinned came directly from the evidence she found within the book (thus dodging the fact that it had nothing to do with her being a female director). "To me it seemed quite clear that he wasn't white skinned. It seems to me Emily was playing with something she didn't fully commit to, actually. Her descriptions of him are vague, but not."
For Arnold, "the important thing was Heathcliff's difference," and her goal was to explore that cinematically from his perspective. Less surprising than this casting choice is the way directors like Arnold are routinely considered, their creative instincts qualified in relation their gender.
Just as Arnold's Heathcliff is different within the cold English moors, enmeshed in Cathy's difference as a white girl in this devastating tale of love and revenge, Arnold understood the most basic and universal theme within the oft-retold story: "I felt different at school because I had red hair and everyone teased me; everyone has something."
"In my heart of hearts I really think it was Emily exploring difference, because I think she felt different, she felt--I think--that in her environment she wasn't very typical. Or maybe she was very typical of women at that time, she just happened to put it down on paper. Women at that time were not allowed to have a voice or say what they thought about the world...they had very little say in how their lives were. For me, 'Wuthering Heights' is her getting down all her internal feelings."
"I like the idea that it came out of Emily's subconscious," she adds, "because it feels like that."
In truth, Arnold confesses that the process of writing the script and making the film--dealing with such brutality and cruelty--was upsetting: "I have a real difficult relationship with this film, and I'm not sure I've worked out exactly why yet. I think it deals with some dark things that I find quite disturbing. When you're dealing with that on a daily basis that can be quite troubling." It was Heathcliff's story that she clung to in times of difficulty, it serving as her guide. "At the moment, I haven't got any peace with it. I don't really like it."
Her lack of peace is not an admission of failure. It has more to do with her willingness to explore something uncomfortable and use her social-realist style in an unexpected genre. What makes her feel like a failure is people praising the cinematography: "I feel like I've failed because I haven't brought into balance all the different elements."
While writing the script, "I cried and cried," she says. "It's very tragic." And she knows that the film is not commercial. "There's nothing in it that panders towards making it commercial at all. But you have to do what you have to do. I think the secret is, if you want to have freedom and really explore things and be brave and try new things, you have to make films for very little money, and then people are not so worried."
Comfort seems to be the least interesting thing for Arnold, and she has no desire to go commercial--although she'd love to remake "Mary Poppins."
So what is it about directing that attracts her?
"Directing is the most frustrating--I mean I love the process of it, and I write too and I find it so isolating and solitary and lonely, and absolutely magic when I come across something that feels right, but it takes a long time to get to those bits--so I love it when I get to the directing, because it's about being with people, and I love the challenges of it on a daily basis. I grew up in a house with three brothers and sisters and we ran wild, really. My mom was very young, so we just started roaming the streets at age three or something,..My childhood was quite wild and unrestrained with no boundaries, and there's something about directing that's a bit like that. I feel most comfortable in this arena of chaos. The more chaotic it gets the more I enjoy it. In fact I've noticed with myself that every time I make a film, I seem to make things more difficult. It's like I want trouble, I want it to be difficult, in order for me to feel at my most engaged."
Read our Q & A with Arnold below: