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A Conversation With Andrea Arnold (FISH TANK)

After taking home an Oscar for her short film Wasp, writer/director Andrea Arnold made an equally assured leap to the feature realm with Red Road, which won the Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Her latest film, Fish Tank, earned her another Jury Prize at Cannes this year, splitting the honor with Park Chan-Wook’s Thirst. Shooting in a 4:3 aspect ratio on handheld 35mm, Arnold’s latest tells the coming-of-age story of 15-year-old Mia (astonishing newcomer Katie Jarvis), whose life is upended when her mother takes in a dashing new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender). Early on, Fish Tank seems to be firmly rooted in kitchen sink realism, recalling those great BBC films from the 1970s and ’80s. But gradually, the film’s true purpose is revealed, turning it into something else altogether. Like Red Road, Fish Tank is a naturalistic drama that feels like a thriller. I sat down with Arnold at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, where she discussed her aversion to blocking scenes, what led her to make Mia a hip-hop dancer, and the nightmare that is music rights clearance.

H2N: One of the first questions that popped into my head after watching this film was: what provided the initial spark for the script? Then I opened the press release and you answered that immediately by saying how it always starts with an image for you. But you never actually said what that image was. Can you shed some more light on that?

AA: I find it really hard to say what it is ‘cause I feel like it gives the film away. That’s why I don’t say what it is. That’s why it’s hard to talk about it. But it was an image of an angry young girl and she was doing something strong in an environment that wasn’t her own. And that’s the way with almost everything I’ve done. Something starts to bother me and I have to go and explore it. I write around it to find out who this person is and why they’re doing what they’re doing. In a way, it’s kind of a good way of writing, because it’s like you’re not in control of it. It guides me and it shows me the way. I don’t like it when I feel like I’m pushing ideas around. I want it to be pushing me around. And when it’s not pushing me around it doesn’t feel right.

H2N: When you take that approach, in which you have a core idea that certainly drives the film but you might not know exactly how you’re going to get to that point, do you tend to overwrite and then have to trim back down again? How did that work with this script in particular?

AA: I took quite a long time with the first draft trying to find my way with it. I tend to write out lots of ideas and thoughts and some scenes or images that feel like they belong, and then I try to put it together around that. Although I start with one image, often other images come into play too, so I start trying to piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle. And those key moments become cornerstones. Certain things I feel just have to be there.

The first draft took me a little while and then I did a second draft quite quickly and then a third draft in about three days. (AA laughs) Because we had some money and the money might have gone away if I’d not managed to deliver a script to the producers that was a bit shorter. It’s a crazy notion that’s part of the creative process: “It just has to be shorter.” But there are lots of tricks to making it shorter like changing the font size! (both laugh)

H2N: This is a kinda corny question but I always like discussing it. How closely does the finished film reflect the script that you shot? Do you have any examples of this changing in the editing room, maybe?

AA: I’m trying to think. Obviously, it changes from when you write it to when you film it. I find it quite hard remembering what I set out for and what I ended up with. I find it hard remembering what it was that I initially went after. I do feel that filmmaking is quite brutal. It’s quite fragile when you set out to make it and then there’s the reality of filming. All the rocks that fall on your head from everywhere do change and shape it in a different way. I have mixed feelings about that. Sometimes those things shape it in a way that doesn’t feel quite right, but sometimes they can make things better and you get more than you imagined.

In the script, she was supposed to be a really passionate dancer. Not necessarily a ‘good’ dancer but someone who could really let themselves fly around the room. And Katie’s not really a dancer. That was something that changed and was not quite as it was in the script. But Katie was so like the girl I’d written that to have her was the right thing to do.

H2N: That was more important than having a great dancer who couldn’t act.

AA: I mean, the dance thing is important but she was more important. I was a little bit sorry about that, because that was something I had wanted to find. But I got so much more with Katie.

H2N: How did it work since you said the money seemed to come together quickly? At that point had Katie been cast or was that part of the jumping into action?

AA: Yeah, there was a push to cast then because of the money coming together. I think I might have seen Katie at that point but hadn’t made a decision. And so we did one last day where we brought in everyone that was a possibility. I did feel like it was a risk. She’d never done anything—not even an acting class. And the question of the dancing. At that point I didn’t know if we’d be able to teach her anything. I really didn’t know. She didn’t like dancing, and doesn’t like dancing, so I knew it was a big risk. But I just decided in the end that her spirit was strong and that I was gonna go with that and take the challenge and the risk.

H2N: The cinematography is handheld and has a really lush, tactile naturalism, which is enhanced with a lot of shallow focus. This might demand the need for potential blocking and focus pulling. Was that an issue at all or did you establish an atmosphere where the actors could not be so constricted?

AA: I don’t like blocking. I mean, sometimes you have to for some reason, but I generally try not to do that. I want them to feel free. Especially for someone like Katie who’s never done it before, I didn’t want to add that pressure. Not only is she having to remember words and be vulnerable on camera, she’s got to also hit a mark or walk out of a door at a certain time. I just felt that would be inhibiting for her. I try not to do that even with people who have done it before.

H2N: But it seems to me like with such lovely close-ups and a shallow depth of field much of the time, that would get really tricky!

AA: Well, Robbie (Ryan), who operates and is the DOP, he’s a master of handheld. I’ve done three films with him now. We work really well together and have a shorthand. He knows what I like and I know how he is. We have a good relationship. The very first shot I ever did with him was on a short I did called Wasp. We did a shot of a mom and she had her kids and she was running down some steps. My idea was that we were in front of her as she was running down a flight of steps. And there were maybe, I don’t know, six flights of steps? And she’s running fast. I said, “I wanna be on her face as she’s running down the steps.” (H2N laughs) And Robbie went, “Okay,” and he did it! He ran backwards down the steps. This was the first shot we ever did together and I knew this was gonna be a good relationship. I was so impressed that he could do that.

H2N: He’s a keeper!

AA: He is fantastic. I mean, that shot when she runs after Connor, he must have done that about eight times ‘cause it was hard to get right each time. There were doors and people, and he—with a 35mm camera on his shoulder!—did it. There are plenty of outtakes on that one.

H2N: Some of those tracking shots definitely weren’t handheld though. Were you in a car or on a traditional dolly for those?

AA: No dollies. We had a cart, I don’t really know what you call it, it was like a little cart and you can pull it along. It’s smooth but not too smooth. If you’re following somebody in a profile shot and you’re walking sideways, the camera can then be very shaky and you want something a bit stiller than that. Sometimes that can be too much movement. So we’re always looking to keep it fluid but not have it to the point where it becomes unwatchable. We’re always battling with that, because I just love handheld. I banned the sticks from filming. You never see them ever.

H2N: But it’s also a controlled handheld, not like those awful cop dramas where the camera is just swinging around for no apparent reason.

AA: I believe in moving the camera for a reason, if it’s following someone or looking at what they’re doing. Handheld allows the actors to be free, where if you control it by doing more organized shots then the actors have to be a bit more choreographed, and that’s not my thing.

H2N: Michael Fassbender’s performance is really extraordinary. He plays it without even the tiniest hint of menace. Was that something you’d always envisioned?

AA: That’s very much in the script. His character, as you find it, is written like that in the script. He’s charming and funny, all those things. I know there are some places when it feels like he may be stepping over the line and you don’t know if he is or he isn’t. We didn’t talk much about character. Michael was busy before the filming and I don’t like rehearsing. I believe in casting as close to who I think the characters are. And not that they are them but in their essence or spirit.

I believe in cinema. You can do a lot with images. I don’t particularly want actors to not be themselves. So we didn’t talk very much about the character. A little bit. Just some basic things. I wanted to give them the script the night before each new day so that it revealed itself like life. I wanted there to be an innocence in what was going on. And I felt that if they knew the whole story, there was a danger of some of the earlier scenes being played with that knowledge, and that would take away the innocence. I do think it actually worked. Obviously, Michael’s a fantastic actor and very skillful. I haven’t actually spoken to him about whether he felt it worked for him too. I haven’t seen him much since we finished filming. (AA laughs) I know that he likes to do more preparation and we didn’t do that in this. I think it was an unusual experience for him. I don’t want the actors to be too prepared or in control of what they have. I want them to feel like it’s happening now. I want it to feel fresh. I think he probably found it quite difficult.

H2N: It’s good to spice up one’s routine every once in a while. (AA laughs)

AA: He was brave doing it ‘cause he didn’t read the script. His agent read the script but he didn’t. In case there was something politically or morally that he didn’t agree with, it wouldn’t be right for him to be doing that. But he jumped in without having read it, which I think was very brave. For Katie, I think it was very good that she didn’t see the script.

H2N: That would have definitely overwhelmed her.

AA: Kierston (Wareing), who played the mom, she’s done it before with Ken Loach and she loves that way of working.

H2N: Now, the most important question I have—having grown up listening to rap music—is what made you decide to go with those particular tracks (Eric B. & Rakim, Gang Starr, Nas)? Were you working closely with a music supervisor or were these all your decisions?

AA: I was working with a music supervisor but these were things that were coming from me. When we were looking for girls we saw some regular dancers, girls from clubs or we’d go to dance clubs and look for girls. And early on, we had a couple of b-girls come in. I just love the movement and I love the music and I felt that was the way I had to go with the music. I was waiting to see what kind of girl we would get before I decided what the dancing would be, because I felt that had to come from her. But when we did end up with Katie, who wasn’t a dancer, we had to teach her in about two weeks, a crash course in hip-hop, basically. (both laugh) Which she found very tough, I think. She doesn’t do it anymore, by the way. I asked her, “Do you secretly do your hip-hop at night?” No. She’s not carried on, sadly. But when we saw the b-girls early on, I just loved the physical movement. It was about being physical. A lot of dancers were into the R&B dancing, which is more about doing it for someone else. It’s more about, “Look at me, look at me dancing,” it’s more of a show. The hip-hop was more about having the experience of dancing, and I just thought, “That feels right.” And that’s how those particular tracks came about. Those tracks are, I would say, the more jazzy, dancey kind of tracks.

H2N: The music rights issue is such a nightmare. But you employ the tactic that I love—and that we rarely see—of hearing the same song twice, or more than that, even! How big of a battle was it for you to get stuff like Nas and especially Bobby Womack?

AA: Bobby Womack was the most expensive. Yes, it was an ever-evolving, ever-changing beast and was a worry for me up until almost the end of the edit because some things were still not cleared. Even in the sound mix we were waiting to hear back for a Damian Marley song. We actually mixed in the Damian Marley song and another song and were waiting. We didn’t in the end get it because the rights were owned by one of the Wailers and he wanted, I don’t know, but it didn’t happen. But up until the last minute we were still waiting to clear music. I tried, and I knew, because I’ve done films before with music, and I know it’s a problem. So I actually thought out the music and tried to get it before we started filming, so that I was able to use it.

H2N: That’s what I was gonna ask you. Especially for the reconciliation scene at the end, if you played that exact song (Nas’ “Life’s a Bitch”) on set.

AA: Yeah. I think we did it but I still don’t think it was absolutely clear at that point. It was one of those things where you thought, “I so believe in it, it’s got to work, it’s gonna happen, I’ll fight to the death to get it.” There are ways. I’ve been refused songs before for some reason. If it’s politics you can always find a way, maybe. You can actually get to the people who own it and speak to them and tell them why it’s so important for you. I get frustrated because if you’re trying to represent real life and you’ve written someone who you think loves this particular kind of music and you can’t have it? It just feels terrible.

H2N: It can actually belittle the reality of the world. I think it’s very unfair for a filmmaker and it’s what keeps so many films feeling smaller and less convincing than they might otherwise feel. Especially with regards to the idea of playing the same song twice. Just about every filmmaker who has tried and failed miserably to make that happen has most likely given up. One’s spirit gets too crushed.

AA: With “California Dreamin’” (Bobby Womack version), we had clearance to use it two or three times. And then when we were filming the scene where she walks out of the dance audition, I hadn’t written in the script that it comes on again. But it absolutely was the right thing to have her walk out to it. I could see the line producer’s face crumble ‘cause he knew that he was gonna have to go back and see if he could get it cleared for a fourth and maybe pay more money. It is a battle. I don’t know how the music supervisors do it. It’s a very frustrating process. But when you hit an obstacle you have to find a way around it. Sometimes that can produce something even better.

— Michael Tully

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Michael Tully is an award-winning writer/director whose films have garnered widespread critical acclaim, his projects having premiered at some of the most renowned film festivals across the globe. He is also the former (and founding) editor of this site. In 2006, Michael's first feature, COCAINE ANGEL, chronicling a tragic week in the life of a young drug addict, world premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film immediately solidified the director as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s "25 New Faces of Independent Film,” a reputation that was reinforced a year later when his follow-up feature, SILVER JEW, a documentary capturing the late David Berman's rare musical performances in Tel Aviv, world-premiered at SXSW and landed distribution with cult indie-music label Drag City. In 2011, Michael wrote, directed, and starred in his third feature, SEPTIEN, which debuted at the 27th annual Sundance Film Festival before being acquired by IFC Films' Sundance Selects banner. A few years later, in 2014, Michael returned to Sundance with the world premiere of his fourth feature, PING PONG SUMMER, an ‘80s set coming-of-age tale that was quickly picked up for theatrical distribution by Gravitas Ventures. In 2018, Michael wrote and directed the dread-inducing genre film DON'T LEAVE HOME, which has been described as "Get Out with Catholic guilt in the Irish countryside" (IndieWire). The film premiered at SXSW and was subsequently acquired by Cranked Up Films and Shudder.

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