"I don't think about themes," "Fish Tank" director Andrea Arnold told indieWIRE. "I don't think, 'Oh, well, I'm going to make a film about this.' I just start writing, and I try to write as truthfully as a I can, and I let it lead me where it leads me. I don't have the bigger picture in mind. People come up to me after and say, 'the themes are this' or 'the themes are that,' and I say, 'really? I haven't even thought about them.' I just can't think in that way. I think there's lots of meanings in different situations that are interpreted in different ways. But if I told you exactly what I thought the film was about, then it would be very definite and I think that would be a shame."
Nevertheless, Arnold – interviewed upon the film's screening at the Toronto International Film Festival – actually quite enjoys when people say what they think the themes are.
"It's interesting because you get people with very different thoughts," she said. "Not everyone agrees. And I like the fact that the members of the audience will experience it in their own way. Rather than me being very definite about saying what it's about. I try to bring into what I'm doing the uncertainty that I think life has."
This Friday, U.S. audiences will get to experience "Fish Tank" in their own way. IFC Films is releasing the film in selected theaters nearly nine months after its 2009 Cannes Film Festival debut – where it won the fest's special jury prize. It's already been quite warmly received in its native UK, where it received numerous year-end kudos, including a best director honor for Arnold at the British Independent Film Awards.
The film follows fifteen-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis, in her debut performance), who struggles in the confines of her working-class existence in Essex, England. Living with her younger sister and their boozy single mother (Kierston Wareing), Mia's only real passion seems to be for urban dance, which she frequently breaks into abandoned apartments to practice. But when Mia's mother's new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), shows up, her world significantly alters, and Arnold takes her – and us – on an undeniably authentic and often quite fearless cinematic journey.
"Fish Tank" works in large part because of Arnold's unique and dedicated approach to filmmaking. She didn't give the actors the full script – releasing the plot to them on a gradual basis – and she filmed "Tank" completely in sequence.
"It worked really well," she said of the process. "If I have the luxury of doing it again, I will. I mean, filming in chronological order… It is a luxury. And I do feel like to schedule it that way on our filming [timeline] – which was 30 days – was quite an achievement on behalf of the people who scheduled it because we had to return to locations, and all of that is very time consuming. Normally, people would be wanting to film everything in one location and then that location's done with…"
Arnold said the process was predominately beneficial for her lead actress – who had never been on a film set before.
"The biggest thing was that, for Katie, the film made sense to her," she said. "Had she been filming out of sequence, having never done anything like that before, I think it would have been really confusing. So I think it really worked best for her… And, you know, I think it just makes sense in general. The story just evolves and is revealed to them like life is. I think actors really enjoy it."
The process seemed to work for Jarvis, who also won a British Independent Film Award for her performance and was widely considered one of world cinema's great acting breakouts in 2009. Though, as the story goes, it was a complete act of chance that she was even cast.
"We were looking for an authentic girl," she said of casting Jarvis's character. "We were looking in the area where we were filming to find somebody real and not necessarily an actor. And Katie was spotted by one of the casting assistants having an argument with her boyfriend. She was in a train station, on one platform, while he was on the other. So she couldn't physically get at him, but she was telling him off for something that had happened two days ago and hadn't seen him since. And she was giving him a piece of her mind. The casting director went up her and said, 'you're fantastic… we're looking for a girl for a film, would you be interested?' I think Katie didn't believe her."
Jarvis decided to come to an audition despite her doubts, and realized it was no joke. Arnold and the film's casting director were impressed with what they saw, and she got the part. But Arnold admitted she was still quite nervous about whether it would end up working out.
"Having a lead who had never done anything before, that was probably my biggest challenge," Arnold said. "Because I really didn't know if it would work out. It felt like a huge risk. She is in every moment of the film, and while I felt confident with her as a person, I didn't know whether she would be able to do it all. You just can't know. But I like that challenge. I don't want to feel safe, or necessarily on top of it. I like to feel scared. And I was."