There are as many adaptations and variations on Emily Brontë‘s “Wuthering Heights” as there are theories about how Heathcliff gains his wealth and maturity before enacting his revenge. Thankfully, for Brontë-philes, that is still up for debate in “Fish Tank” director Andrea Arnold‘s adaptation of the Brit-Lit classic that tracks the mournful love triangle of Catherine, Heathcliff and Edgar over the years in the north of England at the titular farmhouse. This adaptation spent a while in development , being tossed from John Maybury (“The Edge of Love”) to Peter Webber (“Girl With The Pearl Earring”), until it came to her attention. The Playlist sat down with Arnold at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival the day after the first major snowstorm of the fest and discussed why she doesn’t storyboard, her use of Mumford & Sons over the credits and why she chose to focus on the first half of the book (you can read our review of the film here).
Critics have been using the phrase “Malickian,” or at least comparing your shots to Terrence Malick. Is that something you’re aware of?
Have they? I got a bit of that from Venice (Film Festival) actually. I’m not really aware of it. I don’t read [any reviews]. I do know from Venice someone said that.
You handle a lot of “light” imagery along with shots of animals and all of it looks like it could be so spontaneous. Especially toward the end with the feather coming down from the sky [as Heathcliff looks up at it.]
The flowing down one we did several and filmed them. They’re quite hard to grab, actually, but the feather was always in the script. The feather wasn’t in the book, but there is a lot of bird imagery in the book. I felt the bird imagery was very important for Cathy/Kaya [Scodelario], a lot of the bird imagery seemed really important. I don’t know if it’s a metaphor for her feeling frustrated as a female, because a lot of women were at the time. Once they went through puberty they were married off in arranged marriages. So Cathy’s decision to marry Edgar and her feeling trapped by this more formal decision, the birds in her imagery were all through the book. And I felt that was a really important thing, so I incorporated that into the script. Just before the scene where she goes to Heathcliff and the Lintons arrive to have Christmas—well, I made it more oblique—they arrive for lunch. They have a goose, which you see, and not in a scene that you see but in the book Cathy is upset Heathcliff had been beaten. As she’s crying and getting upset, Edgar rips off the goose wing being cooked and gives her the goose wing. I feel that’s such an important moment where she’s feeling trapped, or at least confused, about this decision of Edgar wooing her, this man from a more civilized world and would give her a more comfortable life, she’s there having dinner with him but her heart is with Heathcliff, who has been beaten, but [Edgar] rips off the wing of the bird and giving it to her. In the film, you see the goose wing coming under the door. To me, that was really important, but I suppose no one else would make a note of that.
Another criticism that came from the festival circuit were the parts missing from the second half of the book.
It’s about his revenge and him finally dying. It’s about the children—he has a baby with Isabella. It’s a whole ‘nother universe and a large chunk of stuff to deal with. You can’t do everything. All the fans of the book were obviously upset by that, but what can you do? I personally couldn’t have tackled the whole book as a film. It’s immense.
It’s said that you had originally planned to go for a modernized version that envisioned Heathcliff as a boy in a hoodie walking across the moor?
Yeah, that’s true. Actually, I saw a boy in a hoodie walking down a dry slim wall. I thought it could be interesting. I think it would be a disservice to Emily Brontë, because I think a lot of the book is a powerful protest about being female at that time and to do it in a contemporary way wouldn’t mean so much. I felt it was a disservice to her and I thought I needed to honor that subtext of the book.
So, why did you get involved with the adaptation that’s been gestating for so long? Was there any influence from the Peter Webber script or earlier versions?
Not really, it was very different to what I’d written. It changed the children from ten minutes in to adults and wasn’t Heathcliff’s point of view. It was in and out of two characters, so I didn’t refer to it when I wrote my version. No, in the book Heathcliff was 15. I took all my stuff from the book. I think that take would’ve been like the takes from before, which made [the characters] all adults which was wasn’t like the book. I was asked about it and in the middle of writing something else and I made an instinctive choice. I had a thing about the book. I knew it was a pretty stupid thing to do and all these things you’re saying to me about people upset with the second half of the book and all those things would come up. There was going to be a constant cry about all the things I didn’t do, but I only could be guided by my instinct. I have quite a powerful response to some things and it was that. I thought “I’m going to have a go,” even though I have no idea what it’s going to be. It chose me. The choice to do something comes from outside of yourself. It’s not like you can make a sensible choice in the material you’re passionate about.
Is that the way you chose to work with non-traditional actors to work with like James Howson and Solomon Glave as Heathcliff?
I always want to create a little universe that feels real. He’s a little bit of an outsider, Heathcliff, and I wanted somebody who had that quality. I didn’t want someone confident and comfortable, which a lot of actors do. I felt it was important to get that quality that needed to be there. It was likely to come from somebody who’s never acted before.
What came across from the two of them then? Did they connect together or ever meet?
It was the sense about them as people when you meet them. I got that feeling without seeing them do anything. I felt they would capture that, even if it was the way they looked. I remembered the first time they met each other in the office. They walked off together and I thought, “that’s quite something.” Their kind of match was a good one, they felt similar. They had horse riding lessons together too.
There’s a surprising amount of animal violence—most striking being the different variations on leaving a dog to hang by fence or tree. Was that a comment on the characters leaving behind their domestic status, or am I reading too hard into that?
God no, nothing like that. I think, I know exactly what the dog hanging’s about. Especially the last one. If anyone that knows me or looks at my work will probably work it out. I don’t exactly like to say because if people are going to get it, they’re going to get it. I like it when people do but I don’t like to announce it. To me it’s clear and why it’s important—it’s all in the book as well.
Why did you choose to have the closing sequence set against the Mumford and Sons’ song “The Enemy”?
I wanted to have a song at the end. I always think the credits are slightly different from the film, so you can have music since it’s a separate little world because it’s not in the universe of the film. I tried a few things and there was a country feel to Mumford and Sons, and a Western feel to the film. I thought a country sound would be quite appropriate. They came along to a screening and came up with a couple of songs. I liked both actually, but went with [“The Enemy”]. For some people it takes them out of the film and it’s not a popular—for some people, the real cinephiles seem to not like it because it’s been pure sound-wise up to that point.
It adds a somber, but closing element.
It seems to me like a present for the audience.
You said earlier you were writing something else when “Wuthering Heights” came up. Is that your next project?
No, that’s not the next thing I’m doing but I will definitely make that at some point and will. I’ll probably go back to the other one—there’s too many things I want to make and it’s very annoying.
Do these projects have names yet?
I never talk about something when I’m writing it. I haven’t finished it, it’s in the middle of my head and if I talk to you it goes on the Internet and then people want to talk to me about it. And then I think about it and it affects how I write.
Let’s go back to your script and the formulation of sequences like the initial horse ride between Catherine and Heathcliff or the handheld camera as they run through the wheat fields with the wind audibly crackling. Do you write that in?
I never would do that, I never put shots in the script. I make the script a little universe of its own with no technical things. I might put moths or rain or horses, I’ll put in a lot of detail but never a shot.
So, in storyboarding then?
I never storyboard, either. I don’t like storyboarding…I had a scene that didn’t make it that involved [Heathcliff’s] seeing some leaves make a shape when in the grave. That’s something where I might involve something else and might make a storyboard on my own. I like to be there on the day and work it out there. I might write myself a shot list, but that’ll always change as I see the day and the place and we start walking it through. Then I’ll have a slightly different idea and work there on the scene with what I’ve got in front of me.
Thanks for taking the time to talk and let me shame my Brit Lit teachers.
[laughs] Well, I wouldn’t expect everyone I meet to be an expert on the book. Someone, a journalist, said to me yesterday, “When did you discover the Brontës, when you were growing up?” I said I didn’t know about the Brontës till I did this movie! I had heard about them, but I didn’t know much about them. I said when did you hear about them, she said “in my literature classroom.” I went to a completely different kind of school from her!
“Wuthering Heights” will be released by Oscilloscope Pictures later this year.