Academy Award-winner Andrea Arnold is back with "Wuthering Heights," her stunning and sadomasochistic take on the oft-adapted Emily Brontë novel. Arnold's previous films, "Red Road" and "Fish Tank," all closely follow their main characters through trying situations, usually with the camera inches from the faces of her subjects. Her deeply subjective style often uses a 4×3 Academy ratio, enclosing a tight frame around her deeply isolated characters.
However, it's hard to prepare an audience for just how jarring and divisive her "Wuthering Heights" really is. By stripping the Gothic novel down to its basic passions, Arnold challenges our preconceptions about adaptation as well as on-screen romance. The first screening at the Sundance Film Festival saw a number of walk-outs, but much of the remaining audience was left spellbound, mirroring the mixed responses the film received last year in Venice and Toronto.
When we met with Arnold at Sundance headquarters earlier this January, she spoke about the difficulties of making the film, the discussion in the press about her atypical casting, and her love for working with young non-actors. The film opens at New York's Film Forum on October 5 and expands to other cities in the coming weeks.
What was your process was like when you were writing the script?
I've never, ever adapted anything. I never took any course or had anyone tell me what to do. I basically went through the book. I'd read it a few times and I had a strong memory of the feeling of it, but in order to write, I needed to get to know it. And then I went through it, and anything I responded to, I pulled out.
For example, when I read that Cathy and Heathcliff shared a bed, I thought, wow, that must have been so intimate. To be that age, when you're just about to go through puberty, and you're sharing a bed with someone of the opposite sex, that you might feel a compulsion. I wanted to put that in it. I just went through and just pulled out anything I responded to like that.
It was quite a luxury, actually, because normally I'm writing original screenplays and it's all coming inside, and with this, I had all the stuff in the book. There's so much in the book. I think the first half of the film is more me exploring, and the second half is more of the story, and me trying to bring it into a circle. I certainly felt more pulled around by the second half, because I felt like there were a lot of things that had to be there, and I felt there was less room for me.
The producers of the film have been trying to get an adaptation of "Wuthering Heights" made for quite some time, with movie stars and big directors attached to make it. When you came on to the project, how did they react to your take on the story?
They really pretty much let me get on with it. They didn't say very much and I think they understood I was going to be doing something a bit different. The funding structure changed when I came on board, and for me, it was quite difficult to join something that had been going on for a while. They have a certain amount of frustration with getting it done. It was difficult. I tried not to start again, but in a way, that's what I did. I started again. That's not what everyone expected, but that's what happened. I started from scratch.
The two children in the first half of the film are really incredible. We know the story of how you came upon ["Fish Tank" actress] Katie Jarvis at a train station, but how did you come upon these kids? Did it happen similarly?
Shannon [Beer, who plays young Cathy], we found in a school. Solomon [Glave, who plays young Heathcliff] we didn't find at school. I don't remember exactly where we found him. When I saw Solomon, I had a really strong reaction to him. I couldn't see his face, because he had his head in his hands. He was waiting outside to come in. He's very silent, but he speaks quite a lot without words, and it's all in his body language. He's the most beautiful boy. He's so gorgeous. I've got a lot of love for Solomon. And he says very little in life as well, not just in the film. He's a man of few words, but he says a lot in another way. He's a beautiful soul.
I tried to find people that I thought were close to what I'm trying to do, so it's not such a stretch for them to play somebody else because I'm just asking them to be themselves. Mainly, I'm trying to get close to what their characters are like when we'm casting. I work with Lucy Pardee, who is very good at interpreting that and looking for the kind of person that I want.
What is your method like for working with non-actors when you're on set, not just with Shannon and Solomon, but also with Katie Jarvis?
Every person is different, and every person on "Wuthering Heights" needs something different from you. Some people need you to talk to them a lot. Some people don't. Some people need something else. Solomon wanted me to explain exactly what he had to do, and he liked knowing exactly what to do. I could be a bit looser with Shannon. She had a bit of a wildness, and she was more spontaneous. They're completely different. You have to learn from them and listen from them. When you first start working with them, you don't know what's going to happen. You try doing things and you see how they respond. Eventually, they tell you what they need.
For me, it's about listening. There's never one way of doing things. I'm sure if you spoke to them, I might have one way of doing things. I don't know. And with Katie, she was… I could explain something to her, and she'd be off. You give them the script, and then they come back and they've learned it, and you adjust to them. That's what most directors do. Katie would really go off with her own thing. She was on her own level, and I absolutely loved that.One of the things I responded to most in the film was the Academy ratio, and it was used brilliantly in "Fish Tank" as well. What is it about the Academy ratio that works for you?
It's funny. I absolutely loved using it in "Fish Tank," and we tested a lot on "Wuthering Heights." We shot some video, and then some film. We tried different stocks and things. With some of that original stuff, we had we shot it straight without a matte and projected it, and it was just the film in Academy ratio. I didn't think it was something that would come up, but when it did, I was like, "Oh my God, that looks so beautiful." I loved it all over again, even though I knew it would be a provocative choice. It's a film with a lot of landscapes, so everyone expects you to use a wide screen.
I've thought about it quite a lot since, and I think why I like it is because my films are mostly about one person. I'm following that one person and I'm keen on that one person. It's a very respectful and beautiful frame for one person. It gives them a lot of space. You can frame one person in a 4×3, and it gives them a lot of – I don't know – humanity? I'm not sure.
I like it as well because it's the whole negative, and you're not cutting anything off. Mostly what everyone's doing it cutting off the top and the bottom, and I love that we don't do that. We're using the 35mm film negative and you get more information. It gives you more headroom, and you get quite a lot of sky. Those moors are very green, and if I shot a landscape, I figured the sky would be changing all the time. But that's not the real reason, I suppose, it's more of a justification. You know what I mean? You try and justify what you do, but sometimes you just love it and it's hard to understand why.
The terrain looks so gorgeous, but I can't imagine what the filming conditions were like.
When I was looking at the first cut of the film, I felt a bit annoyed, because it didn't look as bad as it was. With the mud and everything, people see the film and say, "Wow, that looks bad," but it doesn't look anywhere near as difficult as it was to be there. That's sometimes frustrated me with film, and I try hard to capture what it's like to be there, and sometimes you can't quite reach that place, and it's still a challenge for me to do that, because I still feel I haven't managed to achieve that. We were there for 12-hour days from Monday to Friday, so you really have to dress up in lots of layers and big farmer's boots.
We've got an outtakes film of all the various things that makes the crew laugh, and it's full of people falling over. Robbie Ryan, who did all the handheld, he just runs everywhere. He's like a ghost. And he fell over quite a few times, with the 35mm camera. There's so much footage of him slipping and the image just falls to ground.
The mud around the house became so deep. It was up around your ankles each day. There were some spaces in the house where there would be a lot of crew, and it would be so freezing. It wasn't the most luxurious shoot, but we certainly made up for it in the pub on Friday night. We had all-night parties. There was a local pub which we were well into, and we got very friendly with all the people there. We had some great parties, including some skinny dipping in the lake in November. I just can't believe we did that.
Reading "Wuthering Heights," it's very clear that Heathcliff is an outsider/foreigner, yet in every other adaptation, he's played by a movie star. Why do you think there was such a fuss in the press about your casting of a black actor as Heathcliff? It just seems like really lazy journalism to me, but what do you think?
I don't read anything, so I didn't know there was too much fuss, but people always ask me about it. I think it's weird that they would make a fuss, because why not? If you go through the descriptions of Heathcliff in the book, it is very, very clear that he's not white. "Was your mother an Indian princess and your mother a Chinese emperor?" That's not being said about somebody who's from Yorkshire. When he first arrives, he speaks a language they can't understand. Hollywood started making this film a long time ago, and it's actually surprising to me that no one has done it before. There was a massive slave port in Liverpool at that time. It's possible that Heathcliff could have been the son of a slave or had come off one of the ships. It's possible.
I think people making the fuss haven't done their research or, as you've said, yes, it's laziness.