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:
SS: You have used many unknown or inexperienced actors. How do you cast them?
AA: I'm trying to find something authentic in the faces, because cinema is visual and I have this idea that if I cast somebody–for example James Howson who plays [the grown-up] Heathcliff; he walks into the room and doesn't open his mouth and I can see in him immediately a sort of vulnerability, but also an anger–and he's got that in his face. And for me that's a very cinematic thing. He doesn't have to say anything and I can feel that. So that's why I find it appealing to cast people who haven't acted before; I feel like I am getting something very authentic about the person that I want to show. If you want to show someone who has had a very brutalized childhood and is very vulnerable, I am looking for that in someone's face. If you haven't had some trouble in your life, I'm not sure that can be in your face. It's just not there, because it doesn't exist in you. And I know a lot of actors might shoot me down and say they can do that, but I want it to be there without them even saying anything.
SS: How much preparation do you do with your actors before you get to set?
AA: Very little. The process is dictated by scenario. [The actors] will have learned the script. Sometimes we just do it, other times I'll tell them exactly what I want, or we'll just explore. I try to cast quite close to what I'm looking for anyway, so I'm not asking them to be very different from what they normally are. They're always acting, playing a part. With Katie [Jarvis, star of Arnold's "Fish Tank"], she was playing a part but I am asking her to be herself within that.
When I saw the film at the end, I was so pleased it was the girl in the film, it wasn't Katie. I found that really fascinating because I wasn't sure how it was going to work out. It was a performance. I remember [at a festival], she was up for an award and there was an argument amongst the jury that she hadn't been acting, and I thought "Oh you're so wrong, it was so brave what she did." It was so much a performance, and braver than someone who feels more competent in that way; she was having to really stretch herself and put herself in situations that were really alien to her.
SS: I like that your style, in a way, says "Fuck You" to convention.
AA: [Laughs] Thank you! [In my past experience working as an actor] the way of filming was very conventional. I am confident enough to break the rules because I know what the convention is, so I know I can go against it.
SS: Do you get tired of people looking at you in terms of your gender and asking if your creative choices are dictated by that?
AA: I don't know what it's like to be a man, so how do I know what the difference is? Obviously I am a woman and everything I do is affected by my gender, but I am not thinking of it. I grew up in an environment where women weren't particularly treated differently than men. [The industry] likes to talk about that question a lot and I don't even know how to answer it sometimes, because I don't really know what it means.
Very, very occasionally I sense from somebody that they think I'm less capable because I am female. It's usually quite old-school people. And I've had the odd comment. They shall remain nameless, but they know who they are. I've gotten to direct and do what I do, which is a very privileged thing to be doing. How amazing is it that you get to travel and make films? But, in Britain in particular, I come from a working class background, and if you haven't been to certain universities, that can be very tough. People listen to your accent and make judgements about you based on where you have or haven't been. There is a hierarchy in Britain, a class system.
I've been more aware of [the class issue] than the woman thing. Especially first of all, before I'd done anything to prove myself. Getting opportunities, I felt it a little bit; when you're being judged by people who are deciding to give you a chance, based on not having been to university or not having a certain kind of accent.
SS: How have things changed for you? Do you feel like you're still fighting to make what you want to make?
AA: I feel now that I probably will get to make films for the rest of my life, hopefully. If I make low budget films. I've always gone from film to film, not knowing if I'm going to get to make the next one. Mainly because of money. And it's a massive thing to get a film made! It's a huge venture and a huge undertaking, and people are careful where they put money. So with every film, one to another, it's just leaping…I could probably make two more, at least.
SS: So what's next?
AA: I'm writing something now and it's a contemporary thing. I hate talking about it while I'm writing it, because it's almost like a diary to me, my script. It's very personal. If I say something it goes on the internet and then I get asked about it endlessly. And then people say what they think I should do or shouldn't do and then it starts influencing me. It's good to keep it to yourself, especially while you're in the middle of it. I don't discuss it with anybody [except cinematographer Robbie Ryan, with whom she's talked about shooting Super 16mm]. It's not based on anything, the protagonist is female. Yep.
SS: There controversy during Cannes, springing from your comments about the lack of women directors in competition. But the problem is systemic.
AA: I said at the end [of my comments] at Cannes, that they introduced all the women first, and the men second. And I said that in the very same sentence. Because I was saying maybe there is something here, and look: It's complicated. I wasn't saying just one thing. Anyone sensible would have seen that I was saying something quite complicated; there I was on the jury, I'm not going to badmouth Cannes, am I? And anyway, why would they take a film if they didn't think it was right for the competition? They shouldn't just because it was a woman director. They should not. The problem lies in the fact that not many films get made by women.
SS: Why do you think that is?
AA: Everyone asks me about this all the time, and I just don't know. There are lots of women in the film industry, but there are very few women directors. Although I happen to be friends with quite a few. But there are far less women than there are men, and there are not very many women cinematographers either, so it seems there are certain professions that are more male dominated.
SS: Do you get sick of being asked?
AA: Yes. In some ways I've been lucky because my crews don't treat me poorly, I don't get treated as second rate. I've had the odd moment with somebody, usually someone in power who is quite old-school. But my crews, I choose them, and I choose people who treat me the same as anybody else. I don't have an experience of my crew being in any way sexist toward me. I don't want to work with people like that.
Our review of "Wuthering Heights" from the Seattle Int'l Film Festival is here.