Rules are the mother of invention, at least according to Lars von Trier. After imposing his Dogma 95 doctrine on dozens of filmmakers around the world and subjecting Jorgen Leth to a number of sadistic limitations (in “The Five Obstructions“), the Danish filmmaker, together with compatriots Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, devised a new set of restrictions to inflict on a trio of neophyte filmmakers. Now well known as “The Advance Party,” the project has already engendered Andrea Arnold‘s impressive feature debut “Red Road.” But the creative path for the projects hasn’t been an easygoing get-together.
So far, Arnold’s project has given the Advance Party auspicious beginnings: A special jury prize in Cannes, an awards sweep at the Scottish BAFTAs, and “Most Promising Newcomer” nods from BAFTA and the London Film Critics Circle.
An intense and evocative thriller, “Red Road” follows the story of a woman named Jackie (a blistering Kate Dickie) who monitors security cameras for a living. When she randomly spots a man (Tony Curran‘s Clyde) who is responsible for devastating her family, she devises a twisted plan for revenge, taking her to a forbidding Glasgowian housing project called Red Road.
Like her fellow Advance Party directors, Scottish newcomer Morag McKinnon and Danish first-timer Mikkel Norgaard, Arnold was subject to several guidelines in which to shape her story: a six-week shoot in Scotland, a list of seven characters, all of whom must appear in the film and all played by the same actors. In the initial outline, for example, Jackie is described as “34, has lost her only brother, her husband and their child. Habitually, she maintains a relationship with a married man and she gets just enough intimacy to avoid shutting herself away from the world.”
While stimulated by the prospects of adhering to restrictions (“I actually wanted to include every single rule that I was given,” Arnold says) and the collaborative nature of working with other directors, the Advance Party presented several obstacles to these burgeoning filmmakers, from writing a script around a stock set of characters, to setting the story in a place that Arnold and Norgaard were not familiar with, to casting actors that might not be perfect for every project.
Arnold loved working with the other directors. “In the early days, we met and talked and decided about the rules and made them our own,” she says. “For example, one of the characters was described as having a physical thing that she did every time she saw a man. So we would discuss what that might be. I had the idea that she might rub between her legs when no one was looking. The Danish director thought that was a bit strong. Even with those little things, we were starting to do our own thing and be the filmmakers that we are.”
In the development stage, the directors added two entirely new characters, a teenage girl that McKinnon needed, as well as another man. “We added a significant new character to facilitate the tone we wished to achieve,” says McKinnon, who hopes to shoot her own film this fall. “Although he started out as Avery”–described as a 40-year-old who stays far away from drugs and alcohol because he knows that his interior contains anger’–“that wasn’t going to work with the casting that Andrea needed.”
And because McKinnon wanted to add these two characters, “the rules were that if somebody incorporated a main character that wasn’t included in the main list, everyone had to agree to include them,” explains Arnold.
“We were all very collaborative, so we would never go, no, you can’t have this girl,” continues Arnold. “But then I was quite far along in my story, so I had to think how am I going to now incorporate her? So she became the daughter of Clyde.”
While McKinnon agrees the initial discussions were helpful–“in that we all found out which characters in the project we were initially drawn to,” she says–the early discussions actually yielded somewhat non-collaborative results.
“We were all going for different main characters which meant that we would not be in conflict about the casting,” explains McKinnon, whose own film is about a 64-year-old character named Alfred who realizes he is dying and tries to make amends with Jackie, his estranged daughter. “Had we chosen similar main characters then it would probably have made for a more difficult situation,” she adds.
“It’s kind of a collaborative process,” McKinnon notes, “but in terms of the casting, it’s safe to say that we all had to compromise somewhere.”
“I don’t think any set of directors are ever going to be totally in sync with the casting of a group of characters who are to be involved in different sorts of projects,” she continues. “I mean not all actors can do comedy, some actors are good at naturalism, but don’t have comic timing, some actors can’t sing or dance–it just depends what you need.”
Still, after a certain point, McKinnon explains, “you have to try and make it your own–even if in some ways it doesn’t feel like that.”
Arnold also struggled with personalizing the material. At the Sundance Filmmaker Labs, where Arnold further developed the script, she was embarrassed to bring up the origins of the project in a room full of passionate writer-directors with close attachments to their subject matter. “I felt like such a sham,” she admits. “I was quite depressed about it. And then I went away and thought, ‘I’m doing the wrong thing. Maybe I can’t write something and make it my own.'”
While Arnold eventually overcame her initial trepidation, shooting in Scotland was also initially alienating. “I didn’t really know Scotland, and I usually write about people and places that I know,” she admits. “I think the film reflects my relationship to Glasgow, which is kind of distant. But I did get to see it as an outsider. When you’re a tourist, you see things in a different way that people are not used to.”
Arnold may have been a stranger to Scotland and initially to her characters, but her film offers powerful evidence that the Advance Party project could work. But for the other filmmakers, the situation is less clear.
McKinnon worries about the impact “Red Road”–having come first in the series, and winning much acclaim–will have on her own film. “‘Red Road’ will definitely influence ours,” she says. “When people see it, it will set up a sense of expectation which will be very difficult to live up to. People have got used to seeing these characters in this way, and if they loved them like that they might not want to see them change.”
McKinnon is reminded of Kieslowski‘s “Three Colors” trilogy. “People ended up not liking ‘White,’ because of how it compared to the other two, and that’s what may happen here,” she says. As opposed to the haunting psychological nature of “Red Road,” McKinnon’s as yet untitled project will be “tragi-comic,” she says. “I hope we will have something that is naturalistic yet absurd, both funny and sad.”
McKinnon’s project also remains on hold for the time being. “We still need to do some work on the first act of the script,” she admits. “We haven’t been able to get development meetings at times because Sigma had two films in varying stages of production and if you are merely in development–well, you have to wait your turn,” she adds.
As for the third project, calls to Sigma–Zentropa‘s Scottish producing partner and the shepherds of the Advance Party project–and emails to the Danish director Norgaard were not returned. In January, Variety‘s Adam Dawtrey reported that Norgaard dropped out.
Indeed, while Arnold and McKinnon have kept in touch, “we’re not sure what’s happened to the Danish director,” says McKinnon. “I heard something vague about him not being involved anymore.”