Andrea Arnold’s Cannes competition film “American Honey” is a bit of a schlep at just over two hours and 40 minutes, but there’s a good reason for that: Arnold logged more than 10,000 miles driving cross country with her young cast, whose misfit characters sell magazine subscriptions door to door.
Cannes: Andrea Arnold on the ‘Difficult Times’ Making ‘American Honey’ on the Road in the U.S.
Cannes: Andrea Arnold on the 'Difficult Times' Making 'American Honey' on the Road in the U.S.
The road-trip movie explores the subject of impoverished youth in the U.S., but traveling across the American heartland exposed Arnold to much more than just wealth disparity, and some of what she saw was hard to confront. Arnold discussed the experience at a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival before the film’s big premiere. Here are some of the highlights from that conversation.
On why she chose to make a movie about traveling magazine crews:
It was a New York Times article describing the world of the magazine crews. There was no story there—everything from then on was my imagination and partly what I learned—but that was the nut that started me of wanting to do something about it. There are still a lot of crews who are doing that job and it’s a bit like people who stop you [on the street] and try and get you to buy things for charity. You’re not really buying the magazine. You’re buying the person who is selling you the magazine. That’s what you’re selling. You’re selling yourself. It’s actually really hard work.
On sending her cast to practice trying to sell magazines to people:
When I was sending them improvising, I said they could keep any money they made. We sent everybody out to do some phone footage of them selling. They got chased away by dogs once and someone was going to call the cops on them.
On shooting a movie while driving cross-country in a van:
It’s quite an experience to travel 12,000 miles together. They didn’t know where they were going. No one would tell them. I would literally say to them, ‘Pack up. We’re leaving tomorrow.’ And they wouldn’t know where we were headed.
On making her first feature film in the U.S.:
I didn’t really know the United States intimately. I did a whole lot of road trips by myself because I needed to get to know it and make a connection with it. I haven’t done every single state, but I’ve done across the South, down the East, and down the middle. When I talked to the [real] crews, they told me that everywhere they went was really flat, so then I started doing the East and Texas. It’s quite interesting when you’re traveling by yourself through those places. It does have an impact on how you feel. I had some quite difficult times by myself traveling and being in all that open wilderness. It did make me think about what it was like to be on these crews where you go door to door. They would say that they spent so much time in the van looking out at these empty [landscapes].
On encountering the disparity of wealth in America:
I got to see an awful lot as I was traveling. I got quite upset about some of the towns I went to. It seemed really different to me than in the U.K. When people don’t have money, they can’t get healthcare and they can’t do things like go to the dentist, and those kinds of things really shocked me. One time we were in West Virginia in a tiny town and it had a dollar store, a funeral [parlor], which was flourishing, and about three pharmacies, and I thought, wow, three pharmacies in a small town. We went into one and there were five people behind the counter doing prescriptions. In the U.K, you go into Boots and there’s like one guy back there. I asked what they were prescribing and they said they were dishing out pain killers to older people and anti-depressants to young people. It was a tiny, tiny town and they said there was a lot of addiction to both those things in that town. Those are the kinds of things that I found.
On her influences for the film:
People ask me a lot about my influences on each film, but I actually have this really strange thing when I’m making a film where I don’t want to watch other films. I want to kind of find my own way, so I actually deliberately do not look at other films. I take most of my inspiration for each film based on the world that I’m exploring. I do a lot of research and immerse myself in the places and with the people that I’m going to make the film about. That’s absolutely where I get my inspiration from. I find real life and real people really inspiring.
On using Rihanna’s “We Found Love” as the centerpiece for the soundtrack:
That song’s got quite a personal history for me, which I probably won’t go into. I think it reflects the year when I started writing this, and so it meant a lot to me at the time. And I just love it. I love Rihanna. I’m a big Rihanna fan. I didn’t actually know that we would get it. I wrote to Rihanna, and we got it, which was fantastic.