Human Highway: Writer/Director Andrea Arnold Talks American Honey
Watching the world go by out a car window, a road trip feels like going nowhere and somewhere at the same time. The overpasses and parking lots, they all look enough alike, and then thousands of miles later, by the time you get somewhere new, you’ve changed, a metamorphosis propelled by asphalt and gasoline. The road is a symbol in America, as much as an everyday experience. Last month, Frank Ocean released his album Blonde accompanied with a zine about cars. “We live in cars in some cities, commuting across space either for our livelihood, or devouring fossil fuels for joy,” he wrote in its introduction. “It’s close to as much time we spend in our beds, more for some.” In 1987, Tracy Chapman penned “Fast Car,” capturing the flickering feeling of freedom (“speeds so fast I thought that I was drunk”) amidst claustrophobic circumstances (“any place is better / starting from zero got nothing to lose”). In American Honey, out this Friday, filmmaker Andrea Arnold seizes on these same feelings of indigence, abandon and striving with her visceral road odyssey, which follows 18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane) as she journeys through Kansas, Texas, and North Dakota, in a van full of itinerant youth with tattoos and flat-brimmed caps, selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door and in truck stop parking lots.
The British director’s fourth feature finds the breakout actress Lane, who Arnold discovered on a beach during spring break, starring opposite Shia LaBeouf, who plays Jake, the lead salesman in the magazine crew. Jake and Star first kiss on a sprawling front lawn in a well-to-do neighborhood in Kansas City. Jake’s supposed to be teaching her how to sell. They first fuck in Texas in a car they steal from some oil-rich cowboys after Star sells them all magazine subscriptions. It’s a love triangle of sorts as Jake is also the errand boy and maybe boytoy of the ultra-bitch boss Krystal (Riley Keogh), who rides ahead of the crew in a convertible. The rest of the mag crew riding in the van and rooming together in motels were street cast like Lane. The textures of their different accents and hip hop meets skater fashions brings an authenticity to the movie.
Arnold first heard about these traveling companies of youth from The New York Times. The 2007 article she read paints a grim portrait of life on the road, full of “violence, drug use, indebtedness, and the cheating of customers.” And while some of the details in Arnold’s film are lifted right from the article, like men missing their sales quotas being forced to fight one another, the director takes a different tone. While she captures the rough edges and economic realities, she doesn’t dwell on the situation with any melodrama or moralizing, instead weaving an expressionistic and exhilarating narrative heightened by the big emotions of a largely diegetic Top 40 soundtrack. For Star, this life seems better than the one she left behind, dumpster diving to put food on the table for her drunk boyfriend’s kids. Working with the crew, she figures out how to make a living and earns moments of ecstasy, fucking, dancing, and driving. To quote the Rihanna song that becomes a centerpiece of the film, Star finds “love in a hopeless place.”
Filmmaker: Did you go on road trips yourself to research the film?
Arnold: Yeah, I did a lot of driving around, following lots of different paths, all around the South just talking to people, driving and watching.
Filmmaker: Was that before you wrote the film or after?
Arnold: It was over quite a long period of time. I would go do that and come back and work on writing. Every time I went it informed something else [in the script.] But it was more about making an emotional connection the the places. Because I’ve been to America. I’ve lived in L.A. for a year. I’ve been to New York. I’d been to a few other places, but I’d never really done the middle. I’d go these places and then I’d talk to people who are from the U.S., and they’d say, “God, I’ve never been there.” I think it’s so crazy. You’ve got this huge, big country with so much to see and actually lots of people don’t go see it.
Filmmaker: In the film, Kansas City and North Dakota are pretty heavily featured. What made you choose those places?
Arnold: We had to pick a route, and a lot of the mag crew kids told me that mid-America was a large part of their journeying. So we started in Muskogee, Oklahoma and Williston, North Dakota. It was really interesting picking a route, and it was quite fun to get a map of America out and think, where should we go next. But actually, when I’d talk about the mag crew kids, my New York friends would say, “Oh I’ve never heard about this thing.” But then when we were in the Midwest, scouting locations and knocking on doors, people there said, “Oh yeah, we get these kids around here all the time.” So it seemed like we did pick a genuine route where they actually go.
And when I talked to the kids in these crews, they talked a lot about looking out the window and the scenery, the vastness never changing, the green and the sky, being these two blocks. They talked about how a lot of their journey was just staring out the window, going from one city to another. I remember one girl that it used to really get her down that that was the view. I thought, “That must be quite tough, sitting in the van all day long for hours and hours and hours, looking out.” But then, I started to think, “No, they can’t think that there’s nothing out the window. There’s always something out the window.” So I tried to look for all the little things. I thought, “It can’t just be a flat line. There’s going to be undulating horizons and in different places, the birds are going to be different and the trees are going to be different.” So I started to find all these sorts of textures, not when I was filming but just when it was me. I just tried to look a bit more closely.
Filmmaker: Yeah, I love going on road trips. I love discovering that sameness and the difference. I think what your film really captures is this commercial Americana that’s consistent. There are these motels and these K-Mart parking lots everywhere you go.
Arnold: Yeah, there’s a shot at the end, of all the shops going past the window, all the regular chain stores. It actually isn’t quite the shot I imagined in my head. The town we actually ended up in didn’t quite have the intensity that I would have liked. But we did this long tracking shot. And then when we screened the film for the first time, somebody from England came up to me after and said, “That shot you got, that was amazing. How did you get that? Where was that?” And I thought, “That’s everywhere!”
Filmmaker: Some of your other films have also had a very intense relationship to place, but they’ve been set almost entirely in one structure, like an apartment building. So how was this road movie different from other films you’ve worked on?
Arnold: We were traveling all the time, so it was very different in that way. Things were changing all the time. In my other films, by the time we filmed, I really got to know the locations. When we were filming, I knew what I was dealing with. Whereas in this film, I had less of a handle on the places that we went to. I’d done so much traveling. Some of the locations, I’d got to know pretty well. I made connections to certain places. Like I love West Virginia. I made a good connection there.
I wanted a farmhouse in North Dakota, and I didn’t know what kind of farmhouse we were going to get. In my mind, it was a big old rambly farmhouse, one of those Anne of Green Gables farmhouses, that’s falling down and surrounded by big, huge fields. In my head, I had this fantastic idea, which of course didn’t exist exactly like it was in my head. And when we filmed in the farmhouse we found, I hadn’t gotten to really know it yet. It wasn’t quite the idea I had, but that’s always what happens.
Filmmaker: With regards to your character’s psychological relationship to place, it’s interesting because she feels trapped but she’s not trapped in one environment, like one room or one apartment complex. She’s surrounded by this expansive freedom, but she still doesn’t have very many options.
Arnold: I don’t see her as really being trapped, but I guess she is physically stuck in the van sometimes. But I don’t think that that’s trapped.
Filmmaker: It seems like because of her material circumstances, she can’t leave the crew. She doesn’t have many options.
Arnold: I’m not feeling that she wants to leave the crew. I think that’s your interpretation, as opposed to mine, but that is good. I leave room and people can put themselves there.
Filmmaker: You seem to capture Star’s perspective really viscerally. What decisions go into planning out the film’s visual language?
Arnold: When I’m writing, I’m always seeing what I’m writing. Obviously, I work with what I find as well, but a lot of things in the film are in my head and on the page from the beginning. So it starts with the writing. I’m always seeing the film, and sometimes I get really frustrated when I can’t see it.
Filmmaker: So it’s very instinctual?
Arnold: I know the essence of it and I know what it’s heart is during the writing, but I’m also open to what we discover, because it’s filmmaking. You go out with some intentions and then you’re faced with all the things that are different from what you expected. So I’m always kind of open, I always keep the heart of what it was and I kind of want it to be there. And some things we’ll be very dogged about making sure we get. I write dogs into my scripts.
Filmmaker: Oh, I love that shot of the dog in the motel parking lot.
Arnold: The one in the Superman outfit? He’s in the script. There was a whole sequence of him getting dressed up by some kids which didn’t quite happen, but he was written into the script. Those little things are how I see the world and how I interpret the world. I put them in my writing as well.
Filmmaker: Another detail is how Star is always rescuing little bugs. Some of these moments feel improvisational. How did you approach working with your cinematographer Robbie Ryan?
Arnold: Yeah, we have a long history, and we have almost like a silent language. We’ve worked together for so long, and we have a fantastic relationship. We have to say less and less to each other each time we work on a film. There are certain things that are my style that he’s gotten to know very well. For example, shooting all the birds that are around me. In the early days, I would say, “Can you get me that bird?” And I noticed on this film, for the first time, I would say, “Oh could you get that really amazing bird or there’s this frog or could you get these tadpoles?” And he’s say, “Done it. Done it. Done it.” It’s rare. He knows me so well.
Filmmaker: Star with the bugs is a small thing that really establishes her character. I also noticed that while Jake and the others take on this idea of the American Hustler and they are always selling by lying to people, Star has a different approach. When she’s successful making a sell, it’s because she’s being honest.
Arnold: I’m really happy you just said that because there was actually a scene that we cut out that really sums it up. I was worried, actually, that when we cut that out, it wouldn’t be clear. There’s this scene where she’s selling door to door and she rings the doorbell and this one house and there’s a Mexican cleaner who says, “There’s no one in.” I love her saying that there’s no one there when she is there. But Star sees that this woman has no money. It’s her first time selling and she wants to impress Jake, but she knows this woman can’t buy a magazine, so she doesn’t try to sell to her.
Filmmaker: The soundtrack is such a big part of the movie. How did you conceive of it? What made you choose these songs like the Rihanna song “We Found Love,” and the song the movie gets its name from, “American Honey?”
Arnold: When I went out with the mag crew, they played music all the time. It’s a large part of their lives. And I love my music, too, and I completely understand why they love it. When they’re on the road, they dance together, they sing together, they play music by themselves when they’re feeling sad. If they need to think about something else, they wear headphones, to get away from everyone [even when they don’t have space to themselves.] I felt like music was almost a character, because it was so important to them. Anyone who loves music knows that you can be in a rotten mood and put on a song and it can completely change your mood. It’s just got that emotional ability to completely transform how you’re feeling, or to represent how you’re feeling or to allow you to feel something you didn’t maybe feel before. I think for the kids in these crews, music is an emotional touchstone, and it’s a way of them expressing themselves.
Filmmaker: And what made you choose the particular songs?
Arnold: Rihanna was always playing on my road trips. “American Honey” was always playing. I became emotionally connected to those songs. I’d be driving around, playing the local radio and they would come on a lot and they had a certain resonance for me. Then, the E-40 song, the crew I hung out with played a lot. They were always singing it. It was a huge anthem for them. I really wanted to have that in the film because it was actually very joyful. It was so true to them.
Filmmaker: The kids in the crew seemed really into hip hop music and aesthetics. They are these white disenfranchised youth that seem really to identify black culture.
Arnold: Maybe they’re into it because they relate, because they are also disenfranchised.
Filmmaker: I was also curious about the casting decisions with regards to the fact that it was pretty much, all white kids in the crew excepting Star, who is bi-racial. So I was wondering if that was representative of these crews?
Arnold: What I heard is that they have white crews and black crews. The Black crews go in certain areas and wouldn’t be accepted in certain areas, and the white crews will be accepted and not accepted in certain areas.
Filmmaker: That makes sense. Watching the film I was thinking, even though these kids don’t have a lot, they have a certain privilege. In the same situation, if black kids were going door to door in these fancy neighborhoods, the police could get called, they could get shot.
Arnold: Yeah, I think the crews do think about those things.
Filmmaker: I imagine with your cast and film crew, you were traveling around much the same way the mag crew travels around in the movie. Was there a similar sort of family dynamic that developed? Did you guys develop your own rituals? Was there a parallel between what was happening on and off screen?
Arnold: There was a lot of partying. We had a lot of car lot parties. We were basically staying in those motels that you see in the movie where you pull your car right up to your door, you know, the roadside motels, which I just absolutely love. What’s nice about them is they’re sociable. You come out of your door and you sit on a chair and then the person next door comes out of their door, sits in the chair, and you chat.
After our first day of filming in Muskogee, there was an almighty storm and a storm warning. First of all, we were all out and we were all having a few drinks and just chatting and we got some music going. And then, this storm came and it was huge and amazing. The storms in the middle of America just were staggering, just huge lightning, amazing lightning. And so, everybody scuttled back into their rooms, running away from the storm and all that. But then, after about maybe 15 or 20 minutes, everyone came out again because no one wanted to be in their rooms by themselves. And they had it in this little awning, and we had basically a party, under this small shelter. We were all chatting and sort of moving around, down this line to stay keeping within. It was pouring and the lightning was going. We were all watching the lightning and it was just fantastic. That’s a good memory.
Filmmaker: How did you cast all these non-actors?
Arnold: I always wanted to cast real people, as much as possible. We went to a few places in America. One of the first places we went to was Panama City Beach down in Florida, because it’s spring break down there, and also, because they have a lot of people from America gravitate down there because you can get work and it’s sunny. So there are a lot of kids down there who have left home or are running away. A lot of teenagers go down there looking for work. Also the mag crews do come from all over America and I wanted to represent that.
Filmmaker: And so in the film, when they’re kind of introducing themselves, and all the different places they are from, those are the real places they are from?
Filmmaker: Do they go by their real names in the film too?
Arnold: No. I think where they came from was the same because I wouldn’t want them to be faking accents. But their stories are not necessarily their own stories.
Filmmaker: What motivated them to be a part of the film? And what was the commitment like for them?
Arnold: I think a lot of them were almost not sure it was real. We had to convince some of them that it was. They were all really up for it. We met an awful lot more that we could have cast, and I would have liked to have had a whole convoy of mag crews because there were so many lovely kids that we met. They were all really enthusiastic about it. I think some of them didn’t have jobs and didn’t have anything to lose by trying.
But I mean, all the ones that are on that crew were all really up for it. I think some of them didn’t have jobs and didn’t have anything to lose by trying. And a lot of people came out for it and we had like massive parking lot auditions.
Filmmaker: How did you approach working with non-actors?
Arnold: Every scene is different. It depends on who’s in it and I see every scene as an exploration as we come to it. I’ve lived with [directing] quite a long time, so it’s kind of part of my DNA. So I have that in me already when I go to work with them.
We would do maybe one or two scenes a day. It just depends on who’s there. Some of them that aren’t actors, if I gave them too many lines, they didn’t like that. They’d be uncomfortable. So I would take lines away or give them advice. It just depends on the individual. Somebody who’s never acted before and another person who’s not acted before would have completely different ideas about what makes them feel comfortable. So I just tried to work with them individually. It’s a balancing act, trying to get what I need for the film, but also listening to them and letting them feel comfortable. Each scene is completely different. Every time I go in, I don’t quite know how it’s going to work out.
I wrote a lot of little traditions, little games and stuff into the script. I wanted to have that in the Rihanna song when there’s that drop, they would have to stop and hit that drop. This was at the very beginning of filming, I gave them a sort of Rihanna drop lesson. But it was at the very, very beginning. There was a lot going on. They haven’t acted before. They were very shy. There was a bit of rebelling against that, so I dropped it.
Filmmaker: I was really curious how the scene when they’re all singing “American Honey” together came about?
Arnold: They all knew the song anyway. I hadn’t told them anything about that song apart from the one girl, Veronica, who was supposed to sing it. And on the day when we were doing it, she couldn’t sing because she had lost her voice. She wasn’t able to sing it very well. We had to keep doing takes, and she was struggling. And then they were all just joining in to help her out, and the scene became what it was. It was our last day, and I think they all were quite emotional because we were a part of this journey for a long time, and we were all going to be splitting up in a day or two. I think that had a quite a big impact on some of them, because there was so much camaraderie between us. So that mood was in the air.
Filmmaker: How did you find Sasha? Did you discover her in Panama City, too?
Arnold: Panama City, yeah, but a lot later, because we had someone else in West Virginia who was going to be playing her role. She dropped out three weeks before we started filming. So I just got on a plane and went to Panama because it was spring break again. I thought, “I’ve got to go and see if I can find someone.” I went with Lucy [Pardee], who was casting the film. We sat on the beach for days, just watching, and we saw Sasha. She was with a gang of her friends. They were messing around. And she stood out. What was interesting about her was that she was healthily suspicious, but also completely up for it and open to the possibility that this is going to be a genuine real thing.
And then I got her to work with some of the others who we’d already cast who live there. They all hit it off. I even asked her to twerk on the roof of a car and she just jumped up and did it. I thought, “Yeah, this is the girl!” (Laughs). She just fit in straight away. She never acted before, but she was so open to trying. And she was like that throughout the whole film. She would try anything I asked her all the time. She would always try. But she’s amazing, actually. She’s a really special girl. She has a fantastic spirit. What a ride for her. I can’t imagine.