Andrea Arnold, Fish Tank

Long before she became an Oscar-winning filmmaker, Dartford native Andrea Arnold settled on a path that was anything but conventional. After moving to London in the late ’70s, she worked as a dancer on Top of the Pops, and later became a TV presenter in Britain for Saturday-morning kids’ programs like No. 73, Motormouth, and the enviro-awareness series A Beetle Called Derek. Never entirely comfortable in front of the cameras, Arnold was always writing, logging story ideas and character sketches. She left television in the early ’90s, went to film school, and made two shorts that screened at Cannes. In 2003, her 26-minute short Wasp, about a chronically stressed, emotionally desperate single mother living in a Dartford housing project, nabbed an Academy Award for best live-action short. Then came Arnold’s Cannes Jury Prize winner Red Road(2006), a raw, suspenseful, ingeniously constructed personal drama set mostly in a dark CCTV surveillance office in Glasgow. It was the kind of film—moody, absorbing, nerve-jarring, expressionistic—that made you sit up and take notice of this remarkably assured new filmmaker, and wonder where she would direct her energies next.

With Fish Tank, Arnold revisits the distressed, working-class locales of her earlier work, telling the story of Mia (Katie Jarvis in a confident and steadfastly believable performance), a 15-year-old girl growing up in a nondescript council estate in Kent. Angry, alienated from her female peers, and frustrated with life at home—she’s always at odds with curvy-cougar mom Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and petulant younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), the three of them continually trading obscenities and cutting remarks—Mia finds peace in solitary self-expression, dancing freestyle to hip-hop tunes in an abandoned flat. Things change when Joanne brings home new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender), a strapping presence in the all-female household who wins hostile Mia over with his easygoing, paternal airs, giving her the respectful attention and flattery she craves, but also stirring the volatile teen’s first exhilarating pangs of desire. Arnold stays skin-close to Mia as the story develops, DP Robbie Ryan’s camera tracking her every fitful movement, whether she’s head-butting a rival, fleeing a menacing pack of boys, or woozily regarding Connor as he tucks her in. Even when their rapport takes on a troubling cast, Arnold never hits an obvious beat, which makes Fish Tank‘s mix of hard-knock realism and tenderly observed adolescent portraiture even more impressive (it won the Cannes Jury Prize last May), evoking the kitchen-sink-style Brit dramas of yesteryear as well as an angstier, often dizzyingly sensual spin on the coming-of-age tale that feels utterly fresh and contemporary.
Filmmaker spoke with Arnold about her faith in cinema, the simple act of observing everyday life, and why her New Year’s resolution is to dance every day.
IFC Films releases Fish Tank on Friday.
FISH TANK WRITER-DIRECTOR ANDREA ARNOLD. COURTESY IFC FILMS.
Filmmaker: Do you consider yourself a watcher, an obsever?
Arnold: I think I must be. Because when people ask me where does your inspiration come from, I would say absolutely my first answer is life. You know, by sitting on the bus and looking at people or just walking around. I am always seeing things that kickstart my thinking. And that definitely seems to be what I get most excited about. So I’d say that I’m somebody who’s a watcher, an observer. I think we’re all a bit like that to some degree. People who know me well say I notice things they don’t notice.
Filmmaker: Does that mainly concern people and faces or do you think you’re noticing elements in an environment as well that other people might ignore? For instance, do you single out details in settings that are perhaps banal but that speak to you in some way?
Arnold: How something gets going is a mystery, really, isn’t it? For example, the other day I saw a woman walking up to the station. It was very cold, it had been snowing, and she had not enough clothes on for the weather. She had a load of kids and she was pushing a pram up the hill, and she was kind of shouting at the kids, I don’t know what they were doing. I could tell she was trying to hurry for a train. She had some track-suit bottoms on and they’d kind of slipped down, and you could see this expansive flesh at the back. It seemed such an intimate thing to me. I was behind her, and I just started imagining her whole life and a house and what it was like. And that is the kind of thing that I will go and write down and think about. And it grows. I’m always saying that my films have all started with images, so I would consider that potentially a starting place for a whole story. Sometimes the images are not things I see, but they come to my mind out of nowhere. But there’s probably made-up things too, and they’re stored somehow. That’s how I work. When people say “Where do ideas for films come from?,” I think, well, just walk down the street! There’s a thousand faces and you can imagine a thousand lives. Everybody’s life has got drama.
Filmmaker: How does that act of note-taking play more specifically into the craft of your filmmaking?
Arnold: Ever since I was very small I’ve kept notebooks and written down things I’ve seen. I can’t remember the first time I started doing it, but I was probably at primary school, I’d have been about eight or nine. Sometimes I’ll expand on an idea, I’ll write about it and see where it leads, and just write some notes down. I often find when I start writing a script, I don’t go back to those books. I might flip through and refresh my mind, but to be honest, I think it goes on and stays there, you don’t need a ntoebook. Your brain is the notebook. I don’t really use a lot of what I’ve written down. And if I’m writing, when I’ve got an image that I’ve decided I want to explore, I usually write around it and try and work out its context. I’ll let my brain be quite free and see what happens. Then it will take more shape.
Filmmaker: It plays out in the actual aesthetic of your films, too, in the sense that we have such a strong point of view, and perspective. In Red Road, for instance, there’s the surveillance aspect, but the information we receive is all through one character’s point of view. In Fish Tank, Mia’s point of view dominates the film. What is it about that approach that you think works best for the stories that you want to tell?
Arnold: I always make a decision based on what feels right. I really do trust my instincts. It’s not like I’ve made a plan to do that. I don’t work that way. Probably the script is written from one person’s point of view, and it just feels right to me. When you’re watching, if you’re going to get very involved with someone, it feels right to be with them all the time. In an earlier draft of Fish Tank, I experimented with having scenes with the mom by herself because I knew that, seen through Mia’s point of view, she was going to be hard to empathize with. I had a scene that got cut where Mia goes into [Joanne’s] room and she goes through a bag next to the bed and in it is all the things to do with her kids that she saved, little pictures and photos and certificates, all crumpled in the carrier bag. I think that would have said quite a lot about her mom, that underneath she does care about them. But when we put the edit together, it was one of those things that didn’t sit easily, so it didn’t get used, which I was always a little bit sad about but think was the right decision. So it does bring challenges doing it from one person’s perspective, but I think it also brings an intimacy. Sometimes people say to me, I feel like I’m in your film or I feel like I’m really experiencing it, it’s uncomfortable. I think that’s probably because of that very intimate perspective.
Filmmaker: On the other side of things, because you portray characters so honestly, warts and all, and because we get to see them in all their complexity—they’re not romanticized, idealized people—that brings us closer too. How do you get actors to embody these people in the way that you’ve imagined?
Arnold: I don’t know [Laughs]. I have this real faith in cinema. I’m always amazed when you finish filming and then you put an assembly together. I know this sounds really silly, but whenever I see it, I think wow, that’s a whole world that now exists! And it’s always a surprise to me, because making a film is so complicated. Every day is full of stops and starts, and it’s not a very fluid thing. It’s quite brutal and clumsy, the whole machinery of it. Then when you put it together and [see] this world that you’ve created, I’m amazed every time. Wow, look at that! I never sort of believe it’s going to happen.
Filmmaker: And the authenticity comes from …
Arnold: One of the main things is casting. If you cast close to what you’ve written, then you’re almost there. For Fish Tank, I was always looking for a real authentic girl that was close to what I’d written. Although Katie isn’t Mia, she’s got the vulnerability and also the spirit of her. I didn’t ask her to really be anything other than herself. And that’s often what my main note is to the actors. If I’ve cast close, then I’m not really wanting them to be anything other than themselves. When I saw the assembly, I thought Oh, she’s not Katie, she’s Mia! Because I’ve written her lines and I’ve decided what she’s wearing and I’ve given her a place to live, all these decisions add up to this world being believeable. So it’s a combination of all those decisions that you make. Nothing gets put in front of the camera that you haven’t thought about. I didn’t know if it was going to feel like a performance or not, but I was really pleased and surprised to think, She is the girl that I wrote, because I wasn’t sure.
Filmmaker: Personally, I like films that are daring and bold and visceral and challenging, especially when they examine the lives of people we rarely see, people who are invisible and generally ignored by society. And I think there’s a great tradition of this kind of filmmaking in Britain, especially, beginning with the kitchen-sink dramas and Ken Loach, all the way up to the present, with Lynne Ramsay and Michael Winterbottom and many others, including you. What keeps you invested in working in that one milieu?
Arnold: I don’t have a choice, it just seems to pick me. I don’t think I have any say over what stories I seem. I told you about that woman I saw. I wanted to go back and write about her straight away. That’s how it works. I don’t have an intellectual thought about oh, I’m going to make a film about this world or these people or this subject or theme. It’s not like I have a plan, really.
Filmmaker: But location is very important to you, isn’t it?
Arnold: Because to some degree, with the stories I’ve been telling as well, where you’re born and where you grew up has a huge impact on how your life is. Your circumstances and the things you’re born into are everything, especially when you’re young. I think maybe that’s why I get wrapped up with the environment and location when I’m filming. It matters and it says something about people—who they are and how they live. All my films have had that element. When I think about the next thing I’ll do, I know I’ll do it again because it’s almost like a character, the location.
Filmmaker: I think it’s easy for people to describe these settings around the council estates as bleak because I see you as approaching it from a completely different place.
Arnold: Oh, thank you for saying that, because I hate it when people say “grim.” Somebody the other day said “Did you pick the grimmest places in Essex to film?” And I said, you know, I don’t see that place as grim. It’s brutal, it’s maybe difficult, it’s got a sadness to it, that particular place where they live in the film. There used to be a lot of industry and it’s all closed down. There’s a lot of unemployment. There used to be a big Ford factory, and great huge car parks. All those car lots are empty now and the grass is growing up in the tarmac. But it’s got a wilderness, and huge, great skies. It’s a mixed thing. I don’t want to see it as grim. I’m fed up with that word. I think people are always looking for simplistic ways for summing things up. So I’m really happy you said that.
Filmmaker: One of the things I notice about the atmosphere we find ourselves immersed in, as viewers of your films, is that there is a fairly constant and palpable tension, certainly in Red Road. And in Fish Tank, it erupts at a certain moment. There is a turn in the story where it becomes a different kind of film.
Arnold: People have asked me about this tension before. And I’ve been trying to work it out. When I first wrote Red Road and I gave it to some people to read, they said “It’s a thriller.” And I went, Oh, really? I don’t think it is. Someone said to me, in a thriller, the audience is supposed to know as much as the protagonist. That’s what they told me, from some school of filmmaking. Obviously, we don’t know as much as Jackie does. I was always trying to explore with us just watching her and not always having everything explained. I like to push that as far as I can. I wonder if it’s something to do with point of view, because if you’re living with someone that intensely, and if things are dramatic in their lives, I think you feel it with them more. I wonder if that’s where the tension comes from. You know as much as they do, and it’s a bit more visceral.
Filmmaker: In Mia’s case, there’s an emotional intensity she’s experiencing that we feel while we’re on this journey with her. The stress of her immediate domestic environment, the conflict she has with Joanne, which is masking all these competitive tensions between mother and daughter, and also the desire that’s she’s beginning to feel for Connor. Dance is an outlet for her, and becomes even a form of communication at one point.
Arnold: For me, the dancing in the film is about her having something that’s her own. She has to be quite defensive in her life and she seems to have nowhere she can be at home. Everywhere she’s got her guard up. So this is a place where she can let that down a bit. I wanted her to have something that was her own, so dancing seemed like a good thing. It’s one of life’s real pleasures. Apparently, there was a Cambridge professor who did a study on happiness—it took him five years—and he came back and said dancing made people happy. I could have told him that in ten seconds! [Laughs] You know, I’ve always loved dancing, but my New Year’s resolution is to dance every day. I just put on some music and dance. I don’t dance as much as I used to and I miss it, and I was thinking, why do you have to go anywhere? Just dance in your room. Maybe it was Mia who gave me the idea. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: What an amazing resolution. Reintroducing that in your life must also be a way of you connecting with somebody you used to be long ago.
Arnold: Yeah. What I love about filmmaking is that everything I’ve ever done in my life, it all seems to come into the filmmaking. Anything I’ve done. Dancing is something I used to do and when you’re working with cameras and actors, it is a bit like putting movement together and it reminds me of dancing, the choreography between actors and cameras. So that’s what I loved about it when I started. Everything I’ve ever done now makes sense. It isn’t redundant anymore.