Andrea Arnold on Red Road
Andrea Arnold’s beautifully crafted first feature, Red Road, the follow-up to her Oscar-winning short film, Wasp, was shot on digital video and exploits a fresh, bold palette in telling the story of Jackie (Kate Dickie), an alienated Glasgow policewoman whose job is to watch Glasgow’s banks on surveillance monitors. One day, she notices a man behaving unusually and, becoming fixated on him, crosses a line. Stepping out from behind her monitors, she follows him towards the dangerous housing project called Red Road…
Why is she so obsessed with this figure, a man she first glimpses as a shadow, almost a ghost, on her vast wall of surveillance monitors? The very contemporary paranoia and potential for violence, sexual and otherwise, that simmers throughout Arnold’s taut, tense and starkly beautiful film is nightmarish yet haunting. The film is the first of three from The Advance Party, an enterprise produced and developed by Glasgow’s Sigma Films and Zentropa, the Danish production company long associated with Lars von Trier. Each participating writer-director was supplied with an outline for a film set to star the same nine actors playing the same characters — a sort of repertory company format.
“The scripts can take their starting point in one or more characters or they may be subjected to an external drama,” filmmaker Lone Scherfig and Zentropa director Anders Thomas Jensen wrote in their instructions to the different directors. “The films take place in Scotland but apart from that the writers are free to place them anywhere according to geography, social setting or ethnic background. Their backstories can be expanded, family relations can be created between them, they can be given habits good or bad, and secondary characters can be added if it is proper for the individual film. The interpersonal relationships of the characters differ from film to film and they may be weighted differently as major or minor characters. The development of the characters in each story or genre does not affect the other scripts. All of the characters must appear in all of the films. The various parts will be cast with the same actors in the same parts in all of the films.” Rules, yes, but Red Road is so much more than a stunt. The 46-year-old writer-director’s debut won the Cannes 2006 Jury Prize; Filmmaker spoke to Arnold and Dickie the Sundance Film Festival.
FILMMAKER: The Advance Party “rules” seem more interesting than Dogma rules in one way: they’re boundaries to ricochet your imagination off of rather than formal things.
ARNOLD: Yeah, mmm. [The Dogma rules] were more kind of technical restrictions, weren’t they? In a way, [these] are perhaps more creative restrictions. I’ve always thought that if you gave [different directors] the same script, you’d get completely different films. [laughs] Okay, maybe the same story, but completely different films.
FILMMAKER: I’m curious about the temperature of the character the two of you were trying to create together. Jackie’s a watcher, and later, the watcher who is watched, and your choices cause us to be sympathetic to Jackie while she’s doing things that are suspect. So I’m wondering, how do you devise watching a watcher? As an audience, we’re always watching but here we are watching someone who’s doing a cruel, destructive, self-destructive version of what we do at the movies.
ARNOLD: I would say that I don’t have the kind of ideas you’re talking about before I start making a film. I work, really, outwards from the character. I mean, Jackie had about four sentences [in the script as a character description]. The description I was given was that she was cool and aloof and that she had this terrible thing happen to her in the past. And when I thought about her some more, I decided that she was very separate from life because of this terrible thing, but she didn’t want to be separate from life. She wanted to get back to life. So I got this idea that she was a watcher, she was watching. I thought a CCTV [closed circuit television] operator would be a great job that would echo her [state of mind]. And that she had an affair with a married man once every two weeks to keep herself from shutting down completely. I gave her her job and pretty much everything else, really. That’s how I started, if you like, devising her as a watcher — from the character description.
FILMMAKER: It’s usually dangerous, and sometimes insulting to directors to talk about influences, but it is shorthand to get at the work. Certainly Red Road is going to be aligned with Rear Window and movies by Michael Haneke, like Caché.
ARNOLD: Yeah, I’ve had that lots.
FILMMAKER: I find a lot of things you do with bold, stylized color and with deep focus into the distance in the night, utilizing the capacity of the new HD format, high definition technology, to be akin to some of the things Lynne Ramsay has done in 35mm in Ratcatcher or Morvern Callar. It’s a willingness to be more elusive with imagery, to be oblique and perhaps cryptic, as well as having no fear of stylized color. Are you actively trying to make things look fresh, to show things in ways they haven’t been shown before?
ARNOLD: I don’t have such conscious kinds of thoughts. I try very hard to work from character and to make decisions, especially with the camera, that feel truthful to the story. But I wouldn’t say it’s that conscious. For example, I made a decision that the camera would never be ahead of the character, that we would go with her. I couldn’t tell you exactly why it needed to be that way, but I felt that we needed to have empathy with her, to experience everything with her and not be ahead of the information. The audience should never have more information than she does. I have had quite a few people say that they get very tense during the film, and I wonder if that’s partly why. You can’t feel safe when you don’t know what’s around the corner. She doesn’t know what’s around the corner, nor do we. I don’t think you always know why when you make a decision. You can’t always intellectualize it. I try very hard to trust myself. Filmmaking is a very long process with a lot of decisions, a lot of thought, but I still think within that, there’s the possibility of being instinctive. And that’s what I aim for. I try to trust myself without always understanding why I make a decision.
FILMMAKER: So how do you discuss things with collaborators like Kate? Do you use a different kind of vocabulary?
ARNOLD: We didn’t interpret very much, did we? It was simpler than that.
DICKIE: It was more instinctive. I felt as soon as I read the script, I thought, God, I know this woman. She’s so familiar to me and I don’t know why. From an actor’s point of view, I just felt [the words] spoke for themselves.
ARNOLD: We had one meeting, then we met a couple times later on, but, really, they were very brief conversations. It didn’t feel like there was a need to have a big, long conversation. We didn’t rehearse. I don’t like rehearsing anyway.
DICKIE: I don’t like rehearsing [either]. In fact, a lot of times I like to shoot on the first take. Some of the freshest things you get are the first time you shoot. It’s kind of nice not to go over and over—
ARNOLD: Kate’s the kind of actress, you can say, “Walk in the room more slowly,” and she will do that. She doesn’t need to know why she walks in the room more slowly. She was very responsive to that kind of direction — we wouldn’t have to go off for ten minutes [to discuss her motivation]. We had 25 days to shoot the main film, and it was winter in Glasgow, so there was six hours of daylight, from 9 to 3. I always want to improvise or try some things a different way, but mainly we had to just get it done. Every day we would have to get a certain amount done. There wasn’t the room for a lot of analyzing or discussion. It was very, very practical. Even the sex scene at the end, that was extremely practical, professional. We had one conversation and we went in and got it done. Everyone was extremely… focused.
FILMMAKER: How important was the editing process to your sculpting of your characters? For example, you take your time revealing certain motivations until very late in the film.
ARNOLD: Yes, there was some discussion about [that]. No one who read the script said, I think [your reveals] are too late. But there were a couple of things in the script that would have subtly given you a few more clues, but in the brutal midst of the shoot, some of those things [got lost]. There were suggestions [later] that to move some [revealing information] up so we would have more empathy for her, but I resisted that quite strongly. But y’know, it’s my first film, and I’m learning!
DICKIE: Audiences get told so much now.
ARNOLD: I love it when I don’t quite understand. That’s where the audience is [most invested], when they don’t understand everything. Also, I like to come away from a film with my own interpretation, to find my own place with it, and I think if you’re lead by your nose, you don’t have that personal experience.