Andrea Arnold on Honing Her Next Project as Film Society of Lincoln Center’s First Filmmaker in Residence
Andrea Arnold is still a little jet-lagged. Meeting me at Indie Food & Wine, the restaurant inside Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunim Munroe Film Center, the Oscar-winning director of the short film Wasp, and the acclaimed features Red Road, Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights, has barely settled after flying into New York a day earlier. It’s four days before the start of the 51st New York Film Festival, and Arnold hasn’t even gotten a chance to look over the main slate. “All I’ve done is put a lot of food in my freezer,” the English filmmaker says.
Arnold has good reason to stock up on provisions. As the Film Society’s inaugural Filmmaker in Residence, she’s arrived in New York as one of the key stars of this year’s festival, and she’ll be sticking around the city for six weeks, working with a committee of peers who recently selected her to fine-tune her next project and take advantage of a wealth of mentorship opportunities (among the Advisory Board members involved with the program are Brady Corbet, Larry Gross, Tamara Jenkins, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Schrader, Bennett Miller, and Ira Sachs). Established in partnership with sponsor Jaeger-LeCoultre, the Filmmaker in Residence initiative aims to nurture the earlier stages of a filmmaker’s creative process, as well as offer master classes and other programs involving Film Society members, industry professionals, and the public.
For Arnold, 52, it presented the ideal chance for her to immerse herself not just in a community of peers, but in American culture, which should prove beneficial given that the script she’ll be honing here is for her first stateside feature. Among many other things, Arnold explains that the forthcoming movie, a road-trip film about magazine-selling youths, sent her on an expedition through the U.S. heartland, complete with a start in Kansas and an encounter with a tornado. Yes, it’s all very Oz-like, and now the writer-director has landed in a buzzing city, which, if not emerald, is rife with attractions Arnold is eager to seek out in relation to her work. And she’s giving back too: During her stay she’ll be visiting schools to chat about her craft, and on Thursday, Oct. 3, she’ll be taking part in a panel discussion at the Elinor Bunin Munroe amphitheater opposite the likes of Gross, Jenkins, and writers Henry Bean and Naomi Foner.
With the whirlwind of it all still settling, Arnold shares her thoughts on the honor, her immersive filmmaking practices, and how every project marks a new beginning.
Filmmaker: While I certainly don’t want to downplay your unique and gender non-specific talents that landed you this opportunity, I was thrilled to learn that a female filmmaker had been chosen for this, given how few we have in the business. It’s as if the program wants to establish, straight out of the gate, that we need to support great female directors.
Arnold: I get asked about this a lot, and it’s often very difficult to answer. I mean, obviously there aren’t very many women filmmakers. One time I was at Toronto [International Film Festival], and they have a list of 400-or-whatever films, and I counted the number of women amongst those. And it was so few. And it’s something that every knows about — that there are very few women directors. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a film-industry thing. Isn’t it more just like, the way the world is? In all kinds of professions you get fewer women. It really is a shame that there aren’t more [female directors], because film is a huge reflection of the way we live — a mirror to reflect who we are. And to mostly, only get male reflections is a great pity.
Filmmaker: How did you hear about this program?
Arnold: I got nominated, and that was the first I heard of it. I just got an email saying that I’d been nominated. And that wasn’t that long ago. I hadn’t submitted anything, and I’m not sure how it worked. They must have asked people for nominations, but all of that was done completely without my knowledge. I don’t know who else was nominated, but I got the email, and I thought, “Wow, that is a fantastic thing.” And, at that point, I could decide whether or not I wanted to [pursue it]. Because obviously it’s a big time commitment, and not everyone will be available. But, in fact, it was actually very good timing for me, and perfect for the project I’m working on. So that this opportunity just dropped into my inbox was a really great thing. It was relevant, and it seemed like it was meant to be.
Filmmaker: And the application process involved pitching your next project?
Arnold: Yeah, I applied, and wrote just a little bit about the project I’m working on and what I could spend the time doing, and how it would be helpful. Two or three weeks later I heard I’d been selected. So…fantastic.
Filmmaker: And the the new project is set in America. Can you discuss what it’s about?
Arnold: I’m really bad at talking about things before they’re done, which makes things really difficult in these circumstances! [Laughs]
Filmmaker: Feel free to be as loose and broad as you want in your descriptions.
Arnold: It’s a road film involving a load of kids who range from about 14 to 23. And these kids go around the country selling magazine subscriptions. They’re basically door-to-door salesmen, but they’re mostly teenagers. They leave home and they basically travel America. It’s this whole, sort of Lord of the Flies universe.
Filmmaker: Is New York one of the stops for the kids?
Arnold: It isn’t; although, the film does end in a city, and I haven’t decided which city. So maybe this stay will influence me. And on some level it would be quite appropriate that it was New York. [The film] starts in Kansas, sort of the middle, and at the moment, the script goes from Kansas to Texas to South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, West Virginia. And possibly New York. Possibly somewhere else. When I first started writing it, I took a lot of road trips myself, to get to know America. I went from Utah down to California, and from Texas to Miami, right across the south, during all those tornadoes. And I was right in the middle of all that, which was interesting. I’d be listening to these tornado warnings, and every time I’d stop to look at the weather report, and figure out what to do, I’d be right in the middle of the place the tornado warning was telling you not to go to.
Filmmaker: So were you making plans to take cover amid all of this?
Arnold: Well I asked one of the cleaners at one of the motels, “What do I do if I’m in the car and I see a tornado?” And she said, “Honey, you get out the car and get in a ditch.” And then I said, “What do I do if I see a tornado and I’m in a hotel room?” She said, “Honey, you get in the bathroom and shut the door.” And I said, “I think I’d quite like to see a tornado.” And she said, “Honey, you do not want to see a tornado.” [Laughs] But I’m sure everything she said was good advice, and I thought about it as I was driving through all this. And I did eventually see a tornado, just very far off.
Filmmaker: Now that’s commitment. And this film is set in present-day?
Arnold: Contemporary, yes.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting, since so many people love to proclaim the “death of print media,” and yet these kids are still selling magazines.
Arnold: Yup. Well, it adds a certain kind of pressure to them. There are thousands of them out there doing it right now.
Filmmaker: So what aspects of that project are being fostered here? I know the program describes the mentoring of earlier stages of the creative process, and since you haven’t decided on New York anyway, I’m assuming there won’t be any actual filming happening.
Arnold: No. I mean, I might be shooting here, but I’m focusing on a second draft [of the script]. I finished a first draft, which I recently handed in [to Focus Features and Film 4]. So I’ll be working on a second draft while I’m here, and I’ve also got another project that I’m quite interested in researching while I’m here. So I’m going to start working on that. It’s another contemporary project involving kids, and it’s sort of guerilla, involving this kind of underground, subculture. So I’m going to go meet a lot of the kids. And if I can, I’d like to meet some casting directors for both [upcoming projects]. And maybe meet some people who could work on the film. So there’s some start-of-production processes going.
Filmmaker: Will you be working closely with any of the advisory board members? The nominating committee?
Arnold: Yeah, the plan is for me to sort of talk and work with some people, but I haven’t actually had a chance to do that yet. We’re meeting later. I’ve seen something that they’ve planned for me, which is basically having mentors, and talking to people, and progressing the script, which, actually is fantastic. Having other screenwriters to talk to and discuss your work with is a luxury. I often work a lot in isolation, so what I love about this is, apart from the set time frame that lets me set a lot of goals while I’m here, is that I can be connected to people who will actually be there for me to talk to, and to give me feedback. It’s very time-consuming to go through a script and give notes, so I often don’t like asking people to do that. But these people have to because they’re part of the program! [Laughs]
Filmmaker: For whatever reason, when I first heard about this program, I thought the selected filmmaker might be a novice, rather than someone established like you. Were you at all surprised in that regard, that they didn’t necessarily want someone more up-and-coming?
Arnold: Well, when I was nominated I just assumed I must have been a candidate. But what I will say is that it never gets easier. Making independent, low-budget films is hard. And every time I start a film, I feel like I’m starting at the beginning, and it’s tough-going. But I guess I have made three films.
Filmmaker: Well, and you’re an Oscar winner.
Arnold: Yes, for a short. But I didn’t know what they were looking for. Who knows if I was nominated alongside people like Lynne Ramsay or Steve McQueen? I don’t know. I think part of it is about whoever can use it to further a project. If you can truly use it, and it’s helpful, then it’s great.
Filmmaker: And it promotes the idea that you never stop learning.
Arnold: You don’t stop learning. And that’s the thing. If there were some kind of recipe of knowing how to do it, every film would be easy. With my project, I know it needs some work, I know it’s got another level to go to, and I liked that I could be here to work on it. A friend of mine calls me a “Method director,” and for me, being in America when I’m actually writing about America is really great. But I haven’t started yet. I’m waiting for some notes. I might ignore every single note and just do what I want, which is normally what I do anyway! [Laughs] No, no, no, no…
Filmmaker: Oh, but I have to use that line.
Arnold: Well usually the notes are about getting you thinking. That’s the whole point. I find that when someone reads your work, the best thing for them to do is to ask you questions, because you find your best solutions. It’s not that they give you particular script notes, it’s more like they ask you, “Well why does he do that?” And you think, “Yeah, why does he do that?” You work it out for yourself.
Filmmaker: And you’re the inaugural filmmaker for this program, so you’re setting the standard.
Arnold: Yeah, I guess that’s a bit of a responsibility, isn’t it? I’m sure every filmmaker will have their own way of making it work. Every filmmaker’s going to be at a different stage when they come, and perhaps be able to use it in a different way. I have a very particular way I can use it right now.
Filmmaker: Is it very challenging doing a film set in America? Because thus far your films have been so innately, utterly European in tone and atmosphere.
Arnold: It is a challenge. But I love to absorb the world in which I’m writing about. That’s one of the things I love about what I do, and that’s why I went on those road trips. I’m absorbing how things look, how they feel, how they smell, how they affect me emotionally, how the landscape is. And that all feeds into my writing. I’m not very good at writing about things I don’t know, and haven’t absorbed. With Red Road, that was set in Glasgow, which I knew nothing about. So I went there early, to take it in, and many people from Glasgow said I really captured it — or, at least a particular part of it. So I’m hoping to be able to the same thing with this next film.
Filmmaker: Well you seem very eager to stretch. Parallels can surely be made between, say, Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights, in terms of their heroines and working-class grit, but there are obviously great differences as well. Are you aiming to be daring in your work?
Arnold: Are my films daring? I guess so. I never think about it. But, yeah, I think this next one’s going to be daring. You know, I’m not really a good judge, because I just do what I think feels right. I never seem to measure it against anything else. I don’t know why I don’t do that. I just do what feels right to me.
Filmmaker: So, the Filmmaker in Residence program is mainly about you, and mentoring you, and focusing on the progress of your next project. But what are you hoping to impart to others while you’re here?
Arnold: Now that’s interesting. I’m going to be going to some schools, and talking. I think I would like to be as open as I can be. And if I have anything to give, when people ask me questions, I hope that I will be able to impart anything that I know. And I don’t know what that might mean for them. I do know that, had I been in school, and someone came and talked to me about filmmaking or writing stories or something, I would have loved it. I love the idea of going to schools and talking to teenagers. It’s a fragile time, that age, and you’re very insecure and very uncertain about your future. And if there were just the odd kid there who wanted to tell stories or go into filmmaking, I might say the something that inspires them to take the next step. You just never know. That’s all you can hope for, really, and that’s what I would like.