Andrea Arnold, Wuthering Heights
Occasionally a period piece comes along that feels neither like the gauzy, ignorantly rendered, idealized versions of the past churned out by the Hollywood of yesteryear nor like the product of our grim, cynical and corporatist postmodern times, the maddening ideological manifestations of which are usually filtered through the perspective of some stooge director. I’m about to tell you about one such film.
As stark and unforgiving as her previous works, Andrea Arnold’s new film finds her pondering the aftermath of a mysterious, multi-pronged trauma for yet another soulful, alienated loner. That this shatteringly potent adaptation of Emily Brontë’s too-often-filmed 19th century English lit classic Wuthering Heights is an absolute provocation has little do with that bit of auteurist observation, however, even if the movie confirms Ms. Arnold to be one of the 21st century’s most essential filmmakers.
Told in a style that is at turns terse and poetic, full of foggy grays and muddy browns and off blacks, her Wuthering Heights is like no other in the family lineage, a work that like most others focuses almost solely on the first half of the book, but which refuses to sentimentalize the situation at all, that broadens the scope of the lives’ lived, that renders the perhaps unconsummated love at its center as unsentimentally as possible and yet still finds a way to let the unfolding tragedy break your heart right along with Catherine’s.
Wuthering Heights premiered at Venice last year, before making its way through a swath of major international festivals from Toronto to Rotterdam. The film opens in limited release, from Oscilloscope Labratories, on Friday.
Filmmaker: Like most adaptations of this book, and as you know there are several…
Arnold: There might be, like, 20 or something.
Filmmaker: At least eight or nine.
Arnold: 28! [laughs]
Filmmaker: Including television miniseries and movies, you’re probably right.
Arnold: I bet there are.
Filmmaker: But like most of those adaptations, you choose to focus almost solely on the first half of the book. Why was that?
Arnold: A few reasons. It was an instinctive decision. I joined this film when it already had some momentum; it was already in development. That was a strange thing for me because normally I start my films from scratch. So I joined something that had a bit of a life already, there had been various actors attached, directors, there was a script. So when I first joined, it already had this life and I didn’t feel like I could just disregard those things, but in the end what I did do was start again on the script from scratch. By the time I started again, there was this momentum to make the film fast. I partly believe in working fast because I think when you work fast you make instinctive decisions and I find that those decisions are often better than the ones you think about too much. I try to retain an instinctive element to what I do as a filmmaker, even though it’s one of the least instinctive mediums that there is because everything takes so long and…
Filmmaker: It’s so collaborative.
Arnold: Yes, there’s collaboration, there’s a lot of money involved, people want to be cared for, people want to be safe, so there’s a lot of thought, a lot of meetings, a lot of discussion involved and sometimes I think that can take away from something being alive, so I partly believe in doing things fast, so I went for it thinking, “This is a very famous book to be adapting in a hurry, but I’m going to go for it and see what happens.”
It was just an instinctive choice to end it where I did. I reread it a couple of times. I love the second half of the book, I think it’s great, I love that it comes full circle and concludes with Heathcliff’s death. It makes it feel complete. Watching my film, it may feel less complete. But I knew in terms of the type of filmmaking I like to do, looking at details and so on, it was just too much for a film. I haven’t seen any of the TV series versions, except for the Laurence Olivier one. If you’re doing TV, you have lots of hours and you can maybe get involved in doing the whole book, but for a film I wasn’t trying to do the whole book, I was trying to capture the essence of it.
When I first started writing it, I wrote it as a contemporary story. I had Earnshaw come across the moors in a car with a foster boy.
Filmmaker: Had the project already been re-imagined to be set in contemporary times when you first came on board?
Arnold: No. There was a script that was set in the past and it focused on Cathy and Heathcliff. It was my idea to look at it in a contemporary way. So I started with the headlights in the moors and this foster boy in the car seat next to him and Hinchley arrived on one of those tracker scooters that they go mad across the countryside with. As I got to know the book a bit more, I realized that there was a lot to do in the book about being female at that time. There are a lot of metaphors and a lot of complaint about being female in the book. I started to feel it was a disservice to Emily to do it in a modern way. That’s why I abandoned that — I thought it was wrong. So I went back to making it period.
That notion stayed with me, though. When I was in Yorkshire, I saw this boy walking by the side of the road wearing a hoodie and I thought, “Heathcliff.” I love the idea of him wearing a hoodie. The old and the new, I like the idea of incorporating them together. That where I got the idea to start it contemporary but then I abandoned that when I discovered what she was really getting at.
Filmmaker: What do you think Brontë was really getting at, especially in terms of gender and race?
Arnold: Difference. Obviously, I can’t sum up the whole book in just a few thoughts.
Filmmaker: I wouldn’t ask you to.
Arnold: No one has managed to master that book and sum it up very easily. It means lots of things to lots of people, but one of the things that I felt so strongly poring over it was that Emily was upset about difference. She was upset about being female. And I think Heathcliff is really a representation of a part of her, a part of her that felt annoyed about being different. I think that women then were not supposed to have a voice. You get to puberty and then you’ll be married off to some man in the village and it was almost like a arranged marriage, you really wouldn’t have a say in it. As soon as you got to puberty, you were supposed to get married and have a certain kind of life and not have very much to say about what you think about life. I think there is a lot of that going on in the book, quite a lot.
Filmmaker: So you see Heathcliff as an author surrogate then?
Arnold: I think he’s her dark side, her wild side. I began to wonder at some point whether Cathy was Emily. And then at some point, she says, “I am Heathcliff.” Then you toss in Edgar and you’ve got Edgar the superego, Cathy is the ego and Heathcliff being the id, but they’re all part of Emily, really. She’s able to explore sides of herself. I don’t know if this is true or not, but someone told me that when she wrote it she never intended anyone to read it, so she let it rip. That was written at a time when women were not supposed to say how they felt about things.
Filmmaker: Let alone to have the audacity to write a novel.
Arnold: Exactly. I think it was originally published under a man’s name and then her sister changed it because she was a bit embarrassed about it. I don’t remember exactly how it all happened.
Filmmaker: Your choice to align us almost solely with the point of view of Heathcliff, whether it be the use of shards of flashbacks to his brutal childhood, he’s clearly whose journey we’re following. Yet the book is written in third person omniscient. That was a conscious shift obviously.
Arnold: When I first got the email asking me if I’d be interested, my first thought was for him. To be honest, I think that’s what kept me going because it was not an easy thing. This is probably the hardest film I’ve made thus far; the journey and the making of it was incredibly tough. The thing that kept me going was Heathcliff. I would think, “Here’s the story I’m trying to tell,” and that became my focus. I hung on for him, even when I was finding it to be a struggle. I hung on because I wanted to tell his story. There has to be something I care about deeply when I make a film, I can’t just do it without caring about something and I cared for him so I hung on for him really. I think even when it got really difficult, that’s why I hung on. So I made that decision quite early on and even when I had an interesting journey discovering new things as I went along, I think now I would have made Heathcliff a woman possibly. That was the story I decided to tell and in the middle of prepping it, you know, there were weeks where I was casting, location scouting and rewriting the script all in one go and so your head is spinning and you have to hang on to something and that was what I hung on to. That became the way I told the story. You have to make decisions about some things, it’s too dense a book not to, and I was trying to capture the essence of it. People say to me, “Why don’t you tell it from Cathy’s point of view, why do you tell it from Healthcliff’s point of view? You’re a woman.” However, I think that Heathcliff was Emily, so it is a woman’s point of view in a roundabout sort of way.
Filmmaker: How would the movie be different if Michael Fassbender, who you got such great work from in Fish Tank, played Heathcliff as opposed to James Howson?
Arnold: Well, he was attached at the very beginning.
Filmmaker: I know.
Arnold: And then it was Ed Westwick and also Gemma Arterton. She’s great. How would it be different? It would be completely different [laughs]. It would be completely different! In the book, Heathcliff is very young-
Filmmaker: Fifteen or sixteen.
Arnold: They’re children really.
Filmmaker: In the movie, he grows up a lot in those three years he’s away…
Arnold: You know what, that was one of my big compromises was changing them from children to to slightly older adults. What happened was, I realized the childhood part of the book was really important and kind of said everything about Heathcliff as an adult as well. So, for me, it was really important to represent the childhood part properly. So I wanted them to be young. I thought at first I could get 18 year olds to play 13 or 14 so I didn’t have to change the actors, but when I met some eighteen year olds I realized that that child part of then is gone really, it’s a terrible thing to say about 18 really, that your childhood is gone, but in a way it’s true. That period where you’re changing from being a child to being an adult is a very brief time and a very important time and that’s what I wanted for the young Heathcliff and Cathy. So I knew I had to change them and that’s a terribly difficult thing to do because I knew I would have to get people that look the same and I know that the two Cathy’s don’t really look alike, but what they do have I think is that they both have the same spirit. Kaya [Scolodelario] and Shannon [Beer] are really like the real Cathy, they’re both wild, independent spirits, so even though they don’t quite look alike, they have a similarity of spirit.
Filmmaker: Where did you find Solomon Glave, who plays the young Heathcliff? He was magnificent.
Arnold: He’s fantastic. I’m not sure how we found him. Maybe through his school, or through a club he belongs to. I’m not sure. He’s beautiful, a lovely boy. He doesn’t say much, Solomon, but he says everything through his eyes, through his face. I’m quite fond of him. He’s a beautiful boy. I’m still in touch with him and his family now. We put him through hell. For three days, he was standing in the rain. He never complained once. Not once. I could tell at times that he was miserable, but he would never complain. He’s a beautiful lad. I think it was a big experience for him. I remember the wrap party. It was a big experience for him. I think it really changed him and has changed his life. It’s been a really good thing. He’s embraced it in a great way. He’s wonderful.
Filmmaker: One of the things I find so appealing about the film, beyond the fact that you tackle the question of whether Heathcliff is black, thus addressing one of the central questions of 19th century English literature, is that you feel the grime and filth that must have defined one’s existence in the late 18th, early 19th century in any stretch of rural England. You really invest the film with it, it’s an inescapable part of these people’s lives. That felt so honest to me. Movies are always a little dishonest about people’s dwellings, I suppose, whether it’s people living in Manhattan apartments they could never afford and so on.
Arnold: You see that all the time. You’re like, “They’ve got that job, but they have that huge apartment. How do they manage that?” [laughs] It’s a fantasy of the filmmakers that they want to have a big apartment, maybe? I don’t know. Where do you think it comes from? They’re working as a nurse or something in the film and then they go back to this massive apartment. How do they afford that? I never understand that.
As for the film, it was always important for me that you feel the mud. It was so difficult getting around that house. I just thought living there must have been so hard and I wanted to communicate that. I always try to be faithful to what I think is the truth of what I’m doing. Even though I don’t absolutely know it. You can research so much and you can imagine so much, but once I’ve really learned something about how hard it really was, you’ve got to show that. You have to represent that properly. So from the very beginning I wanted to do that. I still think it could be more. People wouldn’t have changed their clothes. I tried to do that. You know people wouldn’t have so many clothes. You know, now you just go to TJ Maxx and get thousands of clothes. They obviously wouldn’t have gone to TJ Maxx! [laughs]
Filmmaker: Maybe in the modern version of the story they would have gone to TJ Maxx. [laughs]
Arnold: Exactly! You know, when I first saw it, I felt like it wasn’t grimy enough. I tried to make it feel cold, with the whether the way it was, but still when I watched it I felt like it didn’t look nearly as bad as it is.
Filmmaker: Why the 4:3 aspect ratio?
Arnold: I wasn’t intending to do that and then we did some tests and one roll we looked at we went straight onto the projector in the cinema. It was 4:3. I thought it looked so beautiful and knew I wanted to do that. I also knew it was going to cause a stink. It is not a popular format. I just felt it looked so beautiful and I wanted to do it for sort of similar reasons as I did on Fish Tank; I loved the fact that it’s the entire 35mm negative, you’re not cutting anything off. It’s square like the negative. There is something honest about that. It’s like you’re projecting the negative, it’s there, there it is, your not doing anything else to it, that’s the way it is.
I think it’s also a very beautiful frame for one person. It is a portrait frame. My films are generally from the point of view of one person. I think it’s a very respectful frame. I keep using the word respect and I don’t know why I keep saying that, but that’s what it feels like to me when I look at somebody framed in a 4:3 frame. It makes them really important. The landscape doesn’t take it from them. They’re not small in the middle of something. It gives them real respect and importance. It’s a very human frame, I think. I think that’s the main reason. I don’t know, but I think. You can also see more sky, but I think the other one is the real reason.
Filmmaker: You actually do see a lot of sky in the film. For instance, when Heathcliff returns as an adult, that shot where he comes out of the fog, it’s a very dramatic shot.
Arnold: That shot is actually against my philosophy.
Arnold: Yeah, cause we’re ahead. We’re ahead of him. I don’t like it.
Filmmaker: Why’d you do it?
Arnold: Because it was a good way to suggest…
Filmmaker: That gap.
Arnold: Yeah. The time. I didn’t want to put something in the middle like “Five years later.” I wanted to do it using a shot. It was a good way to do that, but it is slightly against what I normally do. I always feel uncomfortable when I see it. It goes against the grain. It makes me slightly itchy. Anything I’ve done that I’m not comfortable with, it makes me feel itchy.
Filmmaker: It doesn’t get any better, does it? Like, it hasn’t grown on you?
Arnold: No it hasn’t, and it won’t. It always makes me feel really uncomfortable and itchy. I probably won’t change in that way.
Filmmaker: You seem to be drawn, in each of your films, toward characters who have undergone trauma and dramatizing that period in their life after that trauma.
Filmmaker: Why is that?
Arnold: Don’t know. You just said that and I hadn’t realized I do that. Isn’t that funny. I think when you make a lot of films, you probably end up showing stuff about yourself that you don’t know that you’re showing. You don’t realize it and then a journalist will say something and you’re like, “You’re right, I do that!” When you write and direct, you make so many thousands of decisions, I think you really show yourself. You can’t help it, but you don’t really understand, but you can’t help but show yourself.
Filmmaker: Will you ever adapt a book again?
Arnold: No! I doubt it. I very much doubt it. [laughs]