British filmmaker Andrea Arnold made her name with two striking contemporary tales, Red Road and Fish Tank. So what’s she doing adapting Emily Brontë? Dave Calhoun finds out.
The British filmmaker Andrea Arnold is talking in a corner of a West End hotel about her new film, Wuthering Heights, when her mobile goes off. Eric Idle’s voice blasts out of the speakers, singing, ‘Always look on the bright side of life.’ Which should amuse anyone who has seen Red Road, Fish Tank or her new, elemental, ‘punk’ spin on Emily Brontë’s well-thumbed nineteenth-century novel about the tentative romance between a young Yorkshire girl, Cathy, and her adopted brother, the outsider Heathcliff. Arnold is not known for her happy-go-lucky storytelling, whether portraying a woman facing up to a terrible event in Red Road (2006) or a teenager who strikes up a dangerous friendship with an older man in Fish Tank (2009).
But the truth is that Arnold is not a pessimist, as anyone who remembers that heartwarming final scene in Fish Tank of a mother and daughter dancing together to hip hop in their living room will agree. But this 50-yearold, who started life as a TV presenter and came to film relatively late, enjoys prodding around the dark corners of life, engaging with troubled characters and stoking our dread and empathy by keeping her camera and stories up close to people in peril.
For most of your film, Heathcliff and Cathy are just kids. Were you most interested in them as youngsters?
When I came on board, there was a script that had them changing into adults after about 15 minutes. But I thought their childhood was important in the book, and it makes sense as they’re punching each other and fighting. If they’re 28, it’s ridiculous. I also felt their childhood said a lot about their relationship as adults. For Heathcliff, it’s the time he always wanted to go back to. It’s when he was most happy.
Did you decide very quickly that Heathcliff should be black?
Very early on. He’s from Liverpool, and Liverpool was a big slave port at the time. Also when you read his descriptions in the book, it’s clear he’s not white-skinned. I wanted to honour his difference. If I look at descriptions of him in the book, I wonder if he wasn’t a Romany Gypsy? They are originally from Asia and I did start casting in Yorkshire looking for Romany Gypsy lads, and after a while I decided what was important was his difference, and not being so truthful to the book.
This might be an adaptation, but it has your visual stamp all over it.
That’s what everyone says. I always said I would never do a period film or an adaptation. A book is a very different beast to a film. How can you do Wuthering Heights justice? But it came out of the blue and I made an instinctive decision to do it. When I gave the script to Robbie [Ryan, the film’s director of photography, who also shot Red Road and Fish Tank], he said, “It’s a punk script because it’s got every bodily function in it – spit, sweat, blood, tears, everything.” That’s always what I wanted.
Many people have said the film feels true to what they imagine life was like back then.
At the time? Oh, that’s such a compliment, that’s a real compliment. I tried hard. When I was up at the location, I wondered what it must have been like to live there and I tried to show that. Even though people say things like, “I’ll just go and get my stuff”! I’m not sure if that was in the script or not. I don’t think anyone knows how they spoke then and I wanted everyone to be comfortable with how they spoke.
Robbie Ryan won the cinematography prize at Venice for your film. He shot your short film Wasp and your two features, so you must have a close working relationship now.
He knows everything I like or don’t like. I love handheld cameras. I ban tripods from the set – if I see one, I ask for it to be removed. I don’t want anyone to get any ideas. I thought this film would be a test for him because the mud was so intense, I didn’t think he was going to be able to move anywhere. He had a 35mm camera on his shoulder and I’ve seen him run across muddy fields with it. He’s like a goat with a camera on its back, he’s so agile.
Was it tough shooting the film out on a wild moor in Yorkshire?
We all knew it was going to be tough, just not how tough. The crew had to carry the equipment across fields and the mud would go up to your ankles. Out of all my films, thinking of what I imagined and what I achieved, this film is the least close to what I imagined at the beginning. Just because it was so hard, for lots of reasons.
So are you unhappy with it?
Never ask me that, I’m never happy. I’m frustrated with my limitations. It can be very frustrating, filmmaking. I make peace with it eventually, but I feel frustrated. I’m always jealous of filmmakers who say, “I’ve made my film, I’m really happy.” I think: Wow, how do you get to be happy? How did you get to feel like that?
Wuthering Heights opens on May 17.