At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I was able to sit down with writer-director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road) for an extended interview about her adaptation of Wuthering Heights that stars James Howson, Kaya Scodelario, Steve Evets, and Nichola Burley. Here’s the short synopsis:
“What would you do if you were denied your soulmate? The passionate tale of Heathclith and Cathy, two teenagers whose elemental love for each other creates a storm of vengeance. From Andrea Arnold, comes a new take on the classic, a startling vision of desire and obsession.”
Like her previous films, Arnold has added a realistic take to the material, and it was one of my favorite films at Sundance. During the interview, Arnold talked about being at Sundance, how she got involved in the project, her writing process, having the film vary its aesthetic depending on the characters age, what she learned from showing the movie to friends, film vs. digital, what she has coming up, and a lot more. Hit the jump to read or listen to the interview.
As usual, I’m offering two ways to get the interview: you can either click here for the audio, or the full transcript is below. Also, I’m offering the teaser trailer and full synopsis first.
In a remote farmhouse on Yorkshire’s nineteenth-century moors, Mr. Earnshaw brings home a wary biracial boy, whom he names Heathcliff. Adopted into the family under Christian values, Heathcliff’s new presence is met with mixed feelings. Hindley, Earnshaw’s teenaged son, treats him with contempt, while Catherine, Hindley’s younger sister, embraces the outsider with curious warmth. An intense relationship begins to form between Heathcliff and Catherine as they play on the moor. Their pleasant days are brought to an abrupt end, however, with Mr. Earnshaw’s death. Hindley takes control of the farm and drives Heathcliff away. Edgar, the son of a wealthy neighbouring family, courts Catherine in marriage. Torn between love and reason, Catherine’s decision sets the three of them on a tragic course.
Collider: What does being at Sundance mean to you and when did you find out that you were getting in?
Andrea Arnold: This is my fourth time at Sundance. Every time I have been here, I think I have been here for very brief times. So every time it feels like a bit of a whirlwind. The first time I came was…my very first introduction to Sundance was doing the lab, which I did a few years ago now. I am just trying to think of when it was. It would have been 2005 maybe and that was before I had even been to the festival. So that was my first experience. It was doing the writer’s lab with my Red Road script. And then I came when my short was showing, which was Wasp, at Sundance. Then I literally came for like one day with Wasp. Then I came with Red Road and it was again one or two days. So it feels really familiar and I feel like I know lots of people, but it is always like a bit of a whirlwind. I can’t really describe it any other way.
Have you ever thought about staying here longer to see more movies?
Arnold: I don’t know why it is but every single there seems to be a reason why I can’t stay longer. I have a deadline for a script. So I just have to get back and work. I was working until late before I came here and I came here yesterday. So I got here last night. It has been 24 hours traveling. Oh, god, it was a long and busy day. I literally only packed the last minute on the night before. So I have almost not landed. But I am very happy to see that it is snowing because that makes it really feel like Sundance.
What is interesting about this particular film is that you premiered at TIFF I believe.
Arnold: No, in Venice.
My bad. But it is interesting though because it is very rare for a film to play multiple festivals in the way that your film is playing. What is like to have a film play so many festivals and was it your plan to do this? It’s very rare for Sundance and TIFF to allow…
Arnold: Yeah, they want premieres mostly. But I think you get a very different audience at each of those festivals. So I don’t think you get the same…I think doing an American festival is very different from doing the European festivals. Not a lot of people visit all those festivals When I come here I think that lots of people in the audience don’t seem to know about the other festivals or that the film has screened there or they don’t know too much about what has come before. This almost feels like the first time for them and I think for the audience anyway. I’m sure not for the industry people, but for the audience and the people that I have the Q&As with I get the sense that for them it feels quite fresh.
One hundred percent, but what I am trying to say is that it is very rare for a film to be allowed into all of the festivals.
Arnold: I don’t even know about that. Is it?
Arnold: Well, I feel very honored then. [laughs]
How long was this project bubbling up inside you? How long had you known that this was something that you wanted to tackle?
Arnold: It had a sort of strange beginning really because I never ever in a million years thought I would do an adaption. In fact, I was very against them. I have always felt that the form was so different and that a book is such a very different thing to a film, and I have always believed in original screenplays. For the cinema you should be thinking in images and you should be thinking in a different way really to a book. So I never ever imagined that I would do an adaptation. But I got an email out of the blue saying if I would be interested in doing it. It has been a book that I have been really fascinated with and I just made a very instinctive decision to go with it even though it was in lots of ways something that I would not normally do. A lot of people were actually surprised that I did because I was in the middle of writing something else that was an original screenplay and it was my own thing. I was actually in the middle of doing that when I got offered this. I don’t know, it was a mad instinctive decision.
Is this something that you have known for a long time? Was this something that you read a long time ago that connected you to another part in your life?
Arnold: Well, when I read this book I was probably in my early 20s or late teens, and that is a very kind of particular time. So I think you’re right – it probably was some sort of connection to that part of my life. But also I really have had a lot of nature and that sort of visceral thing in my films and I felt that this was a film in which I could really explore that. I was going to be spending a couple of months on the moors, which is one of the main reasons why I wanted to do it. [laughs] I mean, there were lots of reasons. The thing is that I always think that even though those things seem like simple reasons for doing things actually have a lot of deep meaning in the reasons why you do things. I don’t think you can question your instinct; you should always trust it. My instinct has usually been pretty good in the past. I often will make a sort of rash decision like that and leap in without really thinking what the journey might bring.
How are you with your first drafts? Are you the type of person where your eighth draft is your first draft?
Arnold: A little bit.
So you are constantly referring it?
Arnold: Everyone says that my first drafts are very far on, but this was a bit different because when I first came there was already a script. The script wasn’t really a script that had my voice in it and I decided to rewrite the script in my own way. But because the team behind it had had it in development for quite a long time they were quite keen to go quite fast. So they wanted me to write it very fast. So I wrote my own draft of this in really a couple of months I think. It may be not even that. I never really did another draft. I did a few tweaks. So the whole thing was a very…for such a complicated book, it was mad really. I wrote a very fast draft, did a few tweaks, and then we filmed it.
Often times you’ll have the script and then you get on set and due to whatever myriad of reasons things change such as locations or actors. How much was it between what you originally wrote and what I saw on the screen yesterday?
Arnold: I would say that it is quite close. I think the essence of what I had written…I tried to write something that was very visceral. The first thing I wrote was an outline that had words in it that made me feel each thing and made me feel each scene in a sort of visceral way, and then I sort of turned that into a script. I think the essence of that is in the film. I wouldn’t say…it is funny because I think the second bit where they are older I felt very pushed around by the book. It was one of those things where the story becomes so sort of not exactly intricate but it has its own life, and it doesn’t really matter what you do it with it. It kind of pushes you back and it definitely has its own life. I definitely felt pushed around by the story in the adult part of it. The first part of it I think is more me where I let myself roam a bit in my mind. I read in the book that they shared a bedroom and I thought, “Wow. That is interesting for two young teens to be sharing a bed in the bedroom. That is a very sensual thing, especially when they have this connection.” So I wanted to see them in that room and in the bed, especially with the wind and the rain outside and this kind of bed that she has, which is like a little room in itself. I think in that bit I allowed myself…I was able to put more of myself into it and let my imagination go a little bit. But the second bit where they are adults – I was definitely more of a slave to the book, the story, and what needed to come out.
Watching the film, for me at least as an audience member, the beginning is very you. There is following people from behind and it is very free flowing. The aesthetic feels a little different than when they are older.
Arnold: I completely agree with you. The first part really is more me. The second part, as I said, I just felt more restricted because of the story having to be a certain way. I do wonder if that is little bit partly to do with me rushing the script and not really allowing myself the room to let those things kind of grow and sort of…
Do you think it also has to do with the fact that you’re focusing on two young kids and two young teens? If you talk to young teens like that they have a different existence and they see the world differently. Everything is just different. When you are older everything is structured and you understand how life can beat you down. It is sort of that way in the movie.
Arnold: It’s true. Also, Cathy’s life is more ordered. She can’t…they aren’t roaming. They don’t have that time. I’m sure most of us remember being a kid and you have all of this endless time where two weeks before Christmas feels like ten years. I used to go to bed to try and go to sleep to try and make it go faster. [laughs]
I was commenting to somebody the other day that a year has gone by from Sundance and I feel like I was just here the other day. That is what I am saying with your film. Are you the type to overshoot or are you the type where you are shooting just enough and you know exactly what you want?
Arnold: I’ve always had this fantasy about allowing…in fact the next film I am going to do I’m going to write a shorter script because I want to allow myself a bit more space. I think sometimes I’ve often worked so hard on the script and often my shoots tend to be quite short and things…with Wuthering Heights it was so tough. The location was so tough and there were lot of things. Although I think everyone knew it was going to be tough, no one predicted how tough it was going to be. I think we were quite slow and I think there was never…I never seem to get this situation where I think, “Yeah, I have this scene. Now how can we try this? Can we try it this way or that way or what if we did that?” I do that a little bit, but not very much. It’s not as much as I would like. So my scripts are always…I always get quite close to my script because I work quite hard on them. But I never want to be sort of so close where I don’t allow things to be loose if the possibility arises. But I still feel that I have never given myself enough space. So on my next film I am going to give myself more space by writing a short script. So I’ll have the essence of the scene and I’ll write it. It’ll be kind of points and be all there but within that there will be some room for myself to explore a bit more. It’s something that I have always wanted to do but never feel like I end up doing. Every time you get to make a film you get to explore or try something else and I want to keep learning and growing. I want to take risks and try things. So that is my plan for the next one – to write a shorter script.
What is like for you in the editing room? How long did it take to edit the film?
Arnold: I have an editor that I have worked with on three or four films and I trust him a lot, and he is a very good person. Each time we have had worked together we have had a slightly different process. We thought we would try to do this quite quickly. One of the things we like to do is sit and watch all of the rushes together and then I will talk away through the rushes with him. Then I will leave him to do a kind of first cut or first assembly. But we didn’t do that on this because we were trying to hurry. I don’t know why we felt that. We felt that we were going to try it a different way. I don’t know why we got that idea. But that turned out to be a fool’s gold or whatever the expression is. It wasn’t a good thing to do. That ended up slowing us down I think. We ended up being a little bit less familiar with the material. We’ll always go through everything. I don’t know how long it was eventually. It was five or six months.
Who is the first person or the first people you show your movies to?
Arnold: When it is actually finished or when it is a rough cut?
When you want some feedback.
Arnold: When we are editing we have these screenings for financiers that sort of have to happen. But in amongst them what I do is I invite my friends, neighbors, and all of my toughest critics. I get them to come along and we get them to give us feedback because it is really good to have…you get so close to it and you do need some objective. Something you think people will fully understand and what you are trying to say but maybe it is not coming across. So it is quite good to have people say, “I don’t understand why she gives him that feather at that point.” You go, “Oh, I thought that was really clear.” It’s just that kind of thing. It’s not like I am looking for anyone to sort of guide the process really. It is more about seeing what is understood and what is not understood. It is kind of quite practical in a way.
I have heard that before.
Arnold: It’s a very good thing to do. Also, you do get a bit wrapped up in it and a bit close to it. So it’s good to have some objective and it makes you think differently when you hear this.
Was there one note that you got where you said, “Yeah. That makes a ton of sense.” and you actually changed something?
Arnold: In the script we didn’t have the flashbacks of his youth. In my first draft I had a scene at the end where she appears as a child in his room at the end and it had a really emotional feeling to me. But then I cut it out because I felt that it wasn’t being pure enough and I couldn’t have this slightly ghostly image. It wasn’t me and it didn’t feel quite right, although it had given me a very emotional response. So when we were editing I kind of remembered that and thought there was something about keeping his childhood with him that would be powerful or keeping their childhood with them because I think a lot of it is about childhood and wanting to return to that place. I felt that the childhood was very important. So that is how we got the kind of little moments and feelings of the childhood coming back. So that changed.
Film or digital and why?
Arnold: Film. 35mm. Every time I do a film we always test on a few mediums and have a look at everything, and every time I love film, mostly anyways so far. What is it about film that just has that…it feels like you can step into it. It has a sort of poetry and like you can reach in and put your hand in it. I don’t know, but there is just something. I just love it.
A lot of filmmakers are moving on to the ARRIAlexa or the RED Epic. I’m just curious if you might think about that on your next film. Roger Deakins told me that he is using the Arri Alexa now. If Roger Deakins is willing to make the switch that is a huge move on the industry. So I am very curious about what other filmmakers might make that switch.
Arnold: I have the same cinematographer that I have worked with four times now and we are both big film fans. I never dig in my heels about anything because I feel you need to look at the project and see what works for the project. You have to…this film was a very visceral film and I wanted it to feel very visceral and poetic, and film just really worked for that. But the next film is going to be slightly different in that I will need to keep rolling quite a lot and you have to think again about what that might mean. You have to consider quite a lot of things like how much things cost.
You have mentioned a few times “the next film”. As a fan of your work, I would definitely like to get a little bit more specific. Does it have a title?
Arnold: No. I would love to give it a title actually because I always feel like it comes to life when you give it a title.
It is also easier to put it in the headline of an article.
Arnold: Yeah, but I don’t talk about my films when I am writing it. I am writing it now so I hate talking about it before I have finished writing it because I think I will get off about it a bit and then it starts to become something out there instead of here. I always think that I have to go inwards to write something and not go outwards. So I keep it inwards.
Do you write with an actor in mind or do you just see the character and then the auditioning process sort of brings it out?
Arnold: I never write with an actor in mind – never. I couldn’t think in that way I think. I might write with a kind of…in fact I look for images of people that I think fit. But usually they are real people. It is not usually an actor. It is usually a person from real life or images of people from real life. I like to have images of who I think they are going to be. But then, of course, that always changes when you meet people. You always sit there and you go and meet people and you see someone else who is completely different from what you expected but has some sort of essence of the deeper thing that you were looking for.
I’ve spoken to a lot of directors and they have said that when someone walks into a room and reads for a part they know within three milliseconds if this person is right or wrong for the part. Is this true for you?
Arnold: Yeah. I would say that is quite true. You might see someone that you think might be right but you’re not sure and you might try them again. That happens a little bit. But I would say that the trouble is that I am always such a tough task master in looking for the right person that it can go on for a very long time before I see the right person. It is not easy actually because I always have a particular thing and not so many of those people will walk into the room I’m afraid.
I want to do one more follow-up to the writing. Is it modern or is it in the past?
Arnold: Contemporary. It’s definitely contemporary. I’m never going back to the past. I never ever thought I would do a period thing. It is like when I am driving – I never like to do those routes that take you backwards and make you go the long way. I always like to do the shortcuts and go forward. It’s the same thing.