Writer-director Andrea Arnold discusses her instincts and ideas about her latest film Fish Tank with Jan Gilbert.
For Andrea Arnold filmmaking is all about instinct. Like her decision to cast Michael Fassbender, the star of Hunger, in her new film Fish Tank. “I cast Michael after seeing him in a clip of Irvine Welsh’s Wedding Belles,” says Arnold, who at the time was unaware of the actor’s celebrated turn in Steve McQueen’s film. “I made a decision on the strength of that clip, on instinct. We didn’t even get to meet because he was in South Africa filming, but he felt absolutely right.” Arnold’s instincts proved to be spot on. Hardly surprising really given the successful track record she’s notched up since making her first short film eleven years ago.
When her debut short Milk was selected for Critics’ Week at Cannes in 1998, it was a sign of things to come. A little over a decade later and the former children’s TV presenter has a raft of awards to her name including an Oscar for the short Wasp; a string of BAFTAs for her gripping feature debut Red Road; and two Jury Prizes at Cannes, one for each of her feature-length releases. She’s fast becoming the darling of both the British art-house and the international festival scene. And her latest offering, Fish Tank, about a teenage girl’s life on an Essex council estate, is only her sophomore feature.
The inspiration for Arnold’s writing is usually an image which turns up out of nowhere, grabbing her attention, and Fish Tank is no exception. “The image appears in the film,” she tells me, quickly adding, “I don’t like to say what it was as I feel it gives the film away, but the person in the image was an angry teenage girl. It had no context, of course, and this was for me to work out.”
The angry teenager turned out to be 15-year-old Mia, whose life is turned upside-down when her mother (Kierston Wareing, It’s a Free World) brings home a new boyfriend (Fassbender). “When I begin exploring the images I really don’t know where they will take me,” explains Arnold. “It’s like going into a mine. It’s dark and you don’t know your way, but in time your eyes adjust and you start to see what is around you and understand it. Sometimes what you discover can be beautiful and sometimes it can be upsetting and bewildering. I just hope the audience do not in any way suffer watching the film like I did writing it.”
Fish Tank may be challenging viewing at times, but Arnold’s gritty slice-of-life filmmaking is always compelling, and has deft touches of warmth and humour. And judging by the critical praise the film received after its premiere at Cannes this year, the Dartford-born filmmaker has nothing to worry about. However, as a reluctant reader of reviews, she may never know it. “Thinking is the enemy when you are trying to make something,” says Arnold. “When you get conscious of what you are doing it can be inhibiting. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like talking much about the substance of the film or reading other people’s interpretations. For me the film is almost everything I intended.”
But there were, of course, frustrations along the way. “The journey from initial fleeting images to a two-hour film is such a tough and, in some ways, brutal one,” she admits. “It always changes. The images I have in my mind are pure to start; I can see exactly how it should be, know how it should feel. Then the reality of making it kicks in. You do have to compromise and I do get frustrated when I can’t realise some of it the way I want to.” She then adds, “But I also love that things change and evolve and present themselves differently to what I’d imagined. Whatever happens I try to hold on to whatever it was that made me start the journey in the first place, and hope it will still be there at the end.”
Joining her on this latest journey is a mixed cast of experienced actors (Fassbender, Wareing) and first-timers such as 17-year-old Katie Jarvis. Spotted arguing with her boyfriend by a casting assistant at a train station in Essex, Jarvis gives a powerful performance in the central role of Mia. So much so that she won Best British Performance at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, and has since been signed up by an agent.
From the start, Arnold was keen to cast non-actors. “People who have had no experience, like Katie, have less fear in some ways,” she explains. “They don’t know what is expected so can be very free. That is a very beautiful thing and can be an unwieldy thing too. My challenge was to shape that rawness. In some ways Katie didn’t act in Fish Tank, but she wasn’t playing herself either. When I watched the first cut I was really pleased to see that the girl in the film was not Katie – it was the girl I had written. I love my characters but there’s no doubt it’s good to conclude something you have given so much of yourself to.”
Now it’s back to what the 48-year-old calls “the lonely job of writing”. “I don’t seem to have a choice,” she says. “I have to write for better or worse.” Given Arnold’s finely tuned instincts, it’s bound to be for better.
** All text and images are subject to copyright and may only be used with express permission.