Andrea Arnold's previous features -- "Red Road" and "Fish Tank" -- were tense studies of women struggling to make sense of their lives in a very contemporary Britain. Her latest movie is an adaptation of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights," which opens in select cities this weekend. It's a bold departure from her previous movies, especially since she had publicly said that she wasn't going to do any period movies.
Back when I first read the book, as a callow, overcaffeinated youth in suburban Ohio, I had trouble connecting with it. When I told Arnold this just prior to my interview with her, she quipped, "Most men don't like the book. It's very feminine." While I'm not sure if that generalization holds true, this movie did immediately crystallize all the tension and seething fury and passion of Bronte's work. The film has little in common with decorous Masterpiece Theater-esque treatments we've come to expect from cinematic literary adaptations. Arnold strips away much of Bronte's windy exposition and portrays the world of early-19th-century Yorkshire in stark, visceral terms.
At one point, a pubescent Catherine and Heathcliff troll the moors looking for feathers. Arnold shoots the scene with a handheld camera that lingers on their finds, filming them in such a way that you feel like you can almost touch them. Throughout the film, she masterfully evokes the sounds, sights, and rhythms of preindustrial Britain. The past as imagined by Arnold (probably accurately) was a grubby, brutal place. This is one movie where you might be grateful that Smell-o-rama never took off.
The other striking thing about the movie is that Heathcliff is played by black actors. While this decision is justified in Bronte's book -- she describes him as alternately like a Gypsy or as a Lascar (an Indian sailor) -- no other film adaptation that I can think of pushes Heathcliff's racial difference as far as this move. This Heathcliff doesn't bear much resemblance to Sir Laurence Olivier.
When I talked to Arnold the other day, she seemed like both a person with a deep interest in Bronte's book and someone vaguely apologetic for taking on a project with such obvious ambition.
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Jonathan Crow: How did you get involved with this film?
Andrea Arnold: I was in the middle of writing something else, and I got an email from my agent asking if I'd be interested in directing "Wuthering Heights." I'd had a thing for the book since I read it when I was 18 or 19. It's a very profound book and a bit strange, troubled, and brutal, masochistic and doesn't quite add up. It's not a traditional love story, which I think everyone is led to believe it's going to be. It really isn't. I didn't know quite what I was going to do and how I was going to do it, but I just sort of let it in because of my fascination with the book, because I didn't think the book was very easy, and it seemed like a challenge. On some levels, it's a really stupid thing to do, isn't it? It's not exactly a good career move to pick a really, really famous classic -- one of the most classic books of all time -- and tackle it. It's kind of a dumb thing to do, but it was like I couldn't help it. I just decided.
JC: One thing I liked a lot about the movie is that it felt very shocking and new. Your shooting style is very sensual and tactile. Was this something you came up with from the beginning, or did it develop over the course of the shoot?
AA: No. From the very beginning. I always wanted it to be visceral. I wanted to be able to feel what it was like to live somewhere so isolated. When I found the house and saw how isolated it was and saw how much mud there was, I thought, "Well, we've got to represent this because that's actually what it would have been like." I wanted you to feel what it was like to live there and to hear what it was like to live there, and to almost be able to touch what it was like to live there.
JC: Were you worried about doing such a radical interpretation or unexpected interpretation of a work that a lot of people have a very close connection with?
AA: Yes and no. I know that with this book, everyone who reads it has their own version of it. I think that's the trouble with adapting books to cinema. I've always thought it's a really mad thing to adapt a book to cinema. I've always thought, "If you're making cinema, just start with images and make cinema rather than trying to adapt a completely different form to cinema." So I was very aware that it was not going to be an easy thing to do. The day the press release for the movie came out, my friend told me, "You said you were never going to do adaptation. You said you were never going to do a period thing. And when you do, you'd only go and pick one of the most famous novels of all time. You're a stupid cow." I thought, "Well, he's right."
But like I said, it was almost not my decision. I've always said this thing about my films, that they choose me and I didn't choose them. But once I get ahold of the image that I care about, I can't put it down. I had an image of Heathcliff, like an animal, climbing the moor. From a distance, it looked like he was an animal, but up close you see he's carrying rabbits on his back. That was my image, and whenever I lost my way that was the image I kept coming back to. That's the whole reason I was doing it. It's a silly to thing to do, but it was a sincere attempt to try to do something that I really cared about.
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JC: One thing that is surprising with your movie is your casting. In the book, Heathcliff is described as Gypsy-like …
AA: That's what everybody says. There is more to it than that. He is also described as a little Lascar, which means Indian seaman. In the book, Nelly says, "He is your father, a Chinese emperor and your mother, an Indian princess." It's very much suggesting that he is very much not white.
Of course, I wasn't trying to do a literal adaption; I was trying to capture the essence of something. Heathcliff might have been a Romani Gypsy. They are originally from Asia, and they would have been very, very dark-skinned. If I was being really faithful, maybe I would have gone down that route. But what really matters is that he's different. I wanted to explore his difference and how that makes him an outsider and how that brings about the brutality that he experienced. I felt that it was important I express the difference visually.
JC: So what were your shoots like? Do you plan all the shots out in advance or do you wing it?
AA: I didn't really plan with storyboards or anything like that. I do a slight documentary approach. I don't like to plan ahead. I like to feel the moment and feel the day. I've done things rehearsed before, and I don't like that thing. You're in some hole and you're rehearsing and then four weeks later, you try to replicate what you did then. It seems bonkers. I just would rather be in the actual environment and try to find my way with what is actually presented in front of me. In your head you've written something where it's bright sunshine and then you get there and it's snowing, so you have to rethink. Filmmaking always surprises you, and I like that about it. I don't like to be safe and plan ahead. I like to feel my way when I'm actually there and use what's there as my inspiration.
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JC: Tell me about your shoot. It looked brutal.
AA: I think everyone thought it was going to be tough at the beginning, but I don't think anyone was prepared for how tough it really was. It was physically really hard, even just the mud around the house. You can put one foot in front of the other and it would sink up to your ankle, and you just have to sort of ease it out and then put the other foot in front of you, and getting around was so slow. Everyone was falling over all the time. There was nowhere to sit down. We had to carry all the camera equipment because no vehicles were allowed on that land. Everything took a very, very long time. It was very, very slow going, really hard work.
JC: What was the hardest scene you had to shoot?
AA: The stuff out on the crag was really hard because it was in the middle of nowhere and we had to walk miles with the equipment through really thick heather. There were holes in the ground and people kept falling down. Those days were hard. The weather was hard, too. It snowed. Actually, I'm glad it snowed. It was the last day at the heights and Robbie Ryan, the cinematographer, said he was going to have a mud fight with me. I knew I was going to lose because he's stronger than me. I was going to end up with my face in the mud, which I wouldn't mind but it was full of sheep poo, which would not have been nice. I was really dreading it. I knew he was going to do it. And then it snowed and it all iced over and it was too dangerous, so I got away with it. [Laughs] I was really happy it snowed.
JC: So are you ever going to do another period film?
AA: No. I don't want to do that anymore. Thank you very much.
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See a trailer for 'Wuthering Heights':