[Sasha Lane] stood out to me immediately and the beach was full of thousands of people.
American Honey marks veteran filmmaker Andrea Arnold’s first American feature: An assertive yet loose-limbed road movie that was shot over the course of some 50 days across a burnished and sun-dappled small-town America. Crammed inside a passenger van to the permanent soundtrack of stridently loud trap and country, a rag-tag group of itinerant youths vibrate across the open road selling magazine subscriptions. There’s much that is valuable in Arnold’s film, which is based on a 2007 New York Times article by Ian Urbina about just such sales crews. But there’s little sense that Arnold was intent on giving us a journalistic exposé. The trip these disaffected teenage bodies embark on is so scrappily open-ended that almost anything goes, and the film’s improvisatory and wind-through-your-hair narrative structure gives it its unique, quasi-documentary dimension.
At the film’s center is Star (Sasha Lane), an 18-year-old Texan who joins the troupe of would-be sellers for the very good reason that she finds herself on the proverbial Road to Nowhere. On this journey, Star meets wildcatters who are ready to spend a small fortune for sex and companionship, earnest Christian moms, doe-eyed kids living in absolute poverty, and moneyed modern-day cowboys. Star drinks down to the worm inside a mescaline bottle. She indulges in drugs. She strikes up a tempestuous romance with the mercurial and oft-obnoxious bad boy in the group, Jake (Shia LeBeouf), under the gaze of their gang leader, Krystal (Riley Keough), a hard-bitten forewoman who’s very glamorous in a blue collar way. Krystal lords over everyone’s cash and is not on any account to be messed with. And to Star’s dismay, she has Jake completely in her thrall.
On-the-rise newcomers McCaul Lombardi and Arielle Holmes, and Will Patton also star.
American Honey opens in select theaters on September 30.
Andrea, you discovered Sasha in a classic case of being at the right place at the right time.
Andrea Arnold: Yeah, where was it? It was a gas station, wasn’t it?
Sasha Lane: Gas station…
Andrea: What were you doing? You had a dog and… [Laughs] I’m sorry. We were playing a silly game there because we’ve told this story so many times. We thought we’d sort of mix it up.
I was just gonna go with it to be honest. I know you guys met on a beach.
Andrea: No, that’s great! That’s what we want. We’re going to tell you the truth now, but every time we speak to people, we just change it up so no one will know what the real truth is.
I think it’s a little late for that, Andrea.
Andrea: [Laughs] I’m so bad at actually fibbing, so I can’t really follow through with it.
Sasha is aptly named Star in the film.
Andrea: The first time we saw her, she was on the beach with her friend. She stood out to me immediately and the beach was full of thousands of people. We had been there for a couple days, but we hadn’t met that many people who felt were the right kind of girl. It was quite intense because people were having wet bikini competitions—it’s full on down there for Spring Break. I remember she walked off at one point. Sasha—we were discussing you and you didn’t know that at the time. You went behind a deckchair or something like that and disappeared. We legged it after you. [Laughs] It’s very easy to lose people on that beach and it’s also hard to run across the sand.
Sasha: I do remember you running up to me.
Andrea: We were like the oldest people on the beach as well, so we just looked out of place.
Sasha: But your smiles were so cute.
Andrea: Then we chatted for a bit. I think we tried to explain that we were making a film.
Sasha: That’s all a blur to me, actually.
Andrea: It’s a blur to me as well. And I was very aware that approaching anyone was going to be difficult because I’d seen a lot of men on the beach with cameras, looking for girls to be in porn and things, or so I was told. So I knew approaching anybody down there was going to be a bit dodgy. We did various things to sort of make it clear that this was a legitimate thing because I can understand girls not really believing that. Then we arranged to meet later that night at Sasha’s motel to do a bit of improvisation. What I remember very much about you is that you were suitably protective of yourself. You asked some questions and things, but you were also like, “Okay, this might be something.” You were open and game. You weren’t going to pass by an opportunity.
Sasha: Andrea’s energy just felt so loving. I have this memory of walking down the pier with her: I looked at her and we both looked at the sun. I felt so complete and so thankful to have met her.
Andrea: You’re making me emotional. I remember that moment very well, too. We had an understanding of something, didn’t we? That was the beginning. We had a moment at the end, too.
Sasha: Yeah, I couldn’t even think about doing another project after this.
You were on the road for 60 days? Does that sound about right?
Andrea: Everyone keeps saying 60 days. I think it was around seven weeks, actually.
What do you find is the secret to keeping it together on the road in a situation like this?
Sasha: I mean, I come from that. I know survival. I know life from being in that part of America, so it wasn’t weird or surprising to me. It wasn’t hard for me to just kind of go. I just had this itch for freedom. I was so game for it. I loved the fact that I just had a backpack and a few suitcases. I love the idea of just popping in a van and going on the road. It wasn’t a thing to adjust to.
Sasha, is it true that you were literally getting pages as you sort of went along?
Sasha: The day before, the day of—however we wanted to do it.
Andrea: You learned it quite fast, too, actually. I think that’s tough.
Sasha: It felt like schooling and I would do it like that in my head. I guess it wasn’t too bad, but I would sit there with it. The way [Andrea] presented it to me was like an outline. As long as you got the intent across and it was very much what she wanted, you didn’t have to hit this—
Andrea: You could do it in your own way.
Sasha: Exactly. That made it much easier. Once she explained to us the reasons for doing that—the way we would get pages the day before or on the day of—we just had to stay in the moment. If I knew too much, I would think about it and I would anticipate. I loved just being in that moment.
Andrea: I can’t remember a single time you said, “I can’t remember this.” You always knew.
Sasha: I don’t know how. But I used my schooling because I had to learn that stuff real quick. [Laughs] I’m a real big procrastinator so there was a learning curve with that one.
More than anything—this goes for the characters and your own experiences working on the film—I’m fascinated by the banding together of people from all different walks of life who are then thrown into a same and very specific circumstance. I love the Scooby-Doo factor.
Andrea: I love everything you just said. [Laughs]
Sasha: When I watch movies, I get really into it too, like, “I just want you to win in life! No, don’t do that!” And looking at how Andrea shot it—that’s the point. You’re with Star. You’re grieving with me. You’re experiencing these things with me. You’re in the van with us. You’re feeling my emotions because you’re seeing everything through me. When I see these kids, my eyes light up, and I get so emotional and happy. It’s like, “You beautiful humans!” It has a very intimate feel.
What were you studying when you were discovered, Sasha?
Sasha: Psychology and social work. When I met Andrea, I was in college. After filming, I kind of sat with it for a while. I just felt like schooling wasn’t my way of learning. There were certain classes that I was really passionate about, but I also wanted to experience things through living. I feel like I was missing out on that in school. I felt really whole after meeting Andrea because there was so much faith. It was like, “Why would I go back?” School is always there. This opportunity wasn’t always there. It’s rare that you get picked up on a beach like this. I just went with it.
What was it like to be suddenly around all these movie people, especially at Cannes?
Sasha: I honestly don’t remember. I was just so happy to be back with my American Honey family. I didn’t really think to look at anyone else. I was also just freaking out in general. [Laughs]
Andrea: We were in a bubble. We didn’t really go that much outside the bubble. There’s no time.
Sasha: This is my family—my heart. We lived together and did everything together. I think we were all looking for that something. For me personally, I wanted a family. I wanted something that felt was mine and very close to me. I feel very attached to Andrea and everyone else.
Andrea: Everyone got really close. We went on a real trip, beginning to end. Nobody came and went. We did the whole thing together. We made something together and it was a big project.
You’re quite good at finding fresh faces, and this includes everyone in the film like McCaul Lombardi and Arielle Holmes. What do you look for? Is it something you can describe?
Andrea: For American Honey, I tried to cast people who are very much themselves with a lot of energy and light and vitality. Everybody on our bus was like that and there were many, many others as well. I’d like to have taken a whole convoy, actually, because we met some fantastic people.
Did your first casting choices inform the would-be ensemble?
Andrea: Well, I’d already written certain kinds of characters. That of course changed a little bit as we cast, but I was trying to find that bridge between something I’d written and responding to what we found. I wrote something, but then I’d try to change the script according to who we met. So it was a little bit of both. I was just thinking about Dakota [Powers] now because I wanted to cast him, but for reasons of his own, he wasn’t able to come maybe at the beginning. So we cast someone else in the role. When Dakota got free and was able to come, we didn’t have any roles left, but we took him anyway. We literally just told him, “Ok, come on then,” and he did.
What was the process like in getting Riley [Keough] and Shia [LaBeouf] on board for this?
Andrea: I met Riley a little while ago because she had heard about the film and sent some tapes in. She told me she sent in a lot of tapes and I think I only saw one, so I feel bad now. [Laughs] But we met and from the first moment I met her, I just really loved her. Then I met her again in New York for a casting session with a lot of kids who hadn’t acted before. Riley was just so generous and understanding with all of them. I just loved that about her. She just had that feeling of potentially being an ex-mag crew kid who had done it and done it well. She felt completely right. She felt at one with everyone. She was a little bit older, but not that much older. She felt like she’d come from the same place as everyone else. I just completely loved her from the moment I met her.
As for Shia, we initially met at a cafe in London. All of my casting is usually about meeting people. I’m not really looking at showreels much. I like to meet people and sort of see how that goes. Casting Shia was mainly about that—meeting him. He had a lot of the qualities I thought Jake had. I could see what he would bring to the material. It was very instinctive, too, because we had a really energetic kind of chat. From that moment, again, I could see him playing Jake. Easy!
Sasha, your next role is in a film called Hunting Lila. Could you talk about that?
Sasha: It’s in the process. That stuff is weird for me, too, because I don’t even know what the next five minutes will bring or what might happen in life. I guess I don’t really talk about what’s next.
Andrea: A frog might come along… [Laughs]
Sasha: And that frog might turn into a prince and we’ll head off to some island.
Andrea, where are you heading off to after American Honey?
Andrea: When I make a film, I’m in such a different place by the end of it. I never know where I’m going to be at the end of it. I only respond when I finish a film because I’ve worked through so many things. American Honey has been a long journey. This has been a big bridge for me. I’m in a completely different place now to where I was years ago, really. I’ve started writing something that I have no control over because it just visits me—the images visit me—and I just have to go with it.
When an idea for a new film comes to you, do you usually see it through to the end?
Andrea: I have such a sense of what it’s going to be. I don’t know yet how I’m going to find all the details, but I have a real sense of what that film is going to be and what I’m going to do next. I have a real sense about that. Then I just have to build it and find it. It’s like that thing they say about artists making sculptures: “The shape is in the stone. You just have to find it.” That’s how I feel about my projects. It’s there and I can feel it, but I have to carve away at it in order to find it.