I’m obsessed with this idea of whether we’re born or made because I don’t think any of us is ever born evil.
Literary one-hit wonder Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights, has been adapted countless times. There were the dramas, operas, ballets, and even in Semaphore for a Monty Python sketch. But the Academy award-winning writer/director Andrea Arnold’s painterly and atmospheric literary adaptation marks a fresh new take, which unspooled for the first time at the Venice Film Festival in 2011. For those unfamiliar with the source material, the story follows Heathcliff (in Arnold’s version, a black boy), who is taken in by a Yorkshire farmer, Earnshaw. Living in Earnshaw’s home on the windswept moors, Heathcliff develops a passionate relationship with the farmer’s teenage daughter, Cathy, inspiring the envy and mistrust of his son, Hindley. When Earnshaw passes away, the now-grown characters (played by Kaya Scodelario, James Howson and Lee Shaw) must finally confront the intense feelings and rivalries that have built up throughout their years together.
Previously, Arnold wove a story about Glasgow’s most notorious tenements in her first feature, Red Road. In her sophomore feature, Fish Tank, a mouthy teenager on an Essex estate struggled with the promise and threat of adult life. These films showed little indication of her interest in or aptitude for making a period piece set the late 18th century, but it’s the kind of ballsy move we’ve come to expect from Arnold. Anthem sat down with the filmmaker to discuss her latest production.
Wuthering Heights will open in New York on October 5th with a national roll-out to follow.
Could you talk about your first encounter with the novel?
I can’t recall exactly how old I was, but it was maybe when I was 18 or 19 years old. I think I was expecting it to be this classic love story. I remember reading it and feeling that it was far more stranger than that. It left me feeling uncomfortable. If I remember correctly, I felt unsettled after reading it. I was almost disturbed by it without really knowing why. It had a really strange affect on me and that always intrigued me. There was something about it—for people who like the book, at least—this fascination where you can’t quite get to the bottom of it. It’s a very strange book.
Why is this book so timeless?
It retains this power that’s sort of its own that no one can ever ever work out. People keep trying to make sense of it, but I don’t think anyone ever can. So much is written about it. I read a lot of different things about it, but you can interpret it in so many different ways. I think it’s its own beast that no can really fathom and that intrigues people. It’s like they’re trying to tame it or something, but no one ever can. We should probably just give up to be honest. [Laughs] No one will ever win this battle. It’s intriguing and fascinating, but I don’t think people will really understand it. Even for me, after making this film, I don’t really understand it myself. It can work on so many different levels. I started off with one idea, but as I was working on it, I came up with other ideas all the time. It kept morphing because I was always looking at it differently. Now, I think, if I made the film again, I would’ve cast Heathcliff as a woman. That would rock the boat, wouldn’t it? [Laughs]
That sounds like an interesting approach.
In a way, I think Heathcliff was a version of Emily [Brontë]. I think it could’ve been really interesting to do that. Heathcliff isn’t very male. Although he does violent things, there’s something not very male about him as well. There’s something asexual about him. Even when he has a child, the child is very weak, you know? I don’t think he’s totally male. In a lot of the adaptations, they make him this ultimate male and women are fascinated with him, and I don’t know why. There’s just so much to interpret with this material. You can get really lost in this stuff.
Were you a fan of adaptations? It can get so subjective, especially when you’re translating text to film. In those cases, the first translated work sort of dictates what people think it should be like with every subsequent project.
Of course, and I thought, “Another adaptation of Wuthering Heights?” It’s probably the stupidest career move that I could make if I was looking at it from that perspective. In that case, I should never have done it. I would’ve never thought that I would do an adaptation. But when I saw that they were developing it, I became jealous. Even when it arrived on my lap and I had agreed to do it, I knew that it was silly. I still couldn’t help myself. It’s one of the most famous books of all time! It’s this really unfathomable, complex book. I deliberately didn’t watch the earlier adaptations. Don’t ask me why, but I was completely possessed by this material. I couldn’t put it down even though it was a difficult thing joining a project that was already in motion. The producers were already pushing it along at a certain speed, so I sort of joined this unwieldy production. It wasn’t an easy process by any means, but I still hung onto it. Even though I knew it wasn’t quite right, I couldn’t leave this material alone. I’m obsessed with this idea of whether we’re born or made because I don’t think any of us is ever born evil. I don’t think I realized how tricky it would be to communicate something like that early on.
You see the issue of circumstance in Katie Jarvis’ character in Fish Tank as well. Her life and being is a direct byproduct of her circumstance.
Absolutely. I’m very interested in how people turn out why they do. Wherever we’re born or who we’re born into makes all the difference in your life, right? You could be born in a country where you don’t get to eat much. Is this your fault? Maybe you need to steal in order to eat and survive. Do we hold empathy for people who end up in situations like that in the world or do we put them on the sidelines? Do we put them in prisons and give them lethal injections?
How different is your version of Wuthering Heights in comparison to what was being developed before you signed on?
It’s so different. In the very first version of it, they had Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman involved to play Heathcliff and Cathy. Then they had Ed Westwick and Gemma Arterton onboard at one point. So there were two different directors and that talent attached to the script. When I started—even though the script was well written by the writer—I didn’t see my voice in it. I came to realize that it was unnatural because I’m so used to writing my own material. I really wanted to write my own version of it, which is difficult to do when someone else has already written something. I just needed to find my own voice in the project. So, with the writer’s blessing, I told her that I would need to write this myself. Even though things were in place when I joined, I really started over in the end. At the same time, I was tying to do it really fast in order to keep the project moving. It’s tricky to join something when it has already begin to take shape.
They must have trusted you a whole lot. Just three films in, you’ve made a huge impression in contemporary cinema—you have an Academy Award.
I think I’m lucky that I’m able to now make films where people give me a certain amount of freedom. I’m not making movies for a lot of budgets though. If you’re making a movie with a lot of money, you wouldn’t get that amount of freedom. If I continue to make small films, within that kind of framework, I’ll have a lot of freedom.
Money adds a lot of cooks to the kitchen.
If you’re going to take on a big budget film, everyone gets more involved whether it’s about casting or getting the money back, which is totally fair, but you have to take less risks. Making small films is what you have to do if you want more creative freedom. It’s not always good to have complete creative freedom though. I love feedback. I like people telling me what works and what doesn’t because you can take or leave whatever people say to you. It’s good to have people challenge you. Boundaries and restrictions are good. I do think that I seek out trouble. With this film, I think I made as much trouble for myself as I possibly could. [Laughs] I cast non-professional actors to make a really incomprehensible book and filmed it on location. I can’t imagine that I’ll make another film this difficult ever again. Maybe I shouldn’t say these things because I’ll learn to regret it, but I find it hard to imagine that something else will be as hard.
Why do you like working with non-professional actors? What do they offer a director that trained, seasoned professional actors can’t?
With Heathcliff, I was looking for someone who had a kind of vulnerability, but also an anger. Trained actors can do that, of course, but I’m sort of fascinated with people who have that innate ability without even trying. You can feel it within their very makeup and their very being. James [Howson] for me had that vulnerability and anger without even having to open his mouth—it was already there. You can sense it in his DNA. It’s sort of a genuine, basic fundamental characteristic of his person. And they don’t even know that they have these traits, which is exciting.
How did you discover James?
He was looking to get employed at a job center at the time. We were doing open castings, which basically meant that anyone could walk in for an audition. It’s quite a random thing to do and, obviously, you’re going to meet a lot of people that don’t quite work. And I never know until I cast somebody whether it’s going to work—it’s tricky business. It comes as quite a shock to film someone who hadn’t done it before because they perceive of the final result and have this idea of it becoming some sort of glamorous life. But when you wake them up at four in the morning and they’re freezing cold with rain for ten hours being asked to do the same thing over and over again, they get fed up with it quite quickly. [Laughs] That’s quite hard to explain to someone who hasn’t gone through the training of acting because they don’t realize that that’s just part of the process. With James, taking him up to the house—he had been looking up on the Internet about Wuthering Heights and had seen Heathcliff wearing these amazing outfits in gothic mansions—he was really disappointed. He had these expectations about how it was going to be and it turned out to be completely different. And he didn’t like the countryside much. He found it frightening.
Why do you think it was frightening for him?
I think it’s because he was so used to living in the city. We were up there one night and he said to me, “This is the kind of place where you get murdered and no one notices.” [Laughs] I think the countryside, when it gets dark with all the trees, it can produce that kind of fear. If it’s something you aren’t used to, your imagination just plays games. I told him, “James, there’s no one here and no one will come here and do that. There’s only sheep.” [Laughs] But you can see why he would think that. It was dark, quiet and unusual to him.
What are you working on currently?
I’m in the middle of writing. It’s weird to talk about projects when you’re in the middle of it because it feels sort of intimate and it’s a work-in-progress. I’m pleased to be going back to something contemporary that comes from my personal self and not an adaptation or a period piece.
Have you had your fill with adaptations?
I doubt that I’ll ever do it ever again. I always thought that the book world is not like the film world. You shouldn’t mix them perhaps. With Wuthering Heights, it’s only my take on it. I could’ve made twenty different takes on it anyway because it’s impossible to translate that book in any one way. Everyone who reads it has their own version of it in their mind so you’re disappointing a lot of people every time you reinterpret it. I think it’s probably better not to go there. I really want to focus on my own stories now—for better or worse.