EXCL: Director Andrea Arnold on Red Road

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Most if not all movies start with an idea, and that’s no different for Andrea Arnold’s debut feature Red Road. What might seem at first like just another strong indie character drama can actually be traced back to an elaborate premise called the “Advance Party Concept.” Developed by Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier, Lone Scherfig, and Anders Thomas Jensen, the idea was to have three different directors making a series of films with the rule that they all had to include the same characters played by the same group of actors, and all the stories had to take place in Glasgow, Scotland.

Having won an Oscar for her short film Wasp, Andrea Arnold was the first filmmaker to accept the challenge and finish her part of the series, to be followed by films from Glasgow’s Morag Mackinnon and Mikkel Norgaard from Copenhagen. (Note: Since conducting this interview and writing this intro, we discovered from IndieWire that Mikkel might have dropped out of the project.) Arnold chose to focus her story on Kate Dickie’s Jackie, a Glaswegian CCTV operator whose job it is to monitor the cameras in a particular area of the city. When she spots a man from her past, played by Tony Curran, she becomes obsessed and starts to follow his every move. It’s an extremely strong debut, a riveting tale that takes a number of shocking twists and turns, but it has such a distinctly original tone that separates it from similar movies that come from elsewhere. After seeing the movie, it wouldn’t be too big a surprise that Arnold’s film won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year before sweeping the Scottish BAFTA awards.

ComingSoon.net spoke with Arnold on her recent visit to New York City where Red Road was being screened as part of Lincoln Center’s “New Directors/New Films” program.

ComingSoon.net: Can you talk about the “Advance Party Concept”, how you got involved with the project and how your movie fits in?
Andrea Arnold: I was approached by Gillian Berrie and Sisse Joergensen, they were the two exec producers and it was their idea to do a bunch of films with some kind of concept. They had spoken with Lars von Trier and asked him about the Dogme thing and what had been good about Dogme. Apparently, he said that the collaboration between directors was a good thing and that having boundaries and restrictions was good. He suggested giving the same directors a bunch of characters to be played by the same actors.

CS: Okay, it’s starting to make sense now that this original idea came from Lars von Trier, because it sounds like something he might come up with.
Arnold: (laughs) I just watched “The Five Obstructions.” It was his creative idea, and the producers asked Lone Scherfig and Anders Jensen to write the characters. When I came on board, that document had already been written and when I got interviewed for it, I thought it sounded interesting. I loved Zoetrope, I love the films and filmmakers, so I was completely happy when they asked if I wanted to join them. I was given a document written by Lone and Anders, and I had to take that document away and write a script using those characters. It was seven characters, but we added one more at the beginning, because Mikkel and I were both interested in Clyde [Tony Curran’s character], and we thought we’d give him a friend, so we added Stevie, the young lad, that was our addition. That meant we could play around with that relationship a bit more and open it up a bit more. Then Morag, when she started writing her script, she added a teenage girl that became a central character, and she said that if she was going to add this character, she couldn’t have it unless we decided to also have Bronwyn in our script.

CS: Will we find out in the other movies why Tony’s character is hanging out with Stevie and so many younger people?
Arnold: [Anders] said in the character description that he hangs out with people from prison, and I imagined Stevie was someone in a cell with him at one point, and he was just looking after him. Things that aren’t in the film, but are just in my mind, that Stevie had nowhere to live so Clyde was giving him a roof over his head, he was looking after him. He wasn’t really friends but more they were living together out of necessity.

CS: Will the other two films take place before and/or after your movie or will they fill in the blanks?
Arnold: No, it’s not going to be like a trilogy or continuous in a way. It’s the same characters but they’ll make their own universe. They’ll have different family members, unless it says in the description that they can’t, but they’ll have different jobs. They’re supposed to be the same characters played by the same actors, but within that, we can do what we like.

CS: There’s no actual continuity between the three movies in terms of the characters’ lives?
Arnold: No, that would be really tough. We could have done that if we wanted, perhaps made it continuous. “What happens now?” in the next one. We decided that we would not do that, because that would mean collaborating a lot and everyone’s pretty busy and we live in different cities, but also it meant that we could make the films more our own by being quite free with what we did with the characters. Sometimes I think more rules the better on some level.

CS: Have either of the other two directors started shooting their movies yet?
Arnold: No, they haven’t done theirs yet. Morag is on the way, but I don’t know what’s happening with the Danish one. I know that Mikkel been doing a lot of work, so I don’t know where that’s at.

CS: Who decided to set all of the movies in Scotland?
Arnold: That was a production decision. Aside from those creative rules about the characters played by the same actors, we had to shoot in Scotland in six weeks on digital format and for a million pounds maximum.

CS: Did you feel that you had the home field advantage filming in the UK?
Arnold: I don’t know Scotland at all really. I got to know Glasgow through the film, but I had to find my way. Tony grew up in Glasgow and Kate, I don’t where she grew up but she lives in Glasgow now. Martin comes from just outside Glasgow, so [the actors] were all local actors, and lots of the other actors come from there as well. I was keen, and so were the others, to have real Glaswegians as much as possible. I think it’s quite interesting everyone’s connection with Glasgow, because we’re all shooting there. Morag lives there, I live in London so I know of it. I haven’t been there… I think I passed through there on the way to a wedding a long time ago and found it incredibly friendly, but I was there for two hours. Mikkel lives in Copenhagen, so his connection with it is even further away. I find it interesting that in our scripts, the distance that we live to it and our connection with it also shows up in each of the stories. I think that’s an interesting thing, because the way Mikkel sees Glasgow is very different than the way I see it and Morag sees it, and that will be very distinct in each film.

CS: Did you cast two main actors together with the other two directors?
Arnold: We had to cast everyone together, but because each of us had settled on different lead, we decided that we’d give each other first choice in our leads. We started generally casting together at the beginning, in fact we had the idea to cast very early on, before we started writing, so we had the people in mind while we were writing, so we didn’t get too sidetracked with our own version of that character, but it never happened. When it became a reality that one of the films was going to get made, then we really had to cast. My film, I just decided to make it a priority and get on with it. I said at the beginning that I’d like to go first and I just went for it. They were in a less fortunate position in a way when we cast, because they were not sure about their films. They were on the way, they had scripts, but I was ready. That was one of the bonuses for me I think. I was more sure about what I needed to get and who I needed my characters to be, but we all had to agree on everyone.

CS: How did you convince the actors to be a part of this experiment? Someone like Tony Curran must be pretty busy, because he does lots of Hollywood movies. How do you get them to commit…
Arnold: …to something they haven’t seen? Actually, I think they were all cast before they’d even seen my script. I wasn’t sure if I was going to show it all to them in one go.

CS: The dialogue is fairly minimal at least in the first half hour. What kind of script did you have for the actors to work from?
Arnold: One with not a lot of dialogue. It was interesting to look at the script, because there was very little dialogue. It was all description and action. I knew that, but it’s so interesting when you see the film. I saw it for the first time yesterday having not seen it for about six months. When you’ve been working on it, editing it, you don’t really see it but then you see it with audiences for the first few times and after a while, you’ll want to keep from seeing it. I’ve been to some Q ‘n’ A’s but I don’t always watch it. I watched it yesterday, and even now I think “Crikey, it’s really silent for a really, really long time.” It’s quite challenging in a way, I think. It’s not what people are used to. I didn’t use any music. I used sounds. And we’re watching somebody watching other people. I haven’t timed. It would be interesting to know how long [the silent part] actually is.

CS: Were you able to shoot the movie in sequential order?
Arnold: No, I shot the last scene on the first day, and that’s not fair. I didn’t want to do that, but it just ended up being the way the schedule went. Schedules are a very tough thing to put together where you don’t have much money or much time. There’s a lot of sacrifice. All the shorts I’ve done have sort of been in order. I like doing that because then you’re sort of going on a journey with the actor, and you can work together on where the journey’s going. It’s such a luxury, and I don’t think there are many directors who get to shoot in order. There must be very few.

CS: How did you prepare Kate and Tony for their intense sex scene? Did you save that for the end of the shoot?
Arnold: Yeah, I did ask for that to be towards the end. Also, we didn’t get Tony until the very end anyway. He came across to do the CCTV stuff and then we lost him, then he came back towards the end. We didn’t rehearse—I don’t like rehearsing anyway—and haven’t rehearsed any of it. It’s all very much done on the day. We went out to talk about it, and we just discussed what anybody was worried about and that anyone said what they wanted to say about it, so that it was all thought about beforehand. But actually, what happened was that we only had an hour ’cause we never got to see each other in that kind of way because we were just working. It was so nice to be out with them in just a normal way that we just started chatting about loads of other things and didn’t really talk much about what we were going to do. We spent the last ten minutes on it and then off we went. It was very much like it was in the script, and I think they knew what was involved, and they were committed and both very focused. We didn’t have very much time for it either, four or five hours or something. It’s quite a long and intimate scene. We really had to be very practical and get it done. So there was that element as well, which I think was quite a good thing. Just doing it, moving on.

CS: Once you knew the premise of Jackie being a CCTV operator, how did you get access to a CCTV control room?
Arnold: I had to make the film in Glasgow, so once I knew what the idea was going to be, I had to seek out a place where we could film. Actually, I wanted to do some research as well, so I found a place. The place in the film is a real place. I went down there a good number of times to talk to people, have a look, and when we got around towards filming, I had gotten pretty friendly with them, and I asked if they knew a place like this, like a decommissioned place or somewhere that wasn’t being used. And they said, “Oh, but we have a spare bay.” It was tiny, but it was an area they didn’t use or used only for special occasions, like football matches, things like that. Whenever there’s a big event, they can have additional cameras and they can use this specifically for that event.

CS: Oh, you mean to cover security at the event. I thought you meant they would watch football matches on the bank of monitors.
Arnold: (laughs) No, no, so we got to film down at that end. Tiny space, very hard to film in, and we were able to film all our own footage and put it into the monitors.

CS: You actually shot all the stuff she was watching beforehand?
Arnold: Yeah, we did a week of filming all the CCTV stuff with a genuine CCTV camera. We went around and did it all with a single camera, so it was quite intricate and had to be thought out quite carefully, ’cause then that had to be edited and then put into the screens. That was quite a challenge, I have to say. It was a huge ordeal, it was really quite tough, so that took a lot of thought. I was saying yesterday that the shot list was just for those bits I did. I thought about the sequence and what needed to be seen and how we saw it, how we were going to shoot it and where the cameras are going to be, and how that was then going to be seen. The first week we were doing CCTV during the day. We were filming, and I was up at 3, finishing up around 8, then going to edit, falling asleep in the edit chair because I had to edit the CCTV stuff to go into the following week’s shoot. We had a very complicated system, because I wanted the sequences to run as one. That meant that if she’s following somebody who moves from one camera to another and then it moves down here in time, somebody would have to leave that one, come into this one and then drive off down that one, that had to work as a sequence, so that had to be edited to work like that. We had a technician come with 8 or 9 Beta machines and we were able to feed 36 monitors, so we had to duplicate some of the images. It never really worked like that and we never got a whole sequence. It was incredibly hard to achieve, it just didn’t really work. I ended up having to shoot in tiny little bits. I don’t think you see many sequences that are one. We got sections, but it wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked. For my first film, I thought, “Why the hell did I pick this? This is a technical nightmare!” It was not the easiest thing to choose to do especially since the shoot was short. When I look at the film, I can feel the time we didn’t have. “We didn’t get to do that again and that wasn’t quite right. We missed some dialogue there.” I made a list of big notes, but it’s really gotta be let go.

CS: That’s pretty amazing. When you watch those scenes, it seems like Jackie is simply watching live camera feeds. It seems very natural, but it sounds like it was a huge ordeal. The complexity of those scenes aside, do you subscribe to the Dogme esthetic of trying to use natural light and things like that?
Arnold: That’s something I like anyway, something I’ve been developing over my shorts and very much I’ve liked. I like not using too much light, love using natural light and natural things. I love hand-held. I know it drives lots of people crazy, but I really like it, because it gives you a lot of freedom in filming. The actors can move any way they want to and you can go with them, you can let them lead you as opposed to making them stand in different places. Everyone has their idea of how they want to do things, but I like to give them that freedom.

CS: What were the other directors’ reactions after seeing your movie? Did it put more pressure on them to deliver something that was it’s equal?
Arnold: I honestly don’t know. I personally feel that they’re very strong filmmakers who will make their own thing in their own way. It’s like their films will be very different to mine and they will do that. I think the intention was that three very different films will get made by three very different filmmakers. When the next film comes out, I think it will really show that despite starting with the same restrictions, how different all the films will be, ’cause they’ll have their sensibilities. If you gave ten directors the same script, you’d get ten different films. I mean, we’d all know what was going to happen, but the texture and the emotion and the feeling of the film, they’ll be ten completely different films.

CS: Do you know what you’ll be doing next?
Arnold: I’m writing something right now, trying to. I hate writing really, I find it difficult. (laughs) I don’t know what to do now ’cause there are no rules, and I can just do what I like. I’m thinking of setting myself some restrictions in order to have something to bounce off. I’ve always started writing by—and this sounds kind of mad—I always say that the films I want to make are usually things that pick me, I don’t pick them. It’s kind of something I have to go explore, so there’s one particular image for my next film that I’m exploring, but I’m not going to say what it is. (laughs)

Red Road opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, April 13.

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