“I was quite upset by some of what I saw”
by Fabien Lemercier
- CANNES 2016: English director Andrea Arnold explains what went into American Honey, a social road movie about American youth, unveiled in competition
Flanked by her actors, including revelation Sasha Lane and Shia Labeouf, DoP Robbie Ryan and producer Lars Knudsen, English director Andrea Arnold spoke to the press at her only press conference on the Croisette, about her experiences while working on American Honey [+see also:
Q&A: Andrea Arnold
film profile], which was presented in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
How did the idea of a crew of door-to-door salespeople come to you?
Andrea Arnold: A few years ago, I read an article in the New York Times that talked about the life and the world of these crews of people selling magazine subscriptions door to door. There are actually still a lot of crews about in the US. It’s not like the Big Issue sellers in England or people trying to stop you and get you to buy things for charity. In the States, you’re not really buying the magazine; you’re buying the person who is selling you the magazine. I learned about this topic, and the crew in the film was inspired by a genuine crew that’s been doing it for 10-12 years that I hung out with before writing the film. We sent all of the actors out to live this life a little. It’s actually really hard work; there was one estate where they threatened to call the cops, and the actors were chased by dogs. It’s a sort of sub-culture that I just added my imagination to.
How did you approach this film in the United States, which is an entirely different planet, as it were?
It was interesting, actually, because once I’d started looking at the topic, I realised I didn’t really know the United States intimately. So I started doing a whole load of trips by myself. I needed to get to know it and also make an intimate connection with it. I’ve been across the south, down the east, down the middle, and I started off in the west. It’s really open and flat, and that landscape has an impact on how you feel. We shot in the Midwest, from Oklahoma up to North Dakota, and it does gently change as it goes up. It’s quite an experience to travel thousands of miles – we did about 12,000. The actors didn’t know where they were going, so I would literally tell them, “Pack up, we’re leaving tomorrow.”
Your film deals with a lot of issues, but one of them is the disparity of wealth and the lack of opportunities for young people. What is your perspective on the situation in the US right now?
I think the film is a mix of the America I grew up with, which I mostly saw through Hollywood – you know, Little House on the Prairie and cowboys and those things – and the contemporary America that I saw when I did my trips. I was quite upset by some of the towns I went to and the poverty I saw. When people don’t have money, they can’t get healthcare. That kind of thing really shocked me. And the drugs as well – they were everywhere we went. We spent quite a lot of time looking for the cast, and met a lot of young people, so I guess I was immersed in that world – in the young world, if you like. There was one time when we were in West Virginia, in a tiny town with a dollar store, a funeral director’s and three pharmacies. I said, “Three pharmacies in a town – that’s really interesting!” In one of these pharmacies, there were around five people behind the counter, doing prescriptions – giving painkillers to old people and antidepressants to young people. It really speaks to the drug-addiction problem in the US! A lot of the towns I went to had a lot of chains, and it seemed to me that in small towns, there’s not a lot of industry or opportunities if you’re coming out of school and you need to work. It felt like a lot of the opportunities were in fast-food restaurants, and that seemed quite sad to me.
When trying to describe the poetic and fluid style of this film, people have been mentioning everybody from Larry Clark to Terrence Malick. Who are your influences for this film?
When I’m making a film, I don’t want to watch other films. I take a lot of my inspiration for each film from the world I’m exploring. So I will go into the world, do a lot of research and immerse myself in the places and with the people I’m going to be making the film about. That’s absolutely where I get my inspiration from. I find real life and real people really inspiring. In the past, Robbie and I might look at photographs, but we don’t say, “We’re going to make it look like that film or that film.” I try to find my own way, my own voice.
How did you choose the inordinate number of songs, which play an important role in the film?
Some of that was written into the script, but things change, for a variety of reasons. When we were out, the actors were listening to different things that influenced me. It changed as we were going along. There is a lot of music, but it’s the truth of these crews – they just listen to a lot of music. So I wanted to reflect that truth. I tried to use the songs they listen to as a kind of soundtrack, so they had to work on two levels. They had to be truthful to the scene, but also a kind of emotional backdrop as well.
(Translated from French)