A Whole World: A Conversation with Andrea Arnold

From our Notebook Cannes Special: the Carrosse d’Or winner describes her raw, lived-in films as cinematic jigsaw puzzles.
Caitlin Quinlan

Illustrations by Maddie Fischer.

This interview, part of our Cannes 2024 coverage, was originally published in the Notebook Cannes Special, a limited-edition print publication distributed at the Cannes Film Festival.

Bird (Andrea Arnold, 2024).

The cinema of Andrea Arnold—where the industrial landscapes of working-class Britain and the US are home to stories of disenfranchised, defiant youth—is defined by its vivid intimacy. Across her nearly 30-year career, Arnold has crafted a visual language and storytelling framework that centers closeness and familiarity; relationships, challenged by their own intensity or dysfunction, are evoked through intricate details, like beads of sweat on a shoulder blade or the textures of a wasp’s wings. As well as receiving this year’s Carrosse d’Or, Arnold presents her new feature Bird in the official selection, marking her fourth appearance in competition.

Her early short films, Milk (1998), Dog (2001), and Wasp (2003)—all snapshots of young women living through personal struggle and fighting against circumstance—set the tone for later features. In returning to similar subjects and experiences, Arnold gives her oeuvre a sense of cohesion, forging emotional and cinematic bonds between her stories. Even in films as disparate as her first feature Red Road (2006), a thriller about a CCTV operator’s obsession with a man from her past, and Cow (2021), a close study of a dairy cow and Arnold’s most explicit turn toward documentary filmmaking, the careful attention paid to these protagonists and the empathy crafted for them are the same. 

Equally remarkable is the unflinching drama of these films, though Arnold always embraces the bittersweet—her characters suffer hardships and in some cases outright danger, yet the filmmaker’s stance is never one of despondency. The lightness in her films stems from her interest in the freedom of the people, often non-professional actors, that she captures, their escapist fantasies and love stories. This imbues the visual mood of her films too; with her regular collaborator, the cinematographer Robbie Ryan, she has refined an aesthetic that marries the mundane and the hedonistic, using soft, gauzy sunlight to heat up the desolate quotidian of her locations or shadowy blues to heighten their tension. The former is particularly true of Fish Tank (2009) and American Honey (2016), twin cinematic flames that follow the coming of age of women in the midst of troubled families and domineering male presences. Wuthering Heights (2011) is their colder, broodier counterpart, a visceral and provocative take on Emily Brontë’s famed novel. 

This varied yet harmonious body of work has established Arnold as a singular British auteur, with a deft ability to bridge the gap between fiction and reality, creating a profoundly lived-in cinema. Yet within this intimacy there remains a rawness. Her stories of fractured, rebellious people cut close to the bone, compassionately drawn yet piercing in their uncompromising honesty. 

Wasp (Andrea Arnold, 2003).

NOTEBOOK: How do you reflect on the time between your first venture into filmmaking and where you are now?

ANDREA ARNOLD: I feel now like I did at the beginning, almost. I’ve learned loads, I’m sure I have, but every single film feels like a totally new venture, as challenging as the last one or as the first one. I think back to making some of the shorts and it feels very similar now to how it did then. I remember one of the first shorts I made—we had a mix of experienced and inexperienced crew and the shoot was really hard. I remember not getting a lot of sleep, trying to juggle everything and make it work, like everyone is on a film. There was one point where I felt really, really overwhelmed and I went down to the end of the lane where we were shooting and had a good cry by myself. There was nobody there; everyone else was having their supper, and I remember thinking to myself, “Well, what’s the worst that could happen? I could make a crap film.” I thought, “Oh my God, is that it?” It’s not life or death. But it’s a vulnerable thing to make a film. It’s a very brave thing to do. And every single time I make one, it feels brave and it feels vulnerable. I feel as vulnerable now as I did when I made my first shorts. 

NOTEBOOK: Do you consider yourself a ritualistic filmmaker? Given the shared themes and tones of your films, and the repeated collaborations with the same crew, are there things you do, as the director, again and again?

ARNOLD: I’ve got certain things I always like to do, but every film requires you to think about it a little bit differently depending on what it is and where you are. We never say “action” or “cut.” I’ve not said that for years. I always think those words are strange. “Action” really ramps up the tension. I think it must make actors feel very tense, somehow, you know: “Perform, do your thing, go on, be good!” So we always find different ways to say action and it’s different on every film, although lately I tend to say very little, just, “Off you go,” or something like that. And then, “cut” always feels a bit harsh, like, “Stop what you’re doing, don’t do it any more!” I always think that’s so harsh on people who are there making themselves vulnerable in front of you, and so I say “thank you” instead. 

I’ve had pretty much the same crew for ages now. We’ve done loads of films together and they’re people I’ve known for years, like a film family—people having babies, retiring, life cycles carrying on, while we’re making films. That’s really special, because I think the film industry can be quite a difficult place and making films can be a tough environment. There are lots of things that are very challenging about it, and to have people around you that you know and love and care about makes such a huge difference. It makes the experience so much nicer, and a loving one.

American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016).

NOTEBOOK: When you’re developing a new film, is the character the starting point for you? To what extent do places or locations inspire you?

ARNOLD: Usually I start with an image that I work outwards from. It’s like the beginning of a jigsaw puzzle that you’re trying to piece together. But the places and the locations are a massive part of it. I feel like we are all, in a way, a reflection of where we come from and where we grew up. I think the place you’re born and grow up in is massively influential on your life. And so, to me, I’ve always felt that it’s really important to explore the place my characters live in, as being part of who they are. When I did American Honey, I was really fascinated to discover that most of the kids who go off with these mag crews come from Middle America, these little towns where the horizon is miles and miles away, places that are in the middle of an ocean of fields and space. They have a desire to see what’s beyond that horizon they’re surrounded by; I found that fascinating.

NOTEBOOK: How has your long collaboration with Robbie Ryan helped to define the visual language of your films?

ARNOLD: I met him because I saw a short film [The Tale of the Rat That Wrote, 1999] he had shot, and there was something about the way he used the handheld camera that I really loved. The way he holds it is very respectful to the person in front of him; it doesn’t look down and it doesn’t make a judgment. It’s just with them. He’s very much that kind of person, too—he’s very down-to-earth and very lovely, and his camerawork is like that. I love handheld because it gives the people in front of the camera room to move in the way they want to, so it can feel natural. 

The handheld thing was massive for me and I’ve really stuck at it. Actually, that’s probably another ritual thing—you’d never see a tripod in my films, ever. In fact, we tried to do it when we were making Wuthering Heights because the ground was really hard to walk on. We tried putting track down so we could do smoother tracking shots, and I hated it—I absolutely hated it. I hate the slightly mechanical, automated feel it gives the camera; I instinctively just don’t like it. So then we found the solution, to put Robbie on a horse in order to give the camera more of a natural movement. There are lots of very funny shots of Robbie sitting backwards on a horse tracking with actors. I’ve known him for years now. We’ve done pretty much every film together and I just really love him and love working with him. We are so in tune now that we hardly speak. At the beginning, we would go to the Tate [gallery] and look at some photographs or some books. Now we just don’t even talk. I’ll say, “Did you get—?” and he’ll say, “Yep.” I don’t even finish the sentence! He knows exactly what I’m gonna ask for. 

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011).

NOTEBOOK: How does this sense of kinship extend, if at all, to your films and your characters? Do you feel particular bonds between them?

ARNOLD: I nearly always pick characters I want to root for. All the people I’ve put in my films have been those I’m rooting for, and when things get really tough on set, I feel like I’m doing it for them. I feel that really strongly with every single character I’ve written: I’ve got their back and that’s really important to me. I don’t think I could do it without having that feeling, actually. I see them as very real. Sometimes I challenge myself with the characters and make them not very easy to know. It’s almost like I make it more difficult every time; I don’t know why. This film [Bird] felt the hardest. I’ve always had this idea that if you look at anyone long enough, you’ll find the humanity in them and you’ll have empathy for whoever they are, no matter what they might have done. I’m always amazed when we get to the edit: We’ve shot this stuff, which is incredibly chaotic and messy, and then you edit it—put it together—and then sit and watch it, and go, “Wow, that’s a whole world that wasn’t there before.” 

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