She likes to keep things real

Hollywood diaries

She likes to keep things real

Andrea Arnold isn’t the kind of person you’d imagine might feel the lightning bolt of inspiration strike halfway through a Transformers movie. Her films stray from the beaten path at the first chance they get, rooting out magic in life’s shadows and silences — and as yet, none have involved robots punching holes in a skyscraper. But it was during a trip to see Transformers in 2007 that the first piece of her new film fell into place.

“I just remember him being beautiful,” says the 55-year-old director. Arnold is talking about Shia LaBeouf, the Transformers franchise’s then-20-year-old leading man, who was then being groomed by the film’s executive producer Steven Spielberg for clean-cut blockbuster stardom. “He was great in it. It’s what I always remembered him from. He felt very real in it” — she pauses, smiles — “for a film that was not a real thing.”

One plagiarism scandal, a few run-ins with the law, and a paper bag over his head on the red carpet at the Berlin Film Festival later, LaBeouf’s career may not have traced the glitzy arc Spielberg once envisioned. But Arnold kept his face filed away, just in case. And in 2015, when she turned her imagination to the casting of American Honey — a film about a band of young souls on an endless pan-American road trip — LaBeouf came looming out of the murk.
Even Arnold herself is something of a Transformer. She grew up in Dartford, Kent with her mother and three younger siblings, and left school at 16. After a brief stint as a dancer on Top of the Pops, she became a children’s television presenter on the Saturday morning show No. 73, alongside Sandi Toksvig and Neil Buchanan. Her hair was curly and red, and she shot around the set on roller skates.

She says she “never felt comfortable in front of the cameras”, but had an inkling she was very close to something she might love. So she spent the money she moved to Los Angeles with the money she’d saved and took a year-long directing course at the American Film Institute. Her first short film, Milk, was selected for Cannes. Her third, Wasp, about a single mother raising four children in Dartford, won her the Oscar.

American Honey — swollen-hearted, ablaze with beauty — offers a minibus-load of Arnold stories in one. LaBeouf’s Jake is just one of them: a long-serving member of its “mag crew” of travelling youngsters hawking magazine subscriptions suburb to suburb. But its star is Star. Played by the first-time actress Sasha Lane, she’s an 18-year-old fleeing responsibilities beyond her tender years — two half-siblings she cares for like children, a drunken father who might as well be her abusive husband — to join Jake and his merry band on the road.

Like Fish Tank’s Katie Jarvis, who was talent-spotted by Arnold’s casting director feuding with her boyfriend at a railway station in Essex, and Wuthering Heights’ James Howson, who was discovered at a JobCentre in Leeds, the then-19-year-old Lane (she’s now 21) isn’t what you’d call the stage school type. She was discovered by Arnold sunbathing during spring break in Florida, two weeks before filming on American Honey was due to begin. Arnold had already found her leading lady during a casting trip to the resort town of Panama City the previous year, but personal circumstances led her to drop out at the last minute. So Arnold packed a suitcase, hopped on a plane and went beachcombing.

As with LaBeouf, what first struck the director about Lane was her beauty, which she defines as “not traditionally of a type”. Lane, who’s half-New Zealander, half-African American, with a cascading crown of dreadlocks and an upper lip whose curve captured in close-up makes you want to compose sonnets, is certainly that. And though her friends advised caution — the beach where she was spotted is a notorious pick-up spot for adult film producers — Lane said after the film’s premiere at Cannes earlier this year that there was just “something trustworthy” about this smiley British woman in dungarees and a cowboy hat.

From there, it was off to Star’s road trip through flyover country: the mag crew in the front of the minibus, and Arnold, her long-time cinematographer Robbie Ryan and her sound recordist Rashad Omar in the dog compartment in the back. The shoot covered 56 days and 12,000 miles, and the cast ate, drank, partied and crashed together throughout. The film unapologetically dotes on these kids with time and attention the world at large can’t seem to find for them.

During filming, Arnold liked to keep things tricky. No member of the cast, whether seasoned or fresh, ever saw a copy of the script. Instead, Arnold handed them a page of dialogue every morning, plus additional inspirational items as appropriate.

“I don’t go with a controlled idea of what I want to happen,” she says. “Each time I make a film I like to push it further than the last. I cast non-actors because they never do the same thing twice, and will always challenge you. But that brings you life. That makes you think. I love the chaos. I get calmer the more chaotic it gets.”

The sun is low and cold now, and Arnold recalls going into her garden a few days ago to exorcise “a really funny mood” by spending some time beside a bush “heaving with bees”, which was “just the best moment of my day”. She found four or five fat, fuzzy specimens writhing tipsily in the grass, and laid some flowers down beside them, “because I thought if they’re dying, at least they can die with the plants they like, right? But then I thought maybe I was making them more drunk. Maybe I was sending them to their death.”

Another Arnold trademark: every drop of sweetness comes with stings attached. Whether they knew it or not, those bees had met their match.

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