Director Andrea Arnold discusses stocking her raw, sensual 'Fish Tank' 

British director Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank shows that the tradition of kitchen-sink realism is alive and well. Set on a housing estate in Essex, the drama follows Mia (Katie Jarvis) on a troubled, self-destructive path fueled by her attraction to her mother's boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender, from Inglourious Basterds and Hunger).

Arnold uses handheld camera effectively, carefully creating an atmosphere of reality. She refrains from passing judgment on Mia, who sometimes seems prematurely aged. At other times, the girl seems impossibly naive, as when she auditions at a dance club without realizing how sexualized the other dancers will be. Mia's only healthy outlet is dancing, and the film's soundtrack features a powerful mix of soul, reggae and hip-hop.

Arnold's methods of making the film were somewhat unusual. She never showed the full script to her actors. Instead, she gave them the scenes in which they appeared just a few days before the shoot. Additionally, her lead actress is a 17-year-old nonprofessional who initially thought Arnold and her crew were pulling her leg when they asked her to appear in a film. A lot could have gone wrong in Fish Tank, but instead, it confirms that Arnold is one of the most promising British directors to emerge in the past 10 years. Though jet-lagged — she downed several cups of tea throughout our interview —Arnold spoke with the Scene shortly after landing in the States to promote her film.

Scene: Are the songs used in Fish Tank your personal favorites?

Andrea Arnold: The music choices were a long battle. Music's always difficult in films. It's so hard to clear a lot of it. I wanted to try and use the same music when we were filming. Some of it couldn't be cleared in time. Some of it I discovered as I was looking for it. There are some songs I already knew. It's about half and half. For me, the music is like a character. Finding music  that feels right is part of my job I like the most. I didn't want to use a score. I want the music to work emotionally, on lots of levels. Originally, I wanted the mom to listen to Bob Marley. There was just no way I could afford it.

What inspired you to shoot in 1.33 aspect ratio?

Arnold: When I made my first feature, Red Road, one of my delivery guarantees was that I had to deliver a 1.33 version. I can't remember what country it was for. I had to go through every single shot and reframe it. I found that incredibly interesting. You always had a person at the center of each frame. It made you really think about framing. When I thought I was going to make a film about a girl, I tested the format before shooting. I liked it. For the locations we had, the rooms are small and anything wider feels redundant. 1.33 really suited the location, as well as dancing. All around, it felt absolutely right. Using all the negative also seemed like a good idea.

Did you try to find the ugliest parts of Essex?

Arnold: I don't think they're ugly, and I don't understand why people do!  I find it really baffling that people describe them as miserable and grim. It's a housing estate where lots of people live. The majority of Britain lives that way. It's a normal way to survive. I see it as beautiful. I can't see it as grim whatsoever. It's tough. It's got motorways, but I like them. The sky is huge there, which you can't see in London. There is a declining industry there. Ford had a big factory, and a lot of the people that live there used to work at Ford. All those car parks are empty. There used to be a lot more work there, and it was livelier.

What advantages do you think your method of not showing actors the full script has?

Arnold: This is the first time I've done it. It's an experiment. What I wanted was to create an innocence in the actors' interactions. In life, we go about our business without ever knowing what's going to happen to us. I'm always trying to get the actors to work without knowing too much of what they're doing. Katie didn't really understand until very late that she was supposed to like Michael. A lot of her actions towards him are hostile. So I think it really did work.

Was it hard to get the right balance of innocence and experience for Mia? In particular, I'm thinking of the dance club scene.

Arnold: When I was looking into the dance scenes, I went to clubs to research them. At a lot of them, they have all kinds of dancers. Perhaps I didn't make it clear enough, but these clubs take all kinds of girls. I thought it was very believable. I do show a girl in particularly skimpy clothes, but there are other girls who have more clothes on. Those girls are all the ones that we auditioned. It was really nice having them together. They were a very diverse group. I think Mia's got the quality of being in between a woman and child. She's hardened but naive at times as well. It's a very interesting time in a girl's life. I saw lots of girls who seemed like they were already women at 13 or 14 and girls who were 17 or 18 but acted like they were 12.

Film Details

Fish Tank
Rated NR · 122 min. · 2010
Director: Andrea Arnold
Writer: Andrea Arnold
Producer: Kees Kasander
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Harry Treadaway, Kierston Wareing, Jason Maza, Katie Jarvis, Jack Gordon, Charlotte Collins, Brooke Hobby and Chelsea Chase

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