Andrea Arnold holds herself together remarkably well for someone who was out until 8am the night before (or is that morning of?). When I caught up with the UK-born Oscar-winner (for 2003 short “Wasp”) in New York, she was coming off a marathon night of celebrating with the other filmmakers of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s prestigious New Directors/New Films festival her debut, “Red Road,” was one of the bigger entries in this year’s line-up. The title refers to a looming cluster of slablike housing projects on the outskirts of Glasgow. Jackie (Kate Dickie) works as a CCTV operator, monitoring an array of closed circuit security cameras around the city and alerting the police when needed until one night, when she spots a man she recognizes on screen. After tracking him for days, she traces him to the Red Road flats and finds a way to insert herself into his life for reasons that only gradually become clear.
“Red Road” is the first entry in the Advance Party trio, a planned set of three films from three first-time directors (Morag Mackinnon and Mikkel Norgaard round out the group) following a prescribed set of rules: the films must be set in Scotland and they must make use of a group of predefined characters. If this sounds a little…Danish, well, the project was conceived by filmmakers Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen (who will serve as executive producers on each of the films) after a conversation with Dogme95 deity Lars von Trier. I spoke with Arnold about surveillance and working within the rules.
I’d read that some international journalists assumed that the CCTV station [in which Jackie, the main character, works] was your own invention.
When I was at Cannes, I had a lot of interviews where people didn’t believe that the whole CCTV was a reality. There were people from all over the world interviewing you, and there are lots of countries that don’t have those kinds of surveillance systems. They thought it was some kind of science fiction idea.
There is a bit of that look to it. Is the station in the film based on what the actual stations look like?
That’s a real place! That really exists, that place. They had a section on one end that they only used on special occasions it wasn’t somewhere monitoring the city. We were able to use that area and fill the screens with our images. That place genuinely exists.
So with the characters, how much were you given, and how much did you build out yourself?
I can give you an example Clyde [Tony Curran] was described as out of prison on early release for good behavior; he was 35; women liked him; he was guilty; and he hung out with his old prison friends. And I got most of those things in the film they’re there. April [Natalie Press], who’s the girl who lives in the flat with Clyde, was given quite a brief description. She was described as being shy, never initiating the conversation. She’s a newcomer and in every film she’s arriving in that place, so I had her arriving with her bags from London.
She had a whole story that didn’t end up making the film. It was tempting to go off in directions once you got to know the characters you wanted to have a film with each of them. I could have done a film with her, or with Stevie [Martin Compston]… You didn’t have to include all the elements within those restraints, if something didn’t appeal to you, you just left it. There’s something about Jackie I connected her and Clyde up almost immediately. I felt that they had to get together because something in her description and something in his made me feel that they were connected. So I did work that out from what I was given.
And each film in the series starts over fresh?
There won’t be anything carrying on from my film it will be a different universe, [the other two directors] will do whatever they want with the characters. That was something we decided together. If we wanted to, we could have made a trilogy, but I think that would have been much harder work we’d have to really really collaborate. We decided it would be more freeing and we’d be able to make more individual films if we didn’t make a trilogy.
As you went first, did you get more say over the casting? I know you’ve worked with Natalie Press before, in “Wasp.”
I’d like to think not, but the fact that my film was more developed meant that I knew what I was looking for. All of us, by accident, picked different characters as our leads I picked Jackie and Clyde, Morag has Alfred, who’s the father-in-law, and Mikkel has April and Stevie so we decided we’d give each other preference or at least say who’d we like for those roles. I think people thought we’d be really competitive over the casting but we weren’t we were really supportive of each other.
How did you end up finding the Red Road flats? They’re a remarkable location, and it seems like they shape the film in their own way did you write the story around them, or vice versa?
No, the story started first. I knew that [Jackie] would be looking for [Clyde], and he had to live somewhere. I looked at places where they house ex-prisoners, and I drove around Glasgow and saw them and was very struck by them, and was able to incorporate them into the script. I wanted the place where she first goes to see him to be impenetrable, and they are impenetrable to start. And I wanted, as she got closer, for her to see the humanity in the place, because they look pretty oppressive from the distance, but when you get in closer you see the kids, you see all the people there’s a lot of people living there and it’s not what you think. There’s a little bit of that in the film, perhaps not so much as I would have liked.
What’s happening with them now?
They’re going to get pulled down. I felt annoyed with myself, because when they were looking for a title, I couldn’t think of anything it needs to come organically for me, a title, it needs to really feel right, but the financiers needed it for their documents. I had to think of something, so I said “Why don’t we call it ‘Red Road’?” And it stuck. I didn’t really think about what it meant to call a film by the place in which it’s [set]. I didn’t mean for it to be so deliberately connected to that area I’m not trying to say “This is Red Road.” I wished I’d changed the title, because people do live there, and the film is showing a certain perspective. I think it was not right, but it’s too late now.
What have the reactions been like from people who’ve lived there?
A lot of the people who were in the film lived around there in the flats, and they all came to the premiere, and I’ve only had positive feedback. But they were all in the film, they felt like a part of it. I haven’t had any feedback from someone who hasn’t been involved in the film.
Almost half of the film is taken up by the main character’s involvement in surveillance before she actually engages in the narrative in terms of films like “Rear Window,” did you feel like your film is a reference or an update?
I didn’t think about those films at all I’d seen “Rear Window” a long time ago, but hadn’t had it in my brain until the editor mentioned it while we were editing. When I saw it, there were some amazing [correspondences] this woman in the cafe… though I guess if you’re looking out the window at a bunch of people living across the road, there are going to be a lot of similarities in what everybody sees, because life is life.
So what are your thoughts on CCTV? Invasive? Effective?
I deliberately made the decision to be ambivalent in the film just to show it, not take a stance, because I thought that would interfere with the story. I didn’t want to be heavy-handed with my feelings about it. I thought showing it is interesting in itself, and a lot of people won’t know about it, so they’ll be able at the end of it to think, well, what do I think about this is this okay or not okay, and what does this mean for my life?
“Red Road” opens in New York and LA on April 13th (official site).