Entertainment & Arts

Director Andrea Arnold 'shocked' by lack of women in film

Sasha Lane in American Honey Image copyright Universal Pictures
Image caption Sasha Lane stars in American Honey

Andrea Arnold, one of the UK's most successful female directors, is calling for "active" employment of women within the film industry, saying that she's "shocked to discover how few women are making films".

Figures published by the Directors Guild of America showed that in 2013 and 2014, 6.4% of Hollywood films were made by women, while just over 1% of movies were made by women from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Arnold, who has won an Oscar, two Baftas, and four prizes at Cannes Film Festival since she started directing 18 years ago, says she saw the statistics recently, and "was so shocked at the amount of women directors".

"The figures were so small. We actively have to employ more females, perhaps we need to at this point. There are a lot of capable women out there."

'Mainly male stories'

Arnold's latest film, American Honey, follows an African American heroine, Star, as she travels across the US with a road crew selling magazine subscriptions.

It won the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and is showing at this year's BFI London Film Festival. The director believes that "we've grown up mainly on male stories, and most of the films have been written and directed by men - and that's only half of the human race".

"I remember going to a women's film festival and feeling a slight amount of trepidation, but actually it was fantastic. Some of the films made me cry because they really spoke to me," she recalls.

"It was then I realised up till then I had mostly been spoken to by men in cinema."

Image copyright Universal Picutures
Image caption American Honey was inspired by young people who travel across the US, scratching a living by selling magazine subscriptions

All of Arnold's four feature films are centred around a female story, and three are set, including American Honey, during the teenage transition to womanhood.

It's a time Arnold calls " very precious, and very interesting - there are a lot of hormones flying. And I always wanted to do a girl's road trip story, a coming of age".

The desire to make the film had been with Arnold, she says, since she saw a New York Times article some years ago detailing the so-called "Mag Crews", itinerant young people who travel across the US, sleeping in camper vans, and going door to door, scratching a living by selling magazine subscriptions.

To research and write it, the director took her own road trip, starting off from Salt Lake City, Utah, "as the sun came up, with the freeway ahead of me, and Spirit in the Sky on the radio.

'Intense poverty'

"We're all fascinated by America, aren't we? We've all grown up with the idea of it."

"I wasn't trying to subvert the American Dream with my story but it's complicated - this belief that you can have whatever you want, as long as you stick at it," she says.

"It depends how well you started in life - and if you started in poverty, without proper parenting, how easy is it to find the self-confidence to do what you want to do?

"And if you don't do it, that's doubly hard - you are stuck with a sense of failure."

Arnold's journey took her through some states, where she says "I didn't fully understand how intense the poverty would be".

She describes driving through a town in Oklahoma "where everything was shut - the whole high street, the factories, everything".

"There were people there, but nothing for them. I suppose that's when certain political messages get appealing - when you can't even access a doctor or a dentist. It made me profoundly grateful for the NHS, actually."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Andrea Arnold often employs first-time actors in her films

The film stars Shia La Beouf as the crew leader, Jake, and a 21-year-old Texan, Sasha Lane, who was "discovered" by Arnold and her scouts.

"It was Spring Break and we were on a Florida beach," Arnold recalls, "and there were 20,000 teenagers on that beach. At first she was careful, because there were actually people out there recruiting for pornography films too.

"She just had a certain something - she was very awake and alive, she was very present with us when we spoke to her."

Arnold also employed first-time actors in her previous films, Wuthering Heights and Fish Tank, and admits: "I like it because they provide a faithful representation of the world that I am seeking to portray.

Shia LaBeouf 'mucked in'

"It's often easier to use 'real' people; you can genuinely believe it's the life they have led just by looking at their faces. Sometimes I feel I am making life difficult for myself, as they never do quite what you expect them to do.

"But they never repeat themselves, they bring something different and no take is the same."

Shia LaBeouf, she adds, "just mucked in with everyone, we got on really well from the first moment we met".

"He strikes me as an actor looking to do things in a different way. He was up for the adventure and stayed for the duration of the whole trip, as I wanted him to. There was no flying in and out, just staying in the same motel rooms as the rest of the crew."

Arnold often drove her cast from one location to another, and early on, sent them to try and sell magazine subscriptions for real, "or how else would they have the experience? So I sent them off, and the first time was OK, we had a 'Mag Manager' come and teach them the craft, and they even made some money.

'We lived together for two months'

"However the next time we did it again, on a housing estate in Nebraska, the police were called and we got chased away - I think the residents were more protective.

"The people in my film are very much like the real magazine crew that I read about and met.

"It was a huge experience for all of us, I think - we lived together for two months. They say road trips change everyone and at the end of that period, I sensed a great deal of sadness from them, that it would all come to an end."

American Honey premieres at the BFI London Film Festival on October 7th and is released in the UK on October 14th.


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