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Filmmaker Andrea Arnold On 'American Honey' And Preserving Mystery In Film


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new movie "American Honey," which won the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, was written and directed by my guest Andrea Arnold. It's about a group of teenagers who are abandoned, are homeless and have become something of a family traveling together by van from town to town, state to state selling magazine subscriptions door to door, making up different explanations depending on who opens the door.

Arnold first learned about magazine crews - or mag crews as they're called - from a New York Times article about them. The stars of the film include Riley Keough, who plays the magazine crew's hardened boss, and Shia LaBeouf, who's her enforcer and most smooth-talking salesmen.

They both give terrific performances, but most of the cast is comprised of teenagers with no acting experience, including the lead Sasha Lane, who plays a girl who runs away and joins the mag crew. Andrea Arnold also directed "Fish Tank" and "Wuthering Heights" as well as several episodes of the series "Transparent."

Let's start with a scene from "American Honey." The Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf characters are going door to door. It's her first time doing this, and he's telling her to ignore the sheet of sales tips she was told to memorize and take his advice instead.


SHIA LABEOUF: (As Jake) You read the handbook last night? You know about the five sales tips?

SASHA LANE: (As Star) Yeah.

LABEOUF: (As Jake) That's a bunch of [expletive], all that. You ain't got to listen to all that. See, 'cause in Jake's book, there's one step - not five, just one. It just takes one step. Once you get this one step down, you're the chief of the tribe. And I'm going to teach you that one step today, you know what I'm saying?

Basically, as soon as they open the door and look at you, that's the critical moment. That's the make-or-break moment 'cause in that second, you've got to work them. You've got to read them. You've got to be able to scan them to figure them out, figure out what kind of person that person wants in their life. Then you've got to be that person, you know?

It's like, a couple of the other agents are really rigid about the five - the five sales steps and all this [expletive], so they'll pick a spiel that's, like, some sad [expletive], like mama's got cancer or my foot is falling off. I'm trying to get my life back together. You know, I got a little lost there in my teens, and I'm really working on myself, man. And, oh, you know, my dad, he died in Iraq. Any sad spiel, and they'll just say it over and over and over again 'til it's meaningless.

This person - this person doesn't give a [expletive] about magazines, right? They want something from me. So if I'm a G, I'm going to figure out what that something is, and I'm going to work that.

LANE: (As Star) Yeah?

LABEOUF: (As Jake) And that's a power agent. All right, let's go. You're my good luck charm. Here we go.


GROSS: Andrea Arnold, welcome to FRESH AIR. So this movie is inspired by real magazine crews, like mag crews. Some of the actors that you cast were not professional actors. I think most of the kids in the mag crew are not...

ANDREA ARNOLD: Yeah, most...

GROSS: ...Are not professional actors. Were any of them people who had been in a mag crew, selling magazines door to door?

ARNOLD: One of our girls, Nadia (ph), she'd been in a mag crew. She's really good at it because I - at the very beginning, I used to fuss. We got them all together, we sent them out. And we had somebody from a mag crew come teach them how to sell. And then I sent them out, like, selling just to see how they would do (laughter). And Nadia was pretty good at that.

GROSS: So what stories did you hear from the one person who you cast who had actually done this sort of work?

ARNOLD: When we were casting it was a different thing. It was always much, much briefer kind of interactions with people. So I never really asked her that much about it before we started, and then we're all filming. But I had chatted a lot to people who had done it before, so I heard a lot of things.

One of the girls I met, she literally came out of jail. And she was standing at a gas station and a mag crew kind of rolled in to get some gas. And they said, do you want to come with us? And that was it, she was gone. You know, she went because she had nothing to lose. And she stayed for a long time, and she had a lot of stories. I mean, she had - you know, she experienced some quite bad things, but she also made money and she made friends and she stayed for a long time.

She told me that actually towards the end - which I think this happens because a lot of the managers in the mag crews have been people who have been in the mag crew for a long time and then they become managers, they're people who are good at it and then become managers - she said that she hit someone at one point because they hadn't sold very much. And at that point she realized that she suddenly kind of questioned herself, like, oh, I've gone too far. You know, like, what have I - what's happening? Why am I doing - you know, how did I get here? And that is the thing that I think made her leave in the end is that - she turned into something she didn't - she wasn't happy about.

GROSS: So the people who actually subscribe to the magazines through the teenagers who are in these mag crews, do they ever get the magazine? Is the whole thing a scam, or is there actually a magazine that's delivered in the end?

ARNOLD: Some people get a magazine, some people don't. That's my understanding. And I think a lot of the people I met who had met the mag crews, when they bought the magazines, they were really trying to help the person that was in front of them. They were - they were not thinking really about the magazines. They were not - I mean, I must've bought at least seven, you know, subscriptions. But I never got one. But I don't think anyone was - I think - my sense is that most people were not expecting to get them.

GROSS: The main character, the teenage girl who's named Star in...


GROSS: ...In the film, she's kind of seduced into joining the group by the Shia LaBeouf character, who...


GROSS: ...Realizes that she's probably poor and unrooted. And he kind of plays the potential boyfriend to her and kind of seduces her to come along. And then the head of the crew, a woman who is played by Riley Keough, who is Elvis Presley's granddaughter - and she's terrific in this - she says to Star, you've got anyone who'll miss you? And Star says no. And so the head of the crew says, OK, you're hired. And that just seems so key, like, being seduced into it and then making sure that there's no one who's going to miss you to make sure that - that means that you're vulnerable and also that no one's going to come looking for you.

ARNOLD: Yeah. That - I felt when all of the people I talked to, that was pretty - I'm actually really happy you picked up on that little moment because that was really important to me, the no one's going to miss you thing. That was my sense from talking to a lot of these kids. And what I read is that there was no one going to miss them, and they were not leaving very much behind. And then they would find these people the same age, and they would stay in the same hotels and they'd party and they'd see things. So it was kind of a mixed thing. They had a good time, but it was also not an easy time for some of them. So...

GROSS: There's a scene in the film where Star, who was the young teenage girl who was seduced into joining this group - it's the Shia LaBeouf character Jake who...


GROSS: ...Who kind of lures her in. And, you know, they have sex together. And she's kind of got a thing for him now. But she has to report to Krystal, who's really hardened, tough woman who runs the crew. So she knocks on Krystal's motel room door, and Krystal starts, like, telling her what to do. And then she realizes that Jake is there, too. And then as Krystal's kind of ordering - you know, like, telling Star what she has to do, she basically tells Jake that she wants him to do her legs. So he has to take out the lotion, crouch down and start massaging her legs with lotion, which is a very kind of sexual act because she's wearing either a bathing suit or - I mean, a bikini or underwear. I'm not sure which it is.

ARNOLD: Confederate bikini.

GROSS: Yes, right. And so it's this really strange power scene where the Krystal character, the crew manager, is showing her power over the Shia LaBeouf character. And she's also showing the teenage girl, who's now part of the crew, that she's going to be dominated, too. How did the image come to you of getting Shia LaBeouf on his knees, massaging - lotioning the legs of the crew leader?

ARNOLD: (Laughter) I just want to get one of your facts straight. It's fake tan, as opposed to lotion...

GROSS: Oh, it's fake tan. I didn't realize that.

ARNOLD: Yeah - yeah, no, it's fake tan.

GROSS: Oh, I thought it was body lotion.

ARNOLD: And there's a scene after...

GROSS: I thought it was moisturizer.

ARNOLD: You didn't wash your hands because Jake has, like, fake tan on - you know, orange hands. With all of my scenes, I don't want to go into them. I don't really know what's going to happen. And when I'm writing them - I mean, when I was writing that scene, I didn't kind of expect that to happen. And then I was thinking, well, Crystal - what's she doing? Oh, she's like putting fake tan on and just thought, oh, Crystal's been to the shop. She's got a boat load of stuff. She's trying things on. She like buys clothes all the time because she's not happy with herself, so she's constantly kind of buying clothes and trying, you know, make up for the things she doesn't feel good about. And she wants to look brown all the time (laughter).

So she (unintelligible) in there, and you can't do your fake tan yourself very easily. So she's got Jake doing it. And when I wrote that, I thought this is kind of strange. And I think even when we were doing it, everyone was thinking, wow, how is this going to work because it's kind of such a strong image? But I just went for it. I've always kind of taken risks, I guess, with these things. I never know how they're going to work out. I don't know when we go into that thing how it's going to work out. I think - yeah, this is kind of - this is a little strong, but I'm going to go with it. I don't feel that safe when I'm making scenes thinking, oh, maybe it's going to work, maybe it's not, you know.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrea Arnold. She wrote and directed the new film "American Honey." Let's take a short break here then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Andrea Arnold. She wrote and directed the new film "American Honey." I'm interested in your approach to casting especially the casting of the teenagers who were not professional actors. How do you go looking for them when you're not putting out a casting call?

ARNOLD: I mean, I do this pretty much on almost all my films. This is how I do things I'm always casting a mixture of actors and non-actors. And we do something called - we call it street casting, where we just go out. Sometimes I don't go out in the very beginning. I work with casting directors, and they kind of - people who have done this before and they will go out to, like, places where the kind of people we're looking for might hang out. So they'll go. Like for this film, they went out to like county fairs or they go to Wal-Mart, and they would just sit around and like look for people that might be the right kind of people for the film. So it's, you know - it's a really different way of casting (laughter). It's actually far more complicated and hard work and actually the people who do it are amazing. And I get really into it, so I go out, too. And I've done quite a lot of it myself, you know. We get some of those deckchairs and sit outside Wal-Mart. And like watch all the kids go by (laughter). And that's how we actually found Sasha. That's how we found all of them really. It was pretty much that way.

GROSS: Wait. So walk me through this. You're sitting in a chair outside the Wal-Mart...


GROSS: ...Watching the kids go by. Looking...


GROSS: ...Looking for somebody to cast in your film. What do you tell them so that you don't sound totally crazy and that you don't sound like, you know, a pervert trying to get them into some kind of trap?

ARNOLD: I mean, normally at the beginning, we might do some kind of general casting call which is on the Internet and usually that looks pretty legitimate. So we can show them that and say look this is a real thing (laughter).

GROSS: Right.

ARNOLD: Yeah. We sometimes have some real convincing to do because they think you're just, you know - when we are Sasha, she was on a beach in spring break. And there are quite a few kind of people going around looking for girls to be in porn films. And...

GROSS: Exactly.

ARNOLD: Yeah. Exactly, and so, you know, I completely am on the side of them when we go up to them. I want them to feel safe. I don't want them to feel kind of weirded out by us, you know. So I - we do everything we can to kind of make them feel comfortable and show them things that I would never expect them to come with us unless they felt comfortable. So we showed them things. We show the casting call. We have leaflets, you know, we have numbers they can call, you know. So we do our utmost to make them feel safe. I wouldn't want it any other way, actually, because I wouldn't want them to be feeling unsafe and come with us, you know.

GROSS: So...

ARNOLD: And usually when we when we take it any further if we meet them say in spring break, we'd meet them on the beach and we'd say, oh, look, we're going to do some auditioning up at Wal-Mart car lot later.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ARNOLD: You know (laughter), and - which is where we did most of our auditioning. So Wal-Mart car lot in spring break down in Panama City Beach is just rocking. It's just such a great place to be. I loved hanging out there because it's such a lot of the life going on there, a lot of twerking.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ARNOLD: I still can't twerk I've been trying. Have you ever tried to twerk? It's so hard.

GROSS: Me? No, I have never tried to twerk.


ARNOLD: Some people can move one cheek different to the other. I don't know how the hell you do that. It's so clever.

GROSS: So since I don't have the answer to that, let me ask you another question. So your 2009 film "Fish Tank" also started a teenage girl who wasn't a professional actress. And she plays a teenager whose mother is an alcoholic and pays little attention to her, and the mother has a new boyfriend played by Michael Fassbender. And through kind of teasing and flirtation and teaching her how to use his video camera, Michael Fassbender's character eventually seduces the teenage girl into having sex with him. It's a kind of complicated relationship, all wrong. Why did you want to make a film about this kind of relationship?

ARNOLD: Yeah. But, see, you're talking about stuff that I can't possibly talk about because, you know, when I make films I don't want to be discussing these things because I feel like, one, they're really personal and, two, they're really complicated. And I wouldn't want to try and uncomplicate them for anybody who is about to see the film. So to try and sit here and explain it, for me, would sort of unravel some of the mystery of it.

And I think the mystery in films is really important. And that if we try to explain things too much then you take out the fun of the film. For me, the space and the, you know - if people go see "Fish Tank," I would love them to not know - I wouldn't want to explain to them what I kind of intended or what I felt were the intentions of each of those characters. I think that that has to unravel in the film, and I leave room for people to put themselves - or to work it out or to go argue in the bar afterwards. But if I explain it, I feel like then we take the mystery of film away. And I feel like we overexplain everything in life, and I am desperate to leave a mystery in what I do. Even though it's tough, but I'm desperate to leave it.

GROSS: So the the two films of yours that I've seen "Fish Tank" and your new film "American Honey" are about teenagers with a focus on teenage girls who have little or no affection from their mothers. Their mothers have alcohol or drug problems. They - they're both broke. I'm wondering what your teen years were like. You grew up in - what in America is called a housing project. So tell us a little bit about what your home was like.

ARNOLD: Oh, that's so personal (laughter). I put all the stuff in my films, so that I don't, you know - I can't talk about those things. I'm sorry.

GROSS: Oh, OK. So you don't want talk about your life?

ARNOLD: Yeah. Well, because my family are alive. And so, you know, I wouldn't want to talk about those things. Really, you know, my mom was a single mom. And there were four of us, and she - it must have been incredibly tough for her. So, yeah, I can't talk about that. I'm sorry.

GROSS: That's all right. That's your call.


GROSS: So both of those films that I mentioned "Fish Tank" and "American Honey" are about teenage girls...


GROSS: ...Who need a way out of the situation that they're in. And in "American Honey," the way out is joining this magazine crew. And in "Fish Tank," what she thinks is going to be her way out is dancing. She wants to become a professional dancer. And she was always, you know, practicing her moves and everything. You were a dancer - right? - in England?

ARNOLD: A little bit. Not like in any huge professional sense (laughter).

GROSS: I thought you danced on "Top Of The Pops," the pop music show.

ARNOLD: Yeah, that wasn't that professional (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, really.

ARNOLD: Yeah, it wasn't kind of - I've always loved dancing all my life. But I've never been trained in any way. So most of my kind of dancing, in those early days, was kind of things where you didn't have to have any kind of ballet training. And I actually - I remember going for an audition for "Cats," which I thought, maybe all we have to do is go around the stage like a cat, you know, be like a cat. So I went to that audition, and I thought I'm just going to go around the stage like a cat. And just do my own sort of version of a cat. And, of course, everyone there is doing kind of like plies and an official kind of thing. And I'm going around with my paws out, trying to be a cat.

It must have been hilarious to watch. I can't imagine. But those kind of experiences made me not want to go near any of them ever again because it's something quite vulnerable about going around the stage like a cat and everyone else is doing their ballet, so yeah.

So, you know, I got a place, at a kind of a really good dance school. I got - actually got a place but I needed to get a grant in order to go there because it was away from home. And I wasn't able to get a grant because I hadn't done ballet and stuff. So I never officially did it, but I was always dancing. I've always found ways to dance, however, you know, wherever life has taken me. I dance just basically all the time now. I dance all the time.

GROSS: Now, I read that you hosted a couple of teen shows in England. There were shows that I hadn't heard of because I don't think they've been on in the U.S. So can you describe those shows for us?

ARNOLD: One of the - the one I did mostly, for a long time, I was very young when I started it. I was about 18. And I just left home. And I didn't know how I was going to, like, you know, live my life, what I was going to do. And I just went to the audition kind of because I saw it. And I thought it might be a way of - I'd been kind of done a lot of acting at school. And it's something that I'd loved doing and felt that would - might be some way in which I could earn a living.

So I went to an audition just out of the blue. And I somehow got it I don't know how the hell I got it, but I did. And I ended up doing it for quite a few years. And it was a great thing for me because I had money for the first time. There was a gang of people that worked on it, you know, that I became really close to. It was like a huge family. I got to meet people and do things and travel and see the world.

And it was a huge, huge experience for me at that time, and opened up my eyes to so many things. I learned so much about cameras and about putting things together and all the kind of things that I use now in what I do. So it was tremendous training and a very good kind of - it was home for me for a long time. And I, you know, was very lucky to have landed there.

GROSS: You seem particularly interested in making movies about teenagers and - in the hopes that you might be able to answer this (laughter) - I'm going to ask you why the teenage years are especially interesting for you?

ARNOLD: I don't know. People ask me that all the time, like - I always think every time I work on a project I've kind of got to work something out for myself. So, you know, I think it's, you know - that if I make another film and it's about people who are 60 that maybe I have worked some stuff out at last.


ARNOLD: I don't know. I'm always impressed when filmmakers know exactly what they're doing. I think, how do they know? How do they - they have themes and they want to make a theme about theirs. And I think wow that's - I wish I was like that. I just don't know why I'm like obsessed with this particular image or the story. And I'm trying to unravel it and work it out. It's complicated.

GROSS: Andrea Arnold, thank you so much for talking with us.

ARNOLD: Pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Andrea Arnold directed the new film "American Honey." After a break, we'll hear from the creator of the FXX comedy series "You're The Worst," Stephen Falk and the series co-star Aya Cash. And John Powers will review the new HBO series "Westworld" which premieres Sunday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.