SPOTLIGHT July 2019: Andrea Arnold, Feminist Film Director, BIG LITTLE LIES

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Andrea Arnold’s career shows what a woman filmmaker’s ‘can do spirit’ can do. The career path she’s created for herself has brought her from the difficult circumstances of a child raised in a single parent home in the environs of a working class ‘estate’ in suburban London to the coveted and exalted position of series director for a highly acclaimed and high ranking television series. Along the way, she’s won an Oscar and become an OBE, and accrued numerous other awards and honors for her femme-centric films. Arnold’s filmography is stunning in its inventiveness and variety, but it is her exceptional leadership as director of HBO’S Big Little Lies Season Two, which began airing in June that puts her in AWFJ’s July SPOTLIGHT.

CHILDHOOD STORY

Arnold was born on April 5, 1961 in Dartford, Kent, the eldest of four children. Her mother was 16 years old, her father was 17. Her parents separated when she was very young, leaving her mum to raise four kids on her own. These difficult personal circumstances eventually fueled Arnold’s auteur filmmaking.

She began writing stories when she was quite young, always with dark themes that reflected her personal experiences and her own observations of human behavior. Her first dramatic piece, a play written when she was ten years old, was about the horrors of the slave trade. In general, Arnold’s films are most often about women who are caught in the stresses and hardships of deprivation, impoverishment and abuse. She has said that she writes about what she knows.

Wasp (2003), one of her first films, is about a struggling single mom who is determined not to let her four young children keep her from igniting a new love relationship with an old friend. Arnold’s native Dartford is the setting. This brilliant 26 minute debut short won the Sundance Short Film Prize and the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film.

Still from Wasp

LEARNING HER CRAFT AND CRAFTING HER OWN CAREER

Arnold left high school when she was 16, with the intention to become an actress. When she was 18, she landed a job as host and actress for a popular children’s TV show called No. 73. That was the start of a ten year stint on camera on TV.

But, her passion for writing continued and she eventually decided to explore developing her stories into movie scripts and, with that goal in mind, applied to and was accepted to study at the American Film Institute, where she learned the basic skills of script writing and filmmaking. After graduating from AFI, she returned to the UK and further honed her screenwriting skills at the PAL Labs in Kent

From the start of her career, Arnold’s work has been applauded by audiences, approved by critics and noticed by the industry. In 2004, she was named a Screen International Star of Tomorrow.

Her filmmaking career gained legs with Red Road (2006), commissioned as the first installment of Advance Party, a filmmaking experiment that involved a planned set of three conceptually-related films by different first-time directors, working with the same cast of characters who appeared in all three films. Set on a housing estate in Glasgow, Red Road is a revenge-themed thriller that is presented primarily through images recorded on CCTV security TV cameras by the central character, a female security guard who becomes obsessed with someone she observes, a man who, as is revealed as the plot progresses, is a miscreant from her past. Red Road, with its challenging plot and inventive cinematography, won the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival, and Andrea Arnold won the 2007 BAFTA Award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.

Still from Red Road

PERSISTENT INDEPENDENCE AND AN EXPERIMENTAL SPIRIT

Arnold’s second feature, Fish Tank (2009), premiered at Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize. It also won the BAFTA Award for Outstanding British Film in 2010. Fish Tank was another successful departure from the standard filmmaking process. This time, to give the actors maximum freedom and immediacy, Arnold shot chronologically. Actors received just several pages of the script at a time to keep their performances fresh and their characterizations evolving. Visually, Arnold relied on DP Robbie Ryan’s handheld camera work to deliver a sense of authenticity to the acton. This elements of directorial style resulted in brilliant performances and unique imaging, and Arnold has brought them to her subsequent projects.

Still fromFish Tank

Next in her filmography, Arnold’s third feature was her first for hire project, an adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights using a script that she’d contributed to, but not written herself. The film premiered at the 2011 Venice Film Festival where it won the Best Cinematography award for DP Robbie Ryan, Arnold’s frequent collaborator.

Still from Wuthering Heights

2011 was an auspicious year for Arnold, who was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to the film industry.

Andrea Arnold and Robbie Ryan on set

Arnold’s fourth feature, American Honey, is a rambling tale about free-spirited young Americans on an entrepreneurial road trip. Scripted by Arnold, the film is more than two hours long and has extended musical sequences. American Honey premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival where it won Arnold the Palme D’Or.

Still from American Honey

Arnold’s career does not lack for luster. But in spite of constant critical acclaim and industry approval, Arnold has been frustrated by the limited distribution of her films. She’s wanted larger audiences. She deserves larger audiences.

THE WIDE REACH OF HBO

After directing several TV projects, including episodes of popular shows such as Hotel Babylon, Coming Up , I Love Dick and Transparent, Arnold landed the coveted job of directing all seven episodes of HBO’s award-winning Big Little Lies’ second season, which began airing in June, 2019.

Fitting in with Arnold’s own ongoing thematic interests, the show’s second season continues to focus on female-centric issues, spousal-abuse and its impact among them. With Arnold at the helm and its sterling ensemble of Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, and Zoe Kravitz now joined by Meryl Streep, the first episodes of the show’s Andrea Arnold-helmed second season have garnered critical acclaim and high audience ratings. That should take care of Arnold’s concerns about reaching wider audiences—at least for her work as it appears on the small screen.

Still from Big Little Lies Season Two

Hopefully, the popularity of the HBO show will mean larger audiences for Arnold’s big screen projects – past and future – as well.

WHY WE CHOSE HER:

Throughout her career, Andrea Arnold has stayed true to her artistic vision. Remaining an independent creative force, she’s told bold femme-centric stories, challenged gender bias and broken through barriers to produce a superb filmography. She is famously supportive of actors, consistently creating conditions that allow for their creative freedom on set. She’s also known to be generous to other filmmakers, serving as mentor through various training programs, and as juror and speaker at a wide range of film festivals. Her direction of Big Little Lies‘ second season marks the beginning of a new chapter in her own success story and we are eager to see how she writes her future.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ulkar Alakbarova contributed to this SPOTLIGHT.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).