Arnold reveals the naked truth

Cannes award-winning director of Bird on how images spark imagination

by Richard Mowe

Barry Keoghan, Andrea Arnold and Franz Rogowski in Cannes
Barry Keoghan, Andrea Arnold and Franz Rogowski in Cannes Photo: Richard Mowe
Ask British director Andrea Arnold to explain herself and her films usually results in a left-field answer that nobody could have guessed.

And so it transpired with Bird, her latest film in Competition at the Cannes Film Festival, which stars stars Barry Keoghan, Franz Rogowski, Nykiya Adams and Jason Buda. It follows a 12-year-old youngster (Adams) who lives with her brother (Buda) and single father (Keoghan) in a squat by the seaside. As puberty looms the girl seeks attention and excitement elsewhere. Enter Bird (Rogowski), an enigmatic figure, who provides the promise of escape.

So what was that image that provided the genesis for Bird? Arnold gives a laugh and launches forth regardless: “So a very long time ago I had an image of a very thin and tall young man with a large penis standing on a roof. There was mist around him. I did not know what he was - good or bad or an alien.

“I could not work out why this man was standing on the roof with no clothes on. What’s that about. Why is he naked. But that was where I started. And this is what I came up with as a result of that image and that is the truth. I went on a long journey trying to figure out what that image meant. I usually want to people to guess what the image might have been but now I have just ruined it by telling you!"

Andrea Arnold: 'I like to fit the script around the actors and what they bring to the table'
Andrea Arnold: 'I like to fit the script around the actors and what they bring to the table' Photo: Richard Mowe
Earlier as she received the Carosse d’Or award from the Directors’ Fortnight for the sum of her career Arnold lapsed into confessional mode about her own “wild childhood” with a single mother as her only parent.

She said: “Film of any kind and art was not part of my life growing up. The only films I can remember seeing as a child were things like Mary Poppins and my ambition was to be a dancer. At 18, I ran away to join a roller skating dance group called The Roxy Rolls.”

Later she auditioned successfully for a TV acting job. “I was actually really bad at the acting job,” she said apologetically, “but I was fascinated by the process, the way images got put together to make story.”

She suggested that she starts piecing together a production with “gut instinct,” especially at the casting stage.

“That is the feeling I think I can trust. It is more about a feeling about someone. When you cast someone that changes things too because I am not trying to fit a person in to a box. I like to fit the script around the actors and what they bring to the table. I don’t want everyone to slot in like a jigsaw puzzle I have created. It is like being on a beach and collecting shells and things around you and you put it altogether. It becomes very organic - at least it does to me.”

At the writing stage and on the set music plays a hugely important part of the process. She revealed: “I always have a playlist and music is immensely important. I play a lot of music on set and I have a big speaker and I DJ through the day and it keeps everyone happy and gets people in the mood for a particular scene. I have a playlist for each film, and also for when I am writing when I also use music to get me in the mood.

For Bird she decided to deviate from her usual way of working. She said: “We shot chronologically and in many ways the film is an adventure. You do not know where you are going and at some point you have to let go. I was quite chuffed with that even though it is quite risky. We ended up with quite a few challenges to resolve.

“I had to let go on a big level and open to doing things differently. The film was telling me things, and I had to respond in a certain way. The flashbacks emerged as a way of finding an internal language - a way of exploring another level. That was more in the edit trather than an intention. I found on this film more than any others that I had to let it speak to me and I had to respond. There were a lot of unknowns.”

Each new adventure, she concurs, “feels like it’s the first time I’m doing it. My curiosity for the journey the film brings is as fresh as the first time, and I never feel like I know what the hell I’m doing. I’m as scared and curious now as I was doing it the first time.”

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