If it seems like there's a new film adaptation of Emily Bronte's WUTHERING HEIGHTS every five years or so, well, that's because there basically is. Since 1920, there has been at least one big-screen or made-for-TV movie per decade - almost all of which elide the second half of the book in order to emphasize the tragic romance between Heathcliff and Catherine. This is how William Wyler, Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht approached the material in 1939, and no one - not even Luis Bunuel or Jacques Rivette - has come close to matching their achievement.
While it's too early to tell how deep of a groove Andrea Arnold's new adaptation will leave, there is little denying that she has delivered the most aesthetically distinct take on Bronte's novel in over seventy years. Shot on location in a relentlessly inclement area of North Yorkshire, Arnold soaks the viewer in the rain and muck and despair of the Earnshaw estate. Aided by the cold beauty of Robbie Ryan's cinematography and the inventiveness of Nicolas Becker's sound design, Arnold's film is an ideal counterpart to the big-studio, Gregg-Toland-lit grandiosity of Wyler's classic. And the young, mostly nonprofessional actors who play Heathcliff and Cathy at either end of their teenage years couldn't be more different from the movie-star polish of Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.
Arnold's WUTHERING HEIGHTS may not be a warm or particularly pleasant work, but neither is Bronte's novel. Arnold's film is intensely focused on Heathcliff's damaged psyche, playing up the strangeness and occasional horror of the world into which he's strayed. Heathcliff is out of place at Wuthering Heights, and he suffers greatly under Hindley - which is due partially to his appearance. In a risky move, Arnold has has cast two black actors to play Bronte's "dark-skinned gypsy", and has inserted a racial slur or two to drive home Heathcliff's inescapable otherness. It's a bold choice, but it's anything but heavy-handed; it's just another harsh reality in Arnold's brutally inhospitable vision of Bronte's sorrowful world.
When I chatted with Arnold last week, I was eager to discuss how she breathed new life into this overly familiar tale. For the most part, we discussed her aesthetic choices, which are very much in keeping with the stark style of her previous films. We also touched on her fondness for 35mm, whether she believes she'll have the option to shoot on film in the future, and, of course, the possibility that she might direct the next Bond movie.
Mr. Beaks: Prior to taking on this project, what was your relationship with WUTHERING HEIGHTS.
Andrea Arnold: My first knowledge of it was when I was a kid, and I saw the film with Laurence Olivier when I was at my nan and grandad's. I saw a lot of films with them, but I don't remember so many of them. But I really remember that film. It sort of didn't leave me for a week afterwards. I kept thinking about it, and it was troubling somehow. It had a big impact on me. When I was older, I read the book. I don't know many people who read it as kids, but it's the kind of book you read when you're a teenager. When I read it, I thought it was going to be a love story - because that's the way a lot of people portray it, as a traditional love story. But I found the book really troubling and a bit disturbing and a bit strange. I didn't really understand it, but I was intrigued by it. I think it's one of those books that's hard to work out, so I think that's probably why I took [the film] on. I like to give myself trouble. I don't like an easy ride. I like delving into things where I think I might learn or grow. It was quite an instinctive decision.
Beaks: Once you were attached to the project, how receptive were the producers to your non-traditional take on the material? Was it an easy or difficult experience?
Arnold: I didn't find any of it easy, to be honest. It was a very difficult journey. I think that was partly because I joined something that was already in development, and there was a sort of momentum with the project. There had been two directors attached previously, there was a script, there had been actors attached, there was some financing - which changed, actually, when I came on board. But there was this unwieldy beast already in motion, and I joined that. That was tricky. It wasn't like I was going, "I'm doing WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and now I'm going to start from scratch" - though I did end up doing that in a way, because I really did have to start again. I'm quite conscientious of all the things that have gone before... but in the end, I pretty much started again. I did my own adaptation. I didn't look at anything else. I just basically went to the book.
My first thought, even before I went back to the book, was of Heathcliff, I remember thinking that he was an intriguing character, that he's this sort of dark and vengeful character. But when you look at his childhood in the book, and you see how much he's brutalized by Hindley, and he loses Cathy to Edgar, you understand where he might get some of his anger from. I was very intrigued by his story, and that's the story I thought initially that I wanted to tell - and I've pretty much stuck with that. But I did absorb the book, and took from the book the things that were resonant for me. A part of me loved this. Usually when I'm writing my own things, they're coming from inside of my own head, and that can be quite difficult or wrenching - and this was wrenching in a different way. But I had all of this material, and all of these scenes and strange things and landscape, all of these things were already there. In a way, it was quite a luxury to have things that were already there, instead of getting it from inside of myself.
Beaks: When did you decide that 1.33 would be the way to shoot the film?
Arnold: After we did some tests. Robbie Ryan is the cinematographer, and we took one of the actors up on the moors and shot some stuff. We came back, and we didn't have much time. We just looked at [the footage]. It was projected in 4x3, and I just loved it immediately. I thought it looked really beautiful. I did FISH TANK 4x3 as well, and I thought there was a particular reason for that. Since doing this film, I've had to think about it a bit more, because people obviously do ask me, and I think I understand now why I do it. It's because it frames a single person. It's a really lovely portrait frame for a single person. It gives them importance, like a Polaroid does. It's not great for two people, but for one person, instead of having all of this space around them, it makes the human being in the frame very important. And because my films are always about one person that I'm trying to get inside the head of, and trying to get people to understand them and who they are and what goes on inside their head, I think I'm giving them a sort of respect with this portrait frame. I've worked that out since. It's wasn't like I understood that when I chose it; I just had to think about it because people kept asking. Sometimes I make a decision, and I don't know why, but you just love it and you want to do it. But for unconscious reasons, you're making that decision, and I think that was the unconscious reasoning.
And you know that the long ratios that we're used to, the way they came about is because Hollywood decided they wanted to make the cinema frame look different from television, so they invented the Cinemascope frame. And that's a really stupid reason to pick that, right? That's become the norm. But if you look at the 35mm negative, it's square. I love that, that you're projecting and showing the whole negative. You're not chopping it off. It seems crazy to chop anything off.
Beaks: I like it a lot, too. I like how you use it, and I also like how MEEK'S CUTOFF utilized it.
Arnold: I haven't seen that yet, but people tell me that's the same. Gus Van Sant's ELEPHANT is 4x3. It's good for that, because he's following all of these kids who are going to their death that day. We all know what is going to happen, but he's on the back of them, following them, and you really feel like you're with them. I didn't realize that it was 4x3 when I saw it, but I thought the 4x3 aspect ratio was a beautiful decision. You're really with them.
Beaks: It's interesting that you bring that up, because the moment I really connected with Heathcliff is when he rushes out of the church after being baptized. And, like Van Sant, you're right on his back as he flees. It's very disorienting, but I really like that.
Arnold: Yeah, I didn't have that justification when I picked it, but I have it now.
Beaks: You use some nonprofessional actors in your films. Do you find you have to direct them differently than the trained actors?
Arnold: I think every single person you're working with is different, and I try to listen or try to understand who they are as people and how they like to work. It takes you a while to get to know them, although filming is so intensive that it does happen quickly. I think it's just about the individual. Non-actors or actors, it just depends on who they are. Obviously, people who haven't acted before, there's a lot of things they don't know about the technical process, but I try to take that away from them and concentrate on what they're doing in the room. Sometimes they need very specific direction, like, "Walk over here," or "Stand here." It just depends on the individual, I think. I've noticed with a lot of non-actors that they usually pick up what they need to do in a few days; they get really professional really quickly. (Laughs) I remember Katie [Jarvis] on FISH TANK, she was doing her own continuity; she was just smart and picked up all the things you need to remember. They really learn fast, which is great.
Beaks: Who did you cast first: the younger or older Heathcliff and Cathy? And once you had one pair, was it difficult to find their other incarnation?
Arnold: We had to cast the older two first for financing reasons, and then we looked for the kids. I didn't like doing that, really, changing the actors. That was against the grain for me. I really didn't want to do that. One of the decisions I made was to have them as children for a very long time. I thought about maybe using eighteen-year-olds to play the thirteen- or fourteen-year-olds as well, but what I realized is that eighteen-year-olds just don't have that child thing anymore. And the childhood element was so important that I felt that was a compromise I had to make. The time difference between when [Heathcliff] leaves and comes back isn't that big, so it was something I really didn't want to do. It felt really wrong to me.
And, yes, it is difficult to find people who look alike. Really difficult. I think the two Heathcliffs look very, very believable. I think the two Cathys are less believable, but what I'm happy about is that Shannon [Beer], who plays the young Cathy, and Kaya [Scodelario], is that they are very much the same in spirit. They are sort of wild and independent spirits. I remember at the party in Venice after we had our screening, they were both up on a table dancing to Kate Bush. They got on so well. They were very, very similar.
Beaks: I'm really enamored of your aesthetic, especially in this film. The decision to not use a score, the sound design, the cinematography, the costume design... everything feels meticulously considered and right. When you set out to make a movie, do you know precisely what you want or do you feel your way?
Arnold: I always wanted it to be a visceral film. I wanted you to really feel the textures. So when I talked to the designer, we talked about using materials that would feel like you could reach in and touch them, materials that they might've had around at the time. And then with Robbie, we would do tests and look at photos, and we always wanted to use film because it's got a more visceral feel. "Visceral" is a word I use a lot with people. In fact, I think I wrote down a whole list of words and gave that to all the [Heads of Departments] just to give them some place to start with. And then, of course, as you go along they show you things, and you go, "Yes!" or "No." Those things always develop, but I knew I wanted it to be very visceral.
I haven't used score in any of my films anyway, but I thought it would be interesting. It must've sounded quite interesting back then, because there was no electricity and all the things we're used to hearing. There would've been none of that. Just people and animals and birds and woods and wind and rain and all of those things. That also feeds into it feeling visceral as well. That was always part of the plan.
Beaks: The sound in this film just knocks me out. How particular could you get with the sound design ahead of time?
Arnold: There's only so much you can do when you're on location, because there's a lot of other sounds that get in the way of recording the things you need. I try to get as much natural sound as I can, but once we decided we were going to use natural sound, the sound designer Nicolas Becker, who is fantastic and a poet - and I'm glad you mentioned the sound, because the sound crew worked really hard and were very passionate about what they did. I said to them, "When I see horses in films, I never get the sense of them in the room." Whenever I've been next to a horse, it's a huge, great animal that you can really feel; I can really feel its presence. But they always feel like background in other films. So I wanted them to make sure you could hear the horse breathing. I know they went and recorded all sorts of horses and sheep and animals and woods. We added all of this in. It's all natural, but there's also artistic license; there's also creaking ships in there.
Beaks: You shot this film on 35mm. Do you think you'll get to work on 35mm again? The digital age has been thrust upon us, and that option seems to be rapidly disappearing.
Arnold: I'm definitely going to work on 35mm again. (Laughs) I love it. And Robbie Ryan loves it, too. Although I think we might shoot the next one on 16mm.
Beaks; Well, that's cool, too!
Arnold: (Laughs) Exactly.
Beaks: But are you finding that it's getting a little more difficult to finance your kind of film?
Arnold: I think as long as you make films for not much money, you can have freedom. I can do the things I want to do, I just have to keep going at low budgets. I'm not making great big commercial films. If I was, I think people would be upset. I did joke about having Natalie Portman and Michael Fassbender doing narration for [WUTHERING HEIGHTS] so they could make a little more money back. But that was just a joke of course.
Beaks: Have you ever considered making a larger-scale film?
Arnold: James Bond?
Beaks: (Laughs) Um, exactly.
Arnold: Could you imagine my James Bond? God. Imagine the car chases from inside the car.
Beaks: That would be unique, and I would love to see it.
Arnold: (Laughs) I don't think the people who fund James Bond would though.
Probably not, but Arnold should offer up her services anyway.
WUTHERING HEIGHTS is in theaters now.