This week, ‘American Honey’ is released in Irish cinemas. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, the story follows a young girl named Star (Sasha Lane) as she searches for friendship and meaning in the US.
When first we meet Star she is dumpster diving for food, and hitching lifts with children that are obviously not her own. After she meets Jake (Shia La Boeuf) at a K Mart and he offers her a job selling magazines door to door, she leaves the kids with their parents, and sets off on a road trip across America with Jake and other disaffected and lost teens, led by the mysterious Krystal (Riley Keough).
Movies.ie was in Cannes for the film’s premiere earlier this year, and we caught up with Oscar winning director Andrea Arnold to find out more about an English director who has made a strong film about disaffected American youth… and her love of Rihanna.
Who, in our digital, digital driven world do you think cares about the magazine subscriptions that the kids in ‘American Honey’ are on the road to sell?
AA: It’s a good question, and it is addressed in the film actually, but maybe it got slightly missed. I first came to this a few years ago – I guess before online took over a little bit – but there are crews that are still doing that job. It’s a bit like Big Issue sellers in England, or people who stop you and try to get you to buy things for charity; you’re not really buying a magazine, you’re buying the person who is selling you the magazine, and I think that’s what you’re selling. You’re selling yourself, you’re not selling a magazine. The crew that you see at the motel in the film are a real crew; they happened to show up while we were filming there. The people in that crew had been doing it for 10-12 years; travelling around America, going door to door. I hung out with a crew a little bit before I started writing, and Shia [La Boeuf] did as well. It’s a sort of sub culture that does exist.
Had any of the actors actually lived that life?
AA: Nadia had done it yeah. When I was sending them improvising selling she was actually doing it. And making money, and I said they could keep any money they made. We sent everybody out to do some phone footage of them selling. [Verronikah Ezell and Raymond Coalson] made the most money, so if they don’t want to act, they have another career lined up [laughs]. It’s actually hard work, really hard work. There was one place where they got chased away by dogs, and they were threatening to call the cops. There would have been extra money if you had got arrested.
The idea for the film came from a piece published in the New York Times?
AA: It was an article describing the world of the mag crews. There was no story there, everything from then on was my imagination and partly what I learned, but that was the nugget that started me off wanting to do something about it.
What was it like making a film so rooted in the US, as an English director?
AA: it was interesting, once I started looking at it, because I realised that I didn’t really know the United States intimately; not really. I did a whole load of trips by myself – like, road trips – because I needed to get to know it and make a connection with it. I did a whole bunch of trips; I haven’t done completely every State, but I did across the South, down the East, down the middle… I started off by doing the West, and that’s very dramatic, and when I talked to the crews they told me that everywhere they went was really flat, so then I started doing the east and Texas. It’s quite interesting when you’re travelling by yourself in those places, and it is really open and really flat just endlessly, it does have an impact on how you feel. I had some quite difficult times by myself travelling and being in that open wilderness. It did make me think about what it was like to be on these crews where you’re doing door to door and then you’re travelling. They all said that they spent so much time on the van and they would be looking out at this empty – I mean, beautiful, and it changes, but we did the Mid-West, which is pretty flat all the way up. We went from Oklahoma to North Dakota, but it does gently change as you go up, if you’re really looking, but it’s quite an experience.
What was it like for you to see so much of the US; more than the average English person would ever get to see?
AA: On my trips I got to see an awful lot of America. I think the film is a mix of the America I grew up with – which I mostly saw through Hollywood; Little House on the Prairie and cowboys and these sorts of things – it’s a mix of that, which was my romanticised idea of it, and the actual contemporary America that I saw when I did my trips. I got to see an awful lot as I was travelling, and I got quite upset about some of the towns I went to, some of the poverty I saw. It seemed really different to me than in the UK; when people don’t have money they can’t get heath care and they can’t do things like go to the dentist, and those kind of things really shocked me.
Having made this film and seen so much of the US, do you feel that there are more opportunities for young people in the US or the UK?
AA: It seemed to me that in small towns there is not a lot of industry or opportunities if you’re coming out of school and you need to work. It felt like, to me, based on everyone I met and talked to who were in the ballpark for this film, a lot of the opportunities were working in fast food restaurants. That seemed quite sad to me.
As one of three women with films In Competition, who influenced you in terms of the style of this film?
AA: People ask me a lot about my influences on each film, but I have this real strange thing; when I am making a film, I don’t want to watch other films. I want to find my own way, so I deliberately do not look at other films. I take most of my inspiration for each film based on the world that I am exploring, so I will go into the world. I do a lot of research and immersing myself into the places and the people that I am going to be making the film about. That’s absolutely where I get my inspiration from. I find real life and real people really inspiring.
Rihanna’s song “We Found Love” is very important in the film, what made you want to use it?
AA: It’s so weird. That song’s got quite a personal history for me, which I am not going to go into, but I think it reflects the year when I started thinking about writing this, and it reflects something about something that was going on in my life, so it meant a lot to me at the time. I love it, I love Rihanna! I’m a big Rihanna fan! I didn’t actually know that we would get it; I wrote to Rihanna – I loved writing “Dear Rihanna…” [laughs] – I had to write a few letters for some of the songs, trying to explain what I was trying to do and why it meant something to me. We got it, which was fantastic!