Anyone who saw Andrea Arnold's raw and disturbing debut feature, Red Road, knows that she is a film-maker who likes honesty. She is the same in person, and gently makes it known right from the start that I will not get many answers from her about her new film, Fish Tank, for which she shared the Jury Prize at Cannes last month with South Korea's Chan-wook Park.
It is not the most promising start to an interview. But the 48-year-old Dartford-born film-maker is not being difficult or deliberately evasive. "There's just lots of things in the film I don't understand," she says, before implying that this might change over time. "I sometimes discover things later and think, 'Ah, that's why I did that.' "

Still, she'll have to get used to talking about her work because with just two features, and three shorts, including 2003's Oscar-winning Wasp, Arnold has established herself as one of Britain's most exciting writer-directors. She puts her lack of understanding down to the way she creates her screenplays: from the heart, not the head. Pure intuition guides her writing. "I usually have an image I start exploring and however it comes out is how it comes out," she explains, refusing to reveal the image that kicked off Fish Tank for fear it gives too much away. "I let the characters live and not question them or judge them and follow them around. I really think thinking is not a good thing to do when you're trying to write something. You shouldn't think. Thinking is bad."

Fish Tank is effectively her first top-to-bottom feature, in the sense that everything came directly from her. She made the Glasgow-set Red Road at the request of The Advance Party, a Danish project inspired by Lars von Trier, who challenged Arnold and two other directors to create films with the same group of characters. Arnold's response was a gritty tale of revenge and obsession that made powerful use of the forests of CCTV cameras that either spy on or protect – depending on your point of view – the people of Glasgow. Daring and disturbing, the film won a slew of awards, including five Scottish Baftas and the Jury Prize in Cannes.

Although the kudos she garnered from Red Road helped to pave the way for Fish Tank, film-making is not about prizes or acclaim for Arnold, she says. "I've got a nice new quote that I read," she says, " 'Do not worship the bitch goddesses of success and applause.' It isn't about that, you know? It shouldn't be about that." Then again, she knows in her heart that it is "that" which "helps you get other things made. And that matters. You want to get other things made."

This should not be a problem if the response to Fish Tank in Cannes is any indicator of future success. The film was one of the critics' favourites to win the Palme d'Or, and there are still those who think it should have done. At its centre is a powerful performance by Katie Jarvis, a non-actor at the time (she has since got an agent, Arnold says), who was found by Arnold's casting assistant on a train station in Tilbury, Essex, where she lives.

"She was having an argument with her boyfriend," Arnold recalls. "She was giving him a bit of grief, I think, across the platform, and so stood out. She didn't believe us at all that we were looking for somebody for a film. But when we gave her our number she called up and we got her to come for a little audition."

Whoever got the role would have to do a lot of dancing in the film, but Jarvis hated dancing – she still does, apparently. "We had to leave the camera in the room and go out so that she could just dance to the camera." Unlike the dancers they had looked at, who would put on a kind of show, Jarvis gave them something else. "She was just bopping around the room and she was very much herself," says Arnold, who started out as a professional dancer on TV shows such as Top of the Pops, before becoming a children's TV presenter. "It was a big risk because the dancing was quite important. But I thought, 'Well, that works in a different way.' "

Won over, Arnold cast Jarvis as Mia, a 15-year-old growing up in a high-rise block on an Essex council estate just off the A13, who has her world turned upside down when her mother (Kierston Wareing) brings home a charming new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender).

Jarvis's naturalism leant itself well to the gritty realism that is Arnold's signature. And because she knew nothing about the craft of acting, she was "fearless", says the director admiringly. "I think some actors, when they've done a lot, they get more conscious about what they're doing so they get more fearful about what might work or might not work. Katie had no fear."

Arnold knows the environment that Mia lives in well, having grown up in a "similar" one. And where some viewers might see bleakness, she saw beauty. She is actually amazed that other people do not see the film's Essex setting the same way. "It's got really wild spaces. And even that block of flats, there's loads of people there. There's lots of kids. Lots of energy. I don't see it as a bad place. There's this clichéd idea that estates are awful. They're not."

Likewise the characters in her films are impossible to pigeonhole, and cannot be written off simply as either good or bad. She goes beyond the clichés of "broken Britain" and dangerous youth, giving people back the humanity that some parts of the media and the entertainment industry take away. "There are films made with hoodies being the aggressors and beating everybody up, but they're just kids."

According to a recent Unicef report, Britain has the world's unhappiest children, she says. "We're the fifth country in the world and yet there's more kids living in poverty. There are reasons why those kids go out and do what they do. We should be asking questions, not accusing or judging. They're kids. They get very bad press."

Simply blaming people like Mia's feckless mother is not the answer either, she argues. "You can't blame the parents, because what was their life like? I don't know, there are lots of things I can't answer. But there are certainly questions."

And no doubt she will continue to raise them in future films. Right now she is unsure what the next project will be, although there are plenty of things "bothering" her that she wants to look into when the hubbub surrounding Fish Tank dies down. Ultimately, an idea will rise to the surface and she will be compelled to follow it. "It's not like I have a choice, really. I just have to keep doing it. It's like an obsession. I have to keep exploring things."

Fish Tank is released September 11

Published in The Scotsman: 13 June 2009

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