After firmly establishing herself as a gifted chronicler of the grim realities of working class Britain with her acclaimed dramas, Fish Tank and Red Road (and proving that she could bring the same of intensity to the classics with Wuthering Heights), Andrea Arnold felt that it was time for a change. And the scene of that change – as it is for so many European filmmakers – was America. “I’m a natural roamer, and I like to explore and investigate,” Arnold says. “I’m very curious. “Making a film in America is an extension of my roaming. It gave me a huge excuse to go and actually drive around America, which I did before I even made the film. I’ve always been like that, even as a kid. I used to go out in the morning and stay out all day. I’d go out exploring wherever it took me, and I would just go with it.”
The story that Andrea Arnold explores in American Honey is that of Star, a dreamy, boundary-pushing adolescent girl from a troubled home who runs away with a travelling sales crew who drive across the American Midwest selling magazine subscriptions door to door. Learning about this strange youth subculture through an article in The New York Times, Arnold knew that her cast would be a young one, and she once again opted to look for unknowns to fill the roles. The risky method had paid huge dividends in 2009’s Fish Tank, in which first timer, Katie Jarvis, excelled as a tough but troubled teen who falls under the sway of her single mother’s new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender).
“I was actually looking to cast a non-professional for the Michael Fassbender role too,” Arnold reveals to FilmInk at The Cannes Film Festival. “There was a man in my local park who emptied the bins, and he had an interesting look. I had been thinking about him,” the director laughs. “And when I cast Katie, who had never done anything before, I thought that it might be too much to have two people who hadn’t done anything. And then I thought that if I cast an actor in that role then that will echo the real situation; he’s more knowing, he’s older, he’s more confident, and more secure. She’s not, she’s young, and she doesn’t know. So I thought that casting an actor and a non-actor would work in terms of both stories, and that it would give a weight to each of them that would feel right for the story. The non-professional learns from the professional, but the professional learns from the non-professional too. They’re working with someone who is totally unpredictable. They don’t know what is going to happen.”
For American Honey, Arnold found herself scanning the beaches of Florida during the notorious debauchery of Spring Break in search of an unknown to play Star. “I was looking for girls for the film,” Arnold smiles, wholly and amusingly aware of how suspect that statement sounds. “There were other people looking for girls for films, but they were different kinds of films. It’s true…there were people with cameras looking for girls for films. For real. So people are definitely a bit suspicious because they think that you’re looking to make a porn film. And they should be…I’m glad that they are. I’m always very happy when girls are suspicious, because they’re looking after themselves.”
In amongst the teen drunks and porn-hunters, Andrea Arnold eventually found her star – and indeed her Star – in the exotic, charismatic form of Texan teen, Sasha Lane. “Because we’re street casting, we go up to lots of people all the time,” Arnold explains. “We usually go up to people who we think might be right. Sacha stood out on the beach. There are thousands and thousands of teenagers on there during Spring Break. It’s quite an experience,” Arnold laughs. “After three or four days of talking, I said to Sasha that I’d love her to do it. We walked down the end of the pier in Panama, and it was lovely. We took a selfie of me and her so that she could show it to her family so that they would know that it was genuine. Her family were wondering what the hell this was all about!”
Like Sasha Lane, most of the young performers playing her magazine-selling compadres are non-actors, save for two notable exceptions. The group’s slightly older supervisor, Krystal, is played by Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road, Magic Mike, The Girlfriend Experience), while the role of Jake (Krystal’s top earner and possible lover) is played by none other than Shia LaBeouf, who is currently and famously in the midst of a major career overhaul, eschewing blockbusters like Transformers in favour of indies just like American Honey. “He just dropped in and mixed right in straight away,” Andrea Arnold says. “He was brilliant. The first day that he arrived, I went over to see him because he came a few days after the others. I went over to say hello, and he was just hanging out. They were all just immediately yakking and he just fitted right in. And I actually thought that this must be really interesting for him; here’s all these really real people and he’s done all this acting. I thought that it would be challenging for him, and he absolutely dropped right into that mix.”
But after so many major studio movies, American Honey represented an enormous shift for LaBeouf. “I talked to him about how I wanted to work when I first met him and he liked the sound of that,” Arnold explains. “I told him that we were going to shoot chronologically, and that I was going to cast real people. He loved the sound of all that. He likes to explore and push himself. He stayed in the same hotel as everyone when we were on the road shooting, and there was no differentiating between him and them. They didn’t fuss about who he was either…they didn’t give a monkey’s. The other kids were not reverential at all…the abuse was immediately flying either way,” she laughs. “They were just treating him like one of them. I loved that they were hanging out with him, walking around the motel, or going to the gas station for fags together. They were just like a gang straight away.”
Mixing pros and amateurs is no easy task, but the method has once again paid off for Andrea Arnold, with American Honey already showered with praise, and the proud recipient of The Jury Prize at The Cannes Film Festival. “I like to take risks, but you don’t know if some of those things will work out,” Arnold says. “But I like to push myself and learn each time. And with this one, I pushed myself even further.”