Having bagged an Oscar for her short film Wasp and a Cannes Jury Prize for her debut feature Red Road, Andrea Arnold concretes her status as one of Britain’s hottest new directors with Fish Tank. Harsh, delicate, funny and oh-so-real, this powerful tower-block drama creeps up on you with a startling emotional wallop. Breathtaking in her first ever acting role, Essex girl Katie Jarvis plays a sweary, spiky 15-year-old who dreams of being hip-hop dancer but finds herself drawn towards her single mum’s new boyfriend (the superb Michael Fassbender). The heat is just around the corner…
Andrea Arnold: Yeah, I started off by explaining the title and now I’ve decided that’s not a good thing. I’m going to stop explaining it. I think it can mean a lot of things and I think that’s nice for people to think about. If I tell you what I think, that just makes it definite. And that spoils having some fun with thinking about why is it called Fish Tank. I think it’s better you try to work it out. Sometimes if I dot the Is and cross the Ts, it spoils it. It’s on the internet anyway!
AA: I always start with an image. I’m not telling you what it was! No, because again, it gives the film away. Even though everyone will be writing about exactly what happens on the internet and it’s no mystery, I still have this idea of protecting what happens. Because I personally love to see films not knowing very much about them. When you see it, it’s like a flower opening up. I deliberately never read about films before I see them.
AA: She has no idea how much she’s been talked about. Her ears must be burning! I rang her during Cannes and said, “Katie, you’ve got to get on the internet. Get on the internet!” She hasn’t got a computer where she is. And I was like, “Go somewhere and get on the internet!”
AA: Yeah, she was having a row with her boyfriend. He was on one platform and she was on the other. She was yelling at him. I wasn’t there, it was actually the casting assistant called Lucy, who was really fantastic. She approached Katie and Katie didn’t believe it was for a film. She thought Lucy was incredibly suspicious! And she’s absolutely right to be suspicious! I’d be suspicious. But she came along, we did a local little audition with some girls we’d found in Tillbury. We just got her to do a little bit of improvisation. She could just be totally herself. Her family’s not the same as Mia’s in the film, but more her character and her energy and her anger. She’s got the ability to quite angry. That was more the thing that was right for the part.
AA: I didn’t know. It was a big risk in way, because I really didn’t know if she would be able to do it. She could obviously be herself in a little bit of improvisation. But we have a script. And every day we have a certain amount of things to do. A story to tell. Cameras. Sounds. Things she has to learn very quickly. And I didn’t know if she’d be able to do it. But I love leaping in and not knowing if it’s going to work. It was a big risk. I thought, Hmm. It might not happen…
AA: Yeah. She’s 17 so… I spoke to her parents and they know that it’s not real. You’re only pretending. Obviously you try to make things look as real as possible. But in amongst all that, doing those things is hilarious, often. I’m sure she was nervous. But even people who’ve done it before get nervous so that’s not surprising. We didn’t make a big deal of it. We kept it very brief.
AA: I don’t think so… I did grow up on a housing estate. And I was a teenager, obviously! But I was never like Mia. I see a lot of those kids around and I know what it’s like to be a teenager. I guess I’m projecting some other things on to her. To make her slightly different to what I know. So it’s partly imagination, partly things I know.
AA: I just picked people who live there. They say things in the way they say things. Katie comes from that area, so she just scripted it into her own words. We kept Michael with his Irish accent, because he’s a little bit of an outsider anyway. Kierston Wareing actually was born in that area too. Rebecca Griffiths lives down the road.
AA: It’s interesting doing the French translation. Because we’re not only translating English, we’re translating Essex English. So for example, one of kids says, “Oh, her mum’s butters.” Butters is slang for butt-ugly. Butt-ugly means arse-ugly. Trying to work that out in the French translation was very interesting… Trying to keep the language as colourful!
Fish Tank hits UK cinemas this Friday.