4 x 3 gives you more sky, claims Wutherings Arnold
Andrea Arnold likes to forget about her old life, as a children’s TV presenter. For her, life began at 40, or soon thereafter, when she jumped behind the camera and picked up an Oscar for writing and directing her short film Wasp.
The success of Wasp inevitably gave her the clout to start making idiosyncratic features, with her debut Red Road winning her the jury prize at Cannes and the BAFTA for the Most Promising Newcomer.
That prediction certainly seemed to be the case, as another Cannes jury prize and another BAFTA, this time for the best British film, followed for her next feature, Fish Tank.
By the time it came to her third feature, Wuthering Heights, she was embarking on her fourth film with cinematographer Robbie Ryan and much of the rest of the team had worked with her before too. “The people I work with are like a family,” she enthuses. “Each time I do a project, I gather more people and the family gets bigger. It’s lovely. It leads to a fantastic working relationship. Because we know each other, we develop lots of short cuts.”
But while she likes her team to feel familiar and comfortable, Andrea Arnold is not one to be pinned down to the same subject matter. After the fearsomely original working class dramas of Wasp, Red Road and Fish Tank, she has blown the familiarity out of the water with her first adaptation of someone else’s work. “I always said I’d never do one and my friends kept remind me I’d said that. I must have been bonkers to take on something like this.” Having said that, she manages to give this period classic her gritty, kitchen-sink air.
From the first time she read Emily Brontë‘s socially hard-hitting novel, she developed an intimate relationship with it, and when it came to writing her own screen adaptation, she picked out the bits that had the most resonance for her. For anyone familiar with the source material, like many other film-makers before her, Arnold chose to tell only the first half of the story – about the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy, but not the second half, which revolves around the next generation to inhabit the eponymous Yorkshire farm.
Wuthering Heights is regarded by many as a romance novel, but this was not how Arnold saw it. “I didn’t want a romantic image for the poster as it would have been misleading.” She’s proud to describe how a critic who saw her take on the story at the Toronto Film Festival told her that he’d seen many adaptations and was amazed that it taken a woman to make it so brutal.
Many of the actors she cast were first timers or had little experience on the big screen, if at all. But she wanted their performances to feel natural, so she chose not to rehearse them. The production was a gruelling experience. “It was an eight week shoot. It should have been about six, but we were filming in extreme conditions and the children’s hours were very limiting. And then the edit took seven months.” The experience paid off for her though. It came out just how she’d imagined it would when she was writing the script.
Despite her spare script, brutal landscapes, striking cinematography and powerful, dramatic performances – particularly of the younger actors – one of the hottest talking points around Arnold’s Wuthering Heights in the film world is about the format she chose to shoot it in; 4 x 3, or for those less technically minded, the old shape of the old fashioned TV screens, before they all went widescreen.
Arguably, it could seem like a retrograde step, at a time when home viewing is getting wider, to take the big screen back to the old shape. To some, it could feel like opting for the squarer format holds back much of the potential visual drama. She acknowledged that Sky Movies have threatened not to show it, for this reason. “They don’t like the black bars at the side,” she noted, but her long-time editor Nicolas Chaudeurge pointed out that with other formats, such as the wider 1:2.35, you’d simply get the black bars at the top and bottom of the picture instead.
But having shot Fish Tank in 4 x 3 too, this is becoming one of Arnold’s directorial badges. “I’m sad about all the fuss,” she confesses. “It’s just another device. Another decision for the director to make. I think it’s a lovely format for framing a single character. It uses all of the negative. You get a lot of sky and we had some really dramatic sky.” But then she pauses. “Those are just excuses really. I just love it.”