Andrea Arnold makes extraordinary films about ordinary people. Her new film, Fish Tank, a modern love story set on a housing estate in Essex, is quite simply spellbinding. At 48, Arnold finds herself at the vanguard of a new generation of British filmmakers poised to take over from the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Up there near Arnold is Hunger director Steve McQueen; on the way up are uncompromising, idiosyncratic directors such as Joanna Hogg (Unrelated), Duane Hopkins (Better Things), Thomas Clay (Soi Cowboy), Gideon Koppel (Sleep Furiously), Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor (Helen).
Yet even McQueen, for all that Hunger was feted, can't really touch Arnold's international success. In 2005 she won an Oscar for her outstanding short film Wasp. Charting a day in the life of a single mum who meets up with an old lover and leaves her four kids to fend for themselves in the pub carpark, it is disturbing in its honesty. Both her feature films – Red Road, an unsettling urban thriller and Fish Tank – won the Jury Prize at Cannes, in 2006 and 2009 respectively.
Most directors would be thrilled by such recognition but Arnold isn't a natural show-off. And, she says, awards ceremonies just don't get any easier. "I still find them terrifying. I don't like going up in front of all those people. Obviously I'm delighted that the films are recognised but I don't want to think awards matter. I read a great quote in a philosophy book recently: 'Don't worship the bitch goddesses of success and applause'."
If she's content to position herself on the very edge of celebrity, she will at least concede that the Oscars were, if not exactly fun, then a curiosity. "It was like being in a David Lynch film. Surreal and incredible. Lots of long corridors of red velvet with people at every corner showing you which way to go."
As part of her acceptance speech for Wasp, which was televised to billions round the world, Arnold declared the statuette to be "the dog's bollocks". She smiles when I mention this but moves the conversation back to real life. "Once I've finished a film I just want to get on and make another one. For me, making films is about trying to work something out by myself in quite a lonely way. I find the whole thing very lonely really."
She would certainly rather be at home now, writing and feeling lonely. She may joke about having chosen to be "very much" behind the camera but this wasn't always the case. Throughout the 80s she had a regular presenting spot on Sandi Toksvig's Saturday morning kids' TV show, No 73. In the early 80s she was part of the Top of the Pops dance troupe Zoo. "I was a freestyle dancer; I wasn't trained. It was a good way to earn a living and great fun.
"We didn't often meet the bands, although I was once in the lift with Status Quo. In 1981 I was picked out to appear during David Bowie and Queen's performance of "Under Pressure". My face was painted black and white. I had to stand very still and keep looking down. I've never seen any of the footage. I'm guessing that one day it will turn up on YouTube."
Arnold will laugh about Zoo but is reluctant to talk about her past, notably the specifics of where and how she was brought up. She carefully explains that she was eldest of four children growing up in a council house in Dartford, and then abruptly stops; she doesn't feel it's right to discuss her family publicly. An awkward moment passes when I ask about early cinematic experiences. "I remember seeing Mary Poppins when I was about five. It was the first film I ever saw in a cinema and I was devastated by it. I just couldn't believe there was such a world, and I wanted to be in it. The local cinema must have closed down sometime after that because I didn't see a film in a cinema until much later."
As a teenager she took the 96 bus all the way from Dartford to Woolwich just to go to the cinema. She remembers seeing Taxi Driver, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Midnight Express, the latter moving her to write a "long, long essay at school".
She left home at 18 and moved to London. "It was much easier to see films there. I remember Apocalypse Now, Alien, The Elephant Man, My Life as a Dog, Blood Simple, Betty Blue, Blue Velvet." (The directors she now admires range from David Lynch and the Dardenne brothers to Tarkovsky, Alan Clarke and Michael Haneke but she prefers to take her inspiration from art, photography and music. Here she namechecks Tracey Emin, Nan Goldin and Ghostface Killah).
As a child, Arnold filled notebooks with stories and, as a teenager, with endless observations of the world around her. It's a habit she continues, writing about an interesting interaction with a random man at a station or a skinny, haunted kid on a train. That she dips into these notebooks when writing scripts comes as no surprise; very little feels fake in her films. She says attention to detail "really matters – what somebody really would do in a certain moment".
In the 90s Arnold had a daughter, now 14, and attended the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Prior to Wasp she made two other short films, Milk and Dog; she likes simple, no-nonsense titles, and says, rather dramatically, that she almost can't carry on with a film until she's found a name for it.
It's not just the striking names which identify Arnold's films; they tend to be about family dysfunction and wayward lust on claustrophobic housing estates. I take a risk and ask if she's writing about what she knows. "Er, yeah. But my films aren't autobiographical. Those things have never directly happened to me. My mind goes places, I have an imagination."
Arnold always starts her films with a strong image that seems to have come from nowhere, and then explores the image as she writes the script. She never discusses these images; it's futile to even ask her to hint at them. She is adamant that the films should speak for themselves, which, having such strong stories, they do in a way. Red Road follows a CCTV operator in Glasgow; mourning both her husband and her child, she one day zooms in on an ex-convict inextricably linked to her past and begins to stalk him. Fish Tank is the disarming story of abused love on an Essex council estate. Both are disturbing yet compelling, and both ask the viewer not to take a moral standpoint, which is, at times, a tough call.
Most importantly, Red Road and Fish Tank feel like Andrea Arnold films. The scripts are resolutely authentic (even though Arnold was born in Dartford and knew very little about Glasgow when she set out to make Red Road), the characters are never judged and the pace never wavers. Both embrace a documentary film-making style; Arnold is inspired by fly-on-the wall documentaries in which "real people have real feelings at a real moment in time".
Despite similar traits, the two films were made in very different ways. Red Road was in fact the first of three films planned by Advance Party, a Danish project instigated by maverick director Lars von Trier. Arnold and two other new directors – whose films are yet to appear – were challenged to make films using a clearly defined set of rules which included using the same group of characters.
How did Arnold get on with Von Trier? "I've been an admirer of his for the longest time so it was great to meet him. It was very brief – no more than 10 minutes in a meeting room at Zentropa [Von Trier's film company]. He said this one thing about "loving the rope" to all of us who were going on this Advance Party journey; he was encouraging us to embrace the limitations set out for us as it would help us to be creative. It made total sense and it was wise advice. I did just that, and the more I stuck to the rules, the more interesting the process became."
She's not sure if Von Trier has seen Red Road but likes to think he has. By turn, she has yet to see Antichrist but is very keen. "I was at the Edinburgh film festival with Fish Tank, and a bunch of us started having a heated debate about Antichrist. What we thought it was about and whether Von Trier likes women or not. It turned out that none of us had even seen it!"
And does he like women? "I've no idea. I don't know him, I only met him for five minutes. Whatever he thinks, I'm glad he's able to do his work and give us all something to think about."
Fish Tank is, in effect, the first feature film Arnold has made from scratch. It centres on self-absorbed single mum Joanne (Kierston Wareing) who takes up with Connor (Michael Fassbender), a handsome Irish charmer. For a while he plays carefree stepdad to her two daughters. Mia (played by exceptional newcomer Katie Jarvis) is 15, excluded from school and unimpressed with her friends. She dreams of becoming a professional dancer. Her young sister, Tyler (another newcomer, Rebecca Griffiths), is a fireball of energy. She also has one of the best lines in the film, delivered to Connor with something approaching affection: "I like you. I'll kill you last."
One of the great things about Arnold's films is her adventurous exploration of female sexuality – the sexual tension between Connor and Mia in Fish Tank or the graphic cunnilingus scene in Red Road. Her films may be social realist dramas that are conventional in their working-class settings but her focus is refreshingly female. She is initially reluctant to admit that being a woman behind the camera is any different because, she points out, she doesn't know what it's like to be a male director. "I've never thought of myself as somehow able to do less. So I just get on and do it."
She then admits that having a child is tough. "It's not an easy thing to juggle, though my daughter is more independent these days and so it's a bit easier."
She is often asked why there are so few female directors, and still doesn't know the answer. She looks reflective. "I always notice how few there are at film festivals. I went to Créteil International Women's Film Festival in France with Wasp in 2004, stayed on for a few days and watched all these films by women. I spent the whole time crying because there were so many films that had so much resonance for me, being female. It actually made me realise how male-dominated the film industry is in terms of perspective. If you think about a film being a very popular and expressive way of showing a mirror on life, we're getting a mainly male perspective. It's a shame. I saw a lot of fantastic films at Créteil that I never heard about again."
Although her films have a definite female perspective, Arnold is not a great female director nor a great British director – she's a great director. The glut of awards she's collected over the last six years point to her considerable international standing, and she is fast becoming the director actors want to work with. I ask Kierston Wareing (whose breakthrough role was as the lead in Ken Loach's 2007 film, It's a Free World) about working with Arnold, and she enthuses non-stop for five minutes flat. "There's such a buzz around Andrea that I was a bit intimidated about meeting her but we got on straight away. Andrea is such a normal person that it's easy to forget she's a director. She never gets angry. In fact, she's like Ken: laidback, patient, chilled."
Harry Treadaway, whose past credits include Brothers of the Head and Control, has a supporting role as a traveller who befriends Mia. "I felt very safe in Andrea's hands. She makes films with such heartfelt integrity. Her work comes from a good place; she's not trying to be clever."
On Fish Tank she didn't show the cast a script in advance, letting the story unfold day by day (partly so as not to overwhelm first timers Jarvis and Griffiths). Jarvis landed the role after being spotted by a casting assistant, arguing with her boyfriend at Tilbury station in Essex. She was initially reluctant to dance in front of the camera, but was a risk that paid off; Griffiths, all cheek and insouciance, is equally natural in front of the camera.
Much as she dislikes being the focus of attention, Arnold delights in being in charge of a film set. "I always say that writing is the really hard bit, and directing is for pussies. Once I've finished writing I think, yahooooo! Here comes the fun bit! I love directing because I'm actually quite a sociable person. The more chaotic a film set, the calmer I feel. I think it has to do with my childhood – because I'm the eldest of four, life was fairly chaotic and wild."
She is getting carried away now but I try not to look intrigued by this tiny insight into her past.
I ask if Arnold is pleased with Fish Tank and am unsurprised by her answer: "You can never ask me that question." She is her own worst critic, able to praise the cast and crew but not her own input. On her office wall she has the Samuel Beckett quote: "Ever tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail better". "It's the biggest lesson for anyone doing anything creative: to not mind risk, to not play safe," she says. "Put everything into what you're doing and don't worry about what anybody thinks."
She may see faults in Fish Tank but it still made her cry – at a scene between Mia and her mother near the end of the film's hugely emotional yet rigidly unsentimental finale. "I thought it was interesting; I didn't cry where I expected to cry. People have told me it makes them cry in lots of different places."
I joke that she didn't set out to make a tearjerker, but then she doesn't set out to make any kind of film. It seems that these humane, organic films just pour of out her.
As the interview comes to a close and she remembers that a photographer is waiting, Arnold starts pulling at the skin on her hand. She looks as though she's about to be sent to the headteacher's office. I ask what she's up to next. "I'm just trying to start work on something else. It's probably going to have no famous actors in it and be very small scale."
She smiles. "It's not a good idea to talk about it."
• Fish Tank is out on 11 September
Life in pictures: All about Andrea
Born 5 April 1961 in Dartford, the eldest of four children to teenage parents who separated when she was a child. After appearing as a dancer on Top of the Pops she became a TV presenter, most notably on Saturday morning show No 73.
1998 Begins directing career with a short entitled Milk.
2001 Produces the 10-minute short, Dog, for a BBC2 commission.
2003 Makes Wasp, which goes on to scoop over 20 awards.
2006 Red Road, her first feature film, nets her the Jury Prize at Cannes and a Bafta for most promising newcomer.
2009 Wins Jury Prize again, for Fish Tank.
They say "[Andrea's] a proper film-maker. With a film like Fish Tank [the audience] have to get involved and by the end of it, it's asking some pretty serious social and moral questions." Michael Fassbender, actor.
She says "I try and be truthful. With endings, beginnings, the million choices in between ... Films are all about decisions, and that's what I love."
From station to stardom: An actress's lucky break
When a casting agent approached Katie Jarvis at Tilbury Town railway station in Essex to interrupt the argument she was having with her boyfriend, the 17-year-old thought it was a joke and had to be persuaded to part with her number. Although Andrea Arnold had originally planned to cast a girl with dance skills she couldn't find anyone who seemed right, and from Jarvis's direct, forceful performance as the headstrong and dance-obsessed 15-year-old Mia, it's easy to imagine her, in Arnold's words, standing out on the platform for "giving him a bit of grief".
As the film's director of photography, Robbie Ryan, explained, "Andrea wanted someone who was the real thing" and Jarvis, born and bred in Essex like her character, and with a similar background that included leaving home at a young age, was able to bring much of her own experience to the film. Katie described how, "I'd never done any dancing or anything like that and I didn't think I had a chance." In fact, she was at first so self-conscious about dancing that she refused to do it in front of anyone and had to be left alone in a room with a camera. Despite the lack of experience, she got the part. When she was phoned on her birthday to be told, "I cried my eyes out, I was well chuffed. But I think I was one of a kind, I don't think anyone else will get picked off a train station."
She must have been even more chuffed when Fish Tank won the Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival last May, although having given birth a few weeks earlier to a daughter, she shunned the red carpet, instead staying in Basildon with her boyfriend Brian - who she's probably eternally grateful to for winding her up that day on the train platform.
As Arnold remarked at the time: "Festivals are not really part of her life." Despite such a startling and acclaimed debut and her subsequent signing to talent agencies here and in the US, Jarvis is uncertain if she'll return to acting. Motherhood, for the moment, is demanding enough.
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