The Abyss of Passion: Andrea Arnold on Wuthering Heights

The director of the new Emily Bronte adaptation on the sensuality of young love, and why she doesn't want to adapt a novel ever again.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Well, it’s official. I’m in love. With Wuthering Heights, the new adaptation of Emily Bronte’s tragic romance.

Writer/director Andrea Arnold spoke to me over the phone while on a break from in-person 1:1 interviews across town. She’s the Oscar-winning director of the short film Wasp, and the acclaimed filmmaker behind Red Road and Fish Tank. Her interpretation of Wuthering Heights goes beyond the classic Hollywood costume drama and deep into the emotional states and physical world of the film’s tragic hero, Heathcliff, whose obsessive love for his stepsister Catherine eventually dooms them both.  It’s Andrea Arnold’s first adaptation and, if our interview is any indication, possibly her last. She has a lot to say about finding the right version of Wuthering Heights to tell, the trickiness of putting young, young actors in sensual situations and, naturally, back-licking.

Wuthering Heights opened in New York on October 5, expands to Los Angeles on October 12, and from there onto theaters across the country.

CraveOnline: This movie was so not what I expected. It’s not the typical costume drama.

Andrea Arnold: No, it’s not, is it? No… No…

Did they want to do something murkier, muddier, or is that all you?

That’s all me. What do you think? [Laughs] No, I think they planned on doing more of a costume drama before I came on board. There was Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman on board before. There were a couple of directors attached, and I sort of joined at a place where the film had momentum, but then when I came on board I kind of started again really. So I’m afraid all that murky, dark stuff is me.

Oh, don’t be afraid! I loved it. It’s such a tactile movie. It engaged all the senses. Is that intuitive to you, or do you have to plan ahead of convey that?

No, I always wanted it to be that way. I was really hoping I could try and do that from the beginning, because that’s what the book is. It’s a very visceral book, and I wanted to convey the essence of the book in the film. I didn’t try to do a completely faithful adaptation, but I wanted to capture something of the book’s true nature, and it’s a very visual, sort of visceral book. So I wanted to try and get that in the film. So that was an early-on decision, and that’s how I talked about it from the beginning, and what I tried to achieve.

You mentioned not being terribly faithful to the book. None of the adaptations tend to be too faithful. Most of them cut out the framing device.

They cut out the whole second half of the book.

And they cut out the guy at the beginning…

Yeah, Mr. Lockwood.

Is there any place for that? Is “the film” just the framing device now?

I decided early on to tell Heathcliff’s story, and that then gave myself a very specific direction in it. So when I went through the book, basically anything that didn’t have Heathcliff in it, I cut out. Even, there’s a very famous line that Cathy says, “I am Heathcliff,” and Heathcliff’s not in the room when she says it so it went. [Laughs] I had a very strict philosophy, if you like. That was my guide. For better or worse, that’s what I decided to do. That was my first instinct, to tell Heathcliff’s story, and then as I went along I started to discover all kinds of other things. Even now I think I’ve got a sort of completely different idea about it, to what I had when I started. It’s been a learning curve.

This is your first adaptation.

Yeah, and my last.

Really? Not an enjoyable experience?

I just like doing things from my own head. I think it’s really what I want to do. It was an experiment, and it was an interesting process, and on some level it was lovely to be reading a book where there’s all these wonderful descriptions and images and material and landscapes, and I could draw from all of that. And I thought that, wow, this is just fantastic. I don’t have to get it all out of my own head. There’s all this stuff in the book that I can use. I, on some level, found that really almost like a rest, because when you’re writing your own material it’s all coming from inside of you, and that’s a harder thing to do, I think. Well, actually I’m not sure now. I think I might say doing an adaptation is a harder thing to do. [Laughs] I don’t know. I’m very keen to get back to working on my own stuff, anyway.

You called it an experiment. Would you say you’ve learned something from the experience of adapting a screenplay, as opposed to just writing your own?

[Thinks] Yeah, I learned that I don’t want to do it again. [Laughs]

Fair enough!

Of course, every film you learn loads. You learn on every film so much. That’s what I love about what I do, really, is that you never know. Every time I start a film I feel like I’m starting the first time, ever. I’m making a film, and I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, and how do I do it, how am I going to do this. Every time I start I feel like it’s a new experience, and that’s what’s so wonderful about getting to make films. It’s a privilege and it’s an amazing adventure each time.

There have been a lot of Wuthering Heights adaptations.

I know.

I’m wondering, had you seen the Luis Buñuel version or the William Wyler version…?

Is that the one with Laurence Olivier?

The William Wyler one, yeah.

Yeah, I saw that when I was little. That was my first experience with Wuthering Heights. That was the only one I’ve seen though. I did try and get the Buñuel one, though. Buñuel did one called… I think it’s called The Abyss of Passion, which is such a great title. Because let’s face it, passion is an abyss, isn’t it?

Yes, it is.

Tell me about it. [Laughs] It’s true. I feel like I’m in the abyss of passion right now, but that’s another story.

I’d like to hear that story.

Well, I’m sure you would, but I can’t tell it. [Laughs]


So yeah, I tried to get that Buñuel film, but I couldn’t get it. I could only find like a clip on the internet. It’s set in Mexico, it looked completely bonkers. But I’m sure it’s great, I don’t know. I haven’t seen it. No, I decided not to look any [of the other films], because I thought it would be not a good idea.

I remember hearing that they were doing another Wuthering Heights, and I was kind of hoping they’d do the Monty Python version where it was all in semaphore.

Oh yes! My cinematographer sent me that link. It’s very funny.

The thing that grabbed me most about this movie was the portrayal of young Heathcliff and Catherine. It’s really sensualized, in a way that I think will surprise some people. Tell me about the importance of establishing that sexual energy early in their lives.

Yeah, I’d quite liked to [have done] more, but it’s hard to achieve when you’ve got young kids. It’s interesting, because I think that wasn’t really happening between them. They were very, as a lot of 13-year-olds, they were very shy of each other, and wanted to not be anywhere near each other, things like that. [Laughs] I remember helping a friend’s birthday party for the eleven, twelve year olds, and it’s slightly interesting watching all the boys on one side of the room and all the girls on the other side of the room, all sort of looking at each other and sort of hitting each other, and sort of fascinated with each other but not going anywhere near each other. It was the same with Solomon [Glave] and Shannon [Beer], they’re embarrassed about physical contact and that sort of thing. But it’s all going on inside them, isn’t it? That’s the interesting thing. I wrote a lot of those things into the script and tried to capture it in my own way. That was always something I wanted to show. Also I think, thirteen or so, it’s the beginning of your sexual awakening, isn’t it? Or even earlier. That is all going on inside you I think, at that age.

I think so too. And I think that giving them so much intensity… The scene where she licks his back…

Yeah, I love that. [Laughs]

It’s really beautiful and mildly creepy at the same time. Was that in the book, or was that all you?

No, that’s not in the book. That’s me. [Laughs]

Where did that come from?

I don’t know, but I knew when I thought of it, it was right. Definitely. I think that’s almost my favorite bit, actually. I think that might be my favorite bit. I feel like that’s really me, that bit. Whatever that says about me, I don’t know, but I feel like that’s true.

I think it says wonderful things about you. Do you know what film you want to do after this? Are you still writing right now?

I’m writing. I’ve got a film in mind. It’s something I’ve been hanging onto for a long that I’ve really wanted to do, and I’m mad keen to get going on it. Probably filming early next year. I’m really sorry, but I hate talking about it because it’s so personal, and I’m in the middle of it and it just feels a bit too fragile to talk about.

I respect that so much.

Aw, thanks!