When The A.V. Club sat down with American Honey director Andrea Arnold in New York after returning from the Toronto International Film Festival, we had to bring up something we had witnessed back in Canada. During a party for the movie at the Rock ’N’ Horse Saloon, we saw Arnold and her cast dance with abandon, setting the tone for a raucous affair. “That was very representative of what we did the whole way through the film,” Arnold later told The A.V. Club, reminiscing about the festivities. We could have figured as much. Her road flick is laden with spontaneous sing-alongs to recognizable pop, rap, and country songs—Rihanna’s invigorating “We Found Love” factors in prominently.
American Honey follows Star (Sasha Lane), an impoverished teen who leaves her abusive home to join up with a crew of youngsters who travel the country in a van selling magazine subscriptions. Her Virgil is Shia LaBeouf’s Jake, a flirt with a rattail and a volatile personality. Arnold, an English director probably best known for Fish Tank, studied real-life “mag crews” to make her nearly three-hour-long ode to youth and the United States’ many facets. The A.V. Club chatted with Arnold about what it was like to film in a cramped van and how she discovered the film’s star. (Read our review here.)
The A.V. Club: At the party in Toronto, it felt like we were getting a peek of what it must have been like to be on set. How do you create an environment that breeds that?
Andrea Arnold: I don’t know. I think a lot of the people I brought together are party animals. I think if you bring enough people together that are like that, it’s just going to happen. It’s not going to be a question. I always wanted to do a real road trip from the beginning. We had a small crew so that we could do that. So everyone met in Oklahoma, and then we spent a little time there, and we all went together. We were living together, and there were a lot of us. I think all those things made it a very lively atmosphere. The partying was just a natural part of it.
AVC: Music is such a huge part of the film. Were you playing music on set constantly?
AA: I always wanted to be able to use the music as we went along. I felt that was important. I went out with a mag crew a while ago—they were playing music nonstop. I realized it was really important to them. When they were working and they were out on the streets selling, they didn’t have any music. They were out on the streets for very long days, so when they got together in the van, it was like getting back to each other and relaxing and letting it all hang out. Some of them sometimes wouldn’t want to be hearing the thing that everyone had on, so they would have headphones on, going into their own worlds. I wrote a lot of music into the script from the very beginning.
AVC: What music was written in from the beginning?
AA: Rihanna was from the beginning. Things evolved a little bit. I always wanted country songs at the beginning for the things the father would be playing. The Raveonettes was from the beginning. “Dream Baby Dream,” Raury, Juicy J—I’m not sure if I wrote that in, but then I liked it, and I wanted to put it in at the beginning.
AVC: Was the Lady Antebellum song “American Honey” there?
AA: Yes. I did a lot of road trips before I did this film by myself, and that was one of the songs that had an emotional resonance for me.
AVC: What was the order—did the song come first, and then the line from Krystal [Riley Keough] that Star is an “American Honey,” and then the title?
AA: I think the song probably came first. Then it started to take on this feeling of what I was trying to do with the film, which was, for me, mixing in my impressions of America from growing up, and now my new impressions of America from having spent a lot of time going around and looking. The “American Honey” song seemed to start symbolizing something that felt like the bigger picture in the film. So that came first. And then the title from that, and then Krystal saying that. I thought that’d definitely be Krystal’s music, apart from the R&B.
AVC: How do your impressions of the country growing up compare to what they are now? How did the film factor into that?
AA: I grew up with a lot of Hollywood films. Cozy farm houses, cowboys, nice flats in New York. Especially as a kid, those things have a huge impression on you. If you see films like that all the time, you think that’s how it is. And then, of course, I started coming to America. I started getting to see it and know it a bit more. Then I thought, well, I’ve been to New York and L.A. quite a lot, but I haven’t been to other places. So I just decided I needed to know it a little bit more, so I started doing a bunch of road trips and driving about. I also hung out with a mag crew. We were casting a lot of different places. It was all building up this more complex picture. I think the film became the mix of my leftover fantastical ideas—you know, I grew up seeing farmhouses on the prairie. Then when we go there, a lot of the farmhouses are run down, and that’s how it is now. But we don’t see that in films, so you don’t know that that’s how it is.
AVC: With this film and Fish Tank you have two heroines who come from seemingly similar worlds in different countries. But Fish Tank is a much darker vision overall, whereas American Honey does have this party feeling and an optimism at the end. Does that come from looking at America from an outsider’s perspective?
AA: I think a lot of that is to do with me and my own journey as well. Places are complicated. America is a huge country, of course. It’s complicated. There’s good, and there’s not so good, and that’s the same wherever you live. I’ve always loved America, and I had the best time doing this film, and going through the Midwest and line-dancing. That was really very much part of my experience. Even when I was doing the road trips on my own, for the most part I had a really good time. But I saw lots of difficult things, too. So it’s a mix, as life is.
AVC: How did you link up to go out with mag crews? At what phase of the writing process was that in?
AA: I get a bit muddled with what happened when, because it’s been over a long period, but I think it was one of the first things I did. We researched quite a bit, spoke to a lot of mag crew members, got a lot of information. I read loads. There’s quite a lot of stuff online. But also we got in touch with mag crew members and asked them about their experiences. I met some, hung out with them for days. These are people who had already left, but then I also went and joined a mag crew. That was all at the beginning.
AVC: Did you take instances directly from that experience and put them in the film?
AA: There were certain things that I got from that that I think are really important. It definitely influenced how I cast. It was one of the biggest things, I think. It definitely influenced some of the images I wanted to find.
AVC: Which ones?
AA: There is an image in the film that is along the lines—but not perhaps to the degree I felt it. That sometimes happens to me. I have something really strong, and then I end up on the day not being able to actually achieve, because we’re running out of time, or circumstances are different or whatever. But I think it’s kind of there in other ways anyway. It was of them being on the outside of things and trying to get on the inside of things and get accepted by people in houses. There was this sort of vulnerability about them being on the doorstep or in a parking lot, sort of looking to get people to accept them, getting people to listen to them and to buy what they were selling. I have a very strong memory of seeing them selling and trying to attract people. They’re sort of solitary figures on this huge tarmac or outside of a house where they were not really that welcome. That was a very poignant feeling I came away with, having spent time with them. I hope that’s in the film.
AVC: In this world of solitary figures, Star herself is even more solitary. She’s an outlier among the outliers. Was there any specific inspiration for her?
AA: Yes, but it’s quite personal. [Laughs.] Can’t go there.
AVC: Did the script change during filming because you were on this road trip? Did you open it up to improv?
AA: It was a mix. I always wanted to show real faces. I went to a homeless shelter in Austin when we were casting. I was looking for possible people to be in the film, and the man working there told me that people see these as the throwaways of America. I wanted to show their faces. I wanted to say these people are not throwaways. They’re beautiful, and they’ve got spirit. I just wanted to show their faces. So even though a lot of the crew were not written into the script so much, I wanted them to be there, and I wanted them to be very present. When we really did the road trip, we went on convoys as a crew, and we would put them all on the bus, and we would just film them.
AVC: What was the process of filming on the bus like? Was that tricky to accomplish in such a cramped space?
AA: It was fairly intense. I used to get out of the bus at the end of the day going, ugh. It was a tiny space at the back. It was the DP Robbie [Ryan] and [Rashad Omar] who does sound recording.
AVC: It does have this element of claustrophobia. What was it like planning out those shots and trying to get everything you wanted while being in that tight little space?
AA: It was restrictive, and sometimes I felt a little frustrated. I felt I couldn’t get everything I wanted. Sometimes it was quite difficult. I think I probably gave up a lot of things, because you just have to work with how it is. And sometimes you can’t always get what you want. That kind of is the reality, and I think the reality is important anyway. I wouldn’t want to get more fancy than we can actually get. I feel like that wouldn’t be truthful to the space. I won’t push to get some amazing kind of rig, some great lorry we can put the van in, and then Robbie can be sitting in an armchair outside, and me sitting in a bigger armchair with my director’s megaphone.
AVC: Why did you cast more well-established stars for Shia and Riley’s characters?
AA: I met [Riley] when I was on the jury in Cannes. We sat and had a chat on the beach. I just really loved her from the beginning. When I first met her, I didn’t know too much about her. And then we met her again in New York, and I just had a very strong feeling about her. Same with Shia. I met him in a cafe in London. He had the kind of energy I imagined Jake to have. I know he can go to wild, and I thought that Jake’s going to be that way. He’s very charming, he’s lively, he’s got a lot of spirit. He’s got a kind of soulfulness that’s under some of the stuff that he presents. He’s complicated. And he was really enthusiastic about how I wanted to work, what it was all about. He liked the idea of working a bit differently.
AVC: The story about you finding Sasha on the beach is the stuff of legend now. But what did she have that specifically spoke to you about Star?
AA: When we first started, I already had someone else cast. The script was written for her. She was a different girl to Sasha.
AVC: Was it a more well-established name?
AA: No, she’s a girl from West Virginia and quite vulnerable, but strong. From the country. An amazing girl. But at the last minute, she couldn’t do it. I knew I had to do something. So I got on a plane and went to Panama [City], because it was spring break down there. I thought there were going to be a lot of teenagers down there. We were sitting on the beach for days, and I saw Sasha, and she really stood out. She was being very playful when I first saw her. We went up to chat with her, and she was very open, listened to what we’re saying, and then we went and did some auditioning with her in a hotel room. Then I tried her out with some of the other characters. I sat her down in Denny’s and said, “Look, this is what it’s all about.” I tried to talk to her about everything so she would know what she was getting into. I hadn’t cast her at that point. I was quite serious about her. And over those few days, I sort of got to know her a little bit, and she’s a different girl from the girl I originally cast, and it’s interesting, because I think that my journey with the film kind of changed who Star was. It became more the truth of what she should be. But it wasn’t what it was originally.
AVC: How so? What was the change?
AA: I almost don’t want to talk about because it’s quite personal. And also, I think, when real people are involved, I don’t want to really be delving into any of this. But I thought, “Oh, wow, this has happened naturally.” Actually, it’s the right thing. She’s different from what she was at the beginning. But then I had to rewrite it for her. I did a lot before we started filming. We brought them all together and we were doing stuff with them to get them comfortable with each other and all that. So we were doing stuff and I was—I got a little wooden desk—I was sitting outside the motel, writing away.
AVC: Why “We Found Love?” What is it about that song?
AA: It’s just the song of a time, and the film is of a time. And I feel like it represents that time. I heard it a lot when I was traveling around. I loved it, and I’m a big Rihanna fan. And it’s exactly the kind of song you’d hear in Kmart, and I was cheeky and went for it.
AVC: It’s a moment that’s spot-on. They did find love.
AA: A couple people said, “You’re brave doing that.” It’s not cool, basically. I’m not very cool.