Andrea Arnold on Directing Her First Doc ‘Cow’ and Theatrical Release – The Hollywood Reporter

Even before embarking on his first documentary, Cow, director Andrea Arnold incorporated certain nonfiction elements into her scripted films. There were naturalistic shots of animals, insects, and nature interspersed throughout 2009. Fishbowlhis 2011 adaptation of wuthering heights and 2016 american Honey, the non-actors and unknowns that have populated many of his films (launching the careers of Sasha Lane and Katie Jarvis) and the kitchen-sink realism of his sets, from Fishbowlpublic housing complex american honeyThe road trip through rural America.

But Cowwhich opens in theaters and on demand on Friday, takes this approach to a new level. The protagonist of the film is Luma, an English dairy cow whose life consists of giving birth, being milked, being inseminated, undergoing veterinary check-ups and, from time to time, going out to graze in the open field. Her offspring are separated from her early, destined to grow up on a different part of the same farm as her mothers, who live “this maternal cycle for her entire life,” says Arnold. The film takes an intimate look at Luma’s life, often presenting her at eye level, using many shots from her point of view, intercutting the music played on the farm into the film’s soundtrack, and showing only to the farmers to the extent that they are working with Luma, their calf. or other cows on the farm; there is no narration.

“I thought, why don’t I try to see if I can film an animal a bit like I film my characters, so I focus on one consciousness and one being?” Arnold says. Perhaps unsurprisingly, editing the film was challenging: “I had to find something that felt like a shape, and that felt pretty tricky,” she says.

Cow It’s been a long time in the making: Arnold says the project first took shape about nine years ago, with the film taking four years to make afterwards. In an interview with the hollywood reporterThe director talks about her process in finding the film’s star, the challenges involved in her first foray into the documentary space, and why she will continue to strive for theatrical releases, rather than streaming.

How did this movie start for you?

It’s a long story where it came from, really, but it came from a feeling of disconnection with nature. I was thinking, why do I feel so disconnected and how can I connect? How could I turn the camera on something that would get people to connect too? And then I thought, why don’t I try to see if I can film an animal a bit like I film my characters, focusing on one consciousness and one being? I thought it could be quite interesting because we could really get to know them and we could really see their personality and that could be a good thing.

How was the process to choose the particular cow you wanted to follow? Did you have any audition process?

We had to find a farm, and we had to find a farm that was a surprising distance from London because we had to go regularly and also last minute, and that took a bit of time. Then, once we found the farm, we had to identify a cow. We were looking for a cow that was pregnant because she wanted to start calving, so there were few pregnant cows. and I asked him [the farmers] about their personalities and they mentioned Luma from the beginning, I think, and said that she was feisty, like she was a feisty cow. I thought that was good: it obviously meant that she has some character. And then also when I met her, she has this beautiful white head with the eyeliner. At first, I wasn’t sure that you [would] I’d always be able to pick her out in a crowd, but I thought with that head we’d have a better chance of seeing her. But actually, I think I shouldn’t have worried because I think any of the cows that I focused on, you would have met. She had a very beautiful head anyway, and I thought she was beautiful. So we chose Luma.

How were the funds for this film raised compared to other films of yours? Was it difficult to find people who were willing to support this?

In fact, I was very lucky because one of the first people we asked for money was Christine Langan, who was working at the BBC at the time. Christine had actually grown up with cows, so when I talked to her about it, she totally understood, so I think I was lucky that she had a relationship with cows. I’m not sure there were many people at the beginning. [otherwise]. And even since then, people are like, “Oh, what are you doing?” And I say, “I’ve been doing this and this and this. And I’m making a movie about a cow.” And they say, “What is it about?” And I say, “Well, it’s about a cow.” I never knew how to describe it. I could just talk about its origin and my passion for it; there wasn’t going to be a story or drama or whatever. So it was a pretty simple idea. There is always a lot of love for [cows], anyone who has had any kind of relationship or connection with them. They talk about them very fondly, so I think Christine was [one of those people], obviously. He didn’t even know that about her, but thank God.

You mentioned that you wanted to start this movie with a birth. To what extent did you plan the production in advance and to what extent did you stay on the farm and shoot spontaneous moments?

The life of a dairy cow is very busy: it’s about giving milk, it’s about getting pregnant, and it’s about giving birth and then giving milk. They live through this maternal cycle their entire lives, so there are a lot of things involved in that: there are a lot of visits to the vet; there is the insemination, there is the bull; when they’re pregnant, there’s all the scans and things that need to be done; and then the birth and then there is the milking. So there is a cycle and many things happen all the time. So, we would go all those days, and then I would just go shoot on a normal day, where they would just come to milk. So we would do regular days and also the days when they have special things.

When it comes to camera work, many times the camera is placed at the height of the cows and the camera gets quite close to them, to the point where sometimes a cow hits the camera. How was that filming experience? Did the cows have to get used to the camera?

I think they are used to people being around: there are many farmhands and farmers around all the time. And they are very used to having humans around very early, from birth. So I don’t think it affected them too much that we were there. But I always made the point of saying, if she [Luma] reacts to the camera, if you don’t like it or respond to it, we’ll include it. I didn’t want to pretend we weren’t there because we were there, and his reaction to us was part of the truth, so I included some of those things. I mean, you could just as easily cut those things off and not have them so you don’t realize the camera is there, but for me, the fact that the camera was there was part of it. So I was very clear that that was part of it. Every once in a while, if he got cranky about something going on, he’d hit a camera or something like, “Get out of my way, I don’t like it.” And I would think, well, that’s fair enough. I respect all of that; I was respectful of his annoyance with us at times.

Let’s talk a little about the music in the movie. Did you insert any music or did all the songs come directly from whatever the farm was playing?

The farm had a pop radio in the barn, which is playing a lot of love songs, like pop radio does. And I thought, oh, that’s very interesting, because pop music is about love and longing and wanting and wanting and not being able to have and I miss you and where you are. I thought that’s very interesting because that’s kind of what’s going on here, because of all the separations of the cows and the calves. There is a lot of longing in that stable that you feel. So the music felt like a gift. Most, not all, comes from farmers. Part comes from the farm and part is provided by me, but as an extension [of the existing music]. Because I can’t erase everything I like, that’s not possible. As most filmmakers know, music is tough, and so is money for some things. But basically I used that as a starting point, the music that’s there. I used reality and just grew up a little bit.

Given that this is your first documentary feature film, what were the particular challenges you encountered in making a non-fiction film, and what were the elements that were similar to your previous films?

I guess the challenge of this, and I think it was probably a challenge, is because we had a lot of footage and, in a way, how do you make a narrative out of that? How do you put together a kind of beginning, middle and end? Many events are pretty much the same, in a way. The good: We weren’t in a hurry to get it done, so we’d edit it a little bit, and then there was a gap, and then obviously we had a lock and stuff, so there were gaps, and I looked at everything and basically tried to use my intuition and I chose whatever seemed important to me. But there was no clear story, exactly, and he had to find something. I guess that’s true for a lot of documentaries because there was no narrative at all, on some level. I had to find something that felt like a shape, and that felt pretty tricky. But I’m always playing around with editing, like when I worked on american honey and I worked with Joe Bini, I’m always trying to find different ways of working that can generate interesting creativity. And I said to Joe, “How about we sit through the diaries and talk about them and then you don’t look at the script?” And that was what we did.

I think I’m always incorporating documentary elements into my drama to try to bring life to it. I always have a lot of real kids, always using real locations. If there’s something going on in the background, I’m like, “Oh great, let’s include that.” I love that it’s a bit chaotic, and if it’s not chaotic enough, I’ll present something that creates a bit of chaos. I think when you’re first in film school, there’s this idea that you do storyboards and everything is going to be exactly Well, I really don’t like that. I like the idea that I am surprised and that the day surprises me and whoever we have kicked out surprises me. So I think I’ve always had a little bit of a documentary element in fiction, so it all overlaps.

Was there ever a conversation about selling this to a streaming service, given how popular the documentary is on those platforms right now?

I have always believed in cinema. I still do. I know streaming is part of the world right now, and filmmakers want their movies to be seen. But I really believe in cinema, I believe in that collective experience, I believe in the power of the big picture. And I believe in the space that it gives the audience to have their own experience with what’s going on. I believe in having people in a room all together, I believe in not opening the delivery door in the middle of the movie or not making a cup of coffee. You get people into a room for a short period of time and you give them an experience. It’s like an invitation from the filmmaker to say, “I’m going to give you an experience in this dark room, here you are.” It’s a very different thing being home alone and moving fast. So I think there will always be a lot of people who want that. [theatrical experience], and I still believe in that very much. Obviously streaming has become a big part of life and that’s how a lot of movies are seen, but I’ll still strive to make film and have it seen in theaters. I’m going to continue with that.

Are you planning to do more documentaries now that you’ve done this one?

I believe i do it. I have some thoughts, but they are all initial thoughts. These are all quite unconventional ideas.

What are you working on next?

I’ve written something that I’ve been writing for a while that I hope to do next. It’s fiction, so it’s more of my fictional material. But I was hoping to do it this year.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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