Finding creativity in Dogme-type rules

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      TORONTO–When British director Andrea Arnold was invited as one of three first-time feature directors to take part in a low-budget filmmaking challenge called the Advance Party, she wondered if she could make a film of her own while adhering to a set of rules imposed on her creative process.

      The Advance Party was a scheme cooked up by two production companies: Sigma Films and director Lars von Trier's company Zentropa. Much like von Trier's Dogme 95 filmmaking manifesto, which challenged filmmakers to make movies while adhering to a stringent set of rules, the Advance Party imposed certain limitations; for instance, films had to be set in Scotland and incorporate the same seven characters played by the same seven actors.

      "I guess he [von Trier] likes his rules," Arnold told the Straight during the film's run at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall.

      Scottish director Morag McKinnon and Danish director Mikkel Norgaard also rose to the challenge, but Arnold's film is the only one finished to date.

      The film, Red Road (which opens in Vancouver on June 1), is set in the Red Road flats–a down-on-its-luck high-rise housing development in Glasgow. Arnold chose to focus her story on the character Jackie, whose job is spying on the neighbourhood via a bank of flickering closed-circuit–TV monitors. On one of her shifts she catches sight of a person from her past–a man who was involved in the death of her husband and young daughter years earlier. She becomes obsessed and ends up stalking the man, which leads to a confrontation between the two.

      Arnold said that of all the characters she was required to write into the film, Jackie intrigued her the most. "She was described as cool and aloof," Arnold explained. "She'd had this terrible thing happen to her in the past, and she'd separated from life. I just thought that would be great. Here she's watching the monitors and watching life, but she's not taking part. I thought that would be a really great echo of the place she's at in life at the moment.

      "I felt very strongly that we needed to be seeing the film through Jackie's eyes, so you're always with her the whole way through–the camera is always with her," Arnold said. "The audience never sees or knows anything more than she does. She might see something and then we see it a second later, but we never see it before she does.

      "The other character–Clyde–he's just got out of prison, feeling guilty, and women love him. I thought maybe he could have something to do with her, and the monitor could be a good place for her to first see him. So the story grew from the characters I was given."

      Arnold said that in practice, she actually enjoyed the exercise of working by a set of rules and, ultimately, she didn't feel limited creatively; in fact, the opposite ended up being true. "I actually thought it was a bit helpful in a way," she said. "It was quite nice to start with something rather than nothing.

      "I did wonder if it was going to be my own when it was done," she added, "but when I showed one of my films and then the script to a bunch of people at the Sundance Filmmakers Lab, I asked, 'Does that film and this script seem like it's by the same person?' and everyone was like, 'Yes.'"

      What also distinguishes Red Road as her work is Arnold's distinct filmmaking style, which could fit into the category of gritty social realism. The film was shot with handheld cameras and has a grainy, natural look. Arnold says she is influenced by documentary techniques and favours natural lighting and real locations over artifice. "The DOP is someone I've worked with before and we're developing a kind of language together," she says. "He knows very much the kind of thing I want to do.

      "All my films have this real quality–or so I'm told. I like working with real things. Real people, real occasions, and the real things in life, and I try to incorporate them into the drama. I like being influenced by reality–I might go out and have a plan but end up doing something completely different than what I expected. I would never like a set; I like locations, and I like the fact that the walls don't allow you to put the camera in certain places. You have to work with what you have, and that forces you to make different decisions."