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In the Fish Tank

Andrea Arnold's newest film puts the Inglourious Michael Fassbender in a rather 'basterdly' position with newcomer Katie Jarvis.

Mia Jarvis in Fish Tank

Red Road
writer/director Andrea Arnold, who famously announced that winning an Oscar for her short film Wasp was "the dog's bollocks," is back with another stunner, Fish Tank, starring Katie Jarvis and Michael Fassbender (300, Steve McQueen's Hunger, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds). Jarvis plays a tough young teen who spends her days practicing her breakdancing moves and getting into trouble in the Essex council estate where she and her hard-partying mom and boisterous little sister live. Her life is turned upside down when her mom (Kierston Wareing) brings home a cool new boyfriend named Connor (Fassbender), who takes a fatherly interest in the girls that soon becomes much more complicated.


The day that Tribeca Film spoke with Fassbender and Arnold, Fassbender had revealed the first info related to Steven Soderbergh's hush-hush project Knockout, starring MMA fighter Gina Carano. Since then, several other actors have reportedly joined the cast, like Ewan McGregor, Dennis Quaid, Channing Tatum, and Michael Douglas, with more details to come.


Michael Fassbender in Fish Tank

It's not really fair to ask if it's different to work with a female director since everyone is different, but, well, is it different to work with a female director?


Michael Fassbender: No, not at all. You know, I think you're either a good director or you're not, and it doesn't really matter if it's female or male. I mean, she's very good at creating a safe environment to work in, and she loves working with actors and she's very clear. And all of those directors are like that—[Steve] McQueen, [Quentin] Tarantino. They love their work, and they're good at it, so it makes my job so much easier, and then they bring a lot more out of me because of that.


I understand she didn't give you guys the entire script at once—it was week by week. What kind of impression did you have of Connor when you first started?


Because I didn't have a script, I just basically played him pretty close to myself. I tried to keep him light and charming and fun, and I kind of had an idea of what was to come later, but I didn't want to ever sort of play any of that, and I think that was why Andrea didn't want to give us the scripts, so that nothing was sort of, you know, preloaded, and it all happened sort of fairly organically, if you like. So I just kept him light and loose and just tried to see how things unraveled as they went. I did get a feeling as we went on that he seemed very, like a very too-good-to-be-true sort of scenario kind of guy. He was always sort of upbeat, and I wondered why he was so quick to jump into this family unit. It made me think that he had something to hide or he was running away from something.


So as the story went on, did you find yourself having to revise your opinion of who Connor was? He does some fairly deplorable things, but no one's evil. No one's bad in the movie.


Well, that's what I really like about working with Andrea, and that's what sort of drew me to her, having seen Red Road. It's never clear-cut: here's the villain, here's the hero. The characters are ambiguous, like people are in life. You know, it's like [we] do positive things to each other and also, you know, negatives, and that's what I really like. It doesn't make it that easy for the audience, so in the end they're kind of like, well, I don't know really what to think… It just leaves them scratching their heads a little bit when they leave the cinema, which I think is a lot more interesting.


Did you and Katie form a friendship or bond at all?


We were all sort of in the same little flat for, you know five weeks or whatever it was, six weeks, so we all got to know each other really well, and we had a very honest relationship, and you know, she's a lot of fun, and all of us—Kierston [Wareing], Rebecca [Griffiths], the little girl—we all sort of hung out all the time. It was fantastic. So there was really a sort of good, kind of family sort of feel on set, you know. And the crew, Andrea's crew, is very pared down; it's a very basic crew, with very few people on set, so it's a very intimate environment to work in.


So who's scarier—the fans at Comic-Con, which you went to for
Jonah Hex, or the audiences at Cannes?


That's a good question. I think the difference, really, between Cannes and Comic-Con is, Cannes is there for the filmmakers and the actors, and it's very sort of exclusive, whereas Comic-Con belongs to the fans, and that's for sure. There's 6,200 of them in that auditorium; it was like, holy Moses.


How did you get involved with David Cronenberg's The Talking Cure?


Well, he just sort of approached my agent and said that he was interested in me doing this script, so I went up to meet him in Toronto—and, you know, he's a legend, so to meet him was really special. And then we just sort of had a really good chat, and we both like motor sports, and he was telling me [about] when he went to the Ducati factory in Italy: they really like him there because he based the pods in The Fly on a Ducati motor, the engine of a Ducati motorcycle.


You're such a chameleon when it comes to accents and different looks. Why does it seem like American actors don't have as wide a range as actors from the UK and Ireland? Is it the theatre background?


I don't know if that's true. I think this country produces many, many, many fine actors, diverse actors. I mean, Philip Seymour Hoffman—you can't get much more of a better character actor than him. I think it's just different schools of thought. Possibly, you know, it's different in Europe because perhaps your apprenticeship is more geared toward the theatre, whereas here it's television-based. Americans have a real good grasp on working in front of a camera. But I've never really thought of it like that, to be honest.


Michael Fassbender
's upcoming films include
Centurion, written and directed by Neil Marshall; Jane Eyre, directed by Sin Nombre's Cary Fukunaga, and much more.


Director Andrea Arnold

Congratulations on your BAFTA nominations!


Andrea Arnold: The screenplay one is the one that makes me so proud. I won't win anything, but it's nice to get nominated. Because that, for me, that's the hard [part]... That, for me, is where everything starts, the writing, and although directing's tough in its own way, for me writing's the real challenge and the thing I hold in the highest esteem. Writers, honestly, they don't get enough credit. [laughs] They don't!


Can you tell me a little bit about Essex and where Mia is living, Tilbury? It looks a little bit like, maybe, Detroit or Baltimore, Liverpool. Someplace where the industry has faded a bit.


Yes, it is a bit like that.


Because it's not really anything a lot of Americans have seen, can you explain what a council estate is?


Someone else said that earlier, as well. They said they think that all Britons live more in like the Four Weddings in a Funeral land. I'm really amazed that people think that!


Housing estates—or the projects as you call them—a large proportion of people in Britain live that way. More people live that way than live in Edwardian terrace houses, and it's quite a normal way of living... Somebody said to me earlier, "Did you want to show the worst parts of Essex?" I thought, I didn't think that place looks that bad!


I mean, there is a sadness to it, because the area is a place that had a lot of industry, once upon a time… [But] it's got a huge sky, perhaps because it's quite flat there. It's got the end of the river, the estuary going out to the sea, which is really beautiful. It's got a lot of wilderness. So it's a mixed thing! [laughs]


Music is a huge part of Mia's life—
her interest in hip-hop and her interest in dance and suchand I thought the scene where she's dancing to "Life's a Bitch and Then You Die" with her mom, I thought that was kind of brutal.


Oh, I love that song so much!


But I wondered if that's how she feels. That life's a bitch and then you die.


It's not as simple as that, either. For a while I thought he said, "Life's a bitch and then you die / That's why I go fly / 'Cause you don't know when you're gonna die." And for me, that's carpe diem; it's got a double-edged thing, it's like, live in the moment... We're all gonna die one day, and life's short, so enjoy life.


I don't believe life is a bitch and then you die. I think it's amazing, life, but in her situation at that moment, that song felt so right, so, so right, and it's not just the lyrics, it's the got a bittersweet feeling to it. To me, it feels very truthful, but I didn't intend it to be [depressing].

Do you get a lot of people who are misinterpreting itthey're saying it's grim and it's depressing and overlooking the pieces of hope?

Well, it is a tough story about a particular family, but I don't know about misinterpreting. I do try and leave a lot to the audience to think about, and so therefore people would have their own interpretations. I think, to some degree, people bring their own view of life to those circumstances.

When I went to France to do some [press], one lady said to me, "It's full of love. It's full of love." And I thought, Oh! That's what I intend. That's so nice. I think it is. So it seems so simplistic to say it's grim... People have hard times, but even when things are rough, there are amazing things around you all the time. I never feel life is ever grim. Tough, maybe, brutal occasionally—life can be brutal—but grim, grim doesn't work in terms of it, for me anyway.

Mia Jarvis and Michael Fassbender in Fish Tank


There's a very interesting uncomfortable ambiguity we're left with in regards to the relationship between Connor and Mia, because there's no real judgment. He's done some bad things, but we're just left in this grey zone.

Well, I think people are complicated, and people's motivations and actions are complicated, and I don't want to simplify them. I like that it's complicated, and I try and leave it that way. If I wanted it to be less complicated, I would have made it so. I deliberately try and realize the characters as complicated as I think they are. And I try not to judge them, either. That's something I'm conscious of when I'm writing, not to judge them even if they do things that you would not agree with. Quite often, [with] my characters, I think, What are you doing?

I understand you talked to Katie Jarvis about some of the scenes she'd be doing beforehand.

Before she even agreed to do it. I mean, before she signed the contract.

Were you ever concerned that she would get that week's script and say, "That's it. I'm out. I can't do this."

I would never make her do anything that she wouldn't want to do, and I do think you have to have trust between you and the actors. Sometimes they have to do very vulnerable things, and I would never—if it was something they felt deeply uncomfortable with, I would try and find another way of doing it. Even though I didn't show the actors [the script beforehand], I wanted her to know exactly, in detail, what was in those scenes in order for her to understand fully what would be involved. And, you know, there's no nudity or anything like that… She laughed at me, I remember. We went and sat in a coffee shop, and she was laughing at me, saying, like, that's part of life, isn't it?

Your treatment of sex and female sexuality is so raw and fantastic—

I love that you say that. That's such a compliment.

There's so much T&A and violence in the movies, but there's no real portrayal of female sexuality onscreen. Slowly it's coming. Why do you think it's so much slower, this ongoing thing?

Because there aren't many women making films, I guess. Do you think?


I don't know... It's the ongoing question.


Well, you know, in order to portray female sexuality, you need a female voice or somebody who's telling you how it is, and many films are mostly made by men. I think there are a lot more women writers, aren't there, more than there are directors. But you know, female voices are rare. I had a very interesting experience. I went to visit a film festival in France called the Créteil Women's Film Festival. They [were showing] a film of mine, and I don't want to section myself off into a niche—I want to be a filmmaker. So I was a little bit kind of wary of it, really. But actually, it was amazing, because I went and stayed for four or five days and saw lots of films by women and I cried so much, 'cause everything I was watching was relating to what it was to be a female.


Film is one of the most major ways in which we look at life, and reflect back how we live. It's one of the most popularist ways, as well, and for a very long time that's mostly been from a male perspective, and yet we're half of the population, maybe more. And it actually was quite a shock to me. It sounds silly, but it was a revelation, 'cause I suddenly thought, "Wow, we really have been watching films from the male perspective for a very, very, very long time." And this is one of the most major ways we look at ourselves. So I don't know, but I imagine it's because there's just not enough feminine views, voices, but there's more coming.

It's a great year for women in film.

You know, when I was at Cannes, a journalist asked me, "Three women in the competition this year in Cannes, what an amazing year." And I said, "But won't it be really amazing when there's a year when there's three men in competition and the rest are women? That'll be an amazing year!"


Fish Tank
opens Friday, January 15. Find tickets.


Watch the trailer:



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