The Story Behind Fish Tank

Heartfelt, painful drama Fish Tank arrives in our cinemas this Friday.

We decided to take a look at the talented writer/director behind the film - Andrea Arnold - and explore her long, strange journey to making this, her second feature film.

She's gone from kids' TV to Cannes Jury Prizes in a short decade, and Fish Tank deserves your dosh at the cinema.

Come with us as we jump into the story of Mia...

1. In The Beginning…

It's not every director who can claim a credit on 1980s Saturday morning kids' show No 73, but Fish Tank's creator Andrea Arnold has that skeleton lurking in her professional closet.

Yes, she spent several years larking it up with Sandi Toksvig, Kim Goody and more as Dawn Lodge in a blend of variety performance, star interviews and crazed comedy shorts.

We also doubt that the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh - to whom her work has been compared - have a history as a dancer on Top Of The Pops, either. And if they do, we're not sure we want to see it up on YouTube.

But what she more likely shares in common with them is a drive to tell stories. When she was young, she jotted down ideas and filled notebooks with observations about the world, a habit she continues to this day, and something which helps fuel her scripts.

Her earliest cinematic experience? "I remember seeing Mary Poppins when I was about five. It was the first film I ever saw in a cinema and I was devastated by it. I just couldn't believe there was such a world, and I wanted to be in it.

"The local cinema must have closed down sometime after that because I didn't see a film in a cinema until much later."

Arnold's teenage years were spent fueling her film needs, taking a bus from her home in Dartford all the way to Woolich to watch the likes of Taxi Driver, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Midnight Express.

And upon turning 18, she moved to London, where "it was much easier to see films. I remember Apocalypse Now, Alien, The Elephant Man, My Life as a Dog, Blood Simple, Betty Blue, Blue Velvet."

No surprise, then, that she cites David Lynch and Alan Clarke among her large list of inspirational directors.

But it was the 1990s when she really locked into her ambition to make movies. She attended the American Film Institute and began to make shorts…

Next: Shorts story


2. Shorts Story

"I was never that comfortable in front of the camera, it always terrified me," Arnold has said. "The others in No 73 really wanted to be actors, but I was 18 and really I had just fallen into that line of work. I'm surprised I lasted that long really."

The director-to-be found her interests moving behind the camera, becoming interested in other aspects of production.

She wrote a youth-focused environmental series called A Beetle Named Derek, and began to edge towards directing.

After attending the AFI, she produced several short films, including Milk and Dog (made for the BBC), but it was Wasp (above) that really took off, thanks to some extra funding.

"Cinema Extreme's philosophy is to encourage filmmakers who've made a couple of films already by giving them another go at making a short.

"They commissioned four and I thought that I would just have a bash. They were very heavily subscribed because there are very few opportunities to get funding for films. Every time something like that happens, there's a real deluge of material that's given to them.

"I was one of four. I wrote three scripts in a week and thought, 'Off they go. We'll see what happens.' You think that it's a long shot but I was very lucky.

"They picked Wasp out of the three scripts that I submitted but they said that it was up to me if I wanted to do one of the others. Since they liked that one, I went along with them. I never seemed to have time to make another draft but it turned out all right!"

Better than all right - Wasp scooped 38 international awards, including an Oscar for Best Live Action Short in 2005.

Feature films seemed a natural leap…

Next: Walking the Red Road


3. Walking The Red Road

Arnold's first stab at making a full-length film was helped along by, of all people, Lars Von Trier.

The director instigated an idea called Advance Party, in which three new directors would be given a specific set of rules and some pre-established characters, and told to go and make a movie with them.

"I've been an admirer of his for the longest time so it was great to meet him. It was very brief – no more than 10 minutes in a meeting room at Zentropa, his film company.

"He said this one thing about 'loving the rope' to all of us who were going on this Advance Party journey; he was encouraging us to embrace the limitations set out for us as it would help us to be creative.

"It made total sense and it was wise advice. I did just that, and the more I stuck to the rules, the more interesting the process became."

The result was Red Road, a dark-hued thriller about a woman mourning the loss of her husband and child, who works a bank of CCTV cameras.

When someone inextricably tied to her past wanders into view one day, she starts to stalk him - with traumatic results.

The only film of the three Advance Party films to see the light of a projector to date, Red Road scored  BAFTA awards and the Jury Prize at Cannes 2006.

So, how would she follow that?

Next: Diving into Fish Tank


4. Diving Into Fish Tank

“All my films have started with an image,” says Arnold. “It’s usually quite a strong image and it seems to come from nowhere.

"I don’t understand the image at first or what it means, but I want to know more about it so I start exploring it, try and understand it and what it means."

She refuses to talk about what the image is that inspires her films, but she admits that the council estates of Essex (similar to ones she grew up on) are also part of the film's DNA.

"It's got really wild spaces. And even that block of flats, there's loads of people there. There's lots of kids. Lots of energy. I don't see it as a bad place. There's this clichéd idea that estates are awful. They're not.

"We're the fifth country in the world and yet there's more kids living in poverty. There are reasons why those kids go out and do what they do. We should be asking questions, not accusing or judging. They're kids. They get very bad press."

Before anyone starts thinking that she's drawing on life experience for the story of disaffected, under-parented, troubled teen Mia, think again. "My films aren't autobiographical. Those things have never directly happened to me. My mind goes places, I have an imagination."

The story that flowed focused on Mia, a headstrong, unhappy teen who must navigate her unsatisfying life with single mum Joanne and the new arrival in her life - her mother's boyfriend, Connor.

And why "Fish Tank"? "People want a title very quickly for the press packs but I need to get a feel for the film first. There’s lots of life in this little fish tank, in the small area shown in the film and Fish Tank is a good metaphor for it."

Arnold is specific about the loose way she writes her scripts: "I let the characters live and not question them or judge them and follow them around.

"I really think thinking is not a good thing to do when you're trying to write something. You shouldn't think. Thinking is bad."

But she certainly put some thought into who she wanted for her lead…

Next: Casting uknown leads


5. Casting Unknown Leads

I always wanted someone real for Mia,” says Arnold. “I wanted someone who would give me trouble for real. I wanted a girl who would not have to act, could just be herself.”

The casting process took some time before Katie Jarvis was 'discovered' on a station platform. “Originally we went down the more traditional routes as Mia needed to have a passion for dancing,” explains Arnold.

“We saw girls from agencies and dance clubs. Then we started looking in Essex, in youth clubs, markets, shopping centres, anywhere teenage girls would hang out. Katie was found on Tilbury Town Station arguing with her boyfriend.

When she was approached she didn’t believe it was really for a film and wouldn’t hand over her number.

"She has a lot of spirit but also a vulnerability and innocence that felt right. She came from where we were going to film and felt very real.”

But when it came to show her hoofing skills at the audition, the actress was hesitant… “She had never done any acting or dancing before,” explains Arnold.

“She didn’t dance at all in fact, didn’t even like dancing. The first time I asked her to dance she was too shy and so we left the room and left the camera on so she could dance alone."

When I watched the tape back I saw that even though she was not a dancer in any way she was totally herself when she was dancing. There was no mask, no show.

"She was able to be herself totally even though she didn’t like doing it. I thought I would take the risk. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work, Katie had never done any acting but whatever happened I knew she would be herself and I wanted that the most.”

With Jarvis and Rebecca Griffith - who plays live-wire younger sister Tyler - both newcomers, Arnold knew she'd need strong supporting actors to help her young leads…

Next: ...And Making Sure They're Supported


6. ...And Making Sure They're Supported

Though Andrea Arnold ended up casting the established likes of Michael Fassbender, he first plan was to find an entirely untested cast. 

“I originally wanted real people for everyone in Fish Tank and I had my eye on a man who works in my local park, a man who empties the bins. He was a perfect Connor. I wonder what he made of me watching him so intently every time I saw him.

"But then I began to think it would be interesting to have someone with experience, mixed in with Katie’s innocence as that would echo the relationship in the film and could work well.”

Fassbender had notched up serious acclaim for Hunger, but that wasn't what sparked Arnold's choice.

“I saw Michael for the first time in a clip from Wedding Belles, an Irvine Welsh film. I hadn’t seen Hunger or even known about it at that point, though I became aware of it later.

"I though he was very charismatic in Wedding Belles and that was an important quality for Connor. I made a decision without meeting him on the strength of that clip really because he felt right and I trust my instincts in that way.

"I don’t like to question myself when it feels right so just went for it.”

It was a similar story when Arnold went looking for someone to play Mia's mother. "I originally was looking for someone real for Joanne too, someone who had lived like Joanne. Someone harder.

"Kierston Wareing does not have that, but she had honesty about her, and openness and I guess a kind of innocence that was very attractive.

"It was different to what I had been looking for but still felt right. I love that about film making, you set out with a particular idea but it changes, evolves, and redefines itself daily.

"You have to embrace that. If you have the story in your heart, and hold onto it, the thing you care about can still be there even when everything changes, even when you lose the most important things, even when you despair you can often still find a way.”

After rounding up the rest of her cast, she could kick off production…

Next: Shooting Fish


7. Shooting Fish

"I always say that writing is the really hard bit, and directing is for pussies," laughs Arnold. "Once I've finished writing I think, 'yahooooo! Here comes the fun bit!'

"I love directing because I'm actually quite a sociable person. The more chaotic a film set, the calmer I feel. I think it has to do with my childhood – because I'm the eldest of four, life was fairly chaotic and wild," she recalls.

“To me, £2million seems like an awful lot of money,” says the director. “But it’s how you spend it. Instead of having a sizable crew and shooting for a few weeks, I’ve fantasised about having the smallest crew possible and shooting for three or four months. That’s what Terrence Malick did with Badlands.”

But for Fish Tank, she stuck to more traditional methods, except perhaps for the way she worked with the cast.

"I didn’t show anyone in the film the script beforehand so they didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for.

"I wanted to shoot in order so that the story would reveal itself to everyone as we went along,” the writer/director explains.

"I felt this was especially important for Katie, as I wanted her to feel she knew where she was all the time. I also didn’t want anyone to add anything significant to what they were doing.

"Not knowing the future meant that every moment had to be explored for just what it was and nothing more. A bit like life I guess. We never know what will happen to us in the next hour, the next day. I wanted each moment to have that innocence."

And while she knew what she was looking for, Arnold was still ready to be surprised. "I originally wrote Fish Tank for Estuary Kent, which I know well but decided to have a look at Essex because I knew it was similar in landscape.

"I drove out from east London along the A13 and loved it straight away. I love this part of the Thames, where it widens out to meet the sea. It’s where Elizabeth spoke to the troops before they went out to fight the Spanish. It just all felt good. Much of filming took place in one estate, the setting for Joanne and Mia's home."

And though the crew descended on the estate for several weeks' filming on this location, it was an easy shoot. "Film crews are so arrogant, taking over peoples everyday spaces like they own them. I always expect people to get annoyed with us and tell us to f**k off but we had none of that.”

Helping her out was Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who has worked with her since Wasp. "The only stipulation was that it was to be as close to a photochemical sort of look as possible.

"As close as what you would get if you just shot it. So that’s the approach we took. Film it on film and then process it through a laboratory and not through a digital grade suite.  Because it actually had rough edges to it. It wasn’t sharp, you know. And it looked exactly like we wanted it. It was amazing."

Next: Awards Glory


8. Awards Glory

Fish Tank was accepted at Cannes this year, drawing plenty of plaudits (including glowing reviews on video and in print from us).

The festival was capped with the director scoring another Jury Prize and winning a deal with IFC Films for the movie to be shown across the pond. There's no word on a release date there, but an Oscar nomination may not be out of the question if Tank makes it on the schedule in time.

Arnold is philosophical about such things: 'Don't worship the bitch goddesses of success and applause'.'"

Oh, and don't ask the director what she thinks of her work: "You can never ask me that question." She has a Samuel Beckett quote on her office wall: 'Ever tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail better.'

"It's the biggest lesson for anyone doing anything creative: to not mind risk, to not play safe," she says. "Put everything into what you're doing and don't worry about what anybody thinks."

Next: It's here at last


9. It's Here At Last

After a long road from Arnold's head to our screens, Fish Tank arrives on Friday. We know the director would want you to seek it out: “I definitely feel sorry more people don’t get to see my films.

"They aren’t inaccessible, and if people got the chance to see them, I know they’d like them. I wish cinema owners could be braver, or had more money to help them show films like mine.”

For now, though, the filmmaker's ready to move on. "I'm just trying to start work on something else. It's probably going to have no famous actors in it and be very small scale."

We'll be looking forward to it...

Like This? Then try...

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter here .  

Follow us on Twitter here .



Join the Discussion
Add a comment (HTML tags are not allowed.)
Characters remaining: 5000