With authentic urban sagas like Red Road (2006) and Oedipal kitchen sink drama Fish Tank (2009) in her filmography, Andrea Arnold has earned a reputation as a British social realist in the vein of Ken Loach and Alan Clarke. Lately, though, she’s been challenging assumptions.
Since her last feature, the hedonistic midwestern road trip movie American Honey (2016), Arnold has worked exclusively in US TV, directing episodes of Transparent and I Love Dick, and shooting the second season of HBO’s Big Little Lies in its entirety. Now, Arnold has made something altogether different again: an intimate nature documentary, recording several years in the life of an English farm cow.
With Cow, Arnold – whose speciality before now has been probing examinations of people, often working-class – shuns humans, with farmworkers only ever glimpsed at the edges of the frame. Instead the film’s star is Luma, a dairy cow whose life is a looping cycle of impregnation, birthing calves (separated from mother on arrival) and milk production. Production on Cow lasted about eight years – the shoot ran on and off for four – but the project, Arnold says, was conceived of decades ago: “It’s been in my heart a long time.”
What was the shooting schedule for Cow like – was it your own Boyhood, with you shooting a week or two every year?
We’d shoot a certain amount of days a year. Sometimes I was busier doing other things, but if there was something happening with Luma, like if she had a vet coming, then we’d try and make that day. Then sometimes we’d just do regular days of her, normal farming days. Every year would be different depending on what the circumstances were.
How did you choose Luma? You’ve said previously that you considered a number of different animals for the film – I’m wondering why you settled on a cow and also what ‘star qualities’ you’re looking for in an animal subject.
There’s always been this conversation about farm animals, whether or not they’re sentient. I think it’s been very convenient for humans who farm them to think that they’re not, because we use billions of them every year. When I set off, I was wanting to see her consciousness and her aliveness, if you like. There’s an Irish poet called John O’Donohue, and he talks about the “wild, invisible beauty”. I think Luma had that, because she has will. Probably every living creature has will, but if you’re thinking about the soul – feelings, thinking, the invisible aliveness of something, person or animal – I felt you could see that in Luma. She showed us a lot in her eyes.
Did the experience change your way of thinking about modern farming?
One of the things I did learn is how complicated it all is, and how hard the farmers work. I asked one of the farmers, who was probably in his 70s, if he had any regrets about life. And he said, “I just regret I didn’t have more of a good time. I was always coming in from school when I was very small and being sent to milk the cows.” It made me realise that his entire life had been dairy farming. I think we can easily get black and white about these things – say “oh, these people doing this are bad, these people are good; that’s wrong, that’s right” – when in actual fact all things are complicated and come from a long history of doing things. I think that was very good for me to understand.
Have any of the farm workers we see in Cow watched the film?
We showed the film to the farmers when it was finished. I didn’t know how that was going to be. They knew what we were doing – they knew we were following one cow, we were always clear about that. But I didn’t really know how the film would end up when we started, so when it was finished we were very keen to show it to them. It was a really good experience. I honestly didn’t know what they were going to say, but I was ready for any conversation. The older farmer said he was glad he wasn’t bored. [Laughs] Because he’s watching something he does every single day!
One thing I was surprised by given its nature is that Cow features another one of your great popular music soundtracks – were all those songs playing on the farm or were they added in later?
The farm was playing pop radio in the cow shed a lot of the time. I thought it was so interesting, because pop radio is often songs about love, about longing, about desire – you feel like there’s a lot of longing in the cow shed, and desire, for relationships not had. I felt that it was very apt that that was playing. So some of the songs were actually there, but obviously you can’t just clear everything, and also the sound quality is not always the best, so some of the songs I added. It’s a curated version of the truth.
I love the scene where Luma is introduced to the bull and there’s romantic pop music playing on the soundtrack…
I was a little cheeky there. That’s Kali Uchis, ‘Tyrant’. I absolutely love it when the bull walks in and that song starts – he walks in like a little Italian prince. The fireworks were all really there, that was a gift. Sometimes when you’re filmmaking, you have gifts like that. You get sent gifts from the universe.
How does moulding a piece of nonfiction in your own vision compare to moulding a fiction film?
It doesn’t feel massively different to me. You’re always trying to shape something and make sense of it. Obviously when you have a drama you have a script, but I’m always even trying to throw that on its head. On American Honey for example, [editor] Joe Bini decided that he would not look at the script, he would just edit from the rushes. That was almost like a documentary way of doing things.
My drama films are always mixing in documentary a little bit anyway: I’m always casting non-actors, putting loads of animals in there, picking real locations. I just love it when something comes from real life and is not what you were expecting.
Do you want to make more nonfiction after this?
I’m definitely going to be open to nonfiction, because real life is way stranger than anything you can make up in your head, and there’s something rather beautiful about that. I am in the middle of writing something that I’m going to make next year, that is kind of more of what I’ve been doing in the past – although slightly changed again, actually. That doesn’t really tell you very much, does it?
I’m definitely curious!
I’m in the middle of it and it’s really awful talking about it – I don’t even tell my friends. The people that are working on it with me barely get to see it! When I did Fish Tank, I told [executive producer] David Thompson roughly what I wanted to do, and then I went away, wrote it, and I didn’t really show it to anyone or talk about it. I went back and gave him the script when the first draft was finished, and he said “I thought this was going to be about a talent show?” [Laughs]
Cow is in cinemas from 14 January 2022.
It had its UK premiere at the 65th BFI London Film Festival.