Robbie Ryan, BSC and director Andrea Arnold set their bold version of Wuthering Heights in a vivid, tactile world.
When director Andrea Arnold revealed to Robbie Ryan, BSC that Wuthenng Heights would be their next feature film, it gave her longtime collaborator pause. "I had to read that book in school, and I wasn't a big fan," the Irish cinematographer admits with a laugh. More to the point, more than a dozen motion-picture adaptations of Emily Brontes novel had already been made. Could anything fresh be said?
Most definitely. Arnold took the approach she and Ryan had developed on their previous collaborations - the contemporary dramas Fish Tank (AC Feb. '1O) and Red Road (AC April ?7) and the Oscar-vvinning short Wasp - and applied it to Bronte's tale about the doomed romance between Heathcliff and Catherine, making Wuthenng Heights raw, visceral and radically new. The film, which will be released in the U.S. this fall, netted a cinematography award at the Venice Film Festival and earned a prominent spot on this year's slate at the Sundance Film Festival.
While mamtaining the novel's period and setting, Arnolds Wuthering Heights upends nearly every other convention of costume drama. The script is nearly wordless, the dialogue modem. There is no score. Instead, sounds of the heath - whistling wind, crying birds, galloping hooves - fill the sound track The actors who play young Catherine and Heathcliff (Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave) are ageappropriate (12 and 13, respectively), and Heathcliff, the ultimate outsider, is black, a plausible choice given Liverpool's slave trade and Bronte's references to the character's dark skin.
Also unconventional is the movie's 1.33:1 aspect ratio, an especially unusual choice for expansive landscapes like the North Yorkshire moors. Ryan's intimate, handheld camerawork, a hallmark of his collaborations with Arnold, is a novelty in 19th-century costume dramas. What's more, the camerawork is rigorously subjective, assuming Heathcliff's viewpoint. Skipping lighdy over the Gothic elements and melodrama emphasized in previous adaptations of the novel, Arnold's film zeroes in on the book's darker themes: the cruelty of man, the indifference of nature, and the isolation of its needy characters. It also dives into the harsh physical reality of farm life on the moors - the mud, the cold and the corporal punishment. "When I read the script, I told Andrea she'd made a very punk version of Wuthering Heights because every bodily fluid is in there!" says Ryan. "Every scene had some reference to blood or sweat or itching. It jumped off the page very viscerally."
"Visceral" is a word that came up several times in Arnold and Ryan's separate interviews with AC. "I really wanted you to feel what it would be like to live somewhere like this, to be that close to nature," says Arnold. "I wanted it to have a very visceral, tangible feeling." In light of this, she says, "from the very beginning, we always discussed [shooting on] film."
The 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which the filmmakers also used on Fish Tank, was decided upon almost as quickly. Ryan recalls that Arnold "went through the motions" of testing various options, including 1.85:1 and 2.40:1, "but as soon as she saw [1.33], she said, Tes. I love that format. That's my favorite.'"
"Why am I so obsessed with this ratio?" asks Arnold, an intuitive director who analyzes her decisions only after the fact. "I was looking at portraits of people and thinking how the framing was lovely in that ratio. I like the headroom. I think it gives a lot of respect to the person."
When she chose the format for Fish Tank, the preponderance of interior spaces was a factor, but Wuthenng Heights takes place on the hills and dales of Yorkshire, where most filmmakers would probably choose widescreen. "Her argument was that you don't get enough sky in widescreen, and that's a valid point," says Ryan. "The weather and clouds were constandy moving really quickly in our locations, and you can see that in the 1. …