TORONTO — The face filmmaker Andrea Arnold makes at the thought of storyboarding her films is the kind of bitter, disgusted look most people reserve for a bath full of leeches.
Once her “Eww!” has receded, the British director leans forward and explains why she won’t sketch her shots in advance. “I want to bring life into what I’m doing,” she says. “I try to create that sort of atmosphere which involves not being too structured. If I start controlling it too much, I think the life goes.”
Arnold pauses to consider and then concludes: “I quite like to get in there and see what’s what.”
Life rushes through Arnold’s heartland odyssey “American Honey” with a freewheeling electricity that the Beats would have admired even if the tunes (Rihanna, Drake, Big Sean) were puzzlingly unfamiliar. An immersive and exuberantly sensory road movie, “American Honey” follows the cross-country road trip of aimless but colorful teenagers selling magazines door-to-door as a way to party across the Midwest.
“American Honey” has its own band of merry pranksters, too. Though the movie’s actors include a few young stars (Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough), Arnold mostly found her cast on her own research trips around the county, at spring break clubs on the Florida coast and county fairs in Appalachia.
“We were all real people, cast from the streets. All of the situations we were coming from were pretty bad,” says Raymond “Ray Ray” Coalson. “We legitly became family because we were all misfits and this brought us together.”
Just as the making of “American Honey” was unorthodox, so has its presence been on the festival circuit. In Cannes, where the film won the Jury Prize, the group danced down the red carpet to E-40’s “Choice (Yup).” At the Toronto International Film Festival, they traversed the city in a party bus not unlike the van they ride in the film. Collectively, they are a dancing blur of tattoos, skateboards, hugs and tears.
Arnold, the 55-year-old director of “Fish Tank” and “Wuthering Heights,” is the matriarch of their improvised family, shepherding her cast from nowhere and into one of the most acclaimed films of the year. Sasha Lane, then a Texas-native college student on spring break, now the film’s breakout star, initially worried Arnold was casting for pornography. Then she watched her rescue passed out kids along Panama Beach.
“I witnessed her doing things like that,” says Lane. “Her energy, for one, is very pure. And her telling me that I was beautiful the way I was, and seeing her help people on the street, you knew that she would have your back.”
Arnold and Lane recently slid into a restaurant booth in Toronto, both still emotional from the ride they’ve been on the last year. Arnold may be in charge, but her pensive demeanor belies her eager playfulness. “The bus is the best,” Arnold says before wondering if the loud music was disturbing Toronto citizens. “Quite rude with the Big Sean, actually,” she says, referring to the hip-hop artist in their mobile mix.
Arnold came to the story of magazine-selling crews from a 2007 New York Times article . The itinerant journeys, from cheap motel to cheap motel, were filled with drugs, alcohol and sex. The world, and its surrogate families, appealed to Arnold.
“Here they are selling things on a minibus. It’s kind of a little version of capitalism,” Arnold says. “It’s in a nutshell the biggest picture: selling and trying to find your place in this big country.”
To write her script, Arnold traveled through West Virginia towns, emptied by mine closures, and through impoverished areas of the South and Midwest. The vision of America in “American Honey” is one of opiate addiction, highways and soda. In one memorable scene, the crew dances to Rihanna’s “We Found Love” in a Walmart. (Arnold wrote the pop star a letter to get permission for the song.)
Arnold grants she witnessed a lot of poverty and hopelessness, but isn’t inclined to make any pronouncement on the soul of America.
“Environment obviously affects us but we also have an impact on our lives too,” says Arnold. “If you grow up in a certain situation but you don’t believe in yourself, how do you get out of that? So it’s complicated. I couldn’t possibly say something simple about it.”
During shooting, the cast and crew lived much like the magazine crews: piled into motel rooms, their destinations often chosen at the last minute. Michael Fassbender, who starred in Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” says her way of making a movie is uncommonly organic: “Andrea can create chaos and capture it so well,” Fassbender says. “A lot of directors can create it and not capture it.”
For movie novices like Lane, it was a strange baptism. “Every day I was reminded, ‘This is not how normal movies are made, Sasha, by the way,'” says Lane.
Lane, who turns 21 Thursday, now has a budding movie career. Like her fellow cast members, her life has be forever altered by Arnold and “American Honey.”
“She saved my life in a way because I know that part of America,” says Lane, beginning to cry. “We all had something that we were looking for. She gave me this hope that you can have another life besides the one you grew up with. I went from hopeless to: No, you can shine.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP