Andrea Arnold on Cow: “Sometimes when you make a movie, you get gifts from the universe”

With authentic urban sagas like Red Road (2006) and the oedipal 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, however, she has challenged the assumptions.

Since his last feature, The Hedonistic Midwest American Road Trip Honey (2016), Arnold has worked exclusively in we TV, directing episodes of Transparent and I Love Dick, and filming the second season of HBOof Big Little Lies in its entirety. Now Arnold has again made something completely different: an intimate nature documentary, recording several years in the life of an English farm cow.

With Cow, Arnold – whose specialty until now has been investigating people, often working-class people – avoids humans, with farmhands only ever being spotted at the edges of the frame. Instead, the film’s star is Luma, a dairy cow whose life is a looping cycle of impregnation, calf calves (separated from the mother on arrival), and milk production. The production of Cow took about eight years – filming took four years – but the project, says Arnold, was conceived decades ago: “It has been in my heart for a long time.

Andrea Arnold

What was the filming schedule for Cow like – was it your own Boyhood, with you filming for a week or two every year?

We were shooting a certain number of days a year. Sometimes I was more busy doing other things, but if something was going on with Luma, like she had a vet coming, then we would try to make that day. Then sometimes we just did normal her days, normal farm days. Each year would be different depending on the circumstances.

How did you choose Luma? You said earlier that you considered a number of different animals for the film – I wonder why you went with a cow and what “star qualities” you look for in an animal subject.

There’s always been this conversation about farm animals, sentient or not. I think it’s very convenient for humans who grow them to think that’s not the case, because we use billions of them every year. When I left, I wanted to see his conscience and his vivacity, if you will. There is an Irish poet called John O’Donohue, and he speaks of “wild and invisible beauty”. I think Luma had that, because she has willpower. All living creatures probably have a will, but if you think of the soul – the feelings, the thought, the invisible vitality of something, a person or an animal – I felt that you could see that in Luma. She showed us a lot in her eyes.

Has this experience changed the way you think about modern agriculture?

One of the things I learned was 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 regretted his life. And he said, ‘I just wish I had a better time. I always came home from school when I was very young and was sent to milk the cows. It made me realize that his whole life had been dairy farming. I think we can easily be in black and white about these things – say “oh, these people doing this are bad, these people are good; it’s wrong, it’s true” – when in reality everything is complicated and comes from a long history of doing things. I think it was very good for me to understand.

Have any of the farmhands we see in Cow seen the movie?

We showed the film to the farmers after it was finished. I didn’t know how it was going to be. They knew what we were doing – they knew we were following a cow, we were always clear about that. But I didn’t really know how the movie was going to end when we started, so when it was finished we really wanted to show it to them. It was a very good experience. Honestly, I 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 watches something he does every day!

One thing that surprised me given its nature is that Cow features another one of your great popular music soundtracks – were all of these songs playing on the farm or were they added later?

The farm played mostly pop radio in the barn. I thought that was so interesting, because pop radio is often songs about love, about longing, about longing – it feels like there’s a lot of longing in the stable, and of desire, for relations that we have not had. I felt it was very appropriate that it played. So some of the songs were actually there, but obviously you can’t erase everything, and also the sound quality isn’t always the best, so some of the songs I added. This is an organized version of the truth.

I love the scene where Luma is introduced to the bull and there’s romantic pop music on the soundtrack…

I was a little cheeky there. This is Kali Uchis, ‘Tyrant’. I love it when the bull comes in and this song starts – he comes in like a little Italian prince. The fireworks were all really there, it was a gift. Sometimes when you make films, you have gifts like that. You receive gifts from the universe.

Cow (2021)
© Courtesy of MUBI

How does casting a piece of non-fiction in your own vision compare to casting a fictional film?

It doesn’t seem very different to me. You are always trying to shape something and give it meaning. Obviously, when you have drama, you have a script, but I always try to knock it out of my mind. On American Honey for example, [editor] Joe Bini decided he wouldn’t look at the script, he would just edit the rushes. It was almost like a documentary way of doing things.

My dramatic films always mix a bit into the documentary anyway: I always select non-actors, I put lots of animals in them, I choose real places. I love when something comes from real life and isn’t what you expected.

Do you want to do more non-fiction after this?

I’m definitely going to be open to non-fiction, because real life is way stranger than anything you can make up in your head, and there’s something rather beautiful about it. I’m writing something that I’m going to do next year, it’s a bit more of what I’ve done in the past – although slightly changed, actually. That doesn’t tell you much, does it?

I am definitely curious!

I’m in the middle of this and it’s really horrible to talk about it – I don’t even tell my friends. The people who work there with me barely see it! When I did Fish Tank, I said [executive producer] David Thompson pretty much what I wanted to do, and then I left, wrote it, and didn’t really show it to anyone or talk about it. I came back and gave him the script after the first draft was done, and he said “I thought this was going to be a talent show?” [Laughs]

Cow is in theaters from January 14, 2022.

He had his UK first to 65th IBF London Film Festival.