Red Road - feature

Red or dead

With her debut feature film, Red Road, Andrea Arnold has created a new landmark in Scottish film-making. It won the Jury Prize in Cannes, and this month it premieres in Glasgow, where it was filmed. To kick off this extended article on the film, Paul Dale explains why it is so good, and talks to Arnold about what she set out to achieve.

In these lean times for Scottish film it is women who are at the vanguard of quality, truth and all that should be right in cinema. Think of Lynne Ramsay, who made Morvern Callar, or Shona Auerbach, who was responsible for Dear Frankie, or Alison Peebles, who directed AfterLife. The work of these Scottish or Scotland-based filmmakers certainly lived up to its promise. But now, Andrea Arnold’s mature, intense and brilliant Red Road has come along. Could we be witnessing a high watermark in Celtic cinema?

Red Road is a curious, vital, and truly gripping thriller about Jackie , a CCTV operator in Glasgow, who each day watches the goings on in and around the rundown Red Road scheme in the east end of Glasgow. One day she sees a familiar face, that of Clyde (Tony Curran), a recently released felon. We don’t know what he’s done, but Jackie knows. Then, for reasons we do not understand, she proceeds to stalk him into the darkest heart of madness.

If this sounds like a stereotypically bleak, grimy arthouse movie, then prepare to be surprised: it is shot through with warmth, humour, and real humanity. While it weighs in at just under two hours, the film gradually cranks up its pace until it reaches a riveting conclusion.

Much of the film’s strength lies in the three-dimensional nature of the characters. There’s a real sense that Arnold has worked out a lot more about their histories than she needs to reveal in this film, and this is no accident. Indeed, Red Road is the first film in a planned trilogy called ‘Advanced Party’. The project is inspired by (but not mired in the excesses of) Dogme 95, masterminded and produced by Carrie Comerford and Gillian Berrie from the Scottish production company Sigma Films, in collaboration with Lars von Trier’s Zentropa and based on characters created by the people behind Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, Lone Sherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen.

Their idea - or masterplan - is that three young directors (Arnold, fellow Scot Morag McKinnon and Dane Mikkel Norgaard) will each make a film under strict constraints, namely that the budget should not exceed £1m per film, the film must be shot in Glasgow, feature the same actors (and to a certain extent the same characters), and should take no longer than six weeks to make.

Andrea Arnold takes up the story of how she got dragged into this mad venture: ‘Zentropa were looking to do a sort of low budget scheme where they got some first time filmmakers to do a project with restrictions, a bit like the Dogme concept. And they came up with this idea of giving three filmmakers a set of rules to make a film each by so they contacted me. They had been looking at a lot of people’s shorts and I think they saw my short Wasp at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

‘I had a couple of interviews and they asked me to join and they asked a couple of other directors to join as well. Basically they told us what the rules were if we wanted to participate. Then it got very official - we were given this four, five page document, which explained the rules. They were a bit weird when you first read them, but it is quite straightforward really.’

So did Arnold break any of the rules? ‘No. It was six weeks, I shot in Glasgow, I used HD, so I was pretty faithful to the brief really. Actually there was some slight breaking of rules to do with the casting because we didn’t really have time in the end. When my film got green lit we had run out of time to cast. In the beginning we thought, “why don’t we cast early before we write the project, and then we will have this cast and we can write our projects with this cast in mind”, but that didn’t happen. We did a couple early on and then everyone got too busy and we didn’t see each other for ages so we only ended up really fully doing most of the casting very last minute.

‘I felt a bit sorry for the actors, because having one director is tough enough. Having three is hard going. Not only did these actors have to fit the part; they had to fit across three people’s visions, which is pretty high stakes.’

Whatever the truth about the backstory, the upshot of all these shenanigans is one of the best films to come out of Scotland since Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, a film of singular vision, reserve and awe inspiring intelligence. It’s a film that has more in common with the cinema of David Lynch, Terrence Malick, and Belgium’s Dardenne Brothers, than anything homegrown. Andrea Arnold seems to know she is coming from a different, very special place. Laughing in case she sounds too pretentious, she says, ‘The great French filmmaker Robert Bresson said, “Build your film on stillness, whiteness and silence.” I’m always quoting Bresson: he had lots of good things to say.’

The making of Red Road

In a rare and very frank interview, director Andrea Arnold explains why shooting the film in Glasgow was so inspiring, and reveals how she went about filming one of the most explicit sex scenes ever seen in a Scottish film.

Andrea Arnold

Because I worked with a mostly Glasgow crew there were a lot of people who had worked around the Red Road estate and had horror stories to tell, people throwing knives at the window at you and stuff like that. So I think people thought, ‘oh we’re going to come across trouble’ but we didn’t have any trouble whatsoever. Everyone around there was really friendly; they came up and talked to us. I think it’s interesting, people’s perceptions of places. One of the people working on the film has lived in Scotland all her life and it really opened her eyes to be filming somewhere like that. She’d had this idea of estates and a kind of fear of those places. It really opened her eyes to actually be there and talk to people. She came up to me at the end and said that it had been a real education for her and that she had been really glad of it. It made me realise that a lot of people who live in Glasgow don’t go to places like Red Road.

All the CCTV footage we had to shoot ourselves. We wouldn’t want to use real footage, because that would be an invasion of people’s privacy. Actually we wouldn’t be allowed to, so we had to shoot everything ourselves. And most of the CCTV stuff we do use is stuff of our characters anyway so we did incorporate people from the area into the filming. We actually went round and actively sought out people who lived in the area to be in the film, so we did incorporate real people who lived there. Actually a lot of the people from places like Saracen Street and Red Road, they’re used to filming and they all said, ‘Are you doing Taggart? Can we be extras?’ So people were quite wise about it and knew that if you got to be an extra you could earn fifty quid or whatever. In the end we did use a lot of real people round and about. If we had any characters walking about anywhere that was real, and real people got in, we’d ask them if they minded, would they sign a release form, so that we could use that shot. If somebody walked through a shot and then they walked behind the camera, someone would chase them with a release form saying ‘sorry, do you mind, we got you on camera, it’s for a film, Red Road, do you mind?’ Most people said yes, the odd person might say no, but most seemed to like it.

There was one moment when we were filming on CCTV we caught a fox by accident coming out of the dark. It was beautiful, one of my favourite shots in the film. I hope people don’t think we had an animal handler standing by with a wild fox to let go! We caught the fox on film by accident, and some of my favourite things in the film are the happy accidents, the things that came sort of by surprise.

When I have made short films, I’ve tended to shoot pretty much in the order that things will appear in the finished film. But in this case our schedule didn’t allow me to do that. The one thing we did manage to keep roughly in place was the sex scene. That was to really allow everyone to know each other a bit better, so that we could deal with it and not be strangers. But we all were really determined to get on with it. Everyone was extremely professional and I’d like to give all credit to the two actors because they were incredibly generous to each other. They were at drama school together some years ago so they knew each other which, I think, helped. It was a very, determined, professional few hours. We were in that room together for about four or five hours and had to just do get it done so I do remember the end being really quite rushed. That’s the thing on long films, you have to stop at a certain time and everyone has to go home, no matter what.

I felt really ready to make this film. I mean, making every film is daunting, but I felt totally ready for this challenge. I’ve done a lot of things in my life, I’ve been around a bit, and I just felt really ready for it. Mind you, it didn’t feel like it was going well at the time: it was a fairly hellish shoot. When you’re filming, you kind of know you are getting some good material but you don’t really know if the thing is going to work until you put it together. I can’t remember which director said that when you edit and you put the images next to each other it’s like putting flowers in water. They kind of wake up.

Who's who in the film

The voyeur

Kate Dickie

Name Jackie

Played by Kate Dickie

What’s her story? CCTV operator by day and chain-smoking stalker by night, Jackie has a secret and it’s a big one. But why is she so obsessed with ned jailbird Clyde (Tony Curran)?

What Dickie says about her character ‘I feel so much for her, for what she has suffered and I feel such a compassion for her, I just think I know this woman, but that’s obviously down to Andrea’s great writing. Jackie’s a sorry soul because she has suffered so much I felt really protective like she is my best pal or something.

‘I found it really difficult to let go of her - just ask my long suffering partner. When I was at home during the intense six week shoot I was just mumbling terrible lines at people. The role took over my life. In fact, even when it finished it took a good month till I felt normal again. I feel so lucky to have played her.’

Oscar potential Huge. Like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Dickie is in just about every frame of Red Road. It is her powerhouse performance which beats at the very heart of this remarkable film.
Kate on Andrea Arnold ‘She is amazing. Andrea just doesn’t look at life the way you and I look at it. I mean, I could walk down the road and see nothing and she could see the most beautiful thing in the most mundane settings. She says, “look at this, isn’t it beautiful!” I found it really humbling to work with her, and I learned so much.’

The lost soul

Name Stevie

Played by Martin Compston

What’s his story? A waif and stray who has managed to find a little solace on the 24th floor of one of the Red Road tower blocks, Stevie has a girlfriend from down south called April (Natalie Press), but their relationship is more one of connection between two broken people than anything physical or passionate. Stevie is also Clyde’s best friend.

What Compston says about Stevie ‘He’s a bit of a tortured soul, to be honest, he’s just obviously a guy who has never really had anyone there for him his whole life; he really just doesn’t give a fuck about anything. In Clyde he has found a big brother and a father figure all in one who has looked after him and I think he is immensely loyal to him. He is just a bit wild, but everybody has a wee bit of good in them somewhere, and his goodness is his loyalty to Clyde. He’s just not had a very good life, which sometimes makes him not a very nice person.’

Oscar potential Good. Since Sweet Sixteen, Compston has attracted great notices for his performances in the Ken Loach segment of Tickets and in Icelandic filmmaker Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s Niceland. He will also soon be seen in US coming of age in New York indie A Guide to Recognising the Saints. Plus Compston loves LA: in fact he has just left to spend three months hanging out there with his old mate Curran and may get more work stateside. Let’s hope he doesn’t forget his roots.

Compston on Andrea Arnold ‘I saw Andrea’s short Wasp and it was a stunning little film. And then I just had to get involved with her first feature. Working on Red Road was a great experience. Scotland needs to punch above its weight in cinema, but we tend to stick to those depressing films with people taking drugs. We are great at doing that, but it sometimes seems like that’s all we do. It was great to try something different in a Scottish film.’

The Messed Up Runaway


Name April

Played by Natalie Press

What’s her story? April is a mystery and remains one for most of the film. She comes from somewhere down south, and seems to have some kind of addiction. She is an innocent in a decrepit world but she seems to share a bond and blank faced victimhood with her troubled boyfriend Stevie (Martin Compston). She also has a fear of heights. What brought her to Glasgow and why is she living so high up in a tower block when the wind doth blow?

What Press says about Glasgow ‘There’s a passion in Glasgow that can be very intense. Being with three real Scots while making this film, I was in my element. As a group we cared for each other - like we were a clan - loyalty is a big thing with Glaswegians. I loved having two tough guys around me all day, and when I was with Kate we would make sure the other was happy and we would make each other laugh.’

Oscar potential Minor. Press’ role is small in the film, though very important. It is rumoured though that her role will be much bigger in the second film of the trilogy, so maybe it will be a case of second time around for the gifted star of My Summer of Love and Arnold’s award winning short, Wasp.

Press on Andrea Arnold ‘It is clear to me that Andrea is the most exciting talent in British independent film. So when I learned I had the part - after a long, long wait - I jumped in the air. British independent cinema has so few truly brave directors. Andrea stands alone.’

The Mysterious Fiend

Tony Curran

Name Clyde

Played by Tony Curran

What’s his story? Ned, jailbird and estate lothario, Clyde seems to be drinking himself into oblivion. He’s got a room in the flat of his mate Stevie (Martin Compston) in which there is a bed and a bare light bulb. Why is Jackie (Kate Dickie) so obsessed with him?

What Curran says about Clyde ‘I think he’s not just a Glasgow character, he’s a universal character. He’s somebody society has forgotten about. He is actually trying to better himself by getting out of prison and getting off the drugs but deep inside he’s hurting.

Characters I’ve played in the past have been quite hard-edged and people may be thinking, ‘oh god, here we go, this guy is a real nutcase, he’s a sexist bastard, you know’. But a lot of the women - and men - who’ve seen the film, they really were quite touched.’

Oscar potential Very good. Curran is the one bona fide movie star in the film and so he should be - he’s been working his arse off for a decade and a half. The odd episode of Taggart, A Touch of Frost and The Bill aside, you may have seen Curran in Pearl Harbor, Blade II, Flight of the Phoenix or Miami Vice. Yet, his turn in Red Road is by far the best thing he has ever done, it is a multilayered performance of controlled menace like few you would have seen before.

Curran on Andrea Arnold ‘Andrea is a very clever woman. I love working like that. I’m open to whatever way the director wants to work and I’m happy to go along with their philosophy so I’m very much into the way Andrea directed this. There’s one scene where I have my way with this woman. When we shot that sequence at like, two o’clock in the morning, I didn’t know where the camera was and Andrea was up on the high rise somewhere so I just had to act it out. I couldn’t even see a camera crew, so people who were walking past and they saw this guy shagging this girl up against a wall and they were like; ‘Hey, what you doing?! Hey man, what you up to?”’

Selected release from Fri 27 Oct.