With Cow, Andrea Arnold Wanted to Show ‘the Aliveness of a Nonhuman Animal’

Photo: MUBI

Andrea Arnold is renowned for the raw intimacy she brings to her movies, a quality that suited her well while making Cow. The documentary — Arnold’s first following scripted films such as Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights, and American Honey — is a vérité profile of a bovine beauty named Luma and her newborn calf, who live on a dairy farm outside London. Over the course of 94 minutes, Arnold turns the mother and daughter into first-rate protagonists, her roving camera trailing the pair as they are separated and placed into the estate’s exacting milk-production routine. Without an ounce of didacticism, Cow manages to be a confrontational interrogation of the cycle of life, with humans constantly poking and prodding the movie’s two stars.

Reactions to the film, Arnold says, have been intense. But reactions to most of her films tend to be. The same can be said of her TV work, which includes Transparent, I Love Dick, and the much-scrutinized second season of Big Little Lies. According to reports, Arnold was encouraged to bring her signature style to the latter show only to find out that producers later recut the episodes without her knowledge and requested reshoots with the actors. The half-hearted season that resulted left many viewers longing to see the version Arnold had crafted. During a recent Zoom conversation, we touched on what goes into making something as corporate as Big Little Lies, how Cow came together, why it made one of her friends faint, and whether she’s seen that famous photo of David Lynch Oscar-campaigning next to a cow.

I gather that Cow feels personal to you. How does it feel to off-load it and take in the responses?
It’s been really intimate, and weirdly more than most of my films, and I’m not quite sure why. I’ve had some really intense screenings with people. The first Q&A I did was at the London Film Festival, and I had a lot of friends come to that one because I live in London. There were all kinds of things that happened that day: Someone fainted, somebody was sick.

Fainted because of the movie?
Yeah, fainted because of the movie. But I think sometimes films can tap into other things for people, and I think there was a bit of that going on for some people. Somebody had a panic attack, and I was running around getting an ambulance for this person in the middle of the screening because this was a friend of mine. Someone was sick in their bag in the audience. And then at the end, when I met all my friends in the bar afterward, several of them were sobbing. I listened to people, and there were all kinds of things that came up for people. Maybe it was more intense because I’ve been in lockdown for two years; I don’t know. I really felt the responsibility of making something that might upset people and give them strong reactions. I felt like I had to hold everyone a little. But all the Q&As after have been — even when my friends are not there — really intense.

That is interesting because you’re known for making intimate projects that generate strong reactions in people. Maybe it’s the nonfiction aspect.
My friend said she thinks it’s the most personal thing I’ve ever done because there’s no hiding behind any actors or locations or a script. It is very real.

Do you agree with that assessment?
I thought it was a very interesting observation, and I think on some level she’s right. I mean, I get a lot of reflections on my films, and sometimes I don’t see the things that other people see, but I’ve definitely thought about what she said since.

You shot Cow on and off over the course of four years. What was the arrangement you made with the farm — the humans, that is? Did they have a sense of what the movie would become when you first showed up?
We always told them we were going to make a film about a cow, that we would focus on one or maybe two cows. I don’t think I knew what that meant, either, really, so I told them as much as I understood. I think even the producer I was working with didn’t totally understand what I meant. Also, if you’re trying to do something, you don’t totally know how it’s going to work.

Yeah, did you fully understand? Did you show up and let a story unfold, or did you have a narrative spine in mind?
I just wanted to show you her consciousness. I wanted to show the character and the aliveness of a nonhuman animal. I wanted to see if we could see that.

The thing is we use animals as a commodity. We’re very consumed with the meat, the leather, the bones, the things that we use. But what about the aliveness? The soul? Their feelings or their thoughts? I know we can’t get inside their head, but I wondered if we could see that. There’s an Irish poet I like called John O’Donohue, and he calls the soul of the wild “invisible beauty.” I didn’t read that poem until a few months ago, but I thought, Oh, that’s what I was trying to find. We’re not just skin and bones; we are thoughts and feelings and all that, and so are animals. That’s what I wanted to show, but I didn’t know whether or not we would see it or how.

Cow director Andrea Arnold. Photo: Anthony Harvey/Shutterstock for BAFTA

Did you have an agreement not to name the farm in the film? I’m curious how you ingratiated yourself because the people involved with the cows don’t come off looking great. 
Would you say the people in those worlds don’t come off great in general or in the film?

In general. This is not the first time we’ve been exposed to what goes on with cattle production. The interesting thing about the film — and this is always part of your style — is that we don’t get a historical perspective or talking heads or statistics or other traditional techniques in terms of giving a broader picture of the cattle industry and how food production works. So in this case, it does make this particular farm look not great, but we know enough to know that it’s not unique to this one location.
See, I personally think they come off as farmers. What they’re doing is farming. Anyone who doesn’t really understand what farming means is living in some strange land. The thing is I’m not surprised because I think most of us living in cities are pretty disconnected from anything that is to do with food production. People don’t think about farms. I never felt any need to mislead them or to say anything about what I intended that wasn’t true. I felt like what we showed of them was reflective of how things were.

Have you seen any American industrial farms? It’s worth having a look. The ones I’ve seen are very different. They’re on a huger scale. And of course there’ll be everything in between, as there is here. I tried to find a farm I felt represented the average dairy farm rather than a big industrial one or a small cute one. I tried to find what I think is producing milk for us on average.

I don’t mean to indict these specific farmers. I’ve seen people saying this is the kind of movie that leaves you wondering whether you should become a vegan, and I think you don’t get there without some sort of human hand guiding the proceedings. 
All I wanted to do was gently turn you towards something and go, Here you are — but not to do anything strong or political. I hope I’m leaving it to people to decide for themselves to think about what this might bring up in their minds. I get lots of feedback about people changing their diet or whatever, but I think these things are big discussions, and they’re complicated.

You talked a minute ago about hiding behind actors via scripts, but one thing a script affords you is careful preplanning. You can choreograph a scene or have everything in mind about how something should go. But I watch Cow and feel stunned that you and the camera operators never got trampled.
Well, we nearly did.

Were there moments of concern? How did you figure out how to move the camera in relation to the action around you?
The farmers are very used to being amongst the cows, and they taught us how to be amongst the cows. And actually, Magda Kowalczyk, the DP, who’s a hero, was so confident that they were never going to hurt her. And they are quite gentle. They’re not that aggressive, not really. I’m sure they could be if they wanted to be, and if we were farming with horns, there would probably be a lot more accidents. That’s why they take the horns out. Actually, the only time I noticed aggression was when Magda and I got chased by cows when we were filming them one night. When we decided to leave, they all thought, Oh, where are they going?, and started chasing us. It’s nighttime, and we just had one lamp. They all ran after us, and we had to run and dive into another field. We couldn’t see where we were going. That was actually quite scary, but they’re just like, We want to come! It wasn’t like, Oh, let’s get them. It was more like a curiosity.

The only other time we had a bit of a dodgy time was when we went into a field to film. There was a new bull who was siring some of the heifers. I was driving, and Magda was in the back. Their hormones kick in at a certain point, and this new bull suddenly decided he was going to start charging us. He was charging the front of the car and hitting it. It was very, very deliberate. I don’t know whether he saw us as a threat, like, Get out of my field, but we had to drive out very fast. And the great thing about that is you realize their power. I guess on some level farming is about subduing animals. Sometimes you don’t respect their power, and whenever you get that close to a bull and they start showing that, you realize how incredibly powerful they are and how strong. It just fills me with respect.

During the roughly four years you were shooting Cow, you were also working on American Honey, Big Little Lies, and other scripted projects. What sort of freedom did being able to step away from famous actors and network executives and all these personalities allow you? 
At the end of the day, on some level, it’s just you and the camera. Yes, there’s a whole lot more to deal with if you’re doing something like Big Little Lies, but you end up with actors in front of a camera or you end up with a cow or whatever you’re trying to capture. You’re just trying to capture images and story. To me, we’re going down to the farm. I’m just driving down there myself and hanging out and having soup in the van or going to the local pub. It’s kind of different than turning up and there are 400 crew members, but it’s also sort of the same. It is and it isn’t. To me, that’s where the real joy is in making films: when you’re just with a handful of people around the camera, working together. Sometimes it’s just me and Magda and the cows. What I find interesting is that the cows just are what they are, and that’s what’s so affecting, I think: There’s no pretense. In drama, everyone can be very good at reproducing the real thing, but with animals, you’re getting the real real thing.

I know you don’t want to talk about it, and you don’t have to, but I hope you know there are a lot of people out there who would have liked to see your version of Big Little Lies.
Thank you. Thank you.

I know it’s a sensitive topic, and I’m sure it’s hard to go through something like that, especially once it becomes public knowledge.
I learned so much on Big Little Lies. I learned so much about myself and about filmmaking, and I’m grateful for the experience, actually.

This is neither here nor there, but have you ever seen the photo of David Lynch sitting on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard with the cow and the big “For Your Consideration” sign for Laura Dern?

When Inland Empire came out, they didn’t have money for an Oscar campaign, so Lynch went and sat out there with a big poster of Dern and chain-smoked next to a cow all afternoon. 
I love that. I do love David Lynch. I’m a big fan.

The question is totally irrelevant, but the photo makes the rounds on the internet often, and I was just curious if you’d ever seen Lynch and his cow.
I love him because I love any filmmaker who continues to be original. I’m really grateful for it. He’s particularly that person, so I love him for it.

Are you working on another script now?
Yeah, I’ve been working on something for a little while that I’m doing now. I take a very long time with things; I’m not very fast. It’s definitely its own thing. Every film for me is a bit of a psychological puzzle that I need to figure out. I don’t always understand at the beginning what it means. I sort of dig around in it a lot until it becomes three-dimensional. Sometimes that takes a little while. I have an image, and then I think, What’s that about? The image for this one is a man standing on the top of a tall building, naked. I didn’t know where he was from and I don’t know who he is, so I’m in the middle of trying to figure that out.

So that image just came to you?
That’s exactly what happens. I can see the building, I can see what he looks like, I can see what it’s like to go up to the top of the building. And then I go, But what does that mean? Where is the building? Who is he? How did he get on top of the building? Why is he not wearing any clothes? Who’s living in the building? That’s exactly how I start on every project, and then it leads me on a journey of weirdness.

Well, I can’t wait to find out the answer to how that man got on top of that building.
Next time I see you, you’ll be going, “Really? That’s what happened? How did you get there?”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Andrea Arnold’s Friend Fainted When She Saw Cow