American Honey: Andrea Arnold’s Personal Road Movie

About the Film
For her first feature set and filmed in the U.S., British writer-director Andrea Arnold envisioned a story rooted in the realism and nuance of its characters–what she experienced while traveling across America.

At its heart is Star (Sasha Lane), a teenage girl from a troubled home, on the brink of adulthood, who hits the road in search of independence while struggling to untangle what it feels like to fall in love.

She runs away with a traveling sales crew who drive across the American Midwest selling subscriptions door to door. Finding her feet in this gang of teenagers, one of whom is Jake (Shia LaBeouf), she soon gets into the group’s lifestyle of hard-partying nights, law-bending days, and young love.
Literary Source:
Arnold was originally inspired by a 2007 New York Times article, “Door to Door: Long Days, Slim Rewards; For Youths, a Grim Tour on Magazine Crews by Ian Urbina.”
Such crews are still active in the US: disparate groups of young people hired by unregulated companies to crisscross the country, knock on doors and peddle subscriptions like old-school traveling salesmen.
Arnold Personal Journey
Fascinated by this subculture, Arnold took to the road with one such crew, sleeping in their cheap motels and learning more about the young salespeople, many of whom were away from home for the first time.
She discovered that being part of a crew is less a job than a lifestyle, and the crew itself, less a group of business colleagues provides a kind of wild, surrogate family. In the middle of all this, Star falls in love with Jake, the top seller, much to the displeasure of their magazine crew boss, Krystal.
In March of 2014, with the support of Film4, Arnold and her casting directors began scouting for talent, eventually crossing eight states during separate trips scattered along the year.
“I sat on the beach and watched all the thousands of teenagers go by. We were literally having auditions in Walmart car park,” says Arnold. Of the 15 young people eventually cast as crew members, 11 had never acted before.
Arnold and her team followed their instincts to put together a tremendous cast of real kids with similar backgrounds to those recruited by sales companies.
RAYMOND COALSON came out to his friends in his late teens in West Virginia, and now lives in California.
CHAD MCKENZIE COX is a talented singer-songwriter from Virginia.
VERRONIKAH EZELL is 25 years old, raising her daughter with her wife in Panama City Beach.
ARRIELLE HOLMES was first seen in the Safdie Brothers’ film, Heaven Knows What.
GARRY HOWELL is from Orlando, Florida, and played high school football.
CRYSTAL B. ICE (aka Nadia Stryker) is a former exotic dancer from Florida who once worked on a mag crew.
MCCAUL LOMBARDI is currently acting in his next feature in New York.
SHAWNA RAE MOSELEY is the proud owner of “Bella,” the crew’s pitbull in the film.
DAKOTA POWERS, the youngest member of the crew, lives in Tennessee.
ISAIAH STONE is an exceptional skateboarder from Missouri.
KENNETH KORY TUCKER works in construction and is in a relationship with Shawna.
CHRISTOPHER DAVID WRIGHT is originally from Mississippi and was spotted by the casting team at a Save-a-Lot grocery store.
A month prior to the official preparations for shooting, Arnold and her casting team flew to Florida’s Panama City Beach during Spring Break, an American phenomenon that attracts tens of thousands of students every year. Walking on the beach, Arnold spotted Sasha Lane, a college freshman from Texas who had never acted before but was soon cast in the lead role as Star.
Music as Everyday Poetry
No road trip is possible without great music, especially for young people spending hours in their van.
The music in American Honey is a touchstone for the characters, and for the cast portrayed, often used as an expression for all their feelings. “It’s the everyday poetry of their lives. As it is for all of us that love it,” says Arnold.
The filmmakers chose tracks authentic to the world, even asking the mag crew what their favorite songs were (heavily favoring trap music).
From Sam Hunt to Kevin Gates, Lee Brice to Juicy J, the soundtrack features country songs that defined 2015, trap music hits of the South, and Arnold’s personal choices.
The Road Trip: 56 Days
Although it is fictional, the story is rooted in reality, and Arnold and the producers determined that they needed to stay true to how a mag crew would live and travel.
The film shoot became a real road trip driving with a minimal crew across the American Midwest.
“We promised ourselves we would only stay at low rent motels, only drive not fly, limit ourselves to the real routes, and cast as many locals as possible,” says producer Lars Knudsen. The filmmakers were on the road for 56 days, including shooting days, days off, travel days.
Having travelled these roads herself while finding her story, Arnold knew which landscapes were vital to her film; the locations, the route, and the infrastructure were anchored in her experiences and observations: from the flat plains of Oklahoma-Kansas, to the richer, verdant suburbs and heat of Nebraska; up to oil boom territory in Williston, North Dakota before ending in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation.
Specifically, they shot in Muskogee, Kansas City, Omaha, Grand Island, Rapid City, Williston and Pine Ridge.
Base Camp
Arriving in each location, the cast and crew set up base camp at a roadside motel where the crew worked out of their cars.  Crucially, Arnold insisted that there should be none of the usual trappings of a feature film shoot – no Winnebagos, articulated trucks, massive lighting rigs – nothing to take the cast out of the world they were creating.
She worked closely with her production designer, Kelly McGehee, to pick locations that felt real to the story, and then subtly enhance them.
Long-time Cinematographer, Robbie Ryan
Arnold, and her long-time cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, worked much like they have in her previous pictures: only a skeleton crew and essential cast would head out each day to film.
Insofar as possible, the filmmakers shot in sequence to allow the inexperienced cast members to feel the progression of their characters within the story, and give them time to get to know one another on the road.