23/10/2016 12:42 BST | Updated 23/10/2016 12:46 BST

'American Honey' Director Andrea Arnold Explains Why Her Instincts Were Rewarded By Shia LaBeouf

The film won the Jury Prize at Cannes.

If one of Hollywood’s most polarising personalities, Shia LaBeouf, ever needed someone to testify for him, he could do a lot worse than British film director Andrea Arnold.

Shia is the only big name in Andrea’s spellbinding ‘American’ Honey’ now wowing audiences in the UK following its Jury Prize Award at Cannes, and she tells HuffPostUK how she cast him “purely on instinct”.

“I was originally looking for mostly non-actors, but someone suggested him, and I thought it was a really good idea,” she tells HuffPostUK. “I met him in a cafe in London and we just got on.”

As for his sometimes bizarre behaviour played out on red carpets and press conferences, Andrea shrugs it off: “I don’t follow any press or pay attention to that. I don’t read newspapers or watch television. 

“I go on instinct, and I had that with him. He liked the sound of a road trip. He’s up for exploring and trying new things.”

Just as well, with Andrea’s film being shot on the hoof, during a journey that lasted 56 days and took the cast and crew from state to state, telling the story of a teenage “magazine crew”, who make their tiny living peddling subscriptions from door to door, under the exploitative eye of the group’s manager, Krystal, played by Elvis’s grand-daughter Riley Keough.

The film was inspired by an article Andrea read in the New York Times about these crews, plus a road trip she took herself, setting off less than 24 hours after her film ‘Wuthering Heights’ had been shown at Sundance:

“I’d spent my whole time in cinemas and hotels, you get these people sitting together on the bus, and the sun came up with these fantastic mountains, and I was ready for this film,” she remembers.

“I realised I didn’t know enough about this country, so instead I got a car and went on a road trip. There was a man sweeping in the hotel and I asked him where I should go first, and he told me about a national park, and I just kept asking people in turn. I didn’t know the next day where I was going to go.”

That spontaneity is mirrored in her new film, where Shia and Riley are among the very few professional actors to appear on screen, alongside untrained, unpolished kids who crossed Andrea’s path. One of the male leads doesn’t exactly have a Hollywood smile, but nonetheless she explains each had an essence she was seeking.

A sweet but complicated romance develops between Shia and Sasha's characters in 'American Honey'

“I just try to cast who feels right for the part,” she says. “Non-actors, it’s just what I do, I’m trying to be authentic in my own way, I wanted to show that world, and some of the faces you might actually see in that world for real. One of my cast has no front teeth, you don’t get many people from agents looking like that, but it’s real to me.

“I think they’re beautiful, every single one of them. It wasn’t deliberately un-glossy, I was just casting who I considered to be beautiful souls.”

What was it like to work with these untethered souls? She grins, conspiratorially. “Frolicky. Exactly what you see on the screen.” 

While they are doubtless being exploited, there is indeed something beautiful and unbridled about the way these teenagers are seen living, and we see the group through the eyes of central character Star, a girl running away from an abusive relationship and into what looks like a festival of fun on the road. As with so many of Andrea’s actors, her spellbinding lead actress was a normal girl, Sasha Lane, who basically found her.

“We had someone else cast for that role up until three weeks before we started filming and she suddenly could no longer do it, so it got pretty close,” Andrea remembers now.

Andrea Arnold (2nd right) with her cast in Cannes: "It was frolicky"

“It was spring break at that time, I flew to Spring Break in Panama City, there are thousands of teenagers coming from all over America, I just went to look, hoping we would find someone, because if we didn’t, it would have really slowed things down, or come to a grinding halt. But we found Sasha after about three days of being on the beach.”

If this seems like a pretty white-knuckling way of making films, it seems to be working for Andrea so far. Prior to her triumph with ‘American Honey’, she was a double Cannes Jury Prize winner, for ‘Red Road’ and ‘Fish Tank’ – she’s also directed episodes of the Emmy-winning ‘Transparent’. Oh, and there’s an Oscar on her shelf for 2004’s Best Live Action Short Film ‘Wasp’.

Although she remains based in London, she is in ever-growing demand for her work in Los Angeles, following her decision to study film there after calling time on her TV career (she was a presenter on ‘No.73’ among other gigs).

In an era of squeezing tentpole super-hero films through the ever-shrinking eye of a film studio’s wishlist, how has this British filmmaker managed to navigate her way to such success, while maintaining her palpably independent streak?

“I don’t make big budget films, I only make tiny budget films. This has taken me a long time to make,” she explains.

“Mainly, I’m not making films with huge amounts of money. It was a very small crew. That’s one of the main reasons. If you’re making a film where you’re expecting it to make a huge amount of money, the more money you have, the more risk is involved.”

Her other explanation is perhaps more of a giveaway.

“Plus, once I get a bee in my bonnet about a subject, it never goes away and I stick to it, like a pitbull with someone’s trouser in my mouth.” 

 ‘American Honey’ is in UK cinemas now.