British director Ben Wheatley is a perfectly nice man who has directed some of the most audacious, bugnuts crazy, and sometimes gleefully dark films of the past several years. Beginning his career in British television (something he is returning to briefly as he directs a couple of episodes of probably the country’s biggest worldwide hit at the moment, Doctor Who), Wheatley made the jump to the big screen with the delightfully off kilter mob comedy Down Terrace in 2009. He would follow that up with Kill List (a dark thriller about a hitman who might be running afoul of the occult) and Sightseers (a hilarious road comedy about a couple touring the countryside in a caravan and happily massacring anyone who annoys them).
All of his films are different, with no two feeling the same outside of a dark sense of humour. In that sense, his latest effort A Field in England (opening this Friday in Toronto after making its Canadian debut at TIFF this past summer when this interview was conducted) doesn’t seem that out there considering the man who made it, but it most assuredly is. Shot in black and white and in a giant open field, Wheatley playfully tells the story of a small band of 17th Century British soldiers who have deserted the fight and run off to hopefully find a place to grab a pint and a good night’s rest. Along the way, the encounter a mysterious, half dead alchemist and sorcerer type (a delightfully evil Michael Smiley) who places the soldiers under his control to help spot a buried treasure. Oh, and these people are also taking a lot of hallucinogenic mushrooms because that’s all to eat in the field.
Pitched somewhere between dozens of different styles and genres – comparisons can be made to Orwell, Preminger, Bava, Hawks, Timothy Leary – A Field in England, much like Kill List and Sightseers, is a hard film to peg down even while you’re watching it. The tone, humour, style, and story keep changing and morphing into a completely different film than it was five minutes prior. Sitting down with Wheatley in a downtown office lined quite appropriately with videotapes and film cans, it’s immediately apparent that he’s such a lover of storytelling and cinema that one could spend all day with him and only scratch the surface of his interests and influences.
We talked with Wheatley (sadly two weeks before it was announced that he got the Doctor Who gig, but it’s not like he would have been able to say much on something that secret) about how he never makes the same film twice, his film’s sense of language, how he directs actors, working with his writer as a co-editor, and his thoughts on his own special kind of genre filmmaking.
Dork Shelf: One of the things that I admire about your work is that I never feel like I am watching the same movie twice, quite often while I’m only watching the same film. They all have their own kind of signature style in that I know I am watching a Ben Wheatley film, but the story and subject matter and humour are always changed to very vast degrees. Do you think you would just get bored making the same type of movie more than once?
Ben Wheatley: I think we’re been really consciously trying not to make the same movie over and over again, or at least we’re trying to. We police the stuff a lot, and there will be times where we say “Fuck, we did this already,” and then move away from that. Sometimes we’ll leave them in to make things not so rough around the edges, but when we go to cut the film and we see that somehow we left it in, we’ll say “Ok, this is something we have to retire.” (laughs)
But why would you make the same thing again and again if you could at all help it? There’s a lots of different ways to think, lots of different things to think about, lots of different stories to tell, and lots of different ways of shooting. I think the style can often become changed a lot due to budget levels. There’s a certain way that you can shoot stuff that doesn’t cost much money, and that’s what we’ve been doing that kind of stays the same; a lot of the handheld stuff and shooting outdoors keeps things in line with that to a degree.
DS: Well something like A Field in England could have very easily ended up being a huge epic if you just let it get away from you and you had the means and resources to just sort of go even more out of control than the characters and the story already purposefully are.
BW: I do think with that one, Field is a lot more like Down Terrace in a production way. We pragmatically decided that we wanted to make a film and (co-writer and editor) Amy (Jump) and I wrote the script to fit what we had. We started from the location idea and worked up from that. We did research around that and built from there. On Down Terrace, it was where we got a house and what else did we have? We just built around the location. I don’t think with what we had or where we were going we could have really gotten away with going much bigger.
The actual shoot in the field was quite pleasurable, though. It wasn’t a problem at all, even though we all moved very fast. But it was designed to be made that way. If it had been anything where they were all riding around on horses or there actually went to a country house or any of that shit it would have been really hard.
DS: It’s very lovingly taking the piss out of costume dramas while at the same time it’s kind of like your Waiting for Godot. There’s on this mission to find a pub that doesn’t even exist and they’re these dirty, filthy minded, boorish types. That’s a fun way to tell a story like this because it’s not what anyone really sees from this kind if questing film. Did you ever have the desire to do a period piece before this idea?
BW: I’ve always liked the idea of it, yeah. And the next thing we’re doing will be period, as well. Doing a period piece is both good and bad in a lot of ways. You’re completely creating the world. You have a complete control over it that you don’t necessarily have with contemporary things as much. And you have within a film like Field a sense that you never know what’s real and what’s not, and in that same way in a historical drama no one knows really what happened, especially during that period. There’s not much recorded stuff about wars or even how people talked and how the sounded. There’s no transcripts of conversations or anything like that or even any diaries. Even then people are really loquacious when they write in diaries because they’re writing so people will read them.
Could you imagine that now, though? Could you imagine trying to recreate realistic dialogue from this period now by looking at diaries or old newspapers or whatever recorded text there is on the internet and trying to do this in the future? You’d be FUCKED! (laughs)
DS: About fifty years from now I would love to see someone do A Field in England set in 1980s Southern California.
BW: Yeah, all the dialogue just comes out of a local tabloid. Thankfully this film is nothing like that, but I might kind of want to see that film should someone make it. (laughs)
DS: But the dialogue here seems like it has an added degree of difficulty because you also have to try and make it funny and snappy. Did you have to work with the actors a lot to try and really find a way to get the humour right and still stay somewhat appropriate to the period?
BW: Yeah, there’s absolutely no improvising here and this is actually the first film that we’ve done that on. Because you can’t. As good as these guys are at emotionally improvising their vocabularies are modern. So they can’t say more than three words. Any extra phrase they could put in might be a problem. When we were doing the research, Amy was really kind of stretched the whole time about the words. Words are something you can take for granted. You mention a word as simple as “envelope,” and you realize that your film takes place about two years prior to that invention. So then we have to think “Well, maybe it just didn’t make it into the dictionary by that point.” But honestly, who knows? It didn’t make it into the final script, but there was a mention of a freelancer at some point, and you think that it’s a modern word, but it’s actually someone with a lance. When you look into the reality of that phrase, it was actually a Victorian word that was made up for a novel that then caught on.
DS: You and Amy Jump seem to have a great working relationship on this one, down to the fact that you guys edited the film together. You don’t very often hear about the writer coming in on the editing process. Was that always the intent for you guys on this one?
BW: Well she had worked on all the films in one way or another. She was an editor on Kill List and Sightseers, as well. Actually, we don’t get credited as editors on Kill List, do we? Ah well, we did some of that anyway. (laughs) I can’t even remember anymore. I know we didn’t on Down Terrace because Rob (Hill) got the solo editing credit there. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. (Editor’s note: They did get a credit on Kill List, or at least on the DVD I have of it.)
But I think that’s something that’s totally important, and for me it makes total sense that the writer is the editor. They should have those skills because editing in terms of skills on a keyboard and editing in terms of vision is very closely related. Most movies become re-jigged in the edit suite. It seems like a weird thing to me to go ahead and do that without using the skills of the person who went ahead and made the blueprint for what the whole thing was in the first place.
I suppose it also depends on how involved you are in the edit as a filmmaker, as well. I always found it weird or difficult to have other people in control over the frame and over what was cut and what was not. Both of those decisions are literally everything to a finished film, and to negotiate through someone else what to cut and what not to cut seems like an incredible waste of energy when you could just go and do it yourself. I came up through editing originally, as well, so it’s one of the things I’m reasonably competent about when I’m thinking about my skill set.
With Amy, her editing is very different from the way that I edit. She doesn’t operate the machine. I operate for her and she tells me what to do. I become almost completely supplicant when we’re editing together. I’m just doing what she’s saying and I’m trying not to mediate it too much because I don’t want to just put my ideas in it when they could just as easily be her’s. Her kind of cutting in something like Kill List is when that film gets to the really crazy stuff, like all the jump cutty stuff is all more her style. And I did a lot of the action stuff in that one, and I cut together all that. And then on that one we would use Rob for scenes like the restaurant sequence and things that required really complicated sound editing. On Field, we just cut it all together. I don’t think I did much on my own. We just negotiated it together all the way through.
DS: Getting back to what we were talking about earlier when it comes to there not being a lot of room to improvise, there’s something that this film has that your others necessarily don’t have, which are quiet moments to be funny: tableaus, physical comedy, things of that nature. They seem like those are the moments where you can give the actors a little more leeway.
BW: Yeah. With the physical stuff, I’m not as prescriptive of a director. I think the main job as a director is getting the cast right first because anything that comes out after that is your fault. (laughs) Whatever they do is your fault. I don’t think there really is such a thing as bad acting, but there is such a thing as bad casting. I think that also you don’t have a dog and then bark on its behalf. I’m not an actor. I’m not going to tell them how to act. A lot of their performances are from them, like Richard coming out of the tent and what he does there, that’s all him coming up with that. I didn’t tell him what to do.
DS: All you can really do is make him look better doing it.
BW: (laughs) Yeah! He asked me what he should do, and I just said “I don’t know. We’ll see. Just do it and if I don’t like it, I’ll tell you. If you like it, we’ll carry on.” He comes out of that tent, and I’m just like, “Fuck, that’s amazing.” That was it.
DS: One of the things that draws me to your films, especially Sightseers which really caught me off guard, is that they’re films where you can always discover new things that you didn’t notice the first time you watch it. I watched Kill List a few times and I did the same thing with this film, but when I saw Sightseers, which is ostensibly just a straight up comedy, I watched it and then I felt the need to watch it again right away. I don’t think you waste any frames in your films and there’s always something going on worth thinking about and analyzing. Is that a big thing for you to make sure your films have that sense of depth in every respect to them?
BW: I think there’s definitely structural stuff in all those films that we worked at quite hard, and the way that the films echo each other in terms of structure and editing, we think about that a lot. There’s definitely probably the most of that in Sightseers where a lot of sequences are designed to keep mirroring other sequences that come throughout the movie. And with music as well, because especially with Sightseers that was a film that had a very specific set of requirements to it.
I think it all comes from when I started to try and understand The Shining. When I started to go to school, I actually didn’t think much of it, really, because it was this film that had just been built up and up and up and up. That was probably around 1987 and I was just a teenager still thinking this is being built up to be the scariest film ever, and it’s just not. (laughs) Then I watched it again and again and again and I started to understand it more and more, and then I questioned, “Well, why was that?” I mean, while I don’t agree with all of it, Room 237 is really interesting in that respect and in watching people thinking about it and responding to it in different ways.
It comes down to film be more than just a narrative with a three act structure. It’s a matrix for holding information, and that can be programmed in any way you want. The patterns that sit on top of and underneath the act structure can be very complex. You can put anything you want on top of a really simple story. That was kind of the epiphany that started to get applied to our movies. You have total control of this thing and you can program anything into it that you want.
DS: I felt the same way about The Shining, and your films much like The Shining have these elements that I think younger viewers could gravitate towards and yet possibly not understand on the first viewing. You sometimes have potty humour and bursts of action and violence, but they are also films about adult fears and not those of younger people. I think you could show someone something like Kill List and they can grow up a bit watching it in terms of learning what genre films can do…
BW: Or they’ll age… (laughs) Well, I think you can be both ways. Personally, I don’t think toilet humour ever gets old. (laughs) And I love genre films and sc-fi because we’re a part of that generation that never really grew up. But at the same time, I am a grown up, or as much of one as I can be. (laughs) And I don’t want to necessarily emulate those kinds of genre films just so I can feel young or to go back in that kind of way. Those kinds of films definitely speak to me, but I can only make one kind of film. I want to make those kinds of films through the filter of my own being. Oh wow, that sounds pretentious. (laughs)
But I also think that’s where all really great genre films come from in the first place. All the greatest films from the 1930s and 40s are set up and defined by people who came in and sort of defined what these things should be. Making a film shouldn’t become this postmodern exercise in how much people love film. It should always be about how they feel through the filter of film.