One of the most interesting contemporary filmmakers, writer/director Ben Wheatley continuously circumvents expectations. I was first introduced to his work with Kill List, about a hitman on a mission that he’s not entirely aware of. I had seen his short “U is for Unearthed” in The ABCs of Death, showcasing his visual style an inventiveness with horror. Sightseers took me by complete surprise with it’s darkly comedic tone as a couple travel across the country on holiday. And then we had A Field in England, which feels nothing like any of his movies and more like a cinematic experiment that was supervised by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Always surprising the audience and always pushing himself in new directions, I got to sit down with Ben Wheatley back in September in Austin to talk about the immersive and impressive cinematic endeavor.
WolfMan: For fans of yours, like myself, coming off of things like Sightseers or Kill List, I didn’t know what to anticipate. I didn’t know what to expect. Do you feel like you should voice to your audience how different this film could be from the other films you’ve made?
Ben Wheatley: I would say that, with all of my films, you could make that argument. If you look at the reviews and the reception of the movies, it’s pretty much a 90 degree turn each time. So, yeah, I think you should do that with every film you go to, really. You should take it on uncertain terms. What I expect from directors is, when I follow their work, not for their films to always be the same. The quality of the thinking to be similar. You wouldn’t want to warn people, that sounds weird, like that would put them off. I think it’s hard going from something that’s a comedy to something more serious. That’s the trick here.
WM: The idea of this group of characters all walking around and exploring nature, looking for a pub, isn’t necessarily tied to the time period in which your film took place. From the inception of the film, was it always this group of characters in this specific time and place or was there any thought of having it take place in modern day?
BW: It wouldn’t really make any sense in modern day. I’ve had that question before and I’m trying to figure out where it comes from, that idea. It might be that because it’s not a part of American history that it feels like it doesn’t matter. That you could use any old bit of history to tell this story, but it’s a very specific thing. If the film had been set during the American Civil War, you wouldn’t really be asking that question, would you? I think the events that are happening at that point are very specific to the story.
WM: It probably is an American thing. We see people in period garb and expect to see historic battles recreated in some sort of big way. That seems more familiar to movies made in America and American audiences.
BW: The history ends up as backdrops for more generic stories, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. And in your own culture, you’d never expect that. Within European stories, if it was the French revolution film, I wouldn’t think to ask, “Have you thought about making this a sci-fi film because that would be more fun?” They’d probably say, “…what the fuck are you talking about?” I literally saw a review online that said I could have set this film anywhere in the world.
WM: “I know it’s a story about this civil war, but couldn’t it be a buddy comedy that took place in a mall?”
BW: Yeah man, sure. Good luck with that. (laughs)
WM: In Kill List, there were a lot of characters with connections to the Earth and to nature. Sightseers had characters appreciating nature on their holiday. A Field in England has strong ties to nature, and your short “Unearthed” has “earth” in the title. Is this a conscious theme you have or have these themes just subconsciously been making their way into your movies?
BW: It’s interesting. I’ve always been interested in looking at beings who are ancient and modern at the same time. Modernity is just this wafer-thin thing teetering on top of ancient things. The things that we think are important now weren’t important ten years ago. What was important ten years ago weren’t important ten years before that. The reality of where we come from is always there. I was thinking about that kind of thing, that if you dig through the ground, you don’t have to go that far before you hit the dirt…I recently heard that in 100,000 years, the Earth would be able to completely recover from humans. Anything we built would be gone, rotted away or rusted away into nothing. I think that’s a common link between them, you see it strip away the modern illusion. Whether anyone wants to know about this history or not, it’s the beginning of America and Western civilization pretty much. I come from Billericay which is where the Pilgrim fathers met up on the way to Plymouth Rock. It was at that point, and that came from that radical thinking, and none of this would be here if it wasn’t for that place.
WM: You’ve done quite a few different genres, from the more straight-up horror thriller, to–
BW: You’d be on ROCKY ground saying that Kill List was a straight-up horror thriller. That would have been a hard sell in 2011.
WM: Well something more familiar to genre audiences. Any time anyone asks me, who enjoys a movie like The Wicker Man, I recommend Kill List.
BW: I think it’s an oddball film within the genre. That wouldn’t be an entry-level film for the genre.
WM: If I showed Kill List to someone and they didn’t like it, I wouldn’t want to talk to them about movies anyway. But you’ve done a few different genres, do you think of the movies regardless of genre, however it might be labeled, or do you intentionally set up to experiment?
BW: I’m not very consistent in my answer to this. (laughs) I like a lot of different genres and I’d like to make a lot of different movies in those genres. The question can be a bit leading in terms of whether I’m looking at genre in the modern way where there are 15 genres lined up next to each other, I don’t think of it like that. I follow where the story goes and then when it becomes its own thing, once you stop writing it and the characters start talking to each other and you don’t know what’s going to happen with it, then you form it and form it until it makes sense with its running time and structurally and the characters are true to themselves in that minute, then you completely change it again because the actors get into it. The way I tend to film is kind of reacting to feeling like a witness in this space, rather than a Hitchcock-ian planner. I don’t plan as much. I don’t know what it’s going to be until I’m there and I feel the emotions and vibe of the actors. And within those things, it’s a very long way from sitting down and watching a few DVDs and saying, “I want to make these kinds of films,” to where you end up. It’s hard to understand how critical thinking works. All you ever hear is this list of movies that are a bit like your movie. I’m guilty of it myself, you talk about different films in comparison to yours in interviews, and I’m not sure I ever believe it. They are movies you might have thought about in a general sense, but they aren’t necessarily influences. The weird thing is that I’ve done this process four times in the past five years, and the influences on all the films are probably all the same so it just gets boring to repeat.
WM: You mentioned that you wait until you’re on set to feel things out to see how things are going to go and you mentioned during the Q & A that there was only one line of improvisation in the film, so how much of the movie we are seeing is different from how you pictured it? Not necessarily the performances, but visually speaking, how close did A Field in England end up like what you saw in your mind?
BW: Again, that’s a different type of filmmaking. If you talked to Hitchcock or you talked to the Coens, if they’re to be believed because they’re such slippery customers, then you have the thing where you plan it all out and storyboard it and it’s not quite what you pictured and you’ll have an issue with that. If you go into it and witness it, then what you shoot is what you shoot. Unless you’ve got a problem with performance, and at the end of the day, it just didn’t work, you’ve made assumptions dramatically that didn’t come off, that’s the high-wire act. You put your whole understanding and drama on the line and you think it will work, then you shoot it and hopefully it fucking works. (laughs) Or it doesn’t. Sightseers was more scary because there was a lot more improv and it was a lot more amorphous and the cut was harder and took longer, but it was all there. We knew it was all there. Kill List was the same, where we knew we shot it but I was worried that it needed a lot more exposition and we looked to those things we didn’t like and took them out and got back to the core of it. Down Terrace was more like a fever dream when we shot it anyway so it was what it was.
WM: There’s a disclaimer in the beginning about the strobe effects, was there a lot of experimentation to work out how to convey that stuff or were those heavier visuals effects in your head from the beginning?
BW: It was in the back of my mind, definitely. I’ve been experimenting with that kind of cutting for a long time and that was in the air, that 60’s and 70’s experimental cinema. In the 70’s, you’d break out into these crazy still-based montages all the time. If that happened in a movie now, their heads would explode, in the middle of a Tom Cruise film or something. It was just trying to shrug of this kind of conservativism. We wanted to see something crazy in the cinema, on the big screen, with a lot of people in a dark room, and let’s see what happens.
A Field in England is available on VOD on February 7th.