Along with Nicolas Winding Refn, Ben Wheatley may be one of the most promising and versatile young directors working in film today. After making his debut with the bleak crime comedy Down Terrace, he crafted a suspenseful masterpiece with Kill List, then steered his idiosyncratic creativity into a (sort-of) romantic comedy Sightseers. His latest film, A Field in England, continues this delightfully unpredictable journey, following a group of civil war soldiers through a psychotropic nightmare on the battlefield. (Read our review here.)
Wheatley spoke to GeekNation at the 2013 Fantastic Fest, where A Field in England played to (appropriately) mixed reception. In addition to talking about the origins of this unconventional project, he revealed some of the specifics of his creative process, and finally, examined his larger motives, both personally and professionally, as he bounces from one oddball project to the next, bringing audiences with him on that unique, irresistible journey.
Maybe just to get started, talk about when you decided to combine a period film with a drug movie?
I think it must have started with Sightseers, because there’s elements of that in Sightseers – the montage stuff in Sightseers is kind of the beginning of some of the sequences in A Field. Then I wanted to make something that was kind of like a midnight movie that was kind of like the movies I would watch when I was a kid that you don’t really see any more that were, you know, kind of slightly impenetrable but very bold and insane. So that was kind of my brief to Amy, and then I stood back and she wrote the script (laughs).
Because of that impenetrability, how quickly did a structure come together for the film, and how much came from a process of discovery while shooting?
There had been a script for it for a long time, I think 15 years, and it kind of went in and out of different iterations. But it was basically just a civil war script, and then we found this amazing living-history village in Portsmouth, and it was crazy – like going back in time just in these woods. We were going to film it there, and then we realized it was very close to Kill List, and we decided we should just set it in a field, just a blank slate for what England is, or was, or what it could become. I was like, fuck, I really liked the village, but we started talking about Dogville a little bit, and also Lifeboat and Rope and all of these kinds of movies that decide right from the get-go that there’s a very particular bracket around it. This is going to be the challenge, and then you fit within that. And so once that started happening, then it was okay. And I was thinking about the fact that you could be lost in the grass of the field, and we started to put those ideas into it, that you could fool around inside it, and basically it was a massive canvas. And once we started thinking like that, then it came right along.
What was the process of creating these character types that would need to bounce off of one another?
The main characters came first, O’Neill and Whitehead, and then the troupe of people kind of grew and shrank – there were lots of different drafts where there were lots of different people. Sometimes we had a lot of red-coat types, like Star Trek characters; we had to have a lot of people to start so that we could have the drama of them being killed. But then that kind of went away, and Amy’s very good at that, just reducing, reducing until we had those characters that represented almost different aspects of Whitehead, the same man all fighting with each other, but trying to get to know each other as well.
How much did you look at this as something more metaphorical than literal?
I think you’d be really hard pressed to read anything in it as literal (laughs).
Sure. I guess what I mean is, was there a specific idea you wanted to explore via these characters, et cetera?
Yeah. I mean, one of the ideas that we were having is a melting pot of ideologies and thought and desperation that suddenly creates the modern world. They go almost from ancient to the modern world, very, very quickly, and so we were trying to do a microcosm of that moment. But also, the macro and the micro, so that it’s still the story of a man, but it’s the story of a nation too, to a degree – the God’s eye view. But also we liked the idea of the, because the country was so radicalized at that moment, that things were happening all over the place, left and right, and there would be pockets of thought that would just explode and disappear and no one would know that they had happened. And that was kind of what had happened here – they had gone through the hedge. There’s no going back. And then they encounter this moment where O’Neill could rise up and become the leader of the country, or Whitehead could have, or Cromwell could have. But it’s Cromwell, it’s none of those guys.
How difficult is it to balance functionality in your shot selection as opposed to creating images that are more representational?
I kind of tend to just witness it, so I’m just there and I close my eyes and I see the scene and then I shoot it. That’s the only way to do it – I’ve been doing it that way since Kill List, really. You have to attune yourself emotionally to the scene and feel it, and that’s when you feel it come off the actors, like electricity. And then you think, what’s the most efficient way of getting through this from a storytelling point of view. I mean, sometimes I storyboard, but I tend not to look at them again once I’ve done them. I’ll make a shot list sometimes, but it’s more if there’s complicated stuff – I’ll shot list in the morning, and if the shot list goes over 40 shots, then I know there’s probably a problem with the day, like it’s not been scheduled right. But I don’t necessarily ever look at that shot list when I’m on set. I don’t want to restrict the actors, because once you start pushing them around into shapes, you can lose the performances. And if you’re some Hollywood production where you’re only shooting two pages a day or something, then that’s okay, because you’ve got the time to map those performances and you can go in and out. But if you’re shooting five or six pages a day, there’s no time for that.
So when you create a shot like the one where Whitehead emerges from the tent in slow motion after presumably being tortured, what leads you to that choice?
Well, I imagined it, I set the track up, and a lot of the shots I imagined are tableau-y shots, left to right. It’s framing I do in a lot of movies. So he comes out on the right, and that’s it. So I thought it would be really nice to have that in one shot, but maybe I’m wrong, so I’ll cover it. On that, there was maybe two – one cutaway to his face; you can see it in the film. But there was a point of view shot from him as he comes out. So I had the bits, but the kind of rule of thumb with Field was that if the performances are strong, then you don’t cut. Because I thought Sightseers, because it was constructed from improv, it was very cutty – it was cut to bits to make all of these weird bits of performance work. And in this film, if there was no problem, then just keep going – so you get some very long takes.
What do you feel like you are accomplishing by using that long, dreamlike shot, in between more functional cinematography?
Well, for me that was like a really intense moment in the movie, and I always liked that Kubrick quote that a film is made of non-submersible units – you have emotional moments which are visual and dramatic things that are indelible, and then you build a film around those moments. I think for me it was just like, fuck, this is incredible. And the performance that Reece did, which was unmediated by me – I just put him in the tent, gave him the script and said, come out and give me what you’ve got. I didn’t want to confuse him by telling him what I wanted. And he came out and I was just like, God, Jesus, that’s horrible. So that was it, and that had been informed by, well, I think he’s channeling all sorts of stuff, but lots of silent cinema stuff, definitely, it felt very Lon Chaney, and then also Evil Dead and Chris Cunningham and all of these kinds of things. So basically in a movie, you are marshaling tone a lot of the time, and it’s how tonal shifts bang up against one another to create meaning.
At what point does everything come together and find a cohesive meaning? You probably get great stuff from the actors by not coaching their performances, but I imagine it makes bringing together that material fairly challenging.
I think it’s casting. You cast it right, and then scripts are often rewritten for the actors a little bit to make sure that it fits them. And then on the day, it’s just gentle nudging, directing. You’ve made your choices already, so I kind of find it hard to believe in bad acting; I think it’s bad casting, usually. So if they’re terrible on set, it’s your fault, not theirs. If they don’t fit the characters, their decisions are wrong, you’ve made the decision yourself about the actor, that is wrong. So I think that if you work with really good people, the adjustment is usually very minor. We were lucky on this film because it was chronological; I mean, it would have been a harder movie to direct if it had been shot and changed all over the place in terms of getting that kind of throughline right, but the micro-kind of tiny nudges as you go along accumulate into a proper kind of control.
After Kill List was so warmly received, you made two hard turns with Sightseers and A Field in England. How far in advance do you plan your projects, because you don’t seem aggressively eager to capitalize on the previous film?
At the moment, about four to five years. So there’s enough projects stacked up right now, and you can plan that far ahead, and have the deals all set up, but really it’s all down to what the last film did. So Sightseers, I remember signing the contract to make it the week after Kill List came out, because if Kill List had been a disaster, it probably would have sunk that project as well. So you have to plan a lot, but it’s just on a knife edge the whole time.
A Field in England is available now in the UK and will be released in the United States in early 2014.
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