Ben Wheatley Explains How a Bold Film Like 'A Field in England' Gets Made, Why 'High Rise' Is Next, and HBO's 'Silk Road'

Ben Wheatley Explains How a Bold Film Like 'A Field in England' Gets Made, Why 'High Rise' Is Next, and HBO's 'Silk Road'

Feb 07, 2014

A Field in EnglandToday A Field in England hits U.S. shores, both On Demand (iTunes, Amazon and the like) and in select theaters. It's the latest film from British sensation Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers), a very funny, gentle man who happens to make movies about some less-than-gentle people. It's about a group of soldiers who try to flee the 17th-century English Civil War, only to be discovered by an alchemist (the great Michael Smiley) who forces them to search for a treasure he insists is buried in the field. Things spiral out of control after the group inadvertently eats some bad mushrooms, and what follows is a bold, harrowing vision of men trying to come to grips with destiny and the forces that may or may not control their lives.

We spoke with Wheatley at Fantastic Fest last year, where A Field in England enjoyed its U.S. premiere, and now that Drafthouse Films is releasing it, we're able to share our chat with you. Even if you haven't seen the film yet, you should give the below a read. Wheatley offers a great perspective on how things like ego and executives and not thinking a script through just get in the way of actually making movies.

We also talked quite a bit about High Rise, a sci-fi story about an apartment complex completely shut off from society. At the time of the interview this was only tentatively going to be Wheatley's next film. Though as news earlier this week revealed, Tom Hiddleston has now been cast as the lead in that film, which will be shooting later this summer. And if you're a Doctor Who fan, you should also know that the darkly comedic Wheatley is directing the first two episodes of the new series starring Peter Capaldi. How did you pitch A Field in England to investors and so on?

Ben Wheatley: We didn't, we just sort of started making it. We said, "We're going to be making this film in September" and told everyone. We had some money left over in our bank accounts, and so that was it, we just said we were making it. And then Film4 said, "Oh, what are you doing?" And so we explained it and they said they wanted to be involved, so we said, "Well, you can be..."

It wasn't that kind of thing of pitching in elevators and going into offices and saying, "please help us" and all that bollocks. We were making it anyway, and when the people we worked with before saw that, they got involved. I think it was because the budget was at a point where they could just fully fund it and in a way it was no-brainer. It was £300,000 so if you think that an hour of drama on channel four is a million pounds, already they can't lose. It doesn't matter what it does at the box office or DVD, and it did end up getting really good viewing figures, so that side of it was okay and the rest of it is kind of gravy. It allows you to make something that, on the surface doesn't seem very commercial, but the reality is it's totally commercial. Was that deliberate on your part?

Wheatley: Well, I like working, so that's one thing. I don't like to spend years not working. And I wanted to make something that I could stretch different kinds of muscles on from the other couple movies. Sightseers was good fun, but a comedy, no matter how dark it is, is all about pleasing and making sure everyone is having a good time, so if you swing the other way and make something that's much more challenging, it's more interesting. Plus, we had a bunch of other stuff coming up that was much more commercial, straight up, so I didn't want to have that trajectory of going more and more commercial. Not that there was any grand plan, but the reality was it was just easier because we could get something done quick while we were in the rather long process of getting one of the bigger films going. I just fancied making something, really. Did your own process in making this one surprise you? At least in designing some of the more abstract sequences?

Wheatley: I see it as a reasonably straightforward film. It's the same as I did with Kill List. I never put Kill List together and then watched it and thought everyone would be confused by it. And this one equally. It's slightly oblique, but the story is really straight. On one level it's a men-on-a-mission movie, and they have a specific thing they want to do, and they either do or don't do it.

I think it depends how you go to movies. If I hadn't watched stuff like Eraserhead or Inland Empire or any of [Andrei] Tarkovsky's movies, then I might be a bit more nervy about it. But when I can watch a movie like Andrei Rublev or Stalker and you feel like everything is going over your head but it doesn't matter, then that's fine. In this, you have a very precise understanding of theology. But when you watch Andrei Rublev, it may not have that knowledge, and that's intentional. That's why when people say, "This movie's really hard and weird and abstract," I just want to say, "Well go watch Stalker then and f**king come back to me. Go watch The Mirror. Those are hard films!" So are you surprised by those kind of reactions to A Field and England and Kill List?

Wheatley: I'm not really surprised, no. Everyone has a different subset of tastes. On an egotistical level you get worried that people won't like your stuff, but that only starts to happen after you've made the film. Before the film's finished, you go, "Well this is it, this is the vision." But once it's out, and people go "Wait, what?" you do think "Well maybe I should have done..." But it's too late. It's only when you start to think about that one person's questions while you're actually making it that the vision is in trouble. Since this is a period piece and shows how people's clearly limited knowledge of things plays into how easily controlled they are by another's ideas, it's hard not to see it as judgmental of a time when people didn't necessarily think for themselves, but do you think that still applies today?

Wheatley: Nothing really moves forward, does it? I think there's a certain amount of conformity, that we all have masters we have to follow in a family unit, in a national unit. Those things are a universal issue and always well be. But then you're also in control of other people that rely on you as well. How closely do you work with the screenwriter ahead of time to build toward some of the film's more visual moments?

Wheatley: I write with Amy [Jump] a lot. She cowrote Kill List as well. But this one she wrote on her own. And she writes in such a dense way that it's impossible to unthink it, you know what I mean? There were lots of notes that came back on that script, and we didn't use any of them. You change one word of it, and it all falls to pieces. I trust the structures of the things she writes. I write a lot on my own, and yet I can't write like her at all. I can't get my head around how she does it.

There are bits that I may pull out while I'm shooting and make a bigger moment out of them than maybe her description in the script, but we try to find a way of working together where the script is much more of a document that becomes the film, as opposed to this additional thing. Most script writing, if you read the books on how to do it, they say scripts need to be vanilla and that you should leave so much up to the director, and I think that's bulls**t. It's probably fine advice if you're writing spec scripts and sending them off to Hollywood and you'll never be involved with them, but for us... we edit together. There should be no ego in this process. We try to find a style of writing that already has the imagery in it. We discuss altering it a bit, but she's as much an author of that film as I am.

For instance, we're doing High Rise at the moment. She's written the script for that, and it's very very detailed, and now we're working on the storyboards together. I try to quiz her about things like the meaning of a specific word, or the subtext of an idea, so we can get it all out there rather than me having to f**king analyze a nightmarishly complicated document and hope I get it right so we don't have a chat in the edit suite where she says, "What were you thinking?" So will High Rise be the next film for you?

Wheatley: Yeah. That's what we're saying at the moment, at least. We're sure that's not a $200 million movie or anything of that size, but it's a bit of a change for you in that there will be many more layers above you and gates of approval. Have you found that to be the case?

Wheatley: Crazily, I think High Rise seems to be business as usual for us. I think everyone is supportive because we are servicing the book, and as Jeremy Thomas, the producer, says, that's the shield that protects us in a way. There is more money, but I also don't know that money ever makes anything any easier. I've worked on ads and things before with huge budgets. A couple months ago I did something where we spent £1.5 million in three days, so that scale of it doesn't worry me. And with ads and TV you have to navigate yourself through a whole new hierarchy as well, so it's not a worry. It's exciting, is what it is. It will be quite a bold film. What was it about High Rise that made you want to make it your next film?

Wheatley: I was just sitting at home and saw it on a bookshelf and thought, "F**k, no one's made that yet!" And then I looked into it and realized there'd actually been quite an effort to make it for several years. I talked to my agent and he said "Sorry, they're already making it with someone else." But I thought, "I'll just find out" and I got in contact with Jeremy and had a meet with him and he was very excited. It was a stars were aligning kind of thing because I came right as their deal with the other filmmakers was ending, and I just kept saying I was really interested in doing it. It wasn't like I got called in to do it. It was almost on a whim, like the whole thing just came out of the ether. I pitched for it and they loved it, and that's it. For a few years now your work has been receiving more and more acclaim all over the globe, and when that happens to an international filmmaker there's this assumption the next step is to start flying to Hollywood and meeting with all the studios. Is that something that's ever interested you?

Wheatley: I've actually been going out to L.A. since 2000 or 2002. That was the first time I came out, and it was for TV actually. There's interest in what I've been doing, definitely, but I'm quite frustrating for my L.A. agent because I'm always working. You've got to invest in the Hollywood thing. You have to go out there and take a lot of meetings and read a lot of scripts and be available for that whole process, and I'm just never available. It's not as easy for me.

But I'm doing this HBO thing at the moment. It's called Silk Road. They came to me after Kill List and said they really liked it and asked if I could develop something. A year or so later I finally had an idea, so I pitched it and they really liked it. We've written the pilot script for that, and there will be a bit more meetings before anything happens, but it's on the road to becoming a pilot.

From my earliest memories and understanding of cinema, we had a book called The Talkies. I don't know if you had it here, but it was filled with stills from every major film in a year. The one I had went up to '77, to Star Wars, and I used to look through it and go, "f**k, this is amazing!" and so for me, as an indie filmmaker, the idea that you wouldn't go to Hollywood and make a movie is weird. I mean, that's got to be one of your life goals, right? The difference is whether you and stay there or not. And that's not necessarily what I want to do.

I think it would be kind of an interesting thing to do, and see what it was like to make a movie that would end up in a book like that, but life goals can be much smaller and equally exciting. Like on A Field of England, when we did the shootout and the puff of dust goes up off the gun, I thought, f**k! I've never done that in a film before! It's simple, but that's like one of the founding blocks of cinema as far as I'm concerned and I'd never done it. I've also never rolled a car, and I want to get to roll a car. That's kind of how I look at it. As long as you go into it understanding the structure and context of what you're doing for yourself, nothing can be too bad.





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