A Field in England Exclusive Interview with Director Ben Wheatley
British filmmaker Ben Wheatley is developing a diverse filmography of truly unorthodox and compelling movies that have to be seen to be believed. His films such as Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers (along with his "U is for Unearthed segment in The ABCs of Death) make it utterly clear that this is a filmmaker with a unique voice that deserves to be noticed.
His latest offering, A Field in England, which debuts in limited theaters and on VOD February 7, is incredibly different than his previous offerings, following a group of deserters in 17th Century England who are captured by a powerful alchemist, who is seeking a vast treasure buried somewhere in a massive field. I recently had the chance to chat with Ben Wheatley over the phone, during his one day off from directing the first two Season 8 episodes of Doctor Who, where he spoke about how he found the actual field they shot in, production challenges and much more.
Can you first talk about your writing process with Amy Jump and how you both write together?
Ben Wheatley: Well, she wrote the script on this one, so she's got the sole writing credit. How it works is, I had written various versions of this over the past 10 years, and we started talking about doing it after we had done Sightseers. We had a couple of conversations, and she had done a lot of research with the scripts I had written. Then she wrote her own script and I looked at it, and she had changed all the character names and all the action and all the dialogue, so there was nothing left I had written. We had a conversation about it, and the script was really good, so I just went, 'Fuck it. It's fine.' I've got nothing to add to this, because it's really good. It went through a couple of more drafts that she did, but at that point, I took my name off it, because I couldn't take credit for that, even though I had been working on it for awhile. We've been together for so long, and we've been writing together for so long, I know when... I still have a bit of ego about these things, but not enough to kick off. I certainly didn't want to get into a situation of me rewriting it, just for the sake of it, just to get in there. So, that was it. On other scripts, it's different. The Freak Shift script, is backwards and forwards, and Kill List was more like a polish, where she came in and rewrote bits of dialogue and tightened up the structure, but she didn't do as much writing on that one. Sightseers, she came in and rewrote on top of Alice (Lowe) and Steve (Oram)'s stuff. The new High-Rise script, she wrote totally without me, just adapting from the book. It's always different, basically.
Can you talk about the visual style you wanted to portray in this? It's in black-and-white, so was that always something you always had in mind?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, I had wanted to make a black-and-white movie. These things start from quite modest ideas. I had a few conversations about how lovely these new cameras look, how the Red looks, and what it would look like to make a black-and-white film. So, we started playing around with that thought, and that came together with the idea of doing a Civil War movie. I'm a big fan of Peter Watkins' Culloden, so we watched a bit of that. I was talking to Andrew Starke, one of the producers on the film, about what we wanted to do. He said it sounded a bit like Onibaba, so we watched a bit of that. Then, after that, (cinematographer) Laurie (Rose) and I experimented with a lot of different cameras, and that's where we got into this whole thing about building lenses. We started playing around with those, and we really liked them.
How much time did you actually have to shoot this?
Ben Wheatley: It was very quick, 12 days. But, you know, something I've found from TV... for instance, I'm shooting Doctor Who at the moment, and on that, the turnaround is about half an hour. You shoot one way, then you've got to turn around and shoot the other, and it takes half an hour to do the lights, which is pretty quick, by cinema standards. You only get two or three takes out of the actors, and you're running up against it, because there are so many other things involved. With a film like A Field in England, the crew is very small and you can't really light, because you're outdoors and everything is natural. So, in a way, this 12 days is 12 days of acting time. You're on camera within five minutes of the beginning of the day. There's no setup, there's no waiting around. In a lot of stuff, it takes you two hours before you can get a shot out of someone. On that film, every minute of the day, we were acting, and doing the scenes. In a way, even though it sounds like there's not much time to do it, there's actually a lot more time than there is on a conventional movie.
Can you talk about the actual field you shot in? Was that a place you had envisioned for awhile, or did you have a particular place in mind? You said you had been working on this for a number of years, so did you have an area in mind when you were writing this?
Ben Wheatley: No, I can't even remember how it came about, that field. I think it had to do with, you need to be in a valley, so you don't see anything modern. England is a very small place, and there's power lines everywhere and houses and shit. That was the first thing, and that narrows it down. So, we ended up in Guildford, somewhere, and this just felt really nice. There was something a bit odd about it, and what it was, oddly, was the topsoil was very thin. It was only about an inch or so, and underneath it was sand. I've never seen anywhere like that before, so it kind of stunted the grass, it couldn't grow very high, and it made it very straw-like. It also meant it wasn't very muddy. It was an odd place. They were filming Thor: The Dark World down the road from us, and the field we were in was used as a car park when they were doing Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, so a lot of stuff is filmed around that area. Jack the Giant Slayer was filmed down there as well. It's a weirdly active film area, around that spot.
When this debuted in England, I read a lot of theories that this field was described as a purgatory, essentially, that these men had already died and they were living out this scene in purgatory. Could you address those theories at all, and was that the intent of what you were going for?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, I mean, that's a theory. Those aspects are definitely in there. I think that's a legitimate reading of it, but for a film that barely has any exposition in it, I'm not going to explain it, because it seems pointless (Laughs), or I would have put it in the film. It's the same with all the films I've made. I'm a big believer that, as soon as you explain stuff, it's just boring. When you go around to an art gallery, and they have those blocks of text by the paintings, you don't look at the picture, you just read the text, and then you look at the picture and go, 'Oh, yeah.' Then you're in a dialogue between that text and the painting. You're not thinking for yourself, and I think the act of trying to work stuff out, is part of the experience of the film. That feeling that you are disorientated, and you're desperately trying to find meaning, is a legitimate feeling. I know that some people think that is a failure, but this comes from those how-to-write-script books, which seem to be written by accountants, you know. This idea that everything has to have a very precise, easily explainable plot point is just bullshit. Also, when you read these guidebooks, you must also look at IMDB and see what they've written. None of them have written anything, of any note. It always makes me wonder.
I've read plenty of those books, and I'm always surprised to find that they usually haven't written anything at all.
Ben Wheatley: You know, in the Gold Rush in America? The guys who made all the money were the guys who sold the miners bait and tents. They made much more money than the gold miners ever made. That's what those books are. They're selling dreams. It's not a reality.
Ben Wheatley: There's nothing I can say that won't get me fired, I don't think (Laughs). It's been really brilliant working with Peter Capaldi. He's really amazing, and Jenna (Coleman) is really great as well. I'm afraid my quotes will be the usual love-in (Laughs), just going on about how everything is brilliant. I've been a fan of the show since I was a kid, and my son really loves it. To be working on a show that I can actually show my kids, is pretty important, at the moment. That's all great. I've been in the TARDIS, and I've held the Sonic Screwdriver, and all these things are high points to me. It's all good, you know. I'm really enjoying working with the crews here in Wales. The teams here are all hard-working. The shoots are really complicated and hard to make. My admiration for the other directors in the other seasons is huge. It's a tough gig. They write it like it's Hollywood, and it doesn't have the budget of it, at all. Everything is done very, very quick, but yeah, it's very, very cool. I've got two weeks left on it, and it's gone very, very fast. This is my one day off this week, so I'm just lying here panting, trying to catch my breath. You look at the schedules each day and go, 'Oh my God, are we ever going to get through this?' On a normal drama, it'd be just people talking in rooms, but you have a massive corridor that explodes and a robot and a thing (Laughs). But yeah, it's been great.
Is there anything you're developing next you can talk about?
Ben Wheatley: Next up is J.G. Ballard's High-Rise, so we're doing that straight after Doctor Who, hopefully. There should be some announcements coming up, but that's written and done, and hopefully that will go in July. It's a script that's written by Amy, so yeah, it's going to be very good. We're really excited about that. She's written a brilliant script, and the book is fantastic.
Just to wrap up, what would you like to say to anyone who might be on the fence, or curious about A Field in England, about why they should give it a chance in theaters or on VOD?
Ben Wheatley: How would I convince them to watch it? I don't know (Laughs). Basically, the project for us was to make something that's uncompromising and was like the midnight cinema of the 80s. There was an audience that wasn't mainstream, and when you look at those movies, they're totally individual, and they take no prisoners. We wanted to make a movie that was like that, which you'd happily watch after a few cups of coffee and a few beers, and you'd come away from it feeling like you've been properly spoken to. If you like those kinds of films, then go and see it. If you want something that totally explains itself inside and out, then don't. I always think that even the most mainstream of films these days are completely weird, when you step back and actually think about them. There's nothing straightforward about a Transformers movie. Those things, you have no idea what's going on. They make literally no narrative sense. It's almost like the high end of mainstream cinema has looped around and is meeting arthouse, I think, when I watch these films.
That's about all I have. Thanks so much, Ben. It was a real pleasure talking to you.
Ben Wheatley: No worries. Thank you, man. Cheers.