Ben Wheatley, director of A Field in England - interview
The Sightseers director talks about the horror, filming in B&W and working with comedians
Ben Wheatley has a background in TV, working with the likes of Steve Coogan, Johnny Vegas and Matt Berry on shows including Modern Toss and Ideal. 2010 saw the release of his directorial debut suburban crime thriller Down Terrace swiftly followed by the gritty hitman/horror movie Kill List (2011) and black comedy Sightseers (2012). Wheatley has a very distinct style mixing the mundane with moments shocking violence and twisted humour. A Field in England is his first period piece, set during the English Civil War; it will also be the first film in the UK to be released simultaneously on multiple formats on the same day, with a cinema, DVD and video on demand release all coinciding with a screening on Film4 the same night (5 July).
How did you first make the leap from TV work to making your first feature?
It was very simple things like getting old: I didn't want to have got to 40 without having made a film and I've made enough excuses, so just got together with a group of likeminded friends just going, 'so are we actually going to do this?' We all had different skills, I had post production skills and I'd shot a lot of TV stuff so we just made Down Terrace. To us it didn't really matter if it was good or bad - it was just a relief that we'd made something. Then we watched it back and we were really happy, it's actually okay, then another reality starts to open up after that. We never presumed anything - what we were high on was just a group of people coming together and making something and everything after that was just gravy. The actual epiphany was just going, 'I am allowed to do it and I am going to do it' after years of, 'oh god it's too expensive', but it actually isn't if you do it right.
Could you give us a brief synopsis of A Field in England in your own words?
The film is set during the English Civil War, in which a bunch of soldiers desert from the battlefield and end up trying to escape through the countryside and end up in the clutches of this fellow who is trying to find treasure in a magical field. That's the concise version. On some levels it's pretty straightforward but in other's it's not, it's kind of odd.
What attracted you to the Civil War setting?
It's quite unsexy, the Civil War, in the same way that folk music is looked down upon and I always find that intriguing why things are unfashionable. I got involved with a battle re-enactment society while I was trying to make a documentary and it just started to intrigue me further and once I started down that route I was hooked. It was basically the melting pot for the whole of modern western civilisation from that point onwards, where everyone was radicalised for the first time, a lot of we know now was set up during that period.
You make dark dramas but they are often classified as horror, do you like being associated with the genre?
The whole idea of genre and categorising films is a critic's construct. For me I just try and make stories and see where they go but there's nothing wrong with horror, there's nothing wrong with romantic comedies. The only genre I have any problem with is musicals but that's just my own tastes it's nothing to do with the films. I don't have any kind of attitude towards them being called horror films - there are elements of unease and terror - but then there are elements of unease and terror in real life. There's a Kim Newman book, Nightmare Movies, where he goes on about Taxi Driver being an urban horror movie and I think he's right.
Why did you go for black & white for A Field in England?
It came out of just chatting with DOP [Director of Photography] Laurie Rose and we just thought, 'fuck it lets do something in black & white.' It was as arbitrary as that, just thinking, 'what can we make in black & white?' Then watching things like Culloden and other Peter Watkins' movies and really loving that black & white 60s style, and then looking at arthouse films from the 60s and 70s. Laurie and I did lots of camera tests before going into the film and we just fell in love it and that idea that, when you see a colour image vs a black & white image, there's something very unfussy about black & white, and your eye is drawn to different parts of the screen, faces basically, much more than with colour. When you look at a colourised version of a black & white image it looks like a very gaudy made up thing, whereas the black & white looks more real, weirdly. The film was meant to be in colour at the start but we found the colour didn't look real any more so we ditched it.
A Field in England isn't a comedy but once again you are working with a lot of actors associated with comedy: Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh), Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen/Psychoville) and Michael Smiley (Spaced). What is it you like about working with that type of actor?
I've always worked with comedy actors or people who have been stand-ups - if you look at Down Terrace and Kill List as well. I'm just comfortable with those kind of performers. With the script, Amy [Jump] had written it with people in mind so it was one of those things that came together organically. Originally I'd met up with Reece Shearsmith though my agent and got on with him really well - myself and Amy are massive fans of his work in League of Gentleman so it made sense to us. He's got an incredible depth of knowledge about horror films and those period movies by Hammer and Tigon so it was brilliant to have him around.
You have said that A Field in England is a prequel to Kill List, or has this comment been over exaggerated?
We did think of it as that but in the most oblique way. In the same way that Kill List doesn't really give anything away. But we like to think of it as in continuity with the movie, but I think of all of them as in continuity, with Sightseers, Down Terrace and Kill List as sitting together on a similar time line. we were almost gonna have, but it turned out to be too complicated to do, Jay and Gal [Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley's respective characters in Kill List] driving along next to the caravan in Sightseers or at a service station where their roads crossover. But this is the early version of what becomes the cult in Kill List … maybe.
Did you enjoy going back and making a short as part of The ABCs of Death?
It was great. I was quite lucky that year as I did that and I made a short for FrightFest which had zombies in it and I got to make a little vampire film for ABCs. That high genre stuff that I probably wouldn't get to do properly as a feature but it's the kind of stuff I love watching. The zombie stuff I love so much but it's been done so much it feels played out and vampires are the same, so I would never sit down and write a feature but to do it for a couple of days was fantastic.
This is the first film in the UK to get a cinema, video on demand and DVD release as well as screening on Film4 on the same day. How do you feel about that as the director?
It started with Kill List being on TV and seeing the reaction that got, it gave it a whole new lease of life and I just thought, 'it's a shame it gets that so late in the day, it would be great to get that right form the start.' The DVD should feed off the TV, backwards and forwards, and feed into the theatrical. I know some people are going, 'but will it affect the theatrical box-office?' But I don't think so, it's only on about 12 screens, if it was a total saturation release that might be different but it's hard work to see it at the cinema for most people outside of London so why not let them see it. If they want to own it they can get it on DVD or VOD but if they can't afford to go and see it they can just watch it on TV. It's about people seeing it which is what this whole racket's about really.
What are you working on next?
We decided that we'd always have a script ready which is how we've managed to make a film every year for the last four years. The script we're working on next was written a couple of years ago. Freak Shift, which is a sci-fi police thing set in America, is hopefully what we'll be working on next which will hopefully start at the beginning of next year, but there's all kinds of other things in the pipe line - I'm working on something for HBO at the moment.
A Field in England is available via cinemas, DVD, VOD and Film4 on July 5.