Ben Wheatley’s filmography defies easy categorization. With just four films under his belt, Wheatley has directed a dysfunctional family mobster melodrama (Down Terrace), a hitman cult horror tragedy (Kill List) and a romantic serial-killer comedy (Sightseers). His latest, A Field In England (released last year in the UK, Friday here in the US), is perhaps his oddest amalgamation yet: a psychedelic supernatural wartime period piece, harkening back to the experimental genre pictures of English provocateur Ken Russell. In a (well…) field in England, four war deserters are taken captive by an alchemist and forced to search for a buried treasure. As the characters descend into petty grievance and madness, the film itself begins to mirror their mental state, the reality of what’s on screen coming into question. It’s another strong heady entry from Wheatley, who has rightly been heralded as one of the best new English filmmakers today.
In the following interview with Wheatley, he discusses the resurgence of artsploitation films, Ken Russell’s The Devils and accolades from Martin Scorsese & Nicolas Roeg. In addition Wheatley, currently shooting the first two episodes of the upcoming Doctor Who season, gives updates on his next motion picture High Rise and his (supposed) American film debut Freakshift. For the full interview, hit the jump. A Field in England opens in the U.S. on February 7th.
BEN WHEATLEY: Yeah – that was a long time ago. That was a pretty interesting time.
Well – I was looking at the British one-sheet for A Field In England and I noticed that Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout) has a pull quote on there. I can’t imagine a more appropriate bit of accolade for the film…
WHEATLEY: I was lucky enough to have a contact that could invite [Nicolas Roeg] to a very early screening. I had never met him before and I was obviously a massive, massive fan of his. I met him after the screening and I thought I was just being cheeky really but I asked if he could give us a quote. And he gave us that. The thing is — and not to say anything bad about critics – but Nicolas Roeg definitely means a bit more. And now we have Martin Scorsese on the American poster.
Yeah I saw that – Scorsese for the US release and Roeg for the UK. Those are great appraisals…
WHEATLEY: Yeah — I mean, you know… fuck. For me getting to meet these [filmmakers] is one of the most incredible, honest treats of working in the industry. It just blows my mind.
Looking at A Field in England, it definitely has that late 60s/early 70s artsploitation Nicolas Roeg, Ken Russell vibe…
WHEATLEY: There’s a load of movies in there: Winstanley [d. Kenvin Brownlow], Culloden [d. Peter Watkins] and like you say Ken Russell. I mean it’s not quite there with the true fucking mania of Ken Russell. I was at Fantastic Fest this year and they asked me to program a film to go with A Field In England. The Devils is what I picked. I had never seen a film print of the picture.
That’s such a terrific film.
WHEATLEY: Oh my god — It blew my fucking mind. And to see it massive like that on the big screen with an audience that had never seen it was just incredible. It was unfortunate though programming that next to A Field in England. It makes A Field in England feel really awful. I mean programming your film next to The Devils – a genius film like that. Everything else just seems like shit.
I mean you don’t see many of these avant-garde exploitation films nowadays –
WHEATLEY: Well – I don’t know about that. I think [these type of films] are on the rise. Enter the Void for one. There are some really interesting movies being made nowadays.
Then I’m interested — how difficult was it to find financing for A Field In England?
WHEATLEY: It wasn’t very hard to get the money at all, because the movie cost so little. The budget was three hundred thousand pounds. So it cost less than a half hour of TV. It was a no-brainer. And I think there’s an audience for it. Audiences grow and change. Time flows. I mean [A Field In England] isn’t The Bourne Identity. It won’t do that sort of business. But it has a life beyond just another straight to DVD horror or action pic.
I agree – The highlight of the film has to be that strobing sequence/montage towards the end of the film. I’m interested how much of that was planned ahead of time versus discovered while you were editing the picture?
WHEATLEY: It was a bit of both. I already knew that there would be that final montage. I obviously had shot a lot of footage I knew was going to be in it. I knew that the sequence itself would be the folding in of the movie, a folding in of time. People say it’s quite a departure for me. But it’s really not that different from Sightseers in many ways. It’s a bit slower cut, but it does the same thing where it jumps backward and forwards in time. It’s just a much more extreme version of that.
There is a similar thematic pattern to a lot of your films – in that they all concern characters with a very rigid sense of principles, in A Field In England it’s the religious fervor of Whitehead, and the films themselves seem to be about testing those principles and laying them bare…
WHEATLEY: That’s just life. You’re a body but you’re also a set of ideas. The times you feel like you’re most alive are when those ideas are put into question. You either shit or get off the pot. Are you just a talking machine that just fucking spits out a load of garbage or are you a creature that actually has the fucking sense to stand up for what you believe in? As a person, talking for myself, I’m surprised at times how terribly fucking shallow I am. I never know when I’m going to step up. Whether I’m going to absolutely fail or be completely surprised how civilized and nice I am. I don’t know. So I think that’s part of that… And fundamentally that’s what most films are. That crucible of setting up interesting characters, having their ideals tested, finding out whether they’re shits or not. A lot of that ‘journey of the hero’ stuff. It’s just fundamental story.
Looking ahead — I heard you’re gearing up to make an American film now — Freakshift — What’s the status on that picture?
WHEATLEY: First I’m going to do High Rise, based on the book by [JG] Ballard. So that will happen in July and then Freakshift will happen hopefully after. I think it’s hard to say [what will happen with Freakshift]. I’ve made the cardinal error of talking up projects much too far in advance. If you Google me, there’s about a million things that will come up.
Well I understand now you’re directing the new Doctor Who episodes…
WHEATLEY: Yeah — I’m actually shooting them right now.
How is it shooting an episode of Doctor Who?
WHEATLEY: It’s very good. It’s very tiring and it’s a lot of stuff to do very quickly. Peter Capaldi is excellent and I’ve been able to go into the TARDIS and do all this stuff I always dreamt of doing as a nine year old. So I’m in the process right now of achieving my childhood dreams.
A Field In England will be in theaters and available on VOD February 7th