Director Ben Wheatley on A Field In England
Ben Wheatley’s first feature, Down Terrace, made on a microbudget of just £6000, announced the arrival of a bold and adventurous new British director. Violent, with a wry sense of humour, Down Terrace was the opposite of a thriller – the killings revelled in a bleak, banal inevitability. He followed Down Terrace up with Kill List, a film that starts out as a tense, claustrophobic crime caper, before taking a sharp left turn into murder, madness and mysticism. With Sightseers, the comedic elements were pushed to the fore, as co-writers and stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram embarked on a blood-soaked caravan holiday around the twee tourist traps of England. All three films (and, arguably, Wheatley’s previous work, as a television director on shows including Ideal and Modern Toss) explore the weirdness hidden underneath the veneer of ordinary British culture.
“I think if you scratch the surface of life, there’s a lot of weirdness underneath,” says Wheatley, speaking from his home in Brighton. “I don't think it’s exclusive to England.” And yet, his films are quintessentially English, revelling in the kind of self-deprecating humour and bleakly hilarious understatement that’s peculiar to the English national character. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, to learn that Wheatley, a self-confessed history buff, has always wanted to make a film about the English Civil War.
A Field In England sees him reunite with Amy Jump, his writing partner on each of his features apart from Down Terrace. Also his wife, Jump gets full credit for the script of Field... “The last version, I’d given to Ames and she'd done her version,” says Wheatley. “When I looked at it, she’d changed the character names and the characters. She changed the title of the film, and every action in it. So at that point I had to take my name off it.” He gives a deep, throaty chuckle.
The script’s psychedelic elements are perhaps its most interesting feature – the consumption of magic mushrooms, and the attendant myths and legends that surround their use and presence in the British landscape, drive the plot. “There were some really interesting bits of folklore, like the mushroom circle, which is seen as a portal into another world, and where time moves at a different speed,” explains Wheatley. A mushroom circle is the locus of the film’s action. “If you go into a mushroom circle, you need four men and a rope to pull you out of it, otherwise you could be stuck there for months.” Jump and Wheatley researched the use of psilocybin in the seventeenth century: “Then there was a lot of stuff about magic men going around blowing dust into people’s faces, which was basically ground up magic mushrooms. That part of the research really spoke to me.”
The character of the ‘magic man’ in Field... is taken by regular Wheatley collaborator Michael Smiley, perhaps still best known as the madcap, MDMA-ravaged bicycle courier from Spaced, but increasingly recognisable for the complex, palpably menacing anti-heroes he plays in Wheatley's films. “In terms of what he means on a metaphorical level throughout the three films, I don't know. I wouldn't want to put my finger on it,” says Wheatley. “He’s a romantic character, but he's an angry character. He’s trapped by his own anger, and I feel that a lot. There’s a melancholy in Michael that I really like, he grounds the film. He gives it soul. That’s in his eyes.”
Smiley is the villain of the piece, but as with every Wheatley film, it’s never that simple. All of his characters are vividly human, frail, vain, and full of contradictions. The main protagonist of Field... is played by League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith, turning in a performance which oscillates between nervous naïveté and bug-eyed lunacy; Richard Glover, last seen as the hapless bike enthusiast Martin in Sightseers, is also on fine form; and there is a cameo from Julian Barratt. Peter Ferdinando’s character – a foul-mouthed, pessimistic Cockney soldier – is also a powerful creation.
Casting Barratt in a small role was “a punt” according to Wheatley – he was one of the actor’s on Jump’s wishlist, and he was available. They met Shearsmith through Michael Smiley: “Michael had taken Reece along to see Down Terrace when it played in London, so I met him then.” Wheatley says he is “a massive League of Gentlemen fan,” and even found himself a little starstruck when meeting Shearsmith.
Part of the film’s appeal is its visual aesthetic – shot in black and white, it echoes the expansive landscapes of Sightseers, with long panning shots of the bleak, rain-sodden English fields of the title. As the drugs kick in, everything gets a bit weirder, with Wheatley and director of photography Laurie Rose using hand-made lenses cobbled together from children’s telescopes to achieve some macroscopic detail in close-ups. “We wanted to be free to experiment in the kinds of ways that are just much more difficult on a bigger budget,” says Wheatley. “There was this idea that we were in a period before cinema, so the rules of cinema don't necessarily apply. There are other types of aesthetic involved in that period. So the tableau vivant stuff in Field... is mimicking painting, and the woodcuts from the pamphleteering, which was going on at the time.” These tableau vivants are some of the film’s starkest and strangest images. The lonely, mysterious psychedelia of Field... captures something of the epic strangeness and solitude of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and the desolate, cross-cut, abstract psychedelia of Valhalla Rising.
“I think if you scratch the surface of life, there's a lot of weirdness underneath” – Ben Wheatley
Shots of rippling wheat fields and grey, clouded skies dominate. It’s a fecund, if bleak and almost empty landscape. “The field is a thing in itself,” says Wheatley elliptically. “That’s why you’ve got a lot of characters pissing and getting their cocks out, and doing these kind of earthy things. The earth and the ground are much more important to them.” Now, he says, “we just visit it occasionally. We might go out with our thermals on and our waterproof trousers, tiptoe around a mountain for five minutes and go back to a gastropub... but if you did this in that era, you’d die.” Wheatley laughs again. “It’s a fact – you’d go up there, and you’d die! These things aren’t to be messed around with.”
The scenes of the characters sitting around a meagre campfire, telling tales and singing songs, and the latter part of the movie, which contains some epic, psilocybin-assisted gunplay, definitely give the impression that the soldiers were what Wheatley describes as “prototype cowboys.” He explains: “This was something that came to us when we were shooting, which seems bleeding obvious now, but at the time it was a bit of a revelation,” he says. “Once they started stalking around with those hats on, firing pistols, we realised: these are cowboys! Guys like this, after the Civil War, would have gone off to America, and were doing so, to escape religious persecution.”
Shot on a shoestring budget, with complete creative freedom, Field... is a very different proposition to Wheatley’s next film, Freakshift, a high-octane urban fantasy where rugged bounty hunters take on armies of mythological creatures. It’s perhaps his first film to court the tastes and interests of the so-called ‘tentpole movie’ audience. Wheatley doesn’t find the scale of Freakshift intimidating in the slightest: “That side of it’s never been a worry – how you work with more people, or with sets and sound stages, or any of that stuff. It’s more the back room stuff, the production and financing.” It is, he admits, “complicated”, and “kind of saps your will to live”. He says the biggest challenge on a long shoot is that the director is not allowed to take time off if they are sick. Once again, he proves he is every bit as self-deprecating and understated as his characters: “That’s not a very interesting insight, is it?”
Perhaps not, but with Wheatley, the work speaks for itself – nuanced, deeply human, skilfully combining pitch-black humour and visual flair, he’s one of a generation of British filmmakers slowly establishing themselves as among the most creative and interesting voices in world cinema. As our conversation comes to a close, we discuss the future of the film industry, and his motivations for staying in it. “It’s the question of ‘why do you do it?’” he says. The answer he comes up with is devastatingly simple: “I do it because I want to make films.”