Ben Wheatley started as an animator and short filmmaker before doing viral videos (on purpose, not in an accidental and embarrassing way). With his friend Robin Hill, he made “cunning stunt,” one of the most popular viral videos in the mid-aughts. The success of the video and Wheatley’s interest in “the democratization of media” led to more viral videos, and eventually commercials. His feature films, Down Terrace, Kill List, and Sightseers are all available on Netflix. Wheatley’s latest, A Field in England, is available digitally through Drafthouse Films. Penned by his wife, Amy Jump, it’s about five men searching for treasure in a field. It’s about being high on mushrooms. It’s about nature, textures, paranoia, and doubt. It’s less pulpy and psychedelic than the marketing has sold, and more of a slow and serious arthouse film. There are more haunting moments than trippy ones, which works great in a movie that’s as much about the frightening power dynamics between humans as it is about the BUT MY HANDS LOOK SO WEIRDness of drugs. Think avant-garde Shakespeare meets a creeping sense of panic. Wheatley is currently filming the first two episodes of the upcoming Doctor Who series, and was kind enough to do a phone interview with me last week. We talked about A Field in England, haters, and his developing projects.
EH: I watched A Field in England a few hours ago, and something I was expecting to be disappointed by was a burst of color, because of the hallucinogens, and I was really happy to see that not happen.
BW: The color thing’s interesting, you know, I would be lying if I said we didn’t consider that. It’s the obvious way forward, isn’t it? We looked at it, and what was really bizarre was that the color footage looked really unreal. It looked really fake up against the black and white stuff. They look like they’re in costumes. And I couldn’t quite work out why that was. We had a few theories on it, but basically the black and white perception is about texture, it’s all about the grass, the creases, the midlights.
With color, you’re dealing with the red of the jacket and the blue of the sky, the yellow of the grass, then you have to process the texture on top of that. I had never really thought about it before, but I think that black and white in many ways is much more direct because you have less to process. And at the end of the day with cinema, especially with people, because the way that you’re built to process people’s faces, you process the eyes first and then in a triangle down to the mouth to work out what their expressions mean. Everything else your brain basically jumps. It’s not that interested in the stuff around it.
We found this out through, if you ever have a problem with a shot that’s out of focus, what they tend to do is sharpen the eyes. Doesn’t matter about the rest of the image, and you can see that picture as being in focus. It’s a very odd thing. Of course when you’re watching a color movie and it’s all in color you don’t have to think about these things, but as soon as you have to deal with one after the other you start to notice it. So it’s very jarring to suddenly have to process an image in a different way, especially the way that we did it in this film. You already had like forty minutes before the chance of seeing something in color. You’re already in one mode.
EH: It was great to see that editing display more about framing. Did the fact that you filmed in black and white allow for more playfulness and expression?
BW: In terms of the editing, the playfulness, I dunno. There were probably plenty of things we could have done in color which would have been pretty amazing. But we were happy with the look of it and the way it was working. I mean there were difficult questions, people being “Well why are you doing it in black and white?” And it’s a horrid cliche, but one of the buttons to press is that to do things in black and white makes people think it’s the past. In the same way that handheld footage makes people think of reality, and lots of footage doesn’t, because you experience things in a handheld mode, generally. And also news reporting is done in handheld. It’s a kind of quick association in the mind. I don’t mind going there, and I don’t mind going there with the black and white.
EH: Another thing about the editing, and how jarring it can be, is that it seemed like something that was informed by the internet. There are a lot of GIFable moments, and there are a lot of things that reminded me of hyperactive YouTube videos, like the exchanges of framing.
BW: I mean I think you could trace that stuff back to the ’60s. That’s Stan Brakhage and it’s Anthony Balch, those kinds of guys. If you’ve seen those Burroughs-Balch movies like Towers Open Fire. I think digital editing equipment obviously allows you to cut in a way that you couldn’t cut before. I mean you literally—it was difficult to cut film that fast because when they do the negative cuts, you know, the frame in and the frame out has to be destroyed on the negative, to cut that quick. So you literally couldn’t cut frame after frame after frame like that, otherwise the negative would’ve fallen apart. You’d have to make an alternate print. So, that stuff would have been tricky—and very expensive—and also handheld! It would’ve taken you a hundred years to cut it like that on a Steenbeck. So that kind of look has taken a bit more time to come through, but I reckon some of that stuff feels like it’s come from Easy Rider as well. The cutting in and outs. Easy Rider, I remember seeing that when I was a kid and that always kind of stuck with me.
EH: You started on the internet, have you seen more inventive editing strategies or anything like that, that you don’t see in most movies?
BW: I went to an art school, and I did film at art school and video installation, and that kind of cutting was something we had been experimenting with for a long time. We used to do it back on the three-machine edit, tape based. You get a shot and then duplicate it onto two other tapes, and then run them out—or slightly out—of sync, and then use a mix between them very very quickly. Then you take the third tape, which you’d place into the ‘player in’ so then you’d cut the fast-cut tape with the normal back onto another tape, and you keep going down like that until you get these splices of cuts. I mean it wasn’t as controllable as the digital equipment is, but it had the same thing where you were basically almost cutting faster than the frame rate, because the image would be coming in as a fade at like five percent on one frame so it was then going out, going in super quick. That kind of look I’ve been playing around with for a long time.
EH: Did you shoot on film?
BW: No we shot on Red Epic, and we shot on Canon C300 as well. Some of it we shot on prime lenses and some of it we shot on these kind of lomo plastic lenses that we bought of the internet. It’s kind of a weird mixture of ultra-hightech and lowtech. The ARRI ALEXA is being used for everything from soap operas to James Bond and the look of that camera is all the same. And it’s trying to find a different texture that, you know, that differentiates things, you know, the look of your film. If everything is shot on the same set of lenses and same cameras, even with the grading there’s something lost. You just feel that everything looks the same.
EH: You retweet a lot of haters. People saying that they hated a movie, or never wanted to see it again.
BW: I think it comes from a kind of feeling of like, when you read stuff that says you’re an idiot and that your film is shit, what do you do? You can reply to them, which is a no-win situation, you can’t engage with people who hate stuff and why would you? It’s absolutely up to them to like it or not. Or you could ignore, and just feel a bit miserable about it. Or retweet it, and just go, “Well look, this is an opinion that’s out there and I don’t give a f*ck.” Sometimes it makes me feel a bit better, but you know, it’s pathetic really [laughs].
EH: Is it more of an amusement to you, or are you hoping for a few people who are going to be upset and they don’t really know why?
BW: It’s a really useful tool. It’s nice to take a picture of what people are feeling. Good and bad are the same thing. As long as it’s not all one way. As long as it’s not everyone just hating it, or everyone being indifferent to it, or even everyone liking it—not that that’s even possible because everyone is so diverse in their opinions. For years, as a filmmaker or an artmaker you’ve been completely shielded from the reality of opinions, which is incredibly diverse. Back in the day it would have just been a conversation in a bar, wouldn’t it? Someone would go, “Oh I saw that film. It sucked.” But now it’s a few key presses away and it’s broadcast directly to you [laughs]. If you want to know whether people hate stuff or not you can find out straight away. I remember reading a book about Tarkovsky and he was absolutely destroyed that he’d get letters after each of the movies he made. Lots of them would be saying what a load of shit they were, and he got a letter from a welder who’d seen Stalker and hated it. “Aww I can’t believe it!” You know? It’s like he ruined his love in five minutes.
EH: That’s great. So what are you working on right now? Doctor Who? Are you working on High Rise concurrently or—?
BW: High Rise is next, yeah. I’ve got two more weeks shooting Doctor Who, which hopefully is going to go in July.
EH: What about Freakshift?
BW: Freakshift moves around because it can only be shot in the winter. So if it doesn’t get its year it skips to the next year, so that’s living at the end of this year at the moment, but we’ll see. It’s still something that we’re trying to do. Generally in this world you’ve got quite a lot of projects that are sitting there trying to get made at any one point. It’s what comes up, what fits. It’s a minor miracle if it gets made.
EH: Is Silk Road more of a definite thing since it’s with HBO? Is that being written?
BW: We delivered some drafts to HBO and that’s just bubbling along really. Again, it’s trying to find a time. Hopefully, I dunno, after High Rise I’ll have a much more clear position. It might slip in, in between that and the next film, or it might wait until after the next film’s done.
EH: Well they sound great. I’m excited.
BW: Cool, man.
EH: Thanks for taking the time.
BW: No worries, man. Thank you.