This first time I saw Ben Wheatley’s sophomore film Kill List was at a late night screening during the 2012 International Film Festival of Rotterdam. Halfway through the projectionist had to stop the film to let paramedics wheel out a seizing audience member on a gurney. I don’t actually know if the film had anything to do with his convulsions, but given the visceral, psychological intenseness of what was being projected on screen, I can’t say it would’ve surprised me.
Truthfully, few filmmakers working today are capable of crafting such suffocating tension as Wheatley is. Even fewer can be funny while they’re doing it. The harmonious mix of surrealism, violence and pitch black comedy was further refined in his follow up, Sightseers, and continues into his most recent work, the low-budget, black and white period drama A Field in England.
Written and co-edited by Wheatley’s spouse and regular collaborator Amy Jump, the film tells the story of four deserters during the English civil war captured by an alchemist and forced to dig for treasure. With the aid of some hallucinogenic mushrooms, the film soon spirals into madness.
Also noteworthy is the film’s distribution strategy, wherein it was released in the United Kingdom this week in theatres, on DVD, streaming and on television all at the same time (the film will be released in America, via Drafthouse Films, later in the year). Alternate modes of distribution were just one of the things I asked Wheatley about, when we sat down at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival just a day before the U.K. release.
A Field in England is your fourth film in as many years. Where do all these films come from?
Well Down Terrance and Kill List I’d co-written, and Sightseers I’d been offered. This one we developed ourselves. They come from us mainly.
So do you always know what you’re going to do next?
Usually you’ve got four or five things that could go at any one time and you just see what happens. You’ve got main projects and then you’ve got mistress projects that kind of start growing…then suddenly, once they get to a certain size, and sometimes you get an offer, they come together quite quickly. We had been putting together a film called Freakshift, which we’re hoping to do next year, but it was big budget and was taking a bit longer than we thought, and Field kind of crept up around the side.
So where did the story of Field originate from?
I’d been thinking about it on and off for like ten, fifteen years. I’d had an interest in the English civil war through working with ‘The Sealed Knot’, who are a battle re-enactment society in England. There are a lot of them, and they do these big processions and shows and fights, and it’s really brilliant. So I’d been videoing that and talking to them and reading up on the history. We just wanted to do something that was period, really. We were kind of stuck in doing contemporary stuff, and the British civil war is quite a major part of Western history. It’s the beginning of democracy, the beginning of the throwing off of feudalism and the King. It predates the revolution in France and the American Revolution, and lot of the stuff that we’re dealing with know was set up in the civil war, like how banking systems work, how the rich control the poor and all these things.
Amy Jump, your wife, is credited as the writer, but did you two collaborate on the script?
She’d written that script on her own, completely, I didn’t have a hand in it. I’d written lots of versions of a script that was originally called The Village of Gant, and then The Worm of Gant and all these kinds of titles. But she wrote A Field in England, and came up with all the characters and dialogue and concepts and the whole nine yards, and all those other scripts went by-the-by.
So then is there collaboration on the set?
She came to the set once, but she’s not that interested in that side of it as much. Also it’s just difficult personally, you know. We’ve got a kid. So that’s my area in the process, but she edits it as well. She’s the co-editor with me. And it’s a rare thing in film for a writer to be an editor, so she’ll be making sure that [the film] goes back to her conception.
Watching A Field in England, you can different see the tonal similarities with your other works – that mix of eeriness, horror and then also the black comedy. What is it that draws you to that mix of sensibilities?
I think humour is something that…we tried with the other movies to have a sense of realism, and I think that humour comes out of realism. There’s that kind of socio-realist movement that is all misery, and everyone crying and weeping and being really upset the whole time, and that seems to be like a badge of honour, that the more people suffer in films, the more real they are. But I think it’s bullshit. I think that people in the most awful situations are usually funny, and they’re trying to find a way out of it in humour, a lot of the time. So having humour within the films is part of that release. But it also puts the more intense moments into relief. It allows you to go to those extreme points. Also I think life jumps up and down. It’s happy, it’s sad, all the time, and that’s what we try and reflect in the films.
To me it feels like there’s an underlying cynicism in your films. Would you agree with that, and do you think that reflects something in your own world view?
I don’t know. What do you mean?
Well certainly looking at the films…you could hardly say they’re happy, have happy endings.
I don’t know if that’s cynical though. Life ends with “you die”. You don’t live forever, you know that don’t you? [Laughs]. Your end is not happy. Unless you die wanking or something, you’re going to go out quite badly probably, coughing to death in a hospital bed if you’re lucky. So I don’t think unhappy endings are necessarily cynical. They are real. I don’t think it’s cynical, I don’t see it that way at all. We try to be as open as possible to things. Maybe it’s not cynicism, but pessimism… I think cynicism is a bit more snarky, a bit more “we know better”. But I think pessimism is more like “glass half fucking empty.”
So then where does that pessimism in you come from?
From life. From being alive and living and seeing what happens. I mean if you look at your life, how it turns out, and where you are when you get to a certain age, and you’ve had kids and you see yourself trundling along and becoming your parents…you look up and down the timeline and you can see where you’re going and where you’ve been. And it’s not the same as when you’re twenty and you’re going “fuckin’ A, the world is mine”. That’s where the edges get rubbed off it. I think for me, the thing that broke my back, was living through Thatcherism in Britain, and hating the fucking government, and going “god they’re the worst bastards alive”. And then Labor getting in and then them being fucking awful. So basically you’ve got nothing.
Turning specifically to A Field in England. Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?
Because they didn’t have colour film in the past.
No, what it was was that we really liked Culloden, the Peter Watkins film; we really liked Winstanley the [Kevin] Brownlow movie…we liked sixties psychedelic stuff, we liked sixties experimental cinema, the London film co-op, all this kind of stuff…that’s all black and white, so we were harkening back to that, and also early BBC drama stuff. Then Laurie Rose, the DoP and I did a lot of experiments with black and white…We had this desire to shoot in black and white but we weren’t really sure why, and we started work out that it’s because what’s important in black and white is texture, and not colour So that basically means the lines in your face and your eyes and the creases in your clothes and the dirt becomes the main focus.
I’d read a thing that John Boorman had said when he directed The General…He was saying that the modern world was a mess of colour, of uncontrolled colour, and if you shoot on a location which you can’t mediate and can’t change, then everything is just a fucking horrible mess. But once you turn it into black and white, it’s all gone, and you’re back down to composition and shapes, and all the grotty bright colours turn to grey. And I think he’s got a point. A couple of shots we looked at in colour, and it was the case that they lost all their impact.
For my last question, I’d like to ask about your distribution model. In the UK at least you’re doing something pretty daring, releasing on all these different platforms simultaneously. But I also saw on your blog the graphic titled “A Suggestion on how to watch A Field in England on TV”, where you’re very much encouraging people to try and mimic the environment of a cinema. Where do you think the future of film distribution is going? Away from the big screen?
No, I think the big screen is here to stay, because digital technology has helped…I think digital technology, DCP, all that stuff, is brilliant news for low-budget. Our film’s out on seventeen screens. That would have been £2000 a print on film. Fucking impossible, we’d never make the money back, never. It would’ve been a two screen release, a one screen release on celluloid, and we still wouldn’t have made the money back. So a digital print is brilliant. And a cinema is still the best place to see film. I don’t think that what we’re doing is an assault on the theatrical experience, I think it’s saying that the theatrical experience is the pinnacle of this thing, and if you know your eggs and you like film, go and see it in the cinema. But if you don’t care so much, then you can see it in all these other ways. You don’t have to spread [the release] all over the year, because that doesn’t really help. Also, if we give it away for free on the telly, it means that we’ve got access to a general audience which we’d never get. And once they see it, half of them might hate it, but then you’ve got a chance that half of them like it.