There aren’t many films that trigger such a range of questions and queries as A Field in England (our review can be seen here). As soon as you’ve finished watching it, the first thing you want to do is call up the director and run over a few things. So, we had the great fortunate of doing it on your behalf, as we sat down to discuss the psychedelic drama with it’s director Ben Wheatley.
Coming off the back of the great critical success of Sightseers, Wheatley returns with something a little more offbeat, and a film that is part of an experiment whereby it’s being shown on Film4 on the same day as its theatrical release. We spoke to Wheatley about being the guinea pig for such an idea, while he also tells us about creating such a bizarre piece of cinema, why he chose to shoot the movie in black and white, and his appreciation at working alongside regular collaborator Michael Smiley.
If you don’t mind me saying, this is a quite bizarre movie – is it quite fun for you to know that you’re releasing a film that is going to be a rather difficult one for the public to get their head around?
Yeah, it’s scary at the same time. A normal release you are gently led into it, you have the festival screening, but at festivals everyone is a film fan so they want it to be good, and if they like it, it’s positive and you don’t hit the general audience until it’s on TV a long time down the line, by which point you’re bullet proof as you’ve had enough good reviews to hold on to. But with this, everyone sees it at the same time and react at the same time, but I think that’s good. There was a time when the general audience would be able to see really strange stuff right up against mainstream entertainment, like in the 80s when there was only four channels. You could turn over from Mike Yarwood and on to Godard and not think anything about it. So that strangeness, or things that are more challenging, that has been in culture and it’s only when they started making niche channels when these things get so separated out, but people like stuff that is difficult to a degree. Well some won’t, but some will.
You do have this miraculous ability to make films that haven’t got a set genre, do you deliberately set out to avoid being pigeonholed?
It’s like trying to make cult films, you can’t make them, someone has to decide that they are down the line. Everybody involved in the films I’ve made just want to make films and are interested in the stories and whatnot, it’s never that self-conscious. All this stuff about genre jumping, it’s not something that is massively thought about. It’s a critics thing, they like to put films into packages and referencing them against a strip of other movies that have vague similarities, but I never think like that, I can’t. The making of a film is a very different situation and that kind of thinking is a retrospective kind of thinking.
There is something very emotional about A Field in England, but I can’t put my finger on what it is exactly. Am I being completely soppy and sentimental, or is it intentionally poignant?
Yeah totally, it’s about friends. We’d never made a film about strangers who meet and become friends, all the films we’ve made are about already existing relationships, so that was a technical, dramatic challenge and also the relationships between men being written by a woman is quite interesting – plus it’s the first film we’ve made with no women in it. How do those power plays between these guys play out? How do you take a coward and then make them almost a hero? Things like that, so yeah it is pretty emotional.
The film also captures the dark quality that The League of Gentlemen has, with the absurdity that The Mighty Boosh has, so you must have been thrilled to get both Reece Shearsmith and Julian Barratt on board?
I love The League of Gentlemen, and some of the stuff Shearsmith does is just… It took me a long time to understand that they were only three people in that, I just couldn’t get my head around it, they are all so different. When you see Reece in a normal picture he doesn’t look like anybody in the show, it’s really odd. That was a big deal. Amy Jump thought of Barratt for that scene at the beginning and it was lucky, because with all these things you just write off to the agencies that do and fortunately he said yes.
Shearsmith is used to making quite unconventional television shows and films, so was it nice having him there, because whatever you ask him to do I imagine he’d be natural to it?
I think that a lot of these guys get crowded in by production styles and television where it’s all about focus marks and continuity, and hairdressers combing your hair before each shot, and because we shot this kind of like a documentary really, Reece was encouraged to just keep going and going and it was really relaxed and I think he really liked that, and he said that he was encouraged to do stuff he never would have done in other productions, that he couldn’t do anything wrong – and that’s the key to getting good performances out of actors, because it’s all a bit awkward and difficult this stuff, you need to make them film like they can do whatever they want as long as you’re getting the right stuff out of them.
Of course there is a role for Michael Smiley too, what is it about him as an actor that you appreciate so much?
I like him as a person, first off, so that really helps [laughs]. He’s a nice guy to have around, very funny and sharp. His performances always bring a lot of soul, across all three films I’ve worked on with him. He’s got a sharp energy to him as well that he can turn in a moment, turn on that threat then go back in to being charming again and that’s a difficult thing for an actor to do. He’s a great person to create characters for, he has that range, and the camera loves him as well.
You’re renowned for being able to implement a dry wit into the most uncomfortable of atmospheres – he is the perfect embodiment of both of those things.
Yeah he always brings a great performance. We’re joking around with him that we’ve yet to make a film with him where he survives to the end, so hopefully one day. But I wrote a part for him the other day and he doesn’t make it to the end, so I felt a bit bad about that. We might have to do a Michael Smiley doesn’t die project.
To change the subject slightly, why did you chose to show this film in black and white?
A few things, the films that we liked that influenced this were black and white. We did a load of testing too and we really liked the idea that in the order of importance you replace chroma for texture, if you’ve got a shot of someone in a field it’s all blue and the grass is green and their outfits are a real colour, and that’s what your eyes process, but when it’s black and white all you see is their face and their eyes and suddenly they are the centre and everything is dropping by the way, and that makes a real difference to how you experience it.
This is just a small budget film, with a modest sized cast and shot in just under two weeks – do you think that regardless of whatever success you achieve in your career, will you continue to come back and make these more intimate films?
Yeah why not, yeah. They’re great fun to shoot and I can’t see how A Field in England would be better if it was shot over a month. So yeah, as long as they are designed right for the budget and time then it’s fine. If you’re doing a film with loads of karate in it and car chases, then possibly 12 days would be a bit of a bastard, but for this film it’s good.
This is your third film in as many years, is that how you like to work? To be busy?
Well I like to work! I mean, you wouldn’t like to take seven years off between each time you got paid, would you? [Laughs] So yeah, that’s why.
So what is next for you?
I’m putting together a sci-fi and hopefully gonna shoot that next year, and I’m writing for HBO, a pilot. So that’s going to be a long journey, writing it, doing the pilot, if it gets that far, so that’ll be a while off. Then there is a load of other projects in the air, we’re just stuck waiting for finance really, seeing what comes first. But yeah we have stuff ready to go and we’re excited.
Finally, A Field in England is the first British to ever be shown on TV the same day of its theatrical release – are you excited to be part of this new experiment?
Yeah I think it’s really good. We were part of the decision making process that decided to do it like this, I think it’s great. Harnessing the channel and making it work for the film is good, because usually it’s just at the end, after it’s come out and it’s on the TV, and that’s it. But this way the ads for the TV are also ads for the cinema and for the DVD, so you’re getting this massive add campaign you couldn’t usually afford for a film this small, so it’s brilliant.