One of the main recurring themes of horror films is people being messed up in the head and capable of doing twisted things to each other. For British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, this theme cannot be made strong enough. In only four features, he’s shown us the very depths of human depravity, and even made us side and laugh with some pretty reprehensible folks. His most recent film is A Field in England, which premiered in the U.S. at Fantastic Fest last year and is out today in select cinemas. (See my review here.) It’s a bit of a departure for Wheatley, being black-and-white and set in the 17th Century, and employing far more psychedelia than he had before, but still with the same edge toward people being terrible to each other. In a fun way, though. We caught up with Wheatley after the film screened at Fantastic Fest and talked to him about history, alchemy, imagery, and hats.
NERDIST: This film is set well in the past and discusses things like alchemy and black magic, both of which are somewhat new for you. What was your goal when setting out to make this film, along with your writing collaborator Amy Jump?
BEN WHEATLEY: There’s a lot of different levels to it I guess. One of them was a very simple thing of having a script where people didn’t know each other. Only O’Neil [played by Michael Smiley] and Whitehead [played by Reece Shearsmith] had actually had ever met. Whitehead meets these guys and he has to get to know them. That is one of stories within the film, their relationship over the 90 minutes. That’s not something we’ve ever had in any of the other films we’ve done. It was already everyone knew each other and it was set relationships, and it would carry the process of those relationships and move you toward the end of the relationship. That was that form on one level.
Another level was wanting to be in England or Britain during the English Civil War [1642-1651, a battle between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians], a moment when it was very radicalized and when a lot of interesting stuff happened. The narrative that we get from that period is obviously by the people who won. But there were was a lot of other things that were happening at the same time and we just wondered what was happening to the left or to the right of the main historical timeline. This idea that a lot of people were completely radicalized at that moment and thinking in a very different way. History would have been a lot different if the winners had been different.
N: An interesting aspect of the film is that the story just begins and we don’t really know what’s happening for a while. Was that a plan from the beginning, to not have the characters explain things simply for the audience’s benefit?
BW: It had been in it from the beginning, and had been something that we had taken through [our first movie] Down Terrace, using that idea where kind of there is no exposition. There’s no explanation and it’s like I find that without exposition at the depth of drama; You’re sitting there going, “Crikey, when you going to start telling us what’s going on?” There’s that, and there’s also this idea that I kind of decided to cook up from watching sci-fi, really, watching something like Minority Report, where Tom Cruise’s character in that movie is completely surprised by technology. We’re like, “do you not know?” It’s so bizarre. And that when he’s using these things he’s like, “Wow!” It’s almost orgasmically he’s using something which is basically a laptop.
Most times in movies, you have to explain all the time to keep the audience up. “Yeah, I understand. I understand.” I think what we wanted to do make a movie where it felt like you traveled in time; you’d gone back in time and there’s no conception to what you know. That’s the interesting kind of thing about some of the angles that the questions had come from, being in Austin and Toronto as well, is that people have trouble with the army of the period because we have a different culture or historical background. It’s hard to understand it in the U.K. as well.
N: The movie is rather ambiguous and therefore open to interpretation. It’s unlikely any two people left the screening thinking the same thing about the movie. How aware were you of the different ways people might read A Field in England?
BW: I didn’t see it as a complicated film or a difficult film in that respect. I mean, yeah, I think there are a lot of layers in it. It’s a straight story in terms of there being men on a mission who basically say what they’re going to do and they then go to it, or not and they get captured. The thing that spins people off into trying to interpret it in different ways is maybe the ending isn’t as closed as people are used to. If it stopped 30 seconds earlier, then there’d probably be less trouble with it. I didn’t ever think it was that confusing or totally open; I think we planned it the way that we would normally plan a story. I think the decisions you make it to be… to kind of erode the context of it by not explaining, we knew that it would cause the audience to think hard. But that was kind of the point. You’re trying to play catch up with them all the time. And trying to work out where you are and what the relationships are in that world.
N: The cast are all very talented. I know you were looking for them to do a bit of improv but they shied away from it. How much, then, of themselves were they able to bring to the characters, being so far removed from modern times?
BW: Well, we wanted the script to sound like it was them thinking it up on the spot. That took a particular skill of performance to get that right. But the casting had been very straightforward where I had in mind who I wanted to work with and then we asked them. I definitely wanted to work with Glover again, Richard Glover, who plays Friend, after working with him on Sightseers. So, that was pretty straightforward. All of them had been kind of picked through from the films I’d done before. Only, I hadn’t worked with Reece Shearsmith, before but I knew him. The parts were written for the people. If you write stuff that goes to the people you know will give a great performance to start with, then you know you’re going to win.
N: The imagery in this movie is very stark and reminiscent a bit of Jodorowsky’s El Topo, especially the place in which Whitehead ends up. Was that at all intentional?
BW: Well, it’s a nice one. I liked Jodorowsky’s stuff but I think you’re reminded of it because it’s period. It’s like the cowboys looked like English Civil War guys. That’s what it is. It’s where it’s come from. Those hats come from England.
N: Whitehead is totally transformed throughout the film; His journey doesn’t seem to end when the movie ends. Where do you see him going after the story fades out?
BW: Into another version of that film, again and again and again and around and around in circles. And I think he has to do that. That’s where he goes. He’s redefining himself, and from a broader sense, there’s an idea that the field is England. That the ideas are the big construction and the reconstruction of the country into something else. And a new way of thinking which basically corrects the modern world. It’s the moment the world kind of starts over at that point.