Podcast: Ben Wheatley,’Free Fire’

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Paul Farren talks to Ben Wheatley about taking a procedural look at action with Free Fire, breaking it down to an atomic level, planning the shoot, the production design, the ’70s setting, scriptwriting and the inspirations behind Armie Hammer’s suave look.

 

 

Armnie Hammer
Armie Hammer, left, whose look was inspired by:

 

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Dan O’Bannon

 

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and Tony Roberts

 

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Review: High Rise

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DIR: Ben Wheatley • WRI: Amy Jump • PRO: Jeremy Thomas • DOP: Laurie Rose • DES: Mark Tildesley • MUS: Clint Mansell • CAST: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans

Last year, Redrow Properties was forced to pull an advertisement for an exclusive apartment block in London’s city centre after numerous criticisms on social media noted that lurking behind the highly polished facade of the narrator’s new abode was a Patrick Bateman style insanity. The advert ended with the highly ominous quote, “To look out at the city that could have swallowed you whole and say ‘I did this’. To stand, with the world at your feet.” High-rise luxury living it seems is even marketed toward those with sociopathic inklings, that the success needed to live in such a grandiose abode implies a frame of mind of outright blindness with only a hint of superiority thrown in too.

Ben Wheatley’s new film, High Rise, could be seen as a 110-minute run of that same advertisement bringing it to its sickly conclusion of violence, anarchy and destruction where the protagonist is so straight-edged and devoid of emotions that life amidst the blows is barely even noticed. That all one requires to live in such a space is a temperament neutralized by a life of sticking to the path of low stakes and high returns. The film opens up with the line, ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.’ Such a nonchalant tone of voice highlights the divergence between the scene of carnage and the almost pathological sense of self that is so devoid of emotion, that it can so easily reconcile with the outright destruction of civilisation.

Surrounding Laing (brilliantly played by Tom Hiddlestone) is a bloody corpse and a building in ruins as the civilised high class living usually associated with such quarters has, in the space of three months, rapidly disintegrated into a primitive Hobbesian all-out anarchic nightmare. The calmness of the narrator’s voice and the inability of Laing to do anything but reflect points to the dull and dreary temperament of Laing’s class that Wheatley so wishes to satirise in this film.

Rather than playing up the anarchic demise of civilisation that is so prominent in J.D Ballard’s novel of the same name, Wheatley focuses instead on Laing’s personality (or lack of), the type of personality that can survive in such a deranged environment and even declaim that he ‘has never been happier’ despite the chaos unfolding around him. Wheatley’s cutting satiric jibe at the type of neo-liberalist policies now dominating literally the landscape of London at the expense of any type of social cohesion, is framed through Laing’s cold and blind emotional temperament. Such experimentation is hinted at throughout through the architect (played by Jeremy Irons), a calculating and devilish artist seen as not just the architect of the building but also of conducting some type of deranged social experiment amongst the inhabitants of his tower.

Such contemporary anxieties fuel Wheatley’s adaptation of Ballard’s novel yet seldom do we viewers respond to the anxiety with any feeling of shock or horror. Especially when one thinks back to the squeamishness unleashed at Cronenberg’s adaption of Crash. We experience the cataclysmic demise of the promise of sophistication, of living in the modernist dream turned nightmare as little more than kitsch due to Wheatley’s tongue being somewhat stuck firmly to the side of his cheek. Yet despite such loss of momentum, there are many moments of utter manic joy and the score by Clint Mansell is superb. And never have I heard a more haunting paranoid version of ABBA delivered here by Portishead.

The energy that gives the film its momentum at the start in Wheatley’s own idiosyncratic style begins to feel cumbersome three quarters of the way through as if he finds it difficult to continue to poke humour from society’s disintegration. Of course, this may well be the point, even if the film at time comes dangerously close to choking on its own irony. We are within Laing’s stylised world, a world where we all can live amongst the destruction, the chaos and the barbarity as long as we put a few aesthetic frills upon it and live within another’s dream world. And in watching the Redrow Properties advertisement again, it is even harder to be critical of Wheatley as he delivers such a perfectly timed satirical blow at the ludicrous nature of the high-class housing industry.

Sean Finnan

118 minutes

16 (See IFCO for details)

High Rise is released 18th March 2016

High Rise – Official Website

 

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Ben Wheatley – Horrific Humour on the Margins

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David Prendeville takes a look into the viciously funny world of Ben Wheatley.

Ben Wheatley falls into the tradition of great eccentric British directors.  His work resembles not the tasteful prestige cinema of Lean or Minghella, but the strange off-centre work of visionaries such as Michael Powell, Nicolas Roeg or Ken Russell. His films Down Terrace (2009), Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012) and now A Field in England (2013) show a director who is clearly interested not just in confounding expectations (Kill List is a  domestic drama with shades of Mike Leigh, then a gritty crime thriller, then an out and out horror film; Sightseers starts of as an odd comedy before taking in brutal murders etc.) but also a filmmaker who is clearly interested in and has a distinct philosophy relating to the film form itself. Like filmmakers such as Powell and Roeg, Wheatley utilises all the tools of his medium to make uniquely cinematic experiences. Wheatley is the type of filmmaker that completely undermines Francois Truffaut’s famous line about the terms British and Cinema being incompatible.

Stylistically Wheatley’s films exhibit a string of diverse influences while maintaining individuality. While many people lazily compared Kill List to The Wicker Man or The Witchfinder General, what made the film so interesting was the fact that it merged these influences with that of filmmakers such as David Lynch with its brooding sound design, Gus van Sant’s Elephant in the manner in which the camera frequently follows its characters from behind in a near video-game style, and Michael Haneke with its depiction of violence, particularly the detached brutal take in which Jay smashes the Librarian’s head in with a hammer. This called to mind Majid’s suicide in Cache, with its long-shot and its realistic shock factor. The cult members at the end of the film are also reminiscent of the pagans in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. While A Field in England utilises avant-garde editing in the psychedelic sequences reminiscent of underground cinema and also punctuates its scenes with its cast in tableau reminiscent somewhat of some of Peter Greenaway’s work.

Wheatley has an extraordinary knack for leaving scenes and images imprinted on the viewer’s mind. The aforementioned scene involving Jay and the Librarian in Kill List is an example of this as well as the extraordinary scene in the porn dungeon in which Jay encounters something deeply disturbing on a computer screen, something which is not revealed to the audience but instead conveyed through the deeply disturbing screams emitting from the computer screen, along with a close-up of Jay’s distraught face as he watches on. Another example is the extraordinary scene in A Field in England, in which after minutes of screaming from inside a tent, Whitehead emerges in truly hypnotic slow motion.

Thematically, Wheatley is interested in the merging of the humorous and the horrific. Down Terrace and Sightseers are more blatantly humorous than Kill List and A Field in England, but there exists a similar strange, British sitcom-esque humour running throughout all of the films. One need only take a look at the fact A Field in England‘s cast is made up of television comedy actors such as Reece Shearsmith and Julian Barret to see the importance Wheatley places on having a sense of wit in his work.  This sense of humour is usually distinctly British but it is surreal enough to draw comparisons with Luis Bunuel. Not least in Down Terrace, in which Wheatley expertly avoids falling into Shameless syndrome of indulging in grime and attempting to force humour on it, instead the film works as a bizarre observation piece that manages to be both utterly believable and outlandishly unusual.

A sense of unresolved mystery looms large in his work. Just as we never see what is on the computer screen that disturbs Jay so much, Wheatley’s narratives are open-ended. In keeping with the formal experimentation of his work, Wheatley is more interested in asking questions than resolving them. We are never sure who Jay and Gal are working for in Kill List and how it all links in with the suicide cult at the end of the film. The film is littered with bizarre ambiguities and exchanges. What significance do the offerings Jay believes he receives from his cat have? What exactly happened in Kiev? Why, when Jay pays a visit to the doctor about his infected hand, is he greeted with philosophising on the past and the future? In Sightseers we are greeted with strange dream sequences and a suggestion of witchcraft being at play. This is reinforced in the final scene when Tina lets go of Chris’ hand. Was she a witch as he jokingly suggested? Was the death of her mother’s dog poppy really the result of a bizarre accident involving knitting needles? The open-ended nature of Wheatley’s work is taken even further in A Field in England in which the framework of the British Civil War and a search for treasure is superseded by an emphasis on hallucinatory imagery and strange occurrence. What power does O’ Neill possess? Is the planet that Whitehead sees as a result of hallucinogens or is it real? To look for answers to these questions be to would miss the point. Wheatley eschews meaning in a traditional sense and instead is focused on creating atmosphere in his work.  He utilises mystery, humour, and film-literacy and frames these within a formal approach that emphasises the experiential and visceral potentials of cinema as a medium.

Wheatley stands not only as one of the most promising British filmmakers currently working, but also as one of the most promising and unique filmmakers working in the world today.  While his films have received excellent reviews it is disheartening to note that instead of nominating either Wheatley’s Sightseers or Peter Strickland’s excellent Berberian Sound Studio for Best British Film at the BAFTAs last year, they instead opted for such underwhelming work as Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. Like Roeg or Russell before him perhaps Wheatley will have to continue working on the margins pleasing the cineaste and being ignored by the more ‘tasteful’ corners. Whatever the case may be, this writer eagerly awaits seeing what lies in store next for this most distinctive of directors working in the cinema today.

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A Field in England – A Film4 Digital Masterclass

This is the making of A Field In England, the new Film4.0 production by Ben Wheatley. Watch the making-of film and explore the masterclass further.

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Cinema Review: A Field in England

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DIR: Ben Wheatley, WRI: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley  PRO: Claire Jones, Andrew Starke   DOP: Laurie Rose  ED: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley  DES: Andy Kelly  Cast: Michael Smiley, Julian Barratt, Reece Shearsmith, Peter Ferdinando

 

Somewhere in England there is a field. A terrifying, beautiful field, where the wonders of nature and its darkest horrors collide. In case you’re wondering, it’s in Surrey.

Ben Wheatley, who made the filmgoing world vomit in horror and surprise with his 2011 horror/thriller Kill List, has made quite the name for himself as a director of low-budget, daringly original films. His black comedy Sightseers won plaudits last year, but his latest, A Field in England, is his most triumphant work yet.

Set during the English Civil War, the film follows Whitehead (League of Gentlemen alumnus Reece Shearsmith), an unfortunately named academic charged with tracking down a wayward alchemist named O’Neill (Belfast actor Michael Smiley of Kill List and Spaced fame). When his party becomes cornered during a battle between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads, Whitehead escapes through a large hedge, a veritable rabbit hole in the literary sense, and into ‘the field’.

There he meets a group of three deserters; the bullying Cutler (Ryan Pope), the blunt but decent Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and the Shakespearean fool Friend (Richard Glover), who is apparently too stupid to be killed. The party, lost and bewildered and utterly mismatched, decide to abandon all their goals and head to the pub.

The field, however, is easier entered than exited. Much like Waiting for Godot and similar fictions, you soon realise that the world offstage may not exist at all, and is certainly inaccessible. The field is magic, in its own way, harbouring unseen treasures. A wooden post, carved in runic symbols, when turned opens the doors to this Wonderland still wider.

Soon the formidable O’Neill shows up and using unexplained powers takes command of the group, using Whitehead’s knowledge of ancient books to search for the field’s hidden treasures. O’Neill is happy to stoop to torture to get what he wants. “It does not surprise me that the Devil is an Irishman,” Friend offhandedly remarks.

Shot in startling black and white, A Field in England is an astonishing work, conjuring recollections of many great films without ever feeling unoriginal. O’Neill’s billowing black robe recalls The Seventh Seal, as does the black humour found amongst the peasant characters, but that is as far as that comparison goes. Wind whips through the long grass, bringing to mind Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Often moments freeze in time, as if the characters were posing for an unseen painter – the whole film feels as if Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway had raised a demented child together. And that can only be a good thing.

Laurie Rose’s soft focus nature photography reveals the simple natural beauties of rural Britain, while his close-ups on the character’s mud-caked faces reveal an attention to detail in this £300,000 production that is nothing short of amazing. When O’Neill force-feeds the company magic mushrooms, a kaleidoscopic Stargate opens that brings you through one of the most dizzying and brain-melting film experiences in recent memory. If it’s at all pretentious, at least it commits to it, and then some.

There is so much invention in this film, from a deafening cannonball volley to a simple CGI eclipse created by a disc of dark cloud. Even the opening, a splatter of ferns and drumbeats, drags you by the throat into its period nightmare. It never really lets go.

But it’s in its script that A Field of England truly stands out. Written by Amy Jump, who wrote Kill List, the film features remarkable use of period language while also having a superb sense of mannish banter. Wit drips from the page, such as when the bookish Whitehead excuses his lack of interaction with people, admitting: “I find pages easier to turn than people.”

Wheatley fans may find his latest a little obtuse, although it is far more forthcoming with its drama than some similar mind-bending art films. The typical Wheatley body horror is uncommon in this film, but when it comes is jaw-plungingly effective. A close-up of Jacob’s penis, revealing he has every illness known to science – “except plague” – is as hilarious as it is revolting. While Glover gets all the best lines, it is Smiley who dominates here. O’Neill is one of the most intimidating and disturbing (and disturbingly entertaining) villains to appear in a film for years. While the rest of the cast chew mushrooms, he chews the remainder of the English countryside. It is a sickening delight to behold.

In an ambitious turn by Film 4, A Field in England opens in cinemas today concurrent with its release on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. Even more pioneeringly, the film will be broadcast on Film 4 on the very night of its release. Audiences now have few excuses to miss one of the most startling, disturbing and ambitious films of the year.

David Neary

90 mins

A Field in England is released on 5th July 2013

A Field in England – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Sightseers

DIR: Ben Wheatley • WRI: Amy Jump, Alice Lowe,  Steve Oram •PRO: Claire Jones, Nira Park Andrew Starke • DOP: Laurie Rose • ED: Robin Hill, Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley • DES: Jane Levick • CAST: Sara Stewart, Tony Way, Alice Lowe, Lucy Russell

Tina and Chris travel across the English countryside, visiting such sites as the Crich Tramway Museum, Fountains Abbey, the Keswick Pencil Museum and the Ribblehead Viaduct.  Their week-long holiday provides the basis for a darkly comic thriller, the pleasures of which far exceed those that such an itinerary might promise.

 

Actors and co-writers Alice Lowe (Tina) and Steve Oram (Chris) play with cinematic convention.  Shot with handheld cameras and with actors speaking in English regional accents, Sightseers appears as an exercise in British social realism before events take things in unexpected directions.

 

Three months into her relationship with Chris, Tina needs a break from her meddlesome mother Carol, who blames Tina for the death of her beloved dog Poppy, her ‘only friend’.  (Tina’s not a friend; she’s just a relative.)  Tina takes the trip to escape from the guilt Carol makes her feel.

 

A fellow sightseer at the tram museum discards an ice-cream wrapper, much to Chris’ chagrin. A fatal accident and a distressed phone call from Carol make for an inauspicious beginning, but Chris and Tina decide to continue anyway.  They meet other pleasure seekers along the way, and a typical caravan trip in genteel England becomes something quite different.

 

Chris and Tina seem comfortable in their relationship, and at odds with the rest of the world. Chris tells Tina that he’s taking a sabbatical from work and intends to write a book, inspired by their travels and seeing her as his muse. Events take a surprising course and test the couple’s relationship and how they see one another.

 

Ben Wheatley, directing his third feature, successfully balances the sympathetic aspects of Chris and Tina before their actions become reprehensible in kind, then by degree.  He does not shirk from showing the horrific effects of their decisions.  Taking apparently ordinary folk through a provincial setting, exploring their darker natures, providing unexpected (and many) laughs along the way, Wheatley matches the Coen brothers’ best work, certainly in terms of conception, if not in production values.

John Moran

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
88 mins
Sightseers is released on 30th November 2012

Sightseers – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Kill List

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DIR: Ben Wheatley • WRI: Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump • PRO: Claire Jones, Andrew Starke • DOP: Laurie Rose • ED Robin Hill • DES: David Butterworth • CAST: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Harry Simpson, Michael Smiley

Avoid everything you can about this movie before going on. Avoid the trailers. Avoid the posters. Avoid all of the reviews, including this one. The less you know about this movie, the better the experience will be for you. Still here…? The following review will be light on spoilers, but don’t say we didn’t warn you…

Kill List starts off slowly enough, with unhappy couple Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring) arguing over money. Jay has been out of work for eight months due a possibly made-up back injury, and Shel is nagging him back into employment. Information is drip fed through their conversations; they were both in the army, Jay has a seriously murky past, and his present consists of being a hitman-for-hire along with his best mate Gal (Michael Smiley). It’s Gal who presents Jay with the ‘one last job’ offer; a list of three people (The Priest, The Librarian, The MP) who need killing, no questions asked.

From here on in, things take a turn for the worst, but saying how would give the game away. Without talking plot points, as much as the first half of the movie is heavily influenced by Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, the second half is equally influenced by David Lynch and Robin Hardy. The explicit scenes of violence will turn your stomach, but they are nothing compared to some of the hinted at horrors that the duo encounter on their journey down the list.

Some may be put off by the initial neck-cracking change in tone from drama to horror, and most of the plot is left to be put together again by the viewer after the movie is over rather than all spelled out for you on screen. But stick with it, and you will be rewarded with one of the most surprisingly brilliant movies of 2011.

Rory Cashin

Rated 18 (see IFCO website for details)
Kill List is released on 2nd September 2011

Kill List – Official Website

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