The View From Here

“The blood in the earth”: an interview with A Field In England director Ben Wheatley

“The blood in the earth”: an interview with A Field In England director Ben Wheatley
Michael Bonner

"They're bad people, they deserve to be punished," notes one character in Ben Wheatley’s second film, Kill List.

It's an observation you could extend to nearly all of the characters that feature in Wheatley's films: gangsters, hit men and serial killers, who have have met their fate in grisly circumstances, from his 2009 debut Down Terrace onwards. And now it’s the turn of 17th century deserters, both Roundhead and Cavalier, to experience – quite literally – a very bad trip in latest film - his fourth as director, and scripted by his wife Amy Jump. A Field In England is a psychedelic freak out, shot in black and white, set during the English Civil War. Folk horror connoisseurs will be familiar with the period from Witchfinder General and Blood On Satan’s Claw – as well as Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s docu-drama Winstanley, about 17th century radical Gerrard Winstanley. The film follows three deserters who find themselves caught in a scheme by an alchemist, O’Neil, involving treasure of some description buried somewhere in a field in Monmouthshire. There are magic mushrooms, scrying mirrors and stolen manuscripts. As you'd expect, slumbering demonic forces are disturbed.

Along with Berberian Sound Studio's Peter Strickland, Wheatley is becoming one of Britain’s most important young filmmakers. Such is the anticipation about A Field In England, that it will be the first ever UK film released simultaneously this Friday in cinemas, on DVD and Blu_ray and Video on Demand...

UNCUT: Can you tell us about the films that influenced A Field In England.
BEN WHEATLEY: Witchfinder General is obviously an influence in terms of it’s a film that you have to look at if you’re making a film about the Civil War. But it’s not necessarily one that’s at the top of my list of general movies that I like. Winstanley and Peter Watkins' Culloden that are the two movies that we looked at before making A Field In England, more specifically. In terms of other stuff that's influenced by generally, I’d say it’d be Threads, the BBC drama about a nuclear attack on Sheffield, from the 1980s. The War Game is another one about nuclear war in Britain, also by Peter Watkins.

There was a similar American series to Threads, starring Jason Robards.
That’s right, The Day After. Threads is much scarier. I think The Day After seemed to soft peddle it. But I watched bits of it on YouTube the other day, and it still packs quite a punch. I watched Threads, the whole thing, the other day. I bought it on DVD. I watch it every ten years or so. There’s something about the Eighties that’s so miserable anyway, so the shots of Sheffield before it blows up are almost as terrifying as afterwards. I think that is the thing that scares me… do you remember the Radio Times cover on Threads? It’s one of the scariest covers ever. It’s a picture of a traffic warden with a bag over their head with an eyehole poked out of it and blood all over their face holding a machine gun. It’s an indelible image, that. So I’d say Threads is my favourite British horror. The others I’d go for are Children On The Stones and The Owl Service. The Owl Service is quite close to my heart. I came to it quite late, to be honest, because it was the first colour ITV broadcast for children, that was the big claim to fame. But it’s like David Lynch. I watched it about five or six years ago, and I was just stunned by it. You wouldn’t even fathom showing that to children now. That’s what would pass as adult drama now, even quite difficult adult drama…

There’s a whole sub-set of children’s television programming in that part of the 1960s and Seventies that's very odd, very caught up in the occult history of Britain.
Do you remember a show with Phil Daniels? I saw an episode on YouTube. It’s like a kid’s version of Penda’s Fen, or something. Raven, I think it is.

Yes, it's part of that same strand, like Children Of The Stones…
It’s mind boggling! The conceit of Children Of The Stones. That they’re struck in a time loop, worshipping an alien that communicates with them through light and the stone circle is a massive satellite dish… And it was shown at five in the afternoon! You’d barely get that commissioned now if you were Stephen Poliakoff.

And there's a great Doctor Who folk horror story, The Dæmons...
All the Doctor Who stuff is really scary around that period. I’ve been re-watching a lot of the Tom Baker stuff with my son, and it’s so spooky. They’re actually shooting on location in nuclear power stations, running around inside these reactors… I’m ready to be proved wrong by legions of Whovians, but it certainly looks like it to me, it looks dangerous wherever they are. I was watching Genesis Of The Daleks this morning. It’s so moody!

I always particularly remember the visual design on that story, these low angles and the ground level lighting were extraordinary…
Yeah. The other one I got for my kid which we stopped watching because it was too heavy was Blake’s 7. I remember it as a sci-fi romp, but the first episode is moody. They fit him up for being a paedophile, and they broadcast all this manipulated footage of him being a paedophile… what is this? Brilliant, brilliant stuff!

So how does all this fit into your work?
The stuff I remember as a kid – Threads particularly, and Alan Clarke’s stuff – was really indelible. I think what it was, talking about those other Seventies shows is that they’re not afraid to put you through the emotional wringer. They were really impactful in a way that drama doesn’t seem to be any more. There was no politeness about it. You felt your mind being scarred and you were never the same again afterwards. You can see it in some of Scorsese’s earlier stuff, like Taxi Driver. But seeing a show like Threads affected how I made films subsequently. Things like Children Of The Stones and The Owl Service I came to as an adult more being interested in getting into folk horror. When I was a kid, I grew up in Essex next to some woods, and I always had nightmares about the woods and things that would happen to you in the woods. There was something going on there definitely. I remember finding all these strange bottles and stuff there. It was real Blood On Satan’s Claw stuff. I had very vivid nightmares about the surrounding area, I’d have a recurring nightmares about a farm building that was near to us – and I still have them now. All the stuff that’s not mediated, that’s not about watching a film and being scared and incorporating it into your own imagination – for me, it was primal terror about the environment I lived in. I think over time that mutated into an interest in why the countryside is scary, or why England is scary.

Your films do scratch away, looking for something under the surface.
What is the underpinning of it? There’s something kind of sinister about it. Even when I moved to London when I was about ten, once you start reading about London it’s quite a scary place. Amy and I ended up working on Charing Cross Road, near Centre Point, and we discovered it was apparently where the Black Death began. You could feel the vibe of it; really bad, bad news. This was down Denmark Place. And that was at that point a shooting gallery for heroin addicts. That was bad, but when you read the history of the area that had been going on for hundreds of years, bad things happening in that little bit of London. You know Primrose Hill was designated as the burial area in the case of some cataclysm, like a nuclear war? But at the same time, through the history of London, people would gather on Primrose Hill waiting for the end of the world. This would be announced quite often, every 20 years or so, and they’d all gather on Primrose Hill. That kind of thing that’s all around you… that was in Kill List and in Sightseers as well. The blood in the earth. But maybe I’m just morbid.

You have an interesting relationship with landscape in your films – is that connected to the ‘blood in the earth’?
Well, we always try and let stuff breathe and have its day in court a bit. Things tend to give up their meaning if you look at them longer. We’ve always been the enemies of exposition. That is dead time to me. When people are explaining, it’s just boring. Information is going in, but it’s losing its meaning by being explained. But when you’re just looking at someone’s face, or a landscape, for a little bit too long – that’s the moment you get the meaning. If you’ve got a good image, then why do you let it go? You don’t want to clatter through that stuff just to get some guy explaining the plot.

So, back to A Field In England. Why did you set it during the English Civil War?
I think it’s the beginning of a lot of stuff. The beginning of western history almost. You could make a case for it being one of the two moments when we did something really major – that and the Industrial Revolution are things that bent the whole shape of the history of western civilization. The things that were set up in the Civil War, we’re still in the post-Civil War world, the way that the whole of commerce and democracy are set up. That was really important. And it was the point where a lot of the trouble in Sightseers and Kill List and Down Terrace comes from. A Field In England is almost like a prequel to those movies.

I’d like to talk about the music in your films. You’ve always used traditional folk songs in your movies – there’s "The Fields Of Athenry" in Down Terrace and "Baloo My Boy" in A Field In England. But A Field In England also has this very unsettling electronic score. Can you tell us about what you were trying to achieve with this.
The idea is that the music in the first half of A Field In England is stuff they could play or sing themselves, then it meets a Moriccone twang and then goes into full synth as the film becomes psychedelic. It almost time travels. It’s coming out as double white vinyl. We get really excited about putting out things like that. it’s a weird thing – you don’t feel as much ownership on the DVD, because so many people have had their hands in it, and it has to have logos and stuff all over it. But making the records, because they’re such limited runs, it’s quite unique to us.

It’s part of ‘the Ben Wheatley brand’. Like the stock company of actors you’re developing, and your working practices. Are there any specific filmmaking models you’re following here?
Everybody’s careers are very different and it’s really a vaguery of when you were born. If you look at all the old Hollywood masters who worked in every genre, like John Ford or Howard Hawks, it’s not possible that you could do that any more. Their movies are brilliant because they made so many movies, they got to exercise those muscles a lot. But that won’t happen again. Even the career of Steven Soderbergh would be difficult to do now, because the industry changes all the time. All I’m trying to do is develop projects and write as much as possible – and Amy’s writing loads as well – and we just see what people will finance. But I don’t want to go too long without making a film, because you just atrophy if you’re not doing stuff. I’m not in this to be in endless meetings about financing, I’m here to make films. At the other end of it is this idea that low budget stuff isn’t as good as the high budget stuff in terms of an experience, but as a director it’s almost the best experience because you have complete control over it. It maybe that the story you tell is a little smaller than you might of if you had loads of money, but not necessarily. There’s plenty of movies that cost a packet that are just people standing around in rooms talking. Down Terrace was a really nice experience for us. We weren’t cursing every day that we didn’t have proper money. We just thought it was fucking great that we were making a film.

What’s next?
There’s a number of projects we’re developing. I’m writing a script for HBO. They’ve commissioned a prequel script. It’s called Silk Road. They came to me after they saw Kill List and said they wanted something like this, with a similar vibe. It’s a bit scary doing stuff for them, and I’m such a massive fan of their shows.

A Field In England opens in the UK on Friday July 5; for more information about special screenings, Q+A, and such click here.

Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBonner.

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