Many Ways Through “A FIELD IN ENGLAND”: A Q&A with Ben Wheatley
Like his work before it, Ben Wheatley’s A FIELD IN ENGLAND is a singular experience. It is wholly enrapturing and unexpected on first view, and subsequently unfurls upon return. Presented as a film of “magic and madness,” it is also one of many possibilities, from vastly different interpretation (as you’ll see below) to whether or not one will view it as informed by everything the director’s created until now. For those that do, it seems absolutely a culmination, one that allows the overspill of mystical air and dark energy that’s hung over, both heavily and not, DOWN TERRACE, KILL LIST and SIGHTSEERS.
In A FIELD IN ENGLAND, Wheatley’s stark black-and-white allows us to drift to another time, 17th-Century England in fact, where Civil War rages and three deserters are forced to dig for treasure at the behest of an Alchemist, his lackey and the mushrooms the two have stuffed these men with. The severe antagonism between the enforcers and the enforced, coupled with harsh conditions, ingested psychedelics and more push the ensemble over the edge. It all climaxes in an entrancing, utterly surreal sequence that overwhelms eyes and ears, and aims to elevate you somewhere near Whitehead’s (Reece Shearsmith) frenzied state of being.
Once you’ve come down from such might be the best time to enjoy our conversation with the electrifying filmmaker, as he doesn’t shy away from any detail or aspect of the film.
Note: Due to an at times poor connection, Wheatley’s remarks were undecipherable. That is presented as an ellipsis (…), is rare throughout and does not hinder his full thought.
FANGORIA: In previous interviews, you’ve spoken about a mystical air inherent to the UK that you tap into. Is A FIELD IN ENGLAND an attempt to engage more directly with that?
BEN WHEATLEY: It comes from research, really. The weird thing, those references have kind of grown over time in the films and if I’d have been asked around DOWN TERRACE time whether I’d have made three movies like KILL LIST, SIGHTSEERS and FIELD which kind of connect in that way, I would have shrugged and gone, “I don’t know.” It’s kind of come out organically. It was never a plan, though I must say that we do feel to a degree that FIELD IN ENGLAND is the last, in terms of filmmaking we’ve been doing. It talks about it very directly, and it is set before all the other movies, so I imagine it kind of ties it all together in that respect. I don’t think of it in terms as there’s a direct continuity as such between the movies, but it is kind of like the way the Vonnegut stuff works where the characters can kind of float between them and they do exist in a similar universe.
FANG: It does feel like thematic culmination in a way, notably in regard to how religion has popped up throughout your films. It feels more explicitly discussed here with the tableaus that can introduce scenes in a painterly way, not unlike religious art.
WHEATLEY: I think that in modern times we’re kind of quite… those modes of thinking, but in that period they were the fundamentals of what they were thinking about. There isn’t television, there isn’t any other culture. It is just religion and death and sex and life. There isn’t anything other than that and the crown, and fighting for their lives. It’s like all the other movies, but boiled down to its primary elements. Also, that setting up of the United Kingdom is kind of the setting up of Western democratic society at that point. It’s the first revolution. It’s before the French, it’s before America. A few years before, the Pilgrim Fathers are sailing off to Plymouth, aren’t they? After that, you get that separation. It’s no coincidence these guys look like cowboys. These are the fashions that are then exported.
If Britain has given anything to the histories, it’s … and it’s Industrial Revolution. Those are the two points, which kind of affect everybody else in Western Civilization, pretty much. Without those moments, a lot of things wouldn’t have happened and that’s why I was drawn to it.
FANG: And it feels as if you addressed some of the Industrial Revolution aspect in SIGHTSEERS.
WHEATLEY: Yeah, that’s in that and a lot of the stuff that was in the Civil War is playing out now in the modern banking system. It kind of was put together and structured during the Civil War; the ownership of stuff and the creation of workforces started with the Civil War. So, we’re dealing with the consequences of that war, which is bizarre really. I see a connection between the economic trouble the KILL LIST characters are dealing with and the SIGHTSEERS characters are dealing with, and also the idea of characters repeating through history, which is in the edges of DOWN TERRACE as well. The behavior is just the same behavior again and again. In an earlier draft of FIELD, we were going to have the Bill and Karl characters from DOWN TERRACE existing in that time period. We couldn’t do it in the end, because we thought it was too cute, but it did feel like that. The repetition of using Michael Smiley is key to that, as well.
FANG: It seems like you might toy with things such as that a lot. You’ve briefly mentioned at one point in SIGHTSEERS wanting to have Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley pop up at a gas station or something similar.
WHEATLEY: It’s my version of the Marvel movies [laughs].
FANG: Were you doing research for something else that A FIELD grew into?
WHEATLEY: I’d always wanted to do a Civil War movie, because in the 90s, I tried to make a documentary about battle reenactment in the UK and I looked at one of the biggest groups that do Civil War battle reenactments. It’d been brewing for a long while, and also we wanted to make something really experimental and crazy after doing SIGHTSEERS which was, to us, kind of a more commercial film. I wanted to stretch my legs and make something really, really crazy before making stuff that was going to be—we thought we were going to be doing FREAKSHIFT next, which was going to be a much more commercial film. As it turns out, I think we’re doing HIGH RISE next, which is probably going to be even more crazy than FIELD, in a way.
FANG: You dive into that cyclical nature with the visuals, especially with bookends of Whitehead rustling through the brush.
WHEATLEY: It’s that moment we imagined the whole film collapses in on itself, and that every moment is happening simultaneously. Really, if you take that stuff apart, does he just get killed at the start, which is the big potential: that’s the edge of purgatory and he’s blown up at the start, which he is. In that moment, all those things are coming out of him. It’s something that’s always made me worry in my own life; every time you think about moments, which are points where you may have died and you just don’t know whether you did or not. Accidents you narrowly avoided or illnesses that you had that you may not have come out of. Especially for me, because I’m such a pessimist and I’m quite happy—and I’ve got a really brilliant life at the moment—the only thing I could think of is, maybe this is all just a fantasy.
FANG: I hadn’t even considered that possibility.
WHEATLEY: I’ve gone and ruined your life for you now.
FANG: Even in my interpretation of the film, I hadn’t considered the purgatorial aspect.
WHEATLEY: There’s a lot of different ways through it, I think. Which is fine, I don’t think that’s a problem. I like where there’s levels and levels of it that can be sifted through. Film, in itself, is a physical experience as much as anything. Cinema was a carnie ride, it was a thing that they would show trains pulling into stations and everyone would scream and it’s grown out of that. The other side of it is theater. Then you see those two different versions of cinema, and then sometimes they mix up, which becomes the best cinema; something experiential, but uses all the tricks of theater as well. That’s partially what the movie is. You are dragged through the hedge and then you are dragged through the film and you know you’ve been spoken to by the end of it. And then those feelings are just racing around in your heart and in your head, where in a lot of movies, they might as well be radio plays. There’s nothing exciting. Visually, it’s just talking heads.
FANG: Speaking of theater, you engage a sort of older fashioned style acting in the film.
WHEATLEY: I don’t know if it’s old fashioned acting. It’s because the diction transports you, doesn’t it, to a type of filmmaking that doesn’t happen anymore. It makes you perform in a certain way. It’s interesting because we were going to have improvisation in it, like in the other films, but realized we couldn’t because the script was so precise. Also, as soon as you start making stuff up, you start saying words that don’t exist in that time period. When Michael Smiley mentions that Reece Shearsmith’s character is an envelope, you go, “Well the word envelope doesn’t really exist at that point.” It comes into the dictionary about five years after the Civil War. They didn’t have a word for envelope. They used to roll up the letters, then seal with sealing wax. They didn’t put them in another piece of paper.
FANG: What’s it like conceiving a sequence like the psychedelic climax? Is it a lengthy editing process?
WHEATLEY: To actually, physically cut that quick isn’t that hard. I think I made a sequence that was very long. I think there was a twenty minute version of that, and then at different speeds. We did a lot of testing. You can’t just watch this stuff on a monitor in an edit suite, you have to take it to the cinema and see what it feels like. So, we would do that with our local cinema, and they were very kind. They’d let us come in and play it off laptops on their 2K projector, and we’d look at it also to see if it made us sick or not. It was borderline, whether it could make you ill. That’s why it’s the length that it is, we felt it was just about as much before it started to irritate you, or you started to get a headache, or get motion sickness. It wasn’t ever in our intention to affect people who have photosensitive epilepsy.
We had it tested. There’s a process called the Harding Test, which looks for things that would give people epileptic fits and it mostly passed. So, that was good news. I think sometimes people think that that kind of fancy editing is harder to do than say, cutting a scene of dialogue, but dialogue scenes are much harder usually. You want that cutting to be more invisible. Something like they’re all sitting around eating the mushroom soup probably took longer to cut than the psychedelic sequence, just because it’s all about eyelines and it’s about continuity, and it was pissing with rain.
FANG: The film is essential to view twice, so that you can engage that sequence and things like Reece Shearsmith on both sides of the screen, essentially being tethered to himself.
WHEATLEY: Yea, I think that Whitehead and O’Neil are the same person. And are the other guys aspects of that one man and he’s been shattered and has to be put back together again? Some people are saying it’s a reinterpretation of THE WIZARD OF OZ. It is a bit like when they’re walking away from the field and the hedge and the explosion, they do look like the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion [laughs]. Which, I can see that interpretation. He has to—they join back together again in the same way the scrying mirror is smashed and then brought back together again. It ends with Whitehead eating O’Neil. He consumes, you see him eating the meat in the pot. It’s O’Neil.
FANG: It also seemed to me each of them was a different type of religious follower.
WHEATLEY: There’s that, they all come from different spaces—there’s the cynic and the fool and the coward and then the spiteful, vicious bureaucrat, which is O’Neil. All forms of life are there and they get squashed together through the prism of the field, and the field is basically England or Britain. It’s a blank slate where anything can happen at that point in history.
One of the thoughts that we had was that you read about all sorts of crazy history from that period; Cromwell himself killing the king and becoming the leader was as unexpected as the next man doing it. A few years before, you wouldn’t have thought, “Oh, Cromwell is going to rise up and take over.” So, we figured that in every corner, there might be things happening that have the potential to change the country entirely. That’s where O’Neil is. He could be Cromwell, or Whitehead could be Cromwell. They don’t know. The country’s adrift at that point in history where they’re all starving. The country’s kind of smashed and they’re gonna kill the king, and once you kill the king… The king at that point is like God’s voice on earth. That’s a serious thing. If you kill that man, you’re effectively killing God.
A FIELD IN ENGLAND is now available On Demand, Digital Download and in select theaters. For a full list of playdates, visit Drafthouse Films.