Ben Wheatley, born in 1972 in Billericay, England, became a feature filmmaker later than most, writing, directing, editing, and producing his first film, Down Terrace, when he was in his late 30s. Wheatley’s gritty but often funny 2009 crime story became a sensation on the festival circuit, and Wheatley quickly followed it up with 2011’s Kill List (another movie set in the world of hitmen and mob bosses, with a disturbing supernatural twist), 2012’s Sightseers (a blackly comic road picture that gets weirder at every stop), and his latest, A Field In England (a mix between Samuel Beckett and 1960s acid-trip movies, shot in black and white and set during the 1600s English Civil War). A Field In England is in select theaters now, and available on VOD.
05: The Jungle Book (1967)
Ben Wheatley: I guess the first one I ever saw in the cinema would’ve been the Disney Jungle Book. Where we lived—in Essex, which is a county outside of London—there wasn’t really… When I was a kid, there were only films on TV. No VHS, no cable, and no cinemas nearby. So I didn’t really see much stuff. Going to cinema was a major event. I could probably name all the films I saw when I was a kid, because there are only about five or six. [Laughs.] Also, I used to get to bed quite early, being 5. I’d see the beginning of a film, and then get sent to bed, and I’d take a long time to work out what that film was. I think I saw the beginning of Dr. No, but not the rest of it. I remember that vividly as a kid. I’d get sent to bed around the beginning of the second act, just as it would get interesting.
So yeah, I guess The Jungle Book would have been the first film, and then something like Herbie The Love Bug. And to see a film in a cinema when I was a kid was kind of overwhelming. I’d never had anything like that experience since, because it was so rare. When I think about my own son, we’ve got films that he sees regularly. He watched all the Miyazaki movies by the time he was 5, except for the really horrible ones. And he would have experienced all the cool kids’ films that I saw later, or that I wanted to see. He’s completely literate where I was not. I mean, in the U.K. at that time, in the 1970s, there were only three channels. There just wasn’t much on.
In terms of something like The Jungle Book influencing me, the influence was more that it was an incredibly exciting and bright and impactful experience going to see anything. Even the adverts were amazing. And eating popcorn and all those things. I wasn’t a child that was taken to the cinema every day, or would sneak out and do that kind of Tarantino or Scorsese thing, of going to see films all the time. There just weren’t any opportunity when we were little. The cinema was in the nearest town, which was five miles away from where we lived.
10: Star Wars (1977)
Wheatley: You’d probably get the same answer for anyone my age: For that period, Star Wars would’ve been the biggest thing. And I never even saw the sequels in the cinema. I saw Empire Strikes Back on Super 8, like a digest version of it, a 15-minute version. And I didn’t actually see that until I was 18. I say it out loud, and it sounds quite Calvinist. [Laughs.] It felt like that at the time, too. These things just weren’t important to my parents.
Star Wars, I remember seeing it first in a magazine. In those days, we had this massive gap between when the films came out in the States and when they came out here. We could wait years for a film. It was incredible. You’d have the kind of cultural flash of it on the horizon, and you might get the toys first, or the comics or something, but you wouldn’t get the film until a long time afterward. America was a very exotic place for us, because everything was different there, from what we saw. The cars were all different, the architecture was all different. Now it’s sadly much more homogenized. You go to a mall in America, you go to a mall here, it’s the same thing. The cars are all the same, too. Back then, I remember Star Wars coming out and it being this incredible event that was coming, coming, coming. You’d see kids that would spend some holidays in America, and they’d come back with T-shirts, and you’d want to know what was going on.
So yeah, I remember seeing it, and it blew my mind, really. It was just so bright and big and fun. I must say, it’s not something I obsess about, particularly now as an adult. I’ve watched all the Clone Wars stuff and the animation bits, primarily through my son, I guess. But the boldness of that first film is just amazing when you actually think about it. I was a big fan of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and all those serials, too. I don’t know if you used to have that in the States, but they used to repeat them a lot on British television in the 1970s, so we would watch them a lot. In a way, the experience of watching those things, and then watching Star Wars—which is directly influenced by them—made them all feel contemporary to us. Well, to me, anyway. You could see the direct link. Star Wars was just a much more expensive, much more amazing version of that stuff.
15: Taxi Driver (1976)
Wheatley: When VHS tapes first became available at video stores, I watched an incredible ton of stuff. This would’ve been before the “video nasty” legislation came around in the U.K., so there was no certification for rentals. You could get whatever you wanted. No one even thought about it. And the most influential one probably for me was Taxi Driver, which seemed to be a very weird film to rent at the time, because why would you want to watch a film about a taxi driver? But my friends and I heard that this film was pretty incredible, so we tracked it down. By that point it was quite an old movie by our standards—10 years old, or something like that. I had never seen anything like it.
It sounds like a cliché, but watching Taxi Driver, I really started to realize that there were such things as directors, and they had signature ways of working. I started to put it together. I realized that Robert De Niro seemed to be in all these movies that were directed by this guy called Martin Scorsese. So I’d seek out all his movies and watch those. The next big thing that hit me was Goodfellas. Again, I never saw any of these films in the cinema, they were always on tape. I went into my sister’s room and she had rented that just as it’d come out, and I saw 40 seconds of it and had to run out of the room and rent it for myself and watch it. Because it seemed to be, visually, the most incredible film I’d seen.
Around the same period, I remember we’d program our own little film festivals. I remember one time I watched Silver Bullet and The Dead Zone and Videodrome and Texas Chain Saw Massacre in one sitting. We’d do that regularly, just find these movies that would blow the top of your head off. With no context, and no one telling us if they were good or bad, or what they even were. There was no Internet to read up on stuff, and no film books. We couldn’t afford books or anything, really, and I lived out in the sticks. It’s not like now. Nothing’s really a secret anymore. You can look everything up, you know the dates of everything, and what these people have done, and you connect all the dots together. But back then, everything seemed to be a massive mystery. It was a brilliant time.
Obviously, I’m very nostalgic for it, because I was young. It might be even more exciting now. It’s hard to say.
20: Weekend (1967)
Wheatley: When I was at college, I started to broaden my horizons in terms of art cinema and European cinema. Seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, I realized you could jump-cut, and that films could affect you in a way that wasn’t just emotional. They could be complicated, and full of different types of information. Film has a matrix of ways of delivering information. They don’t have to necessarily be in a linear or in three-act narrative-structure form.
Once I’d seen that, I started watching a lot of the Godard stuff, and Buñuel and Kurosawa, and just really watching as much as possible. When I was 20, I met up with Rob Hill, who was in Down Terrace. I worked with him a lot over that period. We would just watch movies all day long. I had about a three- or four-year period of just watching films, from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night. Just one after the other. Drinking lots of beer, smoking lots of dope, watching lots of movies, and talking about film and making films. That was the beginning, for me, of full-on being obsessed with cinema. Before that, I didn’t really know what it was. There was no film school you could go to particularly if you were young, and there was no information about how to make movies. No one in my family had ever done anything like that.
I only recently have ever met a film director. The last three or four years. So the idea of how to make a film then was incredibly abstract. When I was a teenager, it was very difficult to work out what you even did. I didn’t even know that films were edited. I was very naïve about it. It seems ridiculous now to think I could be so innocent about it, but I just didn’t know. I never went to film school, or anything like that. It took me a long time to work out what was inside the movies technically, and how you make one yourself. I guess that’s still going on now. I’m still on a journey of just trying to work out how things fit together in terms of emotions, and what different types of shots mean, and what sequences mean.
25: Project: Assassin (1997)
Wheatley: I should mention Kubrick. A Clockwork Orange is a big one. I remember going to see that in Paris. You couldn’t see it in England, because it was banned for a long time, so I went specifically to this one cinema that used to play it every day in Paris for fans who couldn’t get to see it in their own countries. That opened up all those other movies, like 2001 and Strangelove and Barry Lyndon and The Shining. Those movies, I still watch a lot.
At that point, though, I was working as a runner. I’d been at college, had a fine-art degree, had made short films and stuff, so at that point, I was just basically trying to get many jobs in the industry, so I could learn. I was working as an edit assistant, and then I was a storyboard artist. So the most influential film of that period would be Project: Assassin, a film that Rob Hill made with his friends Andy Hurst and Mike Hurst. It’s a film that no one really knows about, shot on news cameras, on Beta SP. It was a sci-fi movie. What it showed me was that you could, if you had enough balls and energy, make your own film.
Basically, the three of them got together, and over a period of four years, they made this movie, and they took it to Cannes and sold it. And then they went off Hollywood to work on different projects. That was, for me, the blueprint for what I did later on, with Down Terrace and making my own short films. You don’t need anyone’s permission. You don’t need to talk to people, or show people your work and ask them if it’s all right, or ask them for money to make stuff. You can just make it yourself. That’s exactly what they did. And I think that’s a very strong message, though it took me a long time to really understand it. Lots of people don’t understand that now. They’re trapped in a circle of thinking that they need to be told that they’re allowed to make films, and it’s nonsense. You just have to make your own stuff and find out if it’s good or not.
I don’t think it’s even available now, that film. You might be able to get a German copy of it. It got sold to Roland Emmerich’s distribution company at the time, and then got dubbed into German. [Laughs.] Maybe you could see it on German television.
30: Festen [The Celebration] (1998)
Wheatley: By that point, I was probably just seething about the fact that I wasn’t making any films. The kind of stuff I liked would’ve been Michel Gondry’s pop promos. I remember watching those and being really amazed by them. Most things, I could look at and understand and digest and work out how to do them myself, and could understand what the thought process behind them would’ve been. But the Gondry stuff, I couldn’t understand it. It was so alien to me, and so brilliant and visual. His stuff is just so original.
The other thing I really liked then was Tetsuo II: Body Hammer. I’d been watching stuff like that, and some Von Trier stuff as well, like The Idiots and the Dogme stuff. I really liked all that. I remember going to Cannes to see The Idiots and Festen as well, [Thomas] Vinterberg’s thing. It really made me think about the image itself onscreen. As a short-film maker—as an up-and-coming filmmaker—you kind of kid yourself that you can’t make movies unless they’re in 35mm, because you have these ideas of professionalism, which are just basically constructs that you hold to, to stop yourself from making stuff. When you see something like Festen, which is shot on a camcorder that you can buy in the shop for 700 bucks—that’s it. That’s all you need. That and some brilliant actors, and you’re away.
35: Hollywood Camera Work: The Master Course Of High-End Blocking And Staging (2005)
Wheatley: I was doing a lot of TV, so I guess the most influential thing I probably watched in that period was a DVD set called Hollywood Blocking, which was a how-to video on how to move people around the screen. [Laughs.] I watched that quite a lot while I was shooting the TV series Ideal. I would watch Hollywood Blocking every night, and then come in the next day and experiment. Ideal itself ended up as my film school. I did two series of it: one six episodes, six half-hours, and one was eight half-hours. It was a quite visual show, and they let you get on with it. You could change scripts, and you could kind of do what you liked, so there was a lot of experimentation for me that went into that. TV’s so fast that you can’t really make any mistakes. The decisions are on the spot, and you can pre-plan, but you never know what’s going to happen each day, so you’re always in a state of chaos. And if you can’t pull it out of the hat quickly, then you can panic.
I guess also around this time, The Sopranos was pretty influential, which you can see in Down Terrace. I used to watch Sopranos with the sound off, just to look at how they did it. The Sopranos and Hollywood Blocking… those things helped me a lot.
40: Come And See (1985)
Wheatley: My main years of ingesting movies were from my teenage years to my mid-20s, and after that, I kind of stopped. I’d watch bits and bobs, but it didn’t imprint on me as much after that period. Once I started making stuff, I watched a lot less, and I wasn’t as interested in other people’s work. Making movies spoils cinema for you. Most of cinema, anyway. Because you know how it’s done, and you see behind it. Unless it’s really brilliant, it just becomes a series of technical things, especially if you’ve done screenwriting as well. You just kind of go, “Oh, I know why they’ve done this, they’re awful.” [Laughs.] It just kind of destroys it. Which is a shame, because it’s one of those things where you’ve got to be careful what you wish for. I went into making films because I loved them, and then all of a sudden I can’t watch them anymore.
But then when you see something that’s brilliant, it’s just a relief. Recently, I saw Wolf Of Wall Street, and that was a fantastic experience, just going, “God, this is a proper film.” I mean, I still watch a lot of commercial movies, and I just can’t bear it. I don’t know why it’s done this way, but I feel like my ship has sailed. The demographic of the 40-year-old man—we’re not really catered to that often in cinema. I’m not an audience that spends enough money on cinema, so I don’t really get movies made for me anymore.
Wolf was the most recent film I saw that I really enjoyed, that’s for sure, but in terms of a film that’s influenced me lately, I don’t know. I watch so many older films now. I’ve been watching lots of Tony Richardson movies; I don’t know how I managed not to see them the first time around. I’ve been watching Charge Of The Light Brigade and Tom Jones and all that stuff. Lately, I’d say Come And See influenced me heavily. The Elem Klimov film, about the Russians fighting the Nazis in Belarus. I had that on my shelf and I’d heard it was really good, and I’d kind of been afraid of watching it. I think I had it for about five years before one night I popped it open and watched it, and it blew my mind. And it kind of made me think you could make a film that’s incredibly creative and arty, but also feel absolutely real at the same time, even though it’s really abstract and has lots of directorial flourishes. It felt like it was truthful, in a way that showed maybe you don’t need realism to make things feel real.