As a child, Ben Wheatley began drawing pictures, and he's never truly stopped. From the start, he combined those visuals with storytelling, even though he didn't fully understand at the time that he was a nascent filmmaker.
"It makes sense that the skills I had led me to filmmaking," he says now. He credits the technology that was available to him as a university student for opening his eyes to the possibilities. "It was the meeting of sound and image. But it wasn't until I got to college and used an edit suite that I felt the power of that combination. Once you've used an edit suite, cinema opens up for you."
Wheatley's command of that powerful combination has never been more apparent than in his latest film, A Field in England, which opens in limited theatrical release on Friday, February 7, and will also be available to rent or purchase via various Video On Demand platforms.
A Field in England takes place during the Civil War in the 17th century, following a small group of deserters fleeing from a terrible battle. As the official synopsis notes, "they are captured by an alchemist (Michael Smiley), who forces the group to aid him in his search to find a hidden treasure that he believes is buried in the field." From there, the movie becomes stranger and more bizarre, as it becomes clear that the field harbors unknown, dark forces that have a terrifying effect upon the men.
The film is a nightmarish journey into psychological horror, but Wheatley is quick to dispute the notion that British films exploring this type of territory are intrinsically different due to their country of origin. He points to William Friedkin's The Exorcist as "purely psychological horror. … It's absolutely terrifying." Citing William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby as other examples of Hollywood studio horrors, he says he "wouldn't draw a difference between them [and British films]. They're more about a manipulation of mood, rather than showing everything."
Wheatley's own films prior to A Field in England amply demonstrate his own developing mastery of manipulating moods. His first feature, 2009's Down Terrace, was a black comedy about the familial concerns of small-time criminals. He followed that up with the disturbing horror movie Kill List, which kept the focus on a hit man who becomes increasingly violent and erratic in his behavior. The dark and unsettlingly comic Sightseers came next, revolving around a couple traveling across the British countryside and leaving a trail of dead bodies behind them.
Lined up side by side, his four feature films so far present a fascinating variety of subject matter, matched by distinctly different visual treatments. Wheatley modestly disclaims any suggestion that he intended for his career to take this trajectory. "After the first movie, I didn't think I could presume [I'd] get to make another film. … It always seems so unlikely that you'll get to make another film. It seems like a miracle to get anything done in the first place." Referring to his collaborators, notably writer-producer Amy Jump, he continues: "Obviously, we learn every time. We try and make things different each time. We try not to repeat ourselves. At the same time, essentially, we do recognize that we make the same kind of films; there are some elements that are the same, though there are other things that are very different. Also, it's boring to make the same thing over again. That doesn't interest me.
"I've been very lucky to be able to make different kinds of films," he says. "If I'd made three crime films in a row, I'd be pretty stuffed. If I'd made another horror film after Kill List, I think that would have closed off other kinds of cinema for me. Making a comedy right after a horror film is very important. I needed to show that lightness of touch, or else I'd never get offered anything but horror."
A Field in England is a project that Wheatley had been thinking about for at least a decade. Seeing bigger budgeted productions on the horizon, and recognizing that a fair amount of time would be required to put together the cast and financing for them, he wanted to make a lower budgeted film that would offer more freedoms -- and keep him in the filmmaking groove, so to speak, rather than waiting for other projects to come together.
Filming on a single location helped keep the budget down, as did shooting the entire film in a matter of days rather than months. While that presented its own challenges, Wheatley says it allowed him to spend more time with the actors, and that is certainly reflected in the very fine performances by the cast.
Wheatley's filmmaking career is definitely looking up. His next project will be High Rise, an adaptation of J.G. Ballard's dystopian novel of the future, set to star everyone's favorite Loki, Tom Hiddleston (Thor). Production is scheduled to begin in July.