With just a handful of features — Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers — writer-director Ben Wheatley has established himself as one of the most compelling filmmakers currently working in the UK. His latest film, A Field in England, takes Wheatley’s cinema even further, alchemizing a comic scenario about a gang of 17th-century civil war deserters into a hallucinogenic, black-and-white nightmare that isn’t easy to shake.
With the movie arriving in American theaters and on VOD this week, we had the opportunity to speak with Wheatley about his favorite movies — which, in turn, revealed an insight into the filmmaker’s own creative process.
“It’s always a hard thing, this listing stuff,” says Wheatley. “I don’t ever have a definitive list of things, I don’t think, and they kind of change around all the time depending on what I’ve seen and what I’m looking at at that point. There are films that I watch a lot — again and again and again — but they’re very particular kinds of movies, you know, they’re movies that will stand that rewatching; and there are some films that I’ve seen once, and will never forget, which could make the list as well.”
Here, then, are his Five Favorite Films.
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982; 91% Tomatometer)
I guess I’d start with Blade Runner, which is a film I’ve watched many, many times, and bought many times on different formats, and seen in the cinema many times, and bought books about it and read about the making of it, and watched, you know, all the documentaries that I could get my hands on. I think why I like it is that it’s a film that so transports you to somewhere else. It’s not even just about the story, which is reasonably straightforward, it’s the texture of it — every frame of it, every grain of film, or every pixel on Blu-ray or what not, holds information. It’s so densely packed. You can watch it again and again and see different things in it all the time. That’s the genius of it. I think that period of Ridley Scott, with Alien and all his adverts around that point… I mean, it’s just never dated. If you watch something like Black Hole, which is kind of around the same period, and you look at it, Disney’s Black Hole looks like a films from the ’40s in comparison to Blade Runner. Blade Runner could be made today and it wouldn’t look any different.
Which version of Blade Runner do you enjoy? Because there are several variations of it now.
Yeah, I mean there’s only really two, isn’t there? The modern-modern version where they’ve cleaned it up. I must say I’m a fan of the non-voiceover version. That’s the better one for me. I’ve never really experienced the voiceover version on anything other than VHS.
You were too young to see it when it came out?
Yeah, I was too young to see it in the cinema, but I was very aware of it. Probably the first time I ever came into contact with it was the Marvel comic. It’s a brilliant adaptation. So that for me was the only real concept I had of it for a long time, and then I read the Philip K. Dick book. I think I got to the film quite late on. It was a grower, for me, just like one of the other films on the list, which is The Shining. It’s the same thing, where you have a relationship with it over time, and it gets better the more you watch it. Also, Blade Runner isn’t the kind of film that’s suited to VHS. There’s just too much stuff in it. I watched it again recently on Blu-ray and it was just incredible. That alone justified buying a big TV and a Blu-ray player.
It’s fitting that you choose The Shining, too, because the theatrical cut of Blade Runner, of course, infamously uses outtake footage from Kubrick’s movie for the final scene.
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s true. I forgot about that. The music at the end of it also reminds me, weirdly, of Sonic the Hedgehog as well. There’s a whole level of that set in a city that I’m sure is very heavily influenced by Blade Runner. But yeah, the music is really incredible, as well. Vangelis’s music is just unbelievable in Blade Runner.
So yeah, The Shining is a film that I watched initially when I was a kid. I remember we used to just get like piles of videos out from the video rental places and so I’d watched it with, you know, Videodrome, Cannibal Holocaust, Carrie, stuff like that.
All the children’s favorites.
[Laughs] Yeah. And I remember not being that impressed by it, because it was built up as being the most terrifying movie ever, and when it’s up against Videodrome you kinda just go “Ahhhh, well, it’s not as scary.” But over time I came to terms with it, and watched it again and again. I had to grow up a bit and realize how absolutely brilliant it was — again, buying it on many different formats, and finally seeing it in the cinema as well. So that was that. The thing I always take away from The Shining is I started to understand that film is not necessarily just a forward momentum — it’s more like a matrix that you can plug the meaning into; and that meaning can come from different rhythms to the traditional three-act structure. So there’s different senses in that movie that come through over time, and your perception changes with it as well. Your relationship with the characters change — as they do in a lot of movies, but specifically with that one. When I became a father, you know, I felt very differently about The Shining than I did when I didn’t have a kid.
That scene in Room 237 where they showed The Shining simultaneously projected in forward and reverse — and certain scenes aligned by chance or design — supports that notion of being able to plug into the movie in different sort of temporal ways.
Totally, yeah. I think that’s why the film is rewatchable — because you receive that information and you slowly unpack it. It reminds me of a Philip K. Dick book. I mean, Philip K. Dick stories, when you read them, are very basically written, but the underlying intelligence of them is hidden in a way. You get like 30 pages in and all of a sudden you feel the floor is moving underneath you, in your mind. You find you’re somewhere else. I think that’s what you get in The Shining. It’s a very basic plot. It’s a very B-movie plot. There’s nothing that clever about The Shining‘s story at all, you know. But the film itself is a trap. I love that. Elements of that we definitely used in Kill List — I mean, Kill List is a symmetrical film that plays one way and it plays the other; if you fold it in half, things correspond across it, to the minute. That kind of thinking I picked up from The Shining.
I love that description of it: “The film is a trap.”
Well it is; it’s a mental trap. Kubrick’s films are all like that, and that’s why they’re so special. They’re so unlike the rest of cinema, ’cause most of cinema is just filmed plays, isn’t it? It’s like words being put to pictures, whereas with Kubrick, every frame of it figured. It always feels like there’s a great intelligence behind it, pushing forward all the time. And to be honest, you don’t feel that in most movies. [Laughs]
Not to get sidetracked, but I felt a little something of that trap watching A Field in England. It sets itself up as quite a simple scenario and then unexpectedly folds in on itself — quite literally, in a visual sense at certain points.
I think we tried to make things experiential, rather than just a story. Story has always got to be an element of it, unless you’re making absolutely abstract cinema, but, you know, the story is a paste that goes on top of something else. That’s where things are at their most interesting, I think.
I think probably Seven Samurai, by Kurosawa. I think I saw that when I was about 15 or 16 in the cinema. It’s such a big old chunk of a film, and it’s always a treat to sit down with that movie. It’s so perfectly framed, and perfectly judged; it’s basically the blueprint for most action cinema — expect that it’s much more intelligent than most action cinema. There’s characters in it that hardly only get a couple of lines, but you feel that they’re totally fleshed out. The massive battle scene at the end, which should be completely confusing, is instead just completely clear — you never worry about where you are, you never don’t understand what their plan is — and I think that’s something that you rarely see in cinema now. The closest you get to it, sometimes, is I think in James Cameron’s work — where it’s very, very methodically plotted and planned, and you feel the mechanics of everything that’s been very carefully formulated.
Cameron does cover action very well, I agree.
Yeah, he does. But Kurosawa’s stuff is just amazing. It always makes me cry. So that was the gateway film for me, for Kurosawa — then I went in and watched all the other stuff like Rashomon and Hidden Fortress and Kagemusha. I love Seven Samurai. I love also the cultural interplay, where it’s basically a cowboy film, but then it gets remade as a cowboy film [The Magnificent Seven]. Kurosawa is making movies that are like John Ford movies and selling them back to America. And then you’ve got the Movie Brats’ stuff, where you’ve got Coppola producing Kurosawa’s movies and then Scorsese appearing in Kurosawa’s movies, so it’s all in there, lovely and interlinking.
It makes me think of that relationship that Japan has with France, as well, where you’ve got something like Nausicaä being based on Moebius’s artwork, so the French cartoonists and the Japanese animators were having, you know, a cultural moment in the mixing together of styles. And the Moebius ends up calling his daughter Nausicaä. I love all that stuff.
Did he really? Wow.
I think so, yeah. [Laughs] That’s probably worth fact checking. [Editor’s note: He did.]
I guess there would have to be a Scorsese movie, but there are so many to choose from. You could go for the trilogy –the Goodfellas, Casino, Wolf of Wall Street trilogy — which I absolutely love. I mean, the rise and fall, it’s a classic thing in cinema — all our lives are a rise and fall, aren’t they, if we’re lucky; it could be just a bit of a rise as we go from adulthood to old age and then we die. [Laughs] But Goodfellas and Casino, the journey of those movies to The Wolf of Wall Street, is where the morality is slowly sucked out of them. So Goodfellas is a film where they have a system, a moral code, which is eroded in Casino, where they have a slight system or morals, but it’s all slightly tarnished. But by the time you get to The Wolf of Wall Street, there’s no moral code at all.
Seems that’s why a lot of people are up in arms about Wolf: the movie has a moral code, but the characters have none. There’s no center for an audience to latch on to, whereas in Goodfellas, as you say, the audience can identify with their sense of morals to some extent.
Yeah, and I think that’s it. It’s a modern — it’s an ultra modern — film, The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s the moment; it’s talking about right f–king now, and the whole thing is disgusting. And it is disgusting. What’s happening to everyone is disgusting, and he’s rubbing everyone’s faces in it. And that’s brilliant. For him to be so vital at this point in his career is just top. I love the editing in his stuff, too. I love Thelma Schoonmaker’s work, and the fact that they have come from this kind of weird, documentary background — their films are incredibly muscular, but they also use these documentary forms; they’re so wild, you know. Wild use of music. Wild use of cutting and camerawork. It’s like nothing else. And people try and copy it, and use the moves, but they don’t have the wit. It’s the comedy, and his vicious sense of humor, that makes it work so brilliantly. I recently watched After Hours a couple of days ago, and it’s just f–king phenomenal, that film.
Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985; 95% Tomatometer)
The last one, well, I think for me — at the moment — it’s Come and See, the Elem Klimov film about the Russians fighting the Nazis. I’ve only ever seen it once, and I don’t know if I ever want to see it again, but it is an incredibly, profoundly affecting and terrifying experience. I just thought it was amazing. I saw it maybe two years ago, and it’s just stayed with me so much. It was a film I had and I was scared of watching. I don’t know why I bought it. I buy a lot of films all the time, and I’ve just got cupboards and cupboards of movies. I saw it on the shelf and looked at it at like midnight one night and thought, “I’ll just watch five minutes of it and see what it’s like,” and then at two in the morning I was still watching, going “Oh my god, I’ve never seen anything like this.” What I like about it is that it’s a mixture that shouldn’t work on so many levels, because it’s very arty and it’s very self-conscious, but yet it’s utterly realistic, and it feels emotionally realistic. It feels like you’re totally transported into that situation.
I’d also double that with The Ascent, the Larisa Shepitko movie. She was married to Klimov and made a movie 10 years earlier on almost the same subject, and her film is just unbelievable as well, you know. It’s well worth checking out, that Criterion box set. Mind-blowing stuff. Have you seen Come and See?
I have, yeah.
It’s interesting when you talk to people and you say, “Have you seen Come and See?” and they get a look in their eyes where you can tell if they’ve seen it or not — they kind of look a bit sad and beat. [Laughs]
A Field in England opens in limited release and on VOD in the US this week.