Today sees the UK release of Sightseers, a black comedy about caravanning spree killers, and the third film by Ben Wheatley. In the span of just three films Wheatley has gone from hotly touted newcomer to having real, growing name recognition, and he’s definitely developed a vocal fan base.
But who is this filmmaker? When I got to speak to Wheatley last week, I wanted to dig into how he thought about film, and the choices he made in putting together his features.
Obviously, we didn’t have forever to talk, and you can’t take this as a total overview. It is, however, an interesting window into how Wheatley thinks about the camera, about editing, and about the visual language of his films.
My films have become visually bolder. Down Terrace is quite a simple film in many ways. I think that because we shot it so fast, there are only three cutaways in the whole film. Then by the time I got to Sightseers we shot the equivalent of the amount of rushes that were shot on Apocalypse Now.
The things that Laurie Rose, the DP, and I watched in preparation for Sightseers were similar to the things we watched before [my last film] Kill List really, stuff like Grey Gardens, Primary, things like that. That was mainly for camerwork stuff, ‘observational camera’ bits and bobs.
I like that camera [style] because it means as a a viewer that you are in the room with the characters, you have that connection with people and you’re not set back into having the unreality of cinema between you and the film. Obviously, that ['unreality'] works brilliantly in lots of movies but I like this kind of reality.
Everything is unreal about cinema. The original movies, the single reel, single shots are much closer to what reality is like than the very complex language that has built up around cinema.
The edit itself is madness, isn’t it? The idea of editing something doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t have any connection with any sort of real reality. In life the only edit you get is when you’re knocked unconscious with a brick. That’s the only time you’re looking at one thing then open your eyes and you’re looking at something else, or going asleep, obviously, or passing out. We have a collective agreement that this [cinematic language] is what real life is like.
You never experience a tracking shot unless you’re on a travelator or in a car, and you’ve never zoomed in on anything in your whole life. If you have it means you’re very ill indeed, it means your eyes have been sucked out of your head.
Shooting Sightseers was about getting out of houses and working with people in their wider environments. We also started looking at this idea of characters looking at the audience and looking down the lens. That’s something that came out of the morality being shared with the audience, whether they are on the side of the characters or not, about making the audience feel uncomfortable. And I really liked that, the kind of idea that the characters are looking into your soul. By the end of the film, Chris and Tina join together and they look at the audience, and the audience are looking at them and it’s like “Who is to blame? And who’s responsible in all of this?” That was something that came out of filming. We did one shot, in a very early scene in the house, getting Alice to look at the camera and we though “This is great” so we did it a lot more.
A Field in England will be in black and white , that’s one thing and then there’s a focal difference. On Down Terrace we shot a lot on 50mm lenses so everything is very shallow focus. As we’ve gone on the focus has gotten deeper and deeper until now on Field is shooting very deep focus, everything from half a foot in front of the camera until infinity is in focus. It’s trying to look at what the language of cinemas should be for that period. [The film is set in the 17th Century]. Black and white is a bit of a cheat because while it automatically says to audiences “antiquated” in some ways, painting in that period, obviously was in colour. It was part that, but then also thinking about woodcuts.
Paintings don’t often deal with focus. Depth of field is an optical issue that comes out of lenses that people weren’t really understanding… or it didn’t have an effect on painting. Well, to a degree – there are examples of it. So we wanted to make something that was a bit more painterly in a way.
I found that black and white made you focus on different things. When we looked at some of the colour images, focus was drawn to the colours of the clothes, when we looked at it in black and white, we were drawn to the eyes and the faces more.
More from Wheatley over the weekend. Sightseers is in UK cinemas now and will be playing at Sundance next month.