In conversation: Ben Wheatley and Karen Krizanovich


Ben Wheatley, one of Britain’s most innovative filmmakers, lunches with Civilian Editor-at-Large Karen Krizanovich, at Parabola at the Design Museum in London

Karen and Ben at Parabola, by Mark C. O’Flaherty

Karen Krizanovich: So Ben, you told me that you used to edit the 100 Best… talking heads stuff that I presented on TV in the 1990s?

Ben Wheatley: Yeah. That really opened my eyes up to the reality of media. They’d interview people who were 20 about culture from the 1970s and they didn’t even know what a Space Hopper was. “They’re the bouncy things.” Oh my god. All those rushes were shocking.

KK: I used to come in really drunk or hungover. I don’t know if they filmed all my comments like, “Oh yeah, my boyfriend just set fire to me this morning.”

BW: They were really complex shows because they were really long. They’re like three hours long, with millions of people, clips and stuff.

KK: I always felt sorry for whoever had to edit those. I didn’t know it would be an actual proper filmmaker.

BW: We used to go on for months. I was an editor there so I would just come in and do a bit of work on someone else’s crazy project. They don’t do those shows anymore, do they? It’s weird. It’s like a whole thing – we’ve got YouTube, so you can just look at any old shit whenever you want to.

KK: Do you want to eat?

BW: Yeah. I’m quite hungry actually.

KK: Pickled vegetables and native oysters. This is such a good combination.

BW: I’m quite peasant-y, just eating as much as possible, but I’m trying not to. I’ve just woken up to the sad reality of the burning off and the exercise versus how much you eat, that there is an actual correlation between these things, which I always thought there wasn’t. It’s like two hours to walk off a can of Coke. Anyway, I’ll have the sea bream and horseradish. That sounds healthy, doesn’t it? Like it might be good for you.

KK: I’ll have the venison chops if you’re doing that. Where’s the bream? Are you in the light and healthy section of the menu? That’s disgusting. So anyway, you’re touring with Free Fire. What a great cast, my god. In the notes you said, you were looking for real shootouts and that people didn’t quite know what it is.

BW: I think the reality of stuff is very messy usually.

KK: Are we having a bucket of wine?

BW: No, I’ll have an orange juice and soda please.

KK: Slimline tonic and Angostura bitters for me. Is there one of your feature films that you’re really, really pleased with?

Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise (2015)

BW: Filming Down Terrace was quite interesting because it was so bonkers and made outside of the system so much, and the first one we did. I really enjoyed that one a lot. For me it’s about process. Kill List I watch occasionally because it’s got a commentary on the DVD that I did with Amy [Jump, Ben’s wife and co-writer on Kill List], so that’s quite nice.

KK: Alice Rowe and Steve Oram were hosting the Critics’ Circle Awards recently and I had to go up and give an award. I told them I was going to interview you and I asked what you were like. They said you were nice and normal.

BW: They don’t spill the beans. They’re well drilled.

KK: I love your Instagram account.

BW: I’m getting into that.

KK: Who does that?

BW: I do! I like it because it’s friendlier than Twitter. It’s a bit aggressive, Twitter. Certainly around the US election, it was just too much. Everyone was really crazy. Then you start muting it and then there’s not point looking at it. At least with Instagram, you have to make a commitment to what you’re posting. It’s got to have a value of some sort.

KK: I love those behind-the-scenes shots.

BW: It’s getting harder each day because I’m running out of pictures. I think it’s gonna be a lot more photos of my dog walking and less of actors.

KK: The quality of your work is astonishing. And you work to incredibly low budgets. I’m surprised they just haven’t moved you permanently to LA.

BW: I think they appreciate the craft of it but they don’t necessarily want to replicate it for loads of money because that would be… terrifying.

Kill List (2011)

KK: Your interest in paganism must go down well in the States… What attracts you?

BW: I think it’s just from living here. I find it interesting. In America, it’s about films like The Wicker Man, but when you’re here, it’s part of the culture. When you can visit standing stones and you look at the ground and you think that loads of people died here, thousands of years ago, you really feel the context of history. I’ve felt that way since I was a kid living here. It’s not really a nostalgia for that time. I’ve always wondered about what I would’ve been like in the past and I think – probably not much different really. We have this idea that the modern world is like a bubble of reality and that we’re the most important thing that’s ever happened, but we’re probably no different than we were 100 years ago. This moment just doesn’t really mean anything. Not as much as we think it does.

KK: Tell me about Britishness.

BW: There’s an island mentality to Britain which is different from countries that are landlocked or a long way from the sea. There’s something about that. I think maybe it’s a kind of survivor-type thing or a coldness and cynicism just because it’s tough living on islands.

KK: I never thought about that.

BW: Alderney was the only part of the UK that was occupied in the war.

KK: Was it? I thought Jersey was too.

BW: Yeah. That’s true. But basically, they abandoned it before the Germans turned up. It’s covered in Napoleonic forts, but then the Germans showed up and put a load more fences all the way around it. It had a work camp on it with loads of Russians, who all worked and made forts and built stuff, then they all died. It’s quite spooky when you go there.

KK: How does your notion of Britishness shape your work?

BW: I react to the environment I’m in. When we did Sightseers, I’d never been to the Lake District, which is shocking. I found it really amazing. I was like, “Oh, this is good. I like it.” My eyes were opened to it in the same way that the characters’ were. Free Fire is set in America, so it’s such a different thing.

KK: But it was all filmed in Brighton, where you and Amy live.

BW: I wish I had never told anyone that.

KK: The light is different.

BW: I don’t know. You can’t film in the past so that world doesn’t exist even in America.

KK: The thing I loved about High Rise, particularly, was that you tackled one of those “unfilmable” books.

BW: Ballard is in a genre all of his own. His vision is almost, well, forensic. You try to make stuff that’s a departure from before, but there are always similar themes and rhythms. When you read his work now, you really start to appreciate how much he got right. He disassembles the illusion that we live in.

KK: High Rise had that kind of Logan’s Run 1970s glossy look. And Tom Hiddleston was amazing.

Free Fire (2016)

BW: Yeah. He’s great. That was the first time that I’ve had complete control over a film – you know, of every aspect. I was watching Logan’s Run the other day, actually. I love Ridley Scott stuff so I had to look at old Ridley Scott stuff from the 1970s, like the old adverts.

KK: Wow. His first film was The Duellists, which still sticks in my mind even though I haven’t seen it for years. Incredible. But you used to do a lot of advertising work too, like Ridley Scott did.

BW: He’d done a thousand adverts before he did The Duellists. You can see it, really see, that kind of style. There’s detail and detail and detail, and you see it. Particularly in Blade Runner – I watched that again a couple of weeks ago, and again I could sit there transfixed by it and go, “God, this is a really simple story. Nothing happens in this film.” It’s really awful. You know? Yet, it’s saying everything at the same time. I think that’s really interesting.

KK: Martin Scorsese has an executive producer credit on Free Fire and he loves you. Are you pleased with all the nice things he’s said about you?

BW: Without seeing his movies, I wouldn’t have got into film. I spent a lot of time watching and analysing his stuff and paying stupid amounts of money for big, expensive books about him. He’s probably the first person I’ve ever met who I’ve read a book about, which is really weird. That was probably the most exciting thing that happened to me making films, to meet him. I don’t think there are many times you can get to meet someone who does the same thing that you do, but who is the best in the world at it. That just blew my mind. I found out he liked Kill List from a newspaper article and I got my agent to sort out a meeting because we have the same agency in the States. – Here’s lunch. Oh, there’s nothing like being sat opposite someone with food envy, is there?

KK: Ha. I’m about to eat Bambi’s mom.

BW: It looks good.

KK: It’s not bad. So tell me – do you get ideas for film scripts from travelling?

BW: I wrote a lot of scripts that were set in the States at the start because I love American cinema. It’s not like I’ve planned this stuff. You go where it takes you.

KK: How was directing Doctor Who?

BW: It was good. I’ve been a fan since I was little and my son was really into it. When I did it, he was ten. It was pretty perfect. I wanted to make something that he could see.

Ben Wheatley on the set of Free Fire in Brighton

KK: It must be wonderful to work on something so iconic.

BW: It was great, going into the TARDIS and seeing all the props on set. It was pretty geeky stuff for me, but at the same time I knew it wasn’t something I could massively change. And you shouldn’t really, because it is what it is.

KK: That’s why I was excited hearing about [HBO sci-fi series] Silk Road. I heard it was a take on The Prisoner, which I love. All that conspiracy stuff is amazing – and what style! Do you watch older stuff much?

BW: I watched The Candidate last night because I haven’t seen it for years, and I watched Winter Kill, which is amazing.

KK: How old is your son now?

BW: 13. I am always telling him that stuff hasn’t really changed much. There’s a lot of talk about post-truth but the culture was always like that.

KK: Ben, you’re the only person that’s ever beaten me eating.

BW: Peasant speed. I’m always afraid someone’s gonna take my food.

KK: I really want to work on your next film. Please let me. What is it?

BW: It’s set in the future in America, a future where there’s been some kind of ecological f––k-up, something to do with fracking, although it’s never explained. And there are these things crawling up through the ground every night and wreaking havoc everywhere, and there’s a police force that are sent out just to deal with that. The film is all set on one night, a day in the night of these guys. They go out in their trucks, the crab people come up, and they have to kill them. It’s like Hill Street Blues crossed with a sci-fi monster film from the 50s, grubby and low-key. But it’s almost like a romantic comedy as well, with the graphic elements of a video game. It’s not like the monsters are going to take over the world. It’s basically about a lot of women having to deal with the clean up.

KK: So it’s women dealing with crabs?

BW: Exactly. That will be the poster. C