Mar 23, 2017

Ben Wheatley on Pushing Boundaries, Being a Modern Auteur and Independent Filmmaking

Yesterday, acclaimed filmmaker Ben Wheatley spoke to DU Film Society and the Department of Film, touching on topics like rejecting traditional narrative, the role of music in his films and encouraging female protagonists.

Rebecca Wynne-WalshDeputy Radius Editor
Ivan Rakhmanin for The University Times

Last night, DU Film Society hosted Ben Wheatley, who is fast earning the respected moniker of film auteur. Known for Kill List, A Field in England and High-Rise, his psychedelic and visceral style consistently challenges accepted norms of cinema and pushes the boundaries of narrative structure, style and motivation.

Wheatley entered the Graduates Memorial Building (GMB) to resounding applause. Every seat was filled, and some fans were left standing at the back, eager to hear Wheatley speak. The many budding young filmmakers, film students and film appreciators were treated to Wheatley’s quick wit and no nonsense attitude.

When asked about his humble online beginnings in short panel comics and flash animation short films, Wheatley insisted it was simply the “easiest way to make films without having to involve other people”. Lighthearted comments such as these were met with plenty of laughter from the palpably excited audience.


Though he was praised as a modern auteur by those in attendance, Wheatley was quick to denounce the title. He drew attention to the importance of teamwork with reference to key collaborators in his career, which include producer Andrew Starke and screenwriter Amy Jump. The latter also happens to be Wheatley’s wife.

Wheatley’s decidedly alternative narrative style is no accident, it seems. The director spoke plainly of his desire to stay away from clear-cut genre films. He referred to an easily defined genre movie as simple the “same film with different people”. While Wheatley noted the commercial value of this, he articulated his desire to build a very different kind of value in his work.

No stranger to the world of independent filmmaking, Wheatley spoke candidly of the struggles to get funding for a film. Notably, he discussed his next project, which is set to begin filming in August of this year. This film features a female-led cast, and Wheatley lamented that “if we’d flipped the genders we could have made it years ago”. He points to Mad Max: Fury Road as a massive stepping stone in solidifying the commercial viability of such female-centred action films or thrillers.

Naturally, a lot of attention was paid to the unorthodox release of A Field in England. The film itself is fast gaining cult classic status, a fact that Wheatley himself was forced to laugh at: “Cult film means you’re fucked.” He pointed out that a so-called cult film is usually a commercial flop on first release that later gains traction. Wheatley laughed dryly, a recurring feature of his interview, as he explained that he would never set out to make a cult film and that he would never set out to lose other people’s money.

Again, Wheatley served to entertain as well as educate the crowd of giddy film buffs and future filmmakers. A Field in England was famously broadcast on Film4 on the same day of its cinema release. This non-traditional release format meant the film was seen by almost one million people in its first weekend instead of the expected 20,000 or so. While Wheatley was impressed by the scope this method of release achieved, he was quick to add that he was “not sure if it’s the future of distribution”. Being aired on television so early restricted the film from engaging in the full festival circuit, which is considered a definite rite of passage in terms of independent film distribution.

Wheatley not only provided great insight into the practical side of filmmaking and distribution, he also treated the assembled audience to a discussion of his creative as well as his commercial process. After the prominence of music in his films was pointed out by an audience member, Wheatley acknowledged that his films generally start out as a Spotify playlist and describes these playlists as kind of musical mood boards while he visualises and/or writes his films, some of the featured songs even find their way into the finished product.

Speaking of visuals lead Wheatley to address his dedicated approach to planning out the look of his films. Wheatley talked of repeatedly drawing out storyboards, sometimes hundreds of times, as a way of playing out the practicalities of various scenes. Panic was visible in the eyes of many young makers in the crowd when Wheatley spoke of editing footage on set. This intense process allows for the crew and the actors to get an immediate sense of the finished product they are working towards.

Finally, when asked to impart any advice to struggling filmmakers, Wheatley ended on a note that was both an inspiration and a reality check. “You create the industry around you”, he continued, “you don’t need to ask people for permission, just make things”. Wheatley encouraged audience members who wanted to make a film but warned that they would have to do it themselves as no one in the industry will pay you attention until you have something to show for yourself – An insightful yet down-to-earth message and a fitting parallel with the man himself.

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