Ben Wheatley’s newest thriller, A Field in England, is a strange little period piece about soldiers who leave battle and join up with a strange mystic who encourages them to help him dig for treasure. In the words of FEARNET’s film critic Scott Weinberg, “that’s when things get really weird.”
We nabbed Ben after a long day of shooting Doctor Who to ask him about A Field in England, his influences, and epileptic seizures.
A Field in England looks like it would be deceptively simple to shoot: no sets, few actors, no costume changes. Was it as “easy” as it looked?
They’re not easy. None of them are easy!
Not even by comparison?
Compared to what? Intolerance? It was easier than Intolerance. It was probably easier than Inception, but I’d bet Dinner With Andre was a little bit easier. I don’t know, ease of production is not the kind of thing I would worry about. Any film with five or six people in it isn’t that easy. But there were things we designed to aid us in production, like having everyone wear the same costume. They wouldn’t change their clothes in that period. The constraints of being in a single place were interesting. It came with its own set of problems.
Well, if you’ve got a film crew on a field, it pretty much fucks it in five hours because everyone stomps on the grass. That was a major concern. We were very careful with that. Also, it’s very physical. Outdoors for 12 hours a day, and I film very fast, so the actors never got to rest. They were always in character, so that was pretty demanding.
Where did the idea for this film come from?
I wanted to get involved with battle reenactment people. I was making a documentary in the 1990s and I came across this group that did [British] Civil War reenactment and I filmed a lot of stuff with them. I thought they were fascinating and the period was fascinating so I wrote a script about it. That script kind of evolved over the years, then devolved into nothing. Then Amy Jump rewrote it, wrote her own version of the script, and that became A Field in England.
At the opening of the film, there is a warning about the strobing effects in the film. This is something I have never seen. Was this your idea? The distributors?
That was from us. I would hate someone to go into the film with a photosensitive condition and no one told them and they got sick. That would be awful. No film should irritate an existing condition. That’s bullshit. So I wanted to make sure people knew there was flashing imagery in it.
Having said that, there is something called the Harding Test in the UK, which is a box you put your film through to see if it has the chance of triggering an epileptic seizure. The film pretty much passed the Harding Test. Fast cutting is not what causes seizures; it is changes in contrast. If you have light gray and dark gray flashing, you won’t have a seizure, but if you have a black frame and a white frame, backwards and forwards, then that can cause it. You can actually have a fit from seeing a checkered tie moving across the screen. It doesn’t have to be fast cut.
I didn’t want to have that on my conscience though. It’s meant to be entertainment, not punishment.
The film, the style, felt very influenced by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Was that intentional?
I like Jodorowsky’s movies. I know some people are going on about the hats or something. He didn’t invent those hats; all the hats from the period looked like that. That is not something I would dwell on. I think that maybe the spiritual cowboy elements from El Topo are in there, but I would say Holy Mountain is in another league altogether. There is something primal and fundamental about Holy Mountain, which comes with a bit more budget. That film is basically the playbook for a lot of modern imagemaking. You can see all of advertising and all of pop culture exist inside that movie.