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May 20, 2016

Pulling Focus: A Conversation with Ben Wheatley


Taste of Cinema / Shane Scott-Travis

It’s evening and a violet shadow—pale—spreads over the city like ink dispersing in water. We’ve gathered at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver for a late night special preview screening of High-Rise, the fifth feature from British firebrand Ben Wheatley.

“This is a film for audiences who want to see dogs being killed, and Tom Hiddleston naked,” deadpans Wheatley to the sold-out and enthusiastic crowd who can’t help but cheer him on with what he calls “the last big counterculture adaptation to go through.” Just before the lights dim Wheatley adds that, “No animals were killed during the filming, a few of them were very upset though.”

High-Rise is the film that Wheatley is in town to promote, but it’s certainly not all he’s willing to knock around as I’d discovered earlier that day.

An engaging artist, Wheatley’s tireless wit, lively conversation, and contagious love of cinema further underscores his own trenchant, imaginative, and somewhat thorny body of work. Truly I can think of no filmmaker today whose work is as dangerous, as exciting, and as unpredictable as Ben Wheatley’s is.

Anarchy in the U.K.

Wheatley, who was born in Essex in 1972, laughs good-naturedly when I ask him how he feels about all the Stanley Kubrick comparisons that seem to fall all around him like common confetti.

“It doesn’t help,” he chortles, adding, “I think it’s an impossible thing because if you’re criticized you feel cross but if people think your stuff is good then you just feel cross as well, so there’s no two ways about it. You can’t take any of that stuff to heart.”

Wheatley’s jolting body of work is yet to garner the same effervesce decoration as Kubrick, but by comparison, he’s a far more prolific and persevering force considering that in the last seven years he’s made five films, with a sixth, Free Fire, already in the can and due in cinemas later this year.

“I think the thing about being like other filmmakers is you can be in the tradition of them maybe, but when they made their films there was a certain financial system and a mindset that existed at that moment that can never exist again. So I don’t think that you could ever be like those filmmakers because it’s gone.

That moment’s gone and they were the only people that could do it at that time. Kubrick’s experiences and mine are so completely alien and different they can’t compare. I mean, things can look a bit the same but they don’t mean the same.”

Growing up outside of London––where he’d later attend art school––Wheatley sauntered and skimmed on the periphery of film and television a while before making it as a director. But even before that calling, at 17, he met his muse, Amy Jump, whom he’d later marry, and she’s written and co-edited pretty much every project together since.

“You get to 25 years-old and you haven’t made Citizen Kane and you feel a little bit sad inside,” shares Wheatley to the rapt crowd at the Vancity Theatre. “Then you’ve got Tarantino at 29 and I was like, ‘I’m 29 now, I haven’t made my Reservoir Dogs, fuck! Then you get to 40 as I was and you still haven’t made a film and you’re like, well, I’ve still got Ken Russell. Russell didn’t make a film till he was 50, so I was holding out for the Ken Russell backstop.”

Wheatley paid his dues as a runner at a post-production facility––“but not a very good one,” he chuffs––and some erratic employment as a storyboard artist before eventually making it, via a viral internet video with pal Rob Hill (Down Terrace) called “Cunning Stunts” that would bring him to the BBC to do an eccentric comedy show, Ideal. This stint was, in Wheatley’s words, “my film school.”