Thursday, April 28, 2016

Ben Wheatley on Down Terrace and an Ethos for Indie Filmmaking

As I get ready to go into production on my next film, my third feature length film (second dramatic feature)  10 Days in December, I was going back through some old emails, notes, pieces of advice and I came across an email from director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, A Field in England, High Rise). I was about to start making Derelict and feeling a bit of pressure. I was in Dublin, I remember it quite well, because I was on the way to a meeting at the Irish Film Board about funding the project (the would eventually reject my application) and I picked up a copy of Sight & Sound.

There was an article about Mr. Wheatley and his forth coming film, Kill List, which hadn't been released yet. It was also largely about Down Terrace, his debut feature film. Everything about this film sounded so familiar to me, the experience, the scale, the budget, the schedule, the location, it was like he was talking about Derelict

I got very excited. Quick stepped to Tower Records, the guy scoffed, never heard of it, prick! So hot tailed it to HMV, "Yep, over here," said the clerk and lead me right to it. Soon as I got home that day I watched it, and re-watched it. It was fantastic. A brilliant brilliant film. I loved it. It did so much, with so little and dispelled a lot of doubt for me. I finally felt like I could make Derelict with what I had.

So I decided to drop Ben an email. I talked about my own project, and how much I enjoyed Down Terrace, he got right back to me with a very encouraging email and some really great, and simple advice. Going back over it I thought it was worth sharing. So, I asked permission to share, and he agreed. So, here is some worthy, practical advice from Ben Wheatley, director of Down Terrace, Kill List, A Field In England, Sightseers, High Rise and the forth coming Free Fire.

Ben Wheatley - Director
On Prep: 

"I cant believe how little prep we did... No read through with all the cast, No rehearsals, No storyboards, no shot lists. I was on an advert so didn't do any prep beyond looking through the house with Laurie Rose (dop) the day before."

Personally, I wouldn't recommend this approach, and I'd imagine Mr. Wheatley wouldn't now either,  in fact he ended the email by saying: "so it can be done... with little prep... not that id ever do it like that again ;)" - but it goes to show what can be achieved once you have a good script, a strong director, strong cast and crew, strong vision and passion. I have to imagine that going in they had a good sense of what the piece would be, a feeling of what the tone of the piece would be, because the tone of Down Terrace is so strong.

On Production:

"One thing i did have was Andy Starke producing. He kept the whole thing under control. We really didnt feel any pressure..."

This is vital in my opinion, having someone on set, that's not you, taking the reins of the production. Someone who can be trusted to take care of things while you concentrate on the creative side. I've never had this, not fully anyway, I've always produced my own films, so I'm worrying about budget, and gear rental, and contracts, and lunches... and it definitely detracts from what you can give to the film. Try to find someone who can handle all that stuff, that's not you!

On Set:

"We had nothing to lose and nothing to prove. It was great. I think that freedom helped the performances no end. The actors just lived in the moment and i didnt over block them. They did their thing and Laurie (Rose - DOP) and i worked out minimal coverage.

I think this attitude it vital to a healthy production, don't think too much beyond the movie you're making, give your all to it and be true to it and be in the moment. "Nothing to prove and nothing to lose" should be every independent filmmakers production mantra. This method of not blocking, letting the actors just be and the DOP find them is known as Induced Documentary style, it was something that William Freidkin developed in films like French Connection, giving the film a much more realistic feeling.  (Click on the link above for a really cool video essay on Freidkin and this style.)

On Style:

"Down Terrace also benefited from aggressive new wave editing. Dont like a line or a performance? Chop it out. Never leave anything bad in the film. Embrace jump cuts. Cut out cliche as if its cancer. Never let the characters say any exposition."

Simple, but great advice. As I'm editing my latest script this is something really worth remembering. And as soon as you cut that stuff out, you'll find you script, or film, instantly gets better. Trust your audience, they're smart. Treat them like intelligent people and give them an intelligent film.

This short and concise email really helped me get ready for Derelict. And has helped me again as I edit 10 Days in December. I hope it helps you with whatever you're working on at the moment. Thank you Mr. Wheatley for the advice.

"Fuck the system!"
                  - Ben Wheatley, 2011