Phoenix Meets Ben Wheatley

Our New British Cinema season kicked off with a trio of films directed by Ben Wheatley. We caught up with Ben (via a video call, of course) to see how he’s coping with life in lockdown.

Phoenix: So you’re in Brighton, I think, Ben – that must be quite pleasant as a place to be locked down?

BW:  Yeah, but we live on the edge so I’ve not really been into the centre of Brighton at all. At the moment our world really extends as far as you can walk in 40 minutes from our house so it feels a bit isolated, but we went for a drive the other day to go pick something up from a chemist and it felt like quite an adventure!

Phoenix:  So you can’t see the sea from your office, then?

BW:  Actually I can, but it’s a long way away. I’d say if you were to walk it would take you about an hour and a bit. I’ve lived in Brighton since the 90s and this is the first house I’ve ever had where I can see the sea. But it is very far away.

Phoenix:  Well, I’m definitely still jealous! So, how has lockdown affected the projects you’re working on at the moment? What’s happening with Tomb Raider?

BW:  Well like for everybody, on the day they announced lockdown everything just stopped. For everything, big and small, in every industry, things just stopped. So now we just wait and try to find out what the guidelines are for moving forward. You know, it’s been really odd. Those first 6 weeks or so everything was adrift with no information, just waiting to see how the whole thing unfolded, and now slowly this past couple of weeks there’ve been tiny murmurings of what procedures may be for filming. But it’s the same for everybody isn’t it? I guess you’ve been getting guidelines through for how you might run the cinema?

Phoenix:  Yes, that’s right. Things are starting to filter through now from various industry bodies, but we’re a long way off even being able to reopen. There’s such a lot of work to do to prepare for it. But I imagine the impacts on a Hollywood project like Tomb Raider are huge?

BW:  Well the main thing is travel, because no-one can go anywhere at the moment. We were on the last little bits of work on Rebecca as well, so that’s half alive over the lockdown. We’ve been talking about it but not actually doing lots of work. We owed a day of doing the music but we couldn’t do it because you couldn’t get more than 2 people in a room, so we’ve been dealing with that. So basically I’ve been sitting and doing some writing instead, which is kind of what my year would look like anyway… finish off the edit on a film, then sit and do some writing until another film turns up, not really seeing anybody. So it’s not too different from what we’d normally be up to!

Phoenix:  So what’s your Hollywood experience been like so far, with a big budget film rather than a low budget indie production?

BW:  It’s exciting. It’s a shock when you hear Free Fire described as ultra-low budget because to me it was a pretty big budget, but so far the Tomb Raider experience is pretty much the same as with my other films. It was very early days when we went onto a hiatus with Tomb Raider, so we’ll see what the world looks like when we emerge from all this.

Phoenix:  So has it pushed things back quite a long way?

BW:  It’s hard to say really, because there’s no way of predicting when we’ll be able to get going again. There’ll probably be a point where things quite quickly start to happen, but it’s the same for any industry at the moment. But Tomb Raider’s not just being shot in the States, it’s all over the world, so travel is the big problem. But we’ve been thinking about how it could work – potentially there could be a 2-week ‘quarantine’ for cast and crew before they start work on set. Film has a unique set of problems, because you can’t really replace an actor in the middle of filming. I can be replaced, everyone else can be replaced, but the actors can’t be, so that’s a real problem. I don’t know how it’s going to work at this stage, but they’ll have to do COVID tests and just keep on testing everybody.

Phoenix:  So it’s too early to say when you might be able to resume?

BW:  Yes, we’ll just have to wait. I’m aware of some people filming in Sweden, but I think that everywhere else in the world nothing is being made yet.

Phoenix:  Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is due for release in July, but cinema programmers are wondering what else will be available when they’re actually able to reopen, because a lot of big releases like the new Bond have been pushed back to late 2020.

BW:  I think there’ll be a glut of releases for 6 or 7 weeks, with things that were held back, but after that there could be a problem when we hit the point when there was no film production happening.

Phoenix:  So what do you think are the implications of coronavirus for the film industry and cinemas in the long term?

BW:  Hmm, I’m not sure… I think film production will probably come back earlier than distribution by a month or so, but the distribution side is a real problem. I don’t know which way it’s going to go – whether the public will go back surprisingly quickly to normal behaviour, or whether there’ll be a lasting shadow from it. In a way we’ve spent 8 weeks being programmed into staying in and watching television, rather than go to the cinema, so it’s a question of whether people will stick with that, or whether people will rush out to do the things they weren’t allowed to do during lockdown. But I look at the news and I’d say that everyone is going to go straight back to what they were doing before all this happened, as long as there isn’t a second spike.

Phoenix:  Yes, there’s certainly real concern than the cinema could be badly affected, but I think different audiences will respond differently too. I imagine young people are going to be very keen to start going out and meeting their friends, going to the cinema and other entertainment venues again, whereas older people might be a little more cautious. There’s certainly going to be a lot of work to do to rebuild audiences again.

BW:  The streamed theatre stuff is interesting too, because so much of it has been available online. Maybe that’ll bring in new people who’ve seen it online for the first time, and got a taste for it.

Phoenix:  What we’re hoping is that our Phoenix at Home online activities, the things we’ve been doing since since we’ve been shut, will have helped us reach new people and our stats seem to show that is happening.

BW:  This is how we got in contact in the first place, through the website, because you’d put some of my films into your online programme. I like that the website is a hub, and it isn’t just promoting the films, but promoting cinema itself. They’re doing this in Lewes and Brighton too, and having courses, and clubs as well. It’s an educational thing isn’t it? The habit of watching films is not something that’s natural, it’s not innate, it has to be fostered, so all of that work everyone’s been doing is amazing.

Phoenix:  Hopefully it’ll introduce people to new things too, things they might not have considered trying before. But it’s also an opportunity for independent cinemas to show curatorial leadership outside their own venue.

BW:  Yes, definitely. There’s a record shop here, The Record Album – it’s the oldest record shop in Brighton and every week he puts in the window all the albums from stuff that’s on TV. So when you reopen you could do a programme that extends out from what’s being shown at the cinema to all this other stuff that’s available online too.

Phoenix:  Well Phoenix at Home is new, it’s something we started doing when the venue closed, but I hope it will continue as a feature when we reopen, so that as well as curating our programme for the venue we can still offer some guidance for what you can engage with outside as well.

BW:  Yeah, and doing things like streaming the Q&A sessions after films would be quite good too. When we went round with Free Fire that was the biggest tour that I’ve done – I think we were on the road for about a month, up and down the country – and it was brilliant. We discovered this bigger network of independent cinemas, and there are hundreds of them across the country which is incredible. What I really like is the fact that a movie release is like a series of waves hitting a beach, and sometimes you can be seeing it about a month later in small towns, and it’s great that it just keeps going. We’ve seen it with some of the things that I’ve worked on, where something that wasn’t so big at the box office at the start then gets this cultural wave that comes later and people just keep programming it. Certainly with A Field in England, people were programming that years later.

Phoenix:  At times like this, when things are really difficult, it often stimulates a creative response. Have you had any lockdown ideas?

BW:  Yeah, I mean you’ve got nothing but time to think and ponder ideas so I think there’s going to be a lot of really bad novels, quite a lot of music, quite a lot of bad screenplays written… and hopefully I’m helping with that! Left to my own devices in a room with a load of blank paper, then I will inevitably be writing something. So I have been.

Phoenix:  Excellent, so we should watch this space.

BW:  I’m really looking forward to getting back out again. I did a talk at NFTS [National Film and Television School], all done on Zoom, and it was great but usually you do it in a big room with a load of students then afterwards, you go and chat with them in the bar. But with this you just turn off Zoom and that’s it, you’re just in your house and… [shrugs shoulders]. Hopefully next year that can all start to happen face to face again, along with that experience of going out with a film and doing Q&As which is a great treat.

Phoenix:  What does your average day look like in lockdown?

BW:  I get up early and walk the dog, get the exercise in while there’s no one around. Then do some writing, a bit of production stuff, some reading… sounds really nice actually when I say it out loud [laughter]. It’s a bit like being a student, without the going out.

Phoenix:  So, my final question. I’m a big fan of Desert Island Discs, but obviously I’m going to ask you about films rather than records. So, if you could have just 5 films to watch in lockdown –however long it goes on for – which 5 films would you choose?

BW:  OK [thinks]… Heimat, Satan Tango [laughter]. Actually this is like a game that I play with my son when we go and play pool, where you see how much music you can get for the least amount of money, so we usually go for things like Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Clapton’s Layla. So Heimat’s 11 hours, probably Fanny and Alexander, the full Lone Wolf and Cub cycle – that’s about 9 movies…

Phoenix:  [Laughter] I don’t think entire series count!

BW:  I’ve thought about the whole Desert Island Discs thing before and it’s basically a poisoned chalice because you’re going to take your favourite films, music, whatever, and then you’re going to hate them by the end of it. So actually, should you take something that you don’t know, but run the risk that it might be tosh?

Phoenix:  Or, maybe you should take something you hate, and then you might grow to love it.

BW:  Hmm, that’s interesting. In that case I’d just take a load of musicals [laughter]. But actually, what would I take? I think I would take Heimat… we’ve been re-watching it recently, and of course there’s Heimat 1 & 2, Heimat: The Early Years, Heimat: The Women. There’s plenty to keep you going.


Ben Wheatley was talking to Phoenix membership and communications manager Sarah Vallance.


WATCH NOW: A trio of Ben’s films are featured in our New British Cinema season