A Field in England is a 17th century mind-job that is relentless in its decision to force you to figure shit out for yourself. No hand-holding, just a couple of Englishmen stuck in the middle of a very dark mushroom trip. Or are they? We spoke with director Ben Wheatley all about his terrifying period-piece acid trip and he told us he was inspired by Primer.
I know this is a pretty standard question but this is such a wholly original bit of work, I have to ask: Where did you come up with this batshit insane idea?
Ben Wheatley: It had been kicking around for awhile. I wanted to make something about the English Civil War. I think it started when I read about Paul Verhoeven directing when he was with the army in Holland. He directed all these troop movements and he used it as practice for doing larger scale kind of Hollywood style scenes.
You can direct 100 people running up a beach, and you just can't do that in low budget, homemade movies. I was very jealous of that. And I thought, "How can I do that?" I found a battle reenactment society within England called the Sealed Knot. I contacted them and said I wanted to make a documentary about their group. They said "yeah sure come along," and I ended up making a recruitment video for them which was a massive battle scene.
It was cool, it was about a 1,000 people marauding around on horses in battle gear, it was fantastic. I liked talking to them and a little bit of it rubbed off on me. I started reading up on the history a bit. It's a tricky thing, because Cromwell himself is a bit of an unfortunate character. In some respects he's a hero (the beginning of democracy, fighting against the King). But on the other hand, what he does in Ireland is really appalling. And also there's a very strong loyalist feeling in the UK. So cutting off the King's head is probably not a brilliant move if you want to be hailed as a hero. These things make him a kind of difficult sell in the UK…
Over time, there's not been that many big dramas about the war… So I started writing scripts. Over 10 years I wrote different versions of this thing, and I was talking to Amy Jump, who co-wrote Kill List with me and is my wife, and also edited all my films. We were chatting together about it, and she went away [with the script] and rewrote it. When I read it back, it was so different from what I'd written. It was totally different, nothing remained in it. At that point I took my name off of it. I said, "Fucking A, I cannot in all consciousness say [I wrote this]."
And a lot of this came out of her research too. Reading about magic and about how magic at that point existed in the world side-by-side with normal people. Normal people believed in both things. But also magic was a big subject and encapsulated a lot of what we now know today as science. And at that point, magic was being separated away from science. And religion is being separated from superstition. Christianity had taken on a lot of paganism, and that period you have the Puritans and your lot, and the Pilgrim Fathers, who were in the business of getting the paganism out of Christianity.
So you have a basic battle about that, and then you have the Civil War. Which is about "The King is an idiot, and the people who really run the country (the dukes) are trying to separate the monarchy out of that." The Civil War is the beginning of modern politics, or modern banking and the Industrial Revolution. So that's why it was very attractive to us. The point where Western Civilization was born.
You touched on this a little already, but I'd like to elaborate. We live in a world now with all these detective shows and CSI dramas where we take magic and explain it. And that's the end, the conclusion is breaking down the magic. A Field in England is basically science and magic living side-by-side, with no attempt to explain it. And just the horror of not knowing. The great dark unknowingness and what that brings out of humanity, and how that rips us apart. Did you ever feel like you were going to explain the madness?
We wanted to have this idea of like if you were to go to Japan tomorrow (unless you can speak Japanese and you know Japanese culture) if you go there and you don't know anything about it, you would be completely lost. There is no exposition. There is nothing. You're just there standing looking at the sign going, "I can't read this shit. And don't understand anything." No one will explain it to you, because you should know. It's the same with this. Most movies, the characters are just idiots, and they turn up somewhere and then someone explains everything to them. That's just not how life is.
Most period movies, scifi movies — it's all the same thing. It's normal performances in silly clothes. They're just modern people in different clothes. If you imagine what science fiction movie should be like, it would be completely baffling. If you were in the 70s [and saw] something that was set in the year 2000, you wouldn't understand a shred of what's going on. Mobile phones and text messages, it shouldn't make any sense and no one would explain it. So we wanted to make something that felt like if just dropped you in there. Sink or swim.
One of the films that was a touchstone for me was Primer. I thought it was amazing, because it's all about science but he doesn't give a fuck whether you know about science or not. You sit there and say "I don't understand this, but I'm intrigued by it and I'm and I feel like I'm privy to something, and I think these people are smarter than I am. I don't know what they're up to." Which is so rare in modern cinema. Usually you know everything, you're way ahead of the story. You're almost watching the end credits as you're watching the first 10 minutes .
How much time did you spend researching hallucinogens in the 17th Century and how they were use?
There were people going round grinding up psychedelic mushrooms and blowing them into people's faces. And using that as magic, saying "Oh, I'm doing magic!" And of course the people were just going out of their minds. Obviously mushrooms have always existed and people have always eaten them.
Then there's the ergot stories. The kind of mold that grows on corn, would end up inside bread, and people would eat that bread and hallucinate wildly that they were being eaten by devils. That mold was what they ended up experimenting on and would end up as LSD down the line. There were all sorts of stories where people taking themselves to monasteries because they were on fire or they thought they were on fire, and they reckoned that they had accidentally taken magic mushrooms.
A Field in England is currently available on VOD and in select theaters.