INDIE AND STUDIO FILMMAKING ADVICE FROM BEN WHEATLEY

Giles Alderson and Dom Lenoir were joined by writer and director Ben Wheatley on this week’s episode of The Filmmakers Podcast

Making a film during a Pandemic

Ben’s latest film In The Earth was written and filmed in the pandemic. But he said that the pandemic had little to no effect on the way it was filmed. 

“It’s the same as the other films, to be honest, similar scale movies done over a similar amount of time. It’s the ebb and flow of what happens in a year where there’s a big movie coming up, then it doesn’t happen for some reason.”

Ben said that he usually writes for himself, things that he would like to see in films. He wrote a few scripts during lockdown and then chatted to producer Andy Stark about filming in the two weeks after lockdown, before people went back to their jobs.

He went on to say that “there’s a lot of talk about how short the shoot was, but it’s not really. If you think about what genre movies and B-movies were like in the 60s/ 70s, it’s about the right length. A B-movie shoot would go from three days to about 15 days. And a Hollywood movie would be about six weeks. It was unusual to shoot longer than that.”

“The idea of horror and genre is a metaphor to illustrate life. If you’re making something that is exactly what’s happened, there’s no metaphor in that. There’s no illustration.”

I was going to do this zombie thing with Channel4, and as soon as COVID happened, I was like we can’t do it, because it’s too much like what’s happening. Why would anyone want to see it? We literally lived through a horror film and we saw what would happen.”

Using Storyboards

“Boards are only worth doing if you control the environment that you’re in, because if you can’t control it, why are you drawing it? Because you’re never going to be able to make those shots happen.”

Ben choses not to storyboard where he can’t control the environment, particularly films shot outdoors and prefers to do a shot list with suggestions of shots he would like to use.

This allows him to “be more flexible on the day. In the Earth was the same. There was no point, we only reccied it twice and it was not that kind of film, not a grit film, so you’re not going to be having developing shots and people moving around. 

You live in the environment, you set the camera positions, you block the actors and that’s it. That’s something I’ve learned from doing television work.”

That said, he has completely storyboarded every frame on other films. “I think it’s a really great way, certainly with a film that costs a load of money, seeing the film for the first time at the cheapest amount of money.

Often I’ll draw them myself and then look at them and I’ll be able to see enough in them to be able to project myself into the film and see the film more clearly than if I was just imagining in my head.”

His Thoughts on Rehearsals

Ben says that on most of his films he’s not had time for rehearsal, due to schedules etc. But he said that missing rehearsals doesn’t bother him.

“I’ve been on films where you’ve done a read through, which has always been a disaster, because a script is such a horrible document. It’s not really made for that kind of situation. It’s just like a terrible radio play and people lose confidence in that. So I tended not to do any rehearsal for a long time, but then on Rebecca, we did quite a lot of rehearsal and that was quite useful for the script. But then it wasn’t my script.”

He says that on his own scripts, he prefers to fix it on the day. “If I need to fix it, I’ll see it and I’ll play it until it’s right. ‘That phrase isn’t working or this feels phoney’, and then you can start to strip it out. 

I tend to think of rehearsal as lost performance. You kind of go, the rehearsal was really good, let’s do it like it was in the rehearsal. And it never happens. That’s the difference between theater and cinema – you can lose the spontaneity and the urgency of the performance by over rehearsing.”

Ben on Directing

He often feels that there’s “too much talking on set. People can’t remember what you’re saying and it’s often more confusing than it is helpful. So my direction is much smaller, it’s more like encouragement or just: ‘that was great. Or faster, or slower, or bigger or smaller’. 

Trying to make an environment where the performers don’t feel like they’re being judged. It’s an arena to try out different types of performance. And then they trust me that I’ll pick the right one in the edit.”

Want more filmmaking advice from Ben? Listen to the podcast here.

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