Ben Wheatley: Lone Ranger

March 26, 2019
Making his name with mayhem-laced thrillers and horror comedies, Ben Wheatley’s dysfunctional family drama Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, may seem like an odd choice for the Brit filmmaker.

Even more curious is the fact that he based his screenplay on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.

Best known for Sightseers, Kill List and his J G Ballard adaptation, High-Rise, one might even imagine that Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is, in part, a homage to his own disastrous New Year celebrations.

“Not at all, although there have been some bad ones,” says the director when we meet him at the International Film Festival & Awards Macao.

“I’d been to see Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus as part of the casting process for High-Rise,” he says of his 2015 sci-fi horror, his most successful film to date, featuring a veritable A-list cast including Hiddleston, Sienna Miler, Jeremy Irons, Elisabeth Moss and Luke Evans.

“Tom was great in it and I hadn’t seen the play before. It was quite complicated and I really thought about it afterwards, wanting to get under the skin of what that play was.

“So, in a slightly arrogant way, I thought I would adapt it and then turn it into a contemporary story. I took every murder, kings and queens and big battles etc and turned them into little arguments – which became the plot of Colin Burstead,” he says about the film which some commentators have labelled ‘post-Brexit’.

The experience was very freeing. “It meant that I didn’t have to think about the plot because Shakespeare had already done the work so why fight it? It’s going to be as good of a plot as ever could be written,” he argues.

“There’s only four plots and we’ve all seen them before, so I got rid of that responsibility and forged on with the characterisations.”

Setting the action on New Year’s Eve narrowed the framework down to a 24-hour span. “I’ve had plenty of horrible New Year’s eves. It’s a highly irritating holiday where it’s almost like we’re told we’re going to have a good time and invariably don’t. I think there’s a lot of pressure on that time, a lot of booze and then also about dredging up things that have happened in the year and talk about what’s going to happen in the next year which, in the current situation, I can’t see why that would be a holiday at all. We should all be taking tranquilizers and hiding,” suggests Wheatley, 46, who is married to high school sweetheart Amy Jump, a frequent collaborator and co-screenwriter/editor.

Asked if he remembers his best and worst new year, he says, “I think 2000 was the worst because it was such an anti-climax,” describing how in his home town of Brighton the local council had spent a small fortune on fireworks, “but the fog rolled in and all the fireworks just disappeared in the sky.”

Charles Dance in Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead stars Neil Maskell in the title role, and features Charles Dance as a cross-dressing uncle alongside Sam Riley and Joe Cole.

“It’s the first film I’ve made without any violence or murders. That was a conscious decision,” says Wheatley.

“I think it’s a realistic portrayal of family and it’s enjoyable to see a dysfunctional family on screen. People tend to think their own family is uniquely dysfunctional when, in fact, all families are dysfunctional to the point of that being just normal.”

Indeed, the film is so relatable, people will approach him afterwards, saying how certain story-lines happened exactly the same in their own lives and asking the filmmaker if he based it on his own life. “I feel like I’m disappointing them when I admit I just made it all up. I end up apologising to them,” he laughs. “But it’s always useful to see your own reality reflected back at you from the screen in a fantasy-driven world where most of the things we see have nothing to do with our own lives.

Neil Maskell as Colin

“It used to be that we had a balanced diet of fantasy and drama but now it seems like much less of a balance.”

Prior to Colin Burstead, Wheatley’s most recent film was 2016 action comedy Free Fire, starring Oscar-winner Brie Larson, snagging the actress just as her career was about to sky rocket.

“She came to us straight from the set of Room. It hadn’t even been finished so we had no idea what Room was. It was only when we were in post-production that Room was released and everyone started talking awards,” he says of his Captain Marvel leading lady.

“So, we benefited from her after-glow and it made us look clever for casting her. We only cast her because she was really good – it wasn’t anything to do with Oscars,” says Wheatley who also cast Australia’s Noah Taylor in Free Fire. “I’d definitely work with him again. He’s terrific. I like Noah a lot.”

Free Fire

Currently in pre-production for a remake of Daphne Du Maurier’s timeless romantic mystery, Rebecca, starring Lily James and Armie Hammer, he follows in big footsteps…

First translated to the big screen by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, a further TV mini-series aired in 1997 starring Charles Dance and Emilia Fox.

Wheatley is confident he can breathe new life into the story about a new bride grappling with intrusions from her husband’s deceased first wife.

Rebecca is 90 degrees from everything else I’ve been doing. I like the idea of going from something very contemporary and realistic to something romantic but also melodramatic and horror-tinged. A period film is just about as different as I could get from my last film,” says the director who was intrigued by Jane Goldman’s script.

“It’s really good and not what I thought I knew the story of Rebecca to be, so I thought that was interesting. I had this cultural ghost of what I thought it was so the script shocked and surprised me.”

Talking about casting Rebecca, he’s thrilled to have Armie Hammer as his leading man, last working with him on Free Fire and, also, being a big fan of his performance in Lone Ranger.

Lone Ranger was quite an unloved movie but I thought he was really good in it. Apart from being a really smart guy, he’s like the last of the Hollywood matinee idols which is interesting in itself.”

With Rebecca scheduled to shoot in May, he plans to return to Du Maurier original territory in Cornwall with other locations in the Mediterranean.

“I’ve always wanted to do a romantic comedy or a kids film so it’s all about slowly moving the boat round. It takes time to get into position,” he says. “I think it’s really important to have variety otherwise you end up stuck in one genre, pumping out the same film again and again.

“Cinema is so broad and there are so many interesting things to do I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to change.”

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is playing at the Revelation Film Festival in Perth, July 4 – 17, 2019

Top Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for BFI

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