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Ben Wheatley directed his first feature, 2009’s Down Terrace, relatively late in life but has made up for it ever since. Since then he has been making one film every year (almost). Free Fire is his latest one, he’s also directed music videos, episodes of Doctor Who, and shorts, including a bit for the anthology horror film The ABCs of Death.
Here’s how he does it – top filmmaking advice he’s shared over the past decade, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
1. Create the Industry Around You
“Fuck the system!” — Wheatley is quoted as offering this punk rock sentiment in a blog post by filmmaker Frank W. Kelly (Derelict). In most interviews and Q&As where Wheatley is asked for advice for aspiring newcomers he focuses on the common tip to just make something and not be concerned about the established system or industry.
“You create the industry around you”, he told students at the DU Film Society in Ireland last month, “you don’t need to ask people for permission, just make things.” He reportedly, as covered by the University Times, told the crowd the establishment won’t pay attention to you unless you’ve already made something on your own.
You don’t need permission to make films, that’s the first one. And no one’s going to help you. And don’t bother going through any kind of perceived way of doing it that involves asking anybody else for help. You have to make your own mistakes and just believe in your own voice as much as possible, which sounds like just a load of platitudes, I know, but what we did with Down Terrace is we made it and we didn’t care what happened to it.
We made it and if it was going to be terrible, if we would have watched it and gone “pfft,” then it’d be put in a drawer and no one would ever see it. But we watched it and we liked it. We didn’t ask anyone’s opinion of it. You should know your own mind and know what you like and do that.
And here’s a mashup of related advice he’s given on the “just do it” mentality:
“Writing a script, shooting, editing and looking at the completed film is the best film school you could have. If you do it frugally you won’t break the bank or waste loads of people’s time.” — Evening Standard, 2011
“I think now is the time, you can do it for virtually nothing, the only thing that holds you back is getting enough people together to make it. The thing that personally holds me back is an internal thing of thinking that you need permission to do something, but you don’t, you just need to make it. It doesn’t even matter if it’s shit, that’s the really important thing, the first thing you will write will be shit, but you’ve just got to finish it and learn.” — Idol, 2011
“You just make the films you do…Just make your stuff. You don’t know what’s good or bad until you’ve actually made it; that includes the whole process through to editing, putting music on it and watching it back with people who’ve had nothing to do with the project. All the theory and film script books in the world aren’t going to get you understanding long form until you’ve actually done it. It doesn’t even matter if it’s terrible because you don’t have to show it to anyone.” —BAFTA Guru, 2012
Here he is explaining the basic idea in a video from 2007, two years before the release of Down Terrace:
2. Aquire a Particular Set of Skills
Of course, as the whole video above shows, Wheatley had a lot of experience experimenting with visual media before he ventured into feature filmmaking. He made his own videos, then he worked on things for others, and he started to build the skills he needed to be a good, well-rounded filmmaker. He explains in a 2016 No Film School interview:
I worked in viral advertising. If you wanted to win a job, you had to be able to pitch and direct it. You’d have to know that you were going to be able to achieve all the effects work for the budget. So you ended up the creative and the director and the effects supervisor. You had to have a very specific set of skills.
I spent three years editing my own stuff and other people’s stuff. I was an edit assistant and kind of followed it from that point on. I taught myself editing. What I generally do is just buy “How To” books for cracking software because it’s all the training you need. You don’t need to take courses for that stuff if you’ve got a general competency with computers.
A modern filmmaker needs to have all those skills. I was always determined to be at least a little bit in someone else’s shoes to know what each department did. The main skill of directing is time management. If you don’t know how long something takes to do or how hard it is, then you make unreasonable demands on departments and then everyone gets really cross, really quick. And then you fuck it up and you don’t make the day. Making a day is super important.
Years earlier, in 2011 to be specific, he shared this similar advice on being skilled in all areas of filmmaking with Den of Geek:
You need to have an understanding of the whole system, so you don’t waste any energy getting angry about stuff that you’ve got no control over, or ceding power to people when you could be in charge of it. As an editor, I know what to shoot, so I don’t overshoot, and I know when a scene’s done. For instance, with the death scene [in The Kill List], which I had no end of aggravation about from actors, because it was done in one take. I knew that on the spot. We saw it and it looked great. I think the editing side of it really colors how you direct.
Here’s a video of Wheatley on the editing of his movie A Field in England:
3. Keep It Small
Small crews are the stuff of low-budget filmmaking, but the payroll limitations are actually a benefit to the production process. In a 2013 interview focused on “making movies on the cheap” for Time Out London, Wheatley says:
The more people you’ve got, the more fucking aggravation you’ve got, the more people you have to tell to get out of the way or shut up. The camera team doesn’t need to be more than two or three people. The sound team shouldn’t be more than two people. It’s all about making as relaxed an atmosphere as possible, and we did. We never ran late, it was like clockwork.
Thinking small in scale works in front of the camera, as well. Here’s what he told The Globe and Mail last fall:
A lot of movies have got out of control, with effects where you can blow the world up or crash a massive spaceship into the sun or whatever. You watch that and it just kind of washes over you. The movies I like are quite small. Like, I was rewatching Robocop the other day. And the ending of Robocop is four guys, a van, a robot and a woman in a scrapyard. That’s all that happens … I try to think about why those things work. I think it has to do with human scale, and making action understandable — even if it’s something you might have experienced a small amount of. If you keep those stories small enough, then it’s really engaging. It’s sort of like how Warner Bros. cartoons work.
4. Your Actors Are Your Biggest Asset
The 2011 Evening Standard article previously linked to is actually written by Wheatley and is filled with lessons on making a “no-budget” movie. Here’s one of the most noteworthy tips:
With no budget, the main asset you have is performances. They have to be great. Good actors can captivate on an empty stage. Bad ones in front of an amazing set are still bad.
Our script was written for actors I knew. This can be high-risk (when you ask them to do it they may say no) but it does mean you don’t have any nasty surprises when it comes to filming.
I know a lot of actors, which helped, but even so half the cast of Down Terrace were non-actors. Look around you, there are great (if a little raw) potential performers in your circle of friends. The other decision we made early on was that there would be a certain amount of improvisation. This really helps non-actors and rubs the edges off slightly raw scripts.
5. Chop It
What you get from the actors isn’t necessarily all you have to work with, however, nor is it the end of the line with those performances. Here’s one of the many tips Wheatley shared with Frank W. Kelly in 2011, as featured on the latter filmmaker’s blog, Celluloid Journey:
Down Terrace also benefited from aggressive new wave editing. Don’t 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.
6. Don’t Be Precious
Returning to the idea of just making stuff and not worrying if it’s shit or not, Wheatley offered a tip to “wannabes” in a recent ShortList interview that reminds filmmakers to keep moving, don’t get stuck on any one project:
Don’t be precious. Make as much as possible, because you’ll write a script and a film will come out just like it. If you’ve decided that’s your whole life, you’ll be crushed.
I can write a full 20-page script in about two weeks. Whether or not it’s any good’s something else. It’s a first draft. Then I go back and do the rewrite. Free Fire was written five years ago. I’d stuck it in the drawer and forgotten about it. I reread it, thought, ‘It’s all right,’ rewrote it a bit and off it went.
What We’ve Learned
Wheatley is one of those filmmakers who feels strongly about just making stuff and making it all the time, which explains why he’s been able to be so prolific. Practice makes perfect, as he proves, but he also was in his late 30s before he’d made his first movie. Film school might not be worth it, but experience honing skills prior to going big was obviously important.
The two most important and practical lessons as far as on-the-job advice are a need to recognize good actors, or at least suitable actors, and the suggestion to either edit your own films or have a mindset for editing while shooting. In many of the articles linked to here he gives other tips involving writing, prepping, filming, and more job-specific aspects of production.