Is this the future of British cinema?
Ben Wheatley made his excellent British gangster film 'Down Terrace' with no government funding. Could this be a template for the future?
In all the furore this week about the impending demise of the UK Film Council, it’s easy to forget that it won’t necessarily spell the death knell for independent British cinema. This country has a great and growing tradition of home made, DIY cinema, as evidenced this week by the release of ‘Down Terrace’, a self-funded, Brighton-based black comedy which uses the basic template for many a gangland epic – a family of crimelords try to work out which of their shady compatriots shopped them to the narcs – to spin out a magnificently grim, witty and involving story of suburban angst, familial strife and bloody violence.
Director Ben Wheatley and his co-writer Robin Hill are TV veterans, having worked on the likes of Armando Ianucci’s ‘Time Trumpet’ and Johnny Vegas sitcom ‘Ideal’ which, with its claustrophobic, dope-addled atmosphere must’ve been the perfect practice for their first feature, ‘Down Terrace’. ‘We’d done interviews with local drug dealers and ne’er-do-wells,’ Wheatley tells me. ‘Rob and I had written a whole script. But we looked at it and we thought, “it’s good but it’s been done before and done better.” So we came up with this idea of a crime film where you don’t see the actual crimes, so you don’t have to deal with all those clichés, but you still get all this interesting psychology, the drama that comes with the crime genre.’
For the film’s cast, Wheatley called on friends and people he’d met working in TV. Co-writer Hill plays the lead role of browbeaten, unbalanced son Karl, while his dad Robert Hill, a first-time actor, is remarkable as ’60s casualty-turned-drug kingpin Bill. ‘Bob’s a sensitive, open guy, and in retrospect it wasn’t a surprise, but it was pretty insane to have done it,’ Wheatley laughs. ‘It was very weird because we shot the film in their house, so you could feel all of those psychic scars. You wouldn’t be able to get that kind of reality from actors unless you rehearsed the absolute living shit out of them for months. That awkwardness only comes from real relationships.’
One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is how it constructs a world completely without morality, a brutal suburban landscape almost but not quite like the real world. ‘One of the key ideas was that there was this family who make their own rules,’ Wheatley agrees. ‘They were an island. But they were also a nation state who could declare war on people, the way Blair did. They believe they’re right and that’s all that matters. They feel regret for the people they’ve killed. They feel sympathy towards them. And I just don’t see that in drama usually. It’s always very black and white, but that doesn’t reflect what life’s like. You can be laughing and crying, laughing and crying all day long. Life is much more staccato than the movies would have us believe.’
The use of a single location – a ramshackle suburban home – also leaves the film feeling very claustrophobic and intense. ‘I’d been reading about Mafia Dons who live in Sicily in shacks. They’re the most powerful people but they dress like tramps because they don’t want anyone to know who they are. That’s why the characters in the film live in a house that they can’t even decorate in case anyone notices. They think they’ve lived this hidden, secret life, controlling everything, but actually it’s all starting to unravel.’
The film is also unique in the way it portrays its criminal characters as complex, multi-layered but also very confused and mistake-prone individuals. ‘Reactions in America often consisted of people going, “the characters are criminals, but they talk in this uniquely erudite way…” Well, they’re just people. There’s intelligent road sweepers and there are really stupid QCs. It was weird for them that the characters are more interested in talking about music than they are in talking about crime. But people are rounded, aren’t they? It’s only dramatically constructed characters that aren’t. Think of a movie character, say a cop on the edge. Maybe the cop is into accordions! You never know, do you?’
But the most interesting thing about ‘Down Terrace’ is that Wheatley and Hill didn’t wait for corporate or government funding, they just went ahead and made the film their own way, with their own equipment and their own money, calling in favours as they went. ‘I’ve always been a bit wary of regional film funds and trying to raise money that way. I think if I had sent ‘Down Terrace’ in as a script and asked for funding, that would’ve been a very long and bumpy road. And the thing that makes me happy is that I know that whatever happens I can always just go back and make another one with my own money.’
That won’t be an issue in the immediate future: Wheatley and Hill have already received funding from Warp Films and Film4 to produce their first ‘professional’ feature, ‘Kill List’, a horror film to be shot in Sheffield. ‘What ‘Down Terrace’ is to crime, this is to horror,’ Wheatley enthuses. ‘It’s deconstructing it a bit, it’s very realistic, then spirals off. I thought: If I’m going to do a horror film, it’s got to be really nasty!’
So while the closure of the Film Council may be a blow to many, it’s good to know there are still filmmakers like Wheatley making backyard features for discerning audiences. ‘The film industry seemed absolutely impenetrable from the outside, looking in,’ he remembers. ‘But we shot this in eight days, documentary style. There were no compromises. We just worked with what we had. The technology’s here, now. You’ve just got to make your own films.
I really love this film, i really got inside my head. It's a sort of film noir crossed a slice-o-life, and made me think a little of Harold Pinter who wrote about "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet".