When Russ met Ben Wheatley

  • Russell Schaller
When it comes to British film directors few stories are quite as inspiring as the rise of Ben Wheatley – famous for pictures including Down Terrace, High Rise, Kill List and Free Fire. So we couldn’t have been happier to welcome him to Cheil London’s inaugural Film Labs event, held on 28th March at our offices.
The evening was packed with an audience of up-and-coming filmmakers, creatives, clients and press, all keen to hear Ben’s thoughts and advice. And he didn’t disappoint, covering everything from why he decided to give himself just eight days to film his first feature, Down Terrace, the relationship of ad storytelling to film storytelling and some tips for those who are getting started in their careers – which is, of course, I started Film Labs in the first place.
Briefly, Ben was born in Billericay in 1972. His career as a filmmaker started out in the early days of the internet when he would create animated films in flash and post them online - remember BT3A anyone? It was about this time we crossed paths. His talent for writing, directing and producing was evident, but it was the ‘bedroom made’ authenticity that quickly saw him develop into making films for brands. From there he took off. Directing commercials and then television. In 2009 he released Down Terrace, the feature-length story of a family of criminals and recrimination. Since then he has become one of the most exciting voices in British cinema, and more recently he shares his writing and directing credits with Amy Jump (they met as teenagers and are now married with a son).
I began by asking him what makes a Ben Wheatley film, to which the he was keen to stress his rejection of the auteur role. Instead he talked about his partnerships with Andy Starke from Rook Films and, of course Jump. “I’m not down with this auteur thing – it’s the big I am isn’t it. It’s not just one person who makes films,” he said. “Don’t try and be a junior Scorsese.”
His distinctive cinema-veritéstyle first emerged during the filming of Down Terrace. “I’d just directed a series of the Johnny Vegas BBC Three comedy Idealand I had a great time doing it, but it was very rigid with cinematography and script. So I wondered if there was a different way of filming and realised that every time we switched camera angles it took half an hour.”
From this experience, along with the realisation that every football match that airs is essentially a 90-minute documentary, emerged the ‘rules’ for Down Terrace, such as not lighting the rooms especially, not using lots of locations and keeping the cast small.
“When we made Down Terrace we didn’t know if anyone would like it or if it would sell, we did it because we loved it,” said Wheatley. “That’s the way to look at it, you have to go into it kamikaze, you’ve got to not care about the outcome of it.”
Of course, Ben had filmed thousands of hours of footage throughout his career before making a feature, and I wanted to find out more about what he thought the benefits of making commercials had been when it came to making films. He cited a number of things, from learning how to condense and compress a story into a short space to working with amazingly talented people like set designers.

As young directors will be all to ready to attest you need experience before you can get work in the advertising industry - and Ben was full of great suggestions as to how this can be achieved. For example, on the issue of having no money to make a film, Ben asked “How nothing have you got?” He pointed out if it came down to it you could borrow a smartphone or buy one on eBay for not much cash; decide who of your friends to turn to as actors; use the local park as a location “and then write for what you’ve got”.
It is the making that, in Ben’s point of view, is crucial.
“Don’t wait for anybody, don’t apply to funding bodies – until you make something, they can’t see what your talent is,” Ben said, recounting that was the advice he received when he was doing the rounds of film companies seeking money, in the belief that “I just need some money, I just need three million pounds”.
“The film you make might be shit,” Ben admitted, “In which case, don’t show anyone, just make other one.”
As well as being a self-starter, he said it was an advantage to know as much as you can about everything to do with writing, filming and producing and it is this hybrid spirit that I like to encourage within my creative department. Technology has allowed us to become multi-disciplinary. Now, more and more, we can make the work we conceive.
I’m now hoping that at least some of the up-and-coming creatives and directors who were in the audience will be embracing Ben’s words of wisdom and preparing to submit their work to Cheil Film Labs. The prize - a three-month, paid internship with us, working on live briefs and creating branded content for our clients.
At Cheil, we've set up Film Labs to help young directing talent get on the ladder, so please do make the most of it. If you’re hungry and energetic we’d love to see what you’ve got. We will be opening again in June.  Full details can be found at http://cheil.london/filmlabs/.