Ben Wheatley on Happy New Year, Colin Burstead and Q&A at QFT Belfast
Ben Wheatley brings his seventh film Happy New Year, Colin Burstead to QFT Belfast on Sunday. David Roy quizzed the acclaimed writer/director about his ongoing Q&A tour for the darkly comic ensemble drama about a doomed New Year's Eve family gathering at a lavish country pile
HI BEN, how has your cinema Q&A tour been going?
Great, it's been getting a very warm reaction and what's really interesting is that everyone stays for the Q&As.
Usually you lose about a third of the people, but everyone has been staying. There's been loads of questions, so they've been running quite long – some of them up to 40 minutes!
Have you made your traditional limited edition tour T-shirts for those who ask questions?
No, but we are giving away our film posters during the Q&As and people have been going crazy for them. Simon Davis did the painting of Colin on there – he's a portrait artist but also paints stuff for 2000AD like Slaine.
How much about the film are you prepared to give away during the post-film discussion?
I'm reasonably slippery when it comes to Q&As because I never want to explain what the film's about, per se. I think that kind of ruins movies. The questions are what's interesting, rather than definitive answers.
I've heard various theories [about the 'meaning' of Colin] which are all quite amusing – sometimes they're much cleverer than what I came up with, so mainly I just keep quiet.
Nearly 10 years into your film career are you starting to meet people you've inspired to become film-makers themselves?
Yeah, I am, and that's really brilliant, you know? I think people have taken things like [low budget 2009 debut feature] Down Terrace as a model, not so much the content but definitely the production style of it, and seen that there is a way of making things that is totally outside the system.
You don't necessarily need funding from a government body or investment from a production company – you can actually do it yourself.
If we've had any kind of achievement over the last 10 years, that's the main one, because I think the 'permission' to make films needs to come from inside film-makers themselves, not given over to other people who tell you whether things are 'good' or 'bad'.
That's the job – you need to make that decision yourself.
HNY,CB was shot in 12 days in one location. Is dealing with such a compressed shooting schedule quite gruelling?
No it's great, I love shooting quick. I like shooting long projects, I like shooting short projects – I like shooting.
There's loads of advantages to shooting stuff that's low budget and over a short period of time. You've got access to a lot more actors in a way because the commitment is not so long. You're trading up certain things – like maybe you don't have so much control over the art department, but you have the actors on camera for longer than you might do on even a six or seven week shoot.
That means you get hours of rushes [raw footage] every day as opposed to maybe 15 minutes per day because you don't waste so much time on complicated lighting and sets or moving location.
Your cast includes Wheatley regulars Neil Maskell (Kill List, High-Rise), Sam Riley (Free Fire), Peter Ferdinando (A Field In England, High-Rise) and Richard Glover (Sightseers, A Field In England). Did you get everyone you wanted for the various roles?
Yeah, and a lot of them were written for the specific actors, which is quite a nerve-wracking conversation – because if they say 'no' then you're screwed.
For example, Colin was written for Neil and plays to a lot of the strengths I know he has. In fact, almost the whole project was started with the idea of wanting to work with him again.
Don't they always advise never to write for specific actors?
I know – but I never tell do anything I'm told!
You also got screen veterans Bill Patterson and Charles Dance on board, as penniless Burstead patriarch Gordon and cross-dressing uncle Bertie respectively. Had you ever worked with them before?
Bill had a tiny role in High-Rise. I've been a massive fan of Bill Patterson since The Singing Detective and when we were casting High-Rise I needed someone with heft to go up against Jeremy Irons.
He turned up and just smashed it on the day, he made his few lines really sing. After that I went away and thought, 'I'm going to write something specifically for Patterson', I wanted to work with him again desperately.
So there was no 'casting' for his role, I just plied him with red wine and steak.
It was kind of a different story with Charles, a mix of clever casting and agent work. I wouldn't have thought of him necessarily, just because I felt like he was outside of my orbit – sometimes you feel these guys are too 'big' – but he was super-keen and so committed to it.
He's very particular about what kind of work he does so we were lucky to have him.
What was your initial inspiration for the film?
It came from seeing Tom Hiddleston in Corialanus. I really enjoyed it even though it was such an odd story to me. It's not typical to our modern structure or even the structure of other Shakespeare plays.
It's not 'rise and fall' – the main character sets out to do something and does it, then all the others turn on him because he's won. I thought that was kind of an interesting upside down version of the 'hero's journey'.
I started breaking the play down into pieces, one sentence per scene, and then built it back up as Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. So underneath the bonnet of it is Shakespeare, although it probably wouldn't stand up to academic scrutiny!
Are you slightly disappointed that your original title Colin You Anus didn't stick then?
I'm gutted about that, but it was put to me by various people that I was being indulgent and was endangering the whole production! I think I'll change it back for the 10th anniversary though.
The film is being screened on BBC2 next month. Is the mooted TV spin-off also happening?
Well, they've commissioned the scripts for it – whether it gets to production depends on how well the film goes down. But I'm quite excited about it, so we'll see what happens.
The film is set on New Year's Eve. Are you a fan?
No, I don't bother with it at all now. I go to bed about 8pm: then, when the fireworks go off at midnight, I get up and shake my fist at the sky, and then go back to bed.
Now on New Year's Day I wake up with no hangover and feel fantastic, whereas I spent far too long waking up feeling like I wanted to die.
Certainly, 2019 looks like it's going to be as miserable a year it's possible to imagine, so I think I want to be stony cold sober and ready for anything.
:: Happy New Year, Colin Burstead screened at QFT Belfast on Sunday December 2 at 6pm followed by a Ben Wheatley Q&A. Tickets via Queensfilmtheatre.com. The film will be shown on BBC2 on December 30.