Last updated on 21 February 2018
I was listening to an interview with British director and editor Ben Wheatley on a podcast the other day.
Wheatley in case you don’t know him is considered the new enfant terrible of British film.
He started out making videos for YouTube and got noticed, went on to create online content and then moved into TV comedy.
He wanted to know how he could get into feature film and was told he needed to make a short. Being impatient, Wheatley pooh poohed that idea and went straight to a feature. He shot his first one in eight days, drawing on his experience doing fast-turnaround TV and approaching it like shooting a documentary, going hand held. The result was Down Terrace, which was released in 2009. It was well received by critics and has an 85% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes. His second feature Kill List, which was shot in 12 days, marked Wheatley as a filmmaker to really watch. Wheatley has with the recent arrival of his latest feature Free Fire now made six feature films, nearly one a year—and the budgets have been getting bigger as has the star power—amongst others Tom Hiddleston in High Rise and Brie Larson in Free Fire.
Wheatley’s from the ‘Just Do It’ variety of filmmakers. He and his mates from outside the film industry (but in the production industry) got together to make Down Terrace, and they’ve been working with each other ever since. He’s trained himself as an editor as well as a director, and this editing experience and his TV training he says has helped him get the coverage he needs on his films and not more, as well as always making his day.
There’s a theory that says TV directors lack a voice and therefore can’t make a decent film. Wheatley’s disproven that as he has a highly distinctive filmmaking voice. And in expressing that voice he’s come up with a process and philosophy that he prescribes to. From amongst many of his thoughts on filmmaking, here are six Wheatley tips for aspiring filmmakers (with my paraphrasing):
- Create the Industry Around You—i.e. kick the doors down and don’t wait around for bureaucrats/permission.
- Acquire a Particular Set of Skills—if you want to be a good low-budget filmmaker, you need to understand the process and all the roles of production well to be efficient.
- . Keep It Small—the bigger the beast, the harder it is to wrangle.
- Your Actors Are Your Biggest Asset—great performances work anywhere, poor performances just don’t cut it.
- Chop It—get rid of what’s not good… brutally. And don’t be afraid to go against convention when you do.
- Don’t Be Precious—just make stuff, and learn from it.
Of course, there are a lot of people out there already with the ‘Just Do It’ approach. And many of them are making bad films because it takes more than an attitude to make a good film—it also requires talent. Which doesn’t mean to say that you can’t learn from your mistakes and get better as you go. Filmmaking however is an unforgiving beast, particularly when it comes to funders. You have a good chance of surviving self-funded flops, critically and box office wise, particularly if not many people have seen it and you’re not using one to promote your next project. Make a flop with a funding body however and you are going to find it hard to get another project up as a director.
Just do it? Yes, that philosophy has its merits. But if you can, make the first one good, and the next one better than the last. That way, you might be the next Ben Wheatley (or Taika Waititi).