There are several unwritten rules about low budget filmmaking. One is to avoid period drama, another is don’t film outside on location.
Yet Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England does both – and more. Wheatley, who has made a name for himself as the inventive, resourceful director of Kill List and Sightseers, shot the black and white film in 12 days in one field with a cast and crew of less than 40 people – on a budget of under £500k.
It’s been done at great speed too: the whole project has gone from idea through script-writing, production and post and release (on 5 July) in less than a year.
Set during the English Civil War, it’s a psychedelic story of a group of deserters who flee from a raging battle through an overgrown field. But they are captured and forced to search for hidden treasure their captors believe is buried in the field – the cue for a descent into chaos, arguments and paranoia fuelled by a vast mushroom circle in the field.
A Field in England is produced by Wheatley’s Rook Films, and is the first film to be backed by Film4’s talent and ideas hub Film 4.0. Notably – and very unusually – Film4.0 fully funded the film. It’s part of a Film 4.0 plan to foster “freedom and agility in film-making,” says executive producer Anna Higgs.
Wheatley had previously proved himself to be a master of low-budget film-making with his debut Down Terrace, shot in just eight days in one location. Wheatley says he learnt on Down Terrace that a “pragmatic script” was crucial for keeping the budget in check.
So, A Field in England, written by Amy Jump, does without lots of locations, sets and characters. And even though it’s a costume drama, the actors don’t change clothes. “Once we set the parameters, 12 days of shooting seemed like a luxury,” says Wheatley.
It was shot on location at Hampton Estate in Farnham – in a field that was previously used as an overspill car park for Hollywood shoot Jack the Giant Killer.
Producer Andy Starke says the ethos of Rook Films is simply to try to keep on filming new projects, and not get bogged down by trying to set up big budget, vfx heavy features that need “10,000 hobbits bounding over a hill.” Starke adds: “We didn’t want to get stuck in a world of financing. You can get very old waiting for films to get financed.”
That’s not to say the film is cheaply produced – or looks cheap. “Creatively it’s the best thing we’ve done,” insists Starke. “There’s no point in being clever and making a cheap film if it’s a bad film.
Wheatley and Starke stress that they tend to use the same experienced crew from film to film – a group of friends who all work very fast but in a relaxed way. “A lot of them also work on Top Gear, so they know what a hard shoot is,” says Wheatley.
Improved – and cheaper – technology has also helped keep the budget in check. Wheatley and Jump edited the film from their homes on FCPX, with Starke – who is from a post background – also providing back up. The rushes are all shared online between the key creatives.
The film is shot primarily on a Red Epic, with a Canon C300 as the back-up camera, but with cheap plastic lenses bought on the internet or even home-made lenses constructed out of children’s toys and glued together by Wheatley and DoP Laurie Rose. “Because they are so badly made they create a lot of artefacts, flares and misting that gives a really interesting almost antique feel that really worked for the film,” says Wheatley, who thinks that this reflected the constant shifting of the characters’ perspective after they’d taken mushrooms.
The lightweight cameras allowed the film to be shot in a roving, documentary manner. It meant the actors could concentrate on their performance rather than the fixed position of the cameras, says Wheatley.
A Field in England is set to be the first ever film to get a true ‘day and date’ release in the UK – in cinemas, on TV, DVD and video-on-demand. “We wanted to release it to as big an audience as possible to reflect the sense of energy and passion that the film’s been made with,” says Higgs.
Indie films struggle to break through without a big P&A budget, so the day and date strategy is a bid, adds Higgs, to build "eyeballs and buzz" for what she hopes will become “quite a cult, trip of a movie.”
A Field in England is released on 5 July
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