Ben Wheatley interview: Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

The cult Brit director on his new film airing on BBC 2 and making a movie without violence

Ben Wheatley’s Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is atypically death-free. It focuses instead upon familial strife: lent money and broken marriages, illicit affairs and bitter accusations.  Despite the lack of killing, in parts it’s as harrowing a watch as Kill List (2011) and as funny as Sightseers (2012).

The Brighton-based British director’s seventh feature takes place on a fraught New Year’s Eve with the titular middle-aged Colin (Neil Maskell) hosting a party at a country house for his feuding extended family. Among those present are mum Sandy (Doon Mackichan) and dad Donald (Bill Paterson), cross-dressing uncle Bertie (Charles Dance), sister Gini (Hayley Squires) and estranged brother David (Sam Riley).

Wheatley wrote the script after seeing Tom Hiddleston playing Coriolanus while casting High-Rise (2015). Having found the complexities of Shakespeare’s tricky play tough to understand, Wheatley reduced the plot to its bare bones and rebuilt it in a modern context, with …Burstead being the result.

Wheatley sat down with Den Of Geek for a quick chat about his film, his leading man, and the violence or lack of it in his films.

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Is this a back-to-basics Ben Wheatley film?

The scale of it is smaller than the last two films but I’ve always jumped backwards and forwards in size of films so it’s not radically different, in terms of going from Sightseers, then A Field In England then back to High-Rise. What it’s more [of] is a return to contemporary filmmaking in a contemporary setting, which I haven’t done for three films. That was something I consciously wanted to do because I felt like I had made a lot of films I was slightly dodging or skirting around dealing with what was going on in the country. Even though all the films are political in their way, I just wanted to make something that was much more current.

Last time we met you talked about how pleased you were to be working with Neil Maskell again. Can you tell me about your collaboration with him?

I met Neil when I made this [TV] show called The Wrong Door (2008) years ago. I didn’t know him at all and I hadn’t seen The Football Factory (2004) at that point so when he came in he was coming in for a comedy role I had no idea about the other stuff that he did. Through that show I met lots of people; Michael Smiley and MyAnna Buring, Gareth Tunley and all those guys. I got on really well with him straight away. I’d wrote Kill List for him specifically for him because I’d wanted to work with him. There hadn’t been a role that I thought was right for him up until that point and what I felt was that I probably need to do was make a role for him rather than wait until something fitted. It’s easier to do it like that.

After High-Rise and Free Fire (2016), you’ve another big cast with Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. Are ensemble casts something you’re keen to pursue?

As a filmmaker you don’t really think about that stuff. It’s because you have so little control over what gets made really that you just don’t [think about it]. If I set out and said “I want to make five films with an ensemble cast” I’d have no chance of doing that. But then, the films that do get made have interconnections that you can make through them. But fuck, mainly the characters wear shoes as well, but is that worth pursuing?

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Was there any conscious decision to be less violent with this film?

I think the violence in the films that I’ve made isn’t physically that awful. I always think the affecting things in them are the interactions between people. That’s where this uneasy air comes in the film. Though the violence is raw, it’s not as much as people shouting at each other. That’s because you know what it’s like to be involved in an argument and you don’t know what it’s like to be involved in a gunfight or to be murdered or whatever.

I think it’s something to do with an issue with drama. Drama itself demands that things become more and more amped up. Violence and death, particularly in drama, is usually a metaphor for a kind of emotional death that happens in real life but people find a bit too boring to watch. I felt I was falling into the trap of maybe going to that point all the time. You see in drama all the time. The go-to thing is killing off children, everyone dies at the end or whatever.

I did consciously want to make a film where no one was murdered. Not just murdered, but where no one had a hand laid on them, because most people go through their lives without that happening and if it happens its very, very rare. From my own experience, this is a lot lighter than things I have experienced. I thought the emotional peak is extreme enough without having to go to those places because that family would never recover if it came to blows.

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead airs on BBC 2 on 30 December