British filmmaker Ben Wheatley has come up with a new way to direct: by using a stopwatch.
Faced with a shoestring budget and an eight-day shooting schedule, it was the only way he could make his first feature, the darkly comic "Down Terrace," which opens Friday.
"I would say, 'We are going to shoot this now,' and I would start the stopwatch," said Wheatley, whose previous work consists mainly of British TV comedies. "It feels impossible, but when you do it, it's perfectly feasible."
In 20 minutes, he would block a scene, shoot the actors performing the script, shoot again with them paraphrasing the lines, and then slightly adjust the script if needed and shoot it once more. "There is no downtime," he said. "That really helps the performance. I think that's why it feels so raw. And you establish a cutting style, which is abrupt as well, so you can cut your way out of anything."
"Down Terrace," which evokes the work of Mike Leigh, Quentin Tarantino and Monty Python all at once, revolves around small-time father-and-son gangsters (real-life father and son Robert and Robin Hill) in the seaside British resort town of Brighton. They've just been released from jail, but things are not going well on the homestead.
The father and son are at odds, which has raised the ire of the family matriarch (Julia Deakin), who really calls the shots. And there is an unidentified informant in their crew of hapless losers who could end up sending them all back to prison.
The film, named after a street in Brighton, was shot in May 2009 in Robert Hill's house. Wheatley met Robin Hill (who shared writing duties on "Down Terrace") at the University of Brighton, and since then the two have been making short films together. Hill and his father, a semi-retired teacher, have appeared frequently in the movies.
"We used to call them 'Down Terrace' films," said Wheatley, an affable, beefy man in his late 30s. "This is like the ultimate version of the small movies." Down Terrace, he added, is a "dodgy" area that has a long history of mob activity. "Brighton's always been a bit sleazy," he said.
In addition to the Hills, Wheatley peppered the film with friends and people he has worked with on British comedy series such as "Modern Toss," "Wrong Door" and "Ideal."
After doing so much comedy, he had been looking to do something more dramatic for quite a while. "I shot a lot of short stuff that had been drama. I told my agent I wanted to do drama. He said go and make a short film, and then we can use it to do other work. I said, 'I don't want to make a short film. If I'm going to do it, I might as well make a feature.' "
Wheatley didn't search for funding, nor did he shop the script around. "I have learned from doing online stuff how to shoot in a way that wouldn't cost much money," said the filmmaker, whose website features ads, viral campaigns and animation he's created. "This is a very pragmatic film — we got this house, we got these people, so what story could we have happen? So we went from back to front."
To shoot "Down Terrace," he used a Red Digital camera, which has nearly the same depth of field as a film camera. "We used very little lights. A lot of it is available lights or just enough lighting to bring up the exposure."
The house is its own character, so much so that Wheatley didn't have to hire a production designer. The narrow, two-story row house is suffocatingly small and filled with clutter.
"It's just an amazing house," said Wheatley. "We have been making films there for years. It's lived in with real people, and there are levels upon levels of stuff stacked up everywhere."
Wheatley premiered the film at the Fantastic Fest 2009 in Austin, Texas, where it won the New Wave Best Feature and was acquired by Magnolia Pictures. It was named the best British feature last year at the Raindance festival in London. In 2010, Wheatley has been screening the film on the festival circuit, including at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June.
"It seems to play very well in the States, better than the UK," he said. "They are a bit reserved in the UK."