Ben Wheatley Serves Up a Christmas Telly Treat
The director talks to shots about his latest film Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, a bittersweet comedy following a festive family reunion gone wrong.
Twixtmas is that golden time when, rendered billious and immobile by overconsumption, one's officially allowed to spend hours vegging out in front of top telly. High on your list of must-views should be Ben Wheatley's gloriously acerbic ensemble drama Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. Produced by Rook Films, it had a limited theatrical release in November and will be broadcast to the nation on BBC2, 30th December 10.30pm.
Ben Wheatley, image by Kerry Brown
Wheatley’s seventh feature film, the script was part-improvised by a brilliant ensemble cast, including Neil Maskell, Sam Riley, Doon Mackichan, Bill Paterson and Asim Chaudhry, and is very loosely based on Shakespeare's Coriolanus (an earlier title was the cheeky Colin You Anus).
Neil Maskell (left) as Colin, with Bill Paterson as his father.
The film follows Colin's doomed efforts to host a New Year gathering of his extended clan at a grandiose Dorset castle. Fuelled by lashings of festive booze, the various players whip up a heady cocktail of sibling rivalries, parental disappointments, old loves, raw wounds and plenty of bittersweet humour, not least in the character of cross-dressing Uncle Bertie (Charles Dance in a frock, marvellous) who has some news to impart.
We asked Wheatley, who is repped globally by Moxie Pictures, to talk us through the creation of the film.
Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is packed with amazing performances and poignant scenes, can you tell us how the cast contributed to the script?
The film is shot using a technique where one take is on the script and the next take is ‘paraphrased’ that is to say it’s put into the actors words but sticks closely to the meaning of the script. It gives the film an improvised feel without the chaos of improvisation. Then on top of that there will be moments when I chat to the cast and things occur in the moment. It’s what ever tickles us really.
Charles Dance as Uncle Bertie
Unusually for you, the film has a zero body count! But it simmers with a sense of impending violence – instead what erupts is pure emotional agony, do you think this is a type of drama you might want to focus on more.
It’s always about the drama, whether there’s a body count or not. connecting with the audience through shared human experience.
Can you explain how you came up with the story for the film and how far it is based on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus?
I started with Coriolanus as an exercise to understand the play more. I broke it down into its basic building blocks and then built it back up again. The ghost of the play is in there. It started as a thought exercise really, what would this big sweeping play look like as a small family drama? What if the battles turned into arguments, the murders into insults and then it went from there.
Doon Mackichan as Colin's mum
Do you think an understanding of the story of Coriolanus adds to the viewer’s experience of the film?
A central theme in Shakespeare’s play is class, how does that translate in your film? It’s quite interesting that Bill Paterson’s father figure seems quite a refined [if shambolic] Scotsman while his sons and daughter seem quite working class. Is Colin trying to elevate himself and his reputation in the family by renting out a lavish house owned by a down-at-heel Lord?
Any family deals with class in one way or another. families are slowly moving up or down generationally. The diversity of the family in terms of accent and class is representative of a lot of British families. The homogeneous nuclear family is the stuff of sitcoms in my experience.
Sam Riley as Colin's brother David
The film comes across as a very human drama about family dysfunction and sibling rivalry, however BBC press releases says “the film holds a mirror to the political and social situation of the country and its place in the world.” And producer Andy Starke has described it as a “state of the nation drama.” Can you explain more about its political and social commentary?
You can enjoy it as a family drama. You can also look for parallels with the Bursteads and the UK. A group of people forced together who both love and hate each other. I think it’s impossible to make a film that does not reflect the political moment. There’s elements of it in all my films. Now am I going to tell you the specific meaning of the film? No. There’s be no point watching it.
Shakespeare’s play is really quite ‘snobby’ in that it validates the idea that nobles are inherently more able to govern and make wise decisions while the ‘mob’ are a collective that is easily duped and shouldn’t be given decision-making responsibility. Is there a veiled reference to the Brexit referendum lurking around?
Not sure that’s my reading of the play :) I was more interested in the structure of a man who ‘wins’ but manages to lose everything because the group turn on him. The idea of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. That groups will pull down pompous men. Brexit is not as simple as duped mobs. There’s levels of being duped. Literally the whole system is a ‘duping ‘ in one way or another. I know people on both sides of the argument. The Brexit commentary in the film tries to reflect this. Brexit has managed to split poor families and rich. Split left wingers and right wingers. It’s an extraordinary achievement by our political classes. A rats nest of incompetence that will plague history gcse questions for a 100 years.
There are many fascinating relationships set up in the film between the characters that hint at other stories, either in their histories or how their futures might unfold. I understand you are currently writing an extended TV series based on the film, can you tell us about that?
I want to see more of these characters and how it all pans out. The longer form version won’t be a tying up of the narrative bows of the film though. It will just continue on as the mess of the Burstead lives unravel further.