Why did British TV comedy director Ben Wheatley decide to make a feature length film? Because he couldn’t be “bothered” to make a short one. “I said to my agent, ‘I want to do some drama,’” Wheatley recalls. “And he just went, ‘You can’t, they’re not going to let you. You have to go and make a short.’ I thought, ‘I can’t be bothered.’ Because it’s such a lot of effort and money. I thought, if I’ve got to make something off my own back, I’ll make a feature.”
The ultimate result of that reasoning is the darkly hilarious, self-financed gangster movie Down Terrace, which opens in New York and Los Angeles today. Wheatley’s creation stars the director’s longtime collaborator—and Down Terrace co-writer—Robin Hill, Hill’s real-life father Robert, and Spaced actress Julia Deakin as a family of folk music-loving drug dealers who live in the British city of Brighton.
Wait a second: they love folk music? That’s not very gangster-ish! “I find folk really scary,” laughs Wheatley. “Folk songs are always about the crops failing, and people killing someone, and burying their body somewhere. And also there’s the idea that this family has been around for ever—they’d have been in the middle ages, chopping people’s heads off and being appalling.”
While the characters in Down Terrace do indeed behave appallingly, part of the film’s appeal is that you never know whether any given sequence is going to end in hugs all round, or multiple homicides. “You can get into situations at parties where people are really f—ed, and it goes really wrong really quick, and you can’t remember how it went wrong,” says Wheatley. “But also, it can get sorted out really quickly as well. That’s what we were after.”
Wheatley reveals that he sat down with actual drug dealers while originally researching the Down Terrace script. “We wrote a script that was all about the ins and outs of drug-dealing,” he says. “It was alright. But that’s not really what I was interested in making a film about.” In fact, the finished film is extremely vague about the family’s illicit business activities. “That’s totally intentional,” says the director. “That was all in the script—or not in the script, as it were. That’s why you never see them doing lines of coke; that’s why there’s no heroin. We wanted to remove all that. It’s all been done before. If you have someone snorting a line of coke, you’re just thinking of Scarface or Casino or something like that. You don’t really know what [the family] are doing—but you suspect the worst.”
Down Terrace was largely shot at the house where Robin Hill’s parents live in the British city of Brighton—a house that is situated on a street called, yes, Down Terrace. “Janet Hill, Rob’s mum, was going, ‘Please don’t call it Down Terrace,’” says Wheatley. “But we never thought that anyone would see the film.” He was wrong. The movie was released in Britain last July and has already been shown at a large number of film festivals here, including Sundance and Austin’s Fantastic Fest. “I’ve been to quite a few screenings and American audiences have been much warmer than U.K, audiences,” says the director “I thought the slang would be really hard work and the accents would be disastrous. But only a few people have had a real problem at the screenings I’ve been to. But, you know,” he adds the Brit, “I’ll sit through a baseball movie!”
Wheatley is currently editing his second movie The Kill List, a horror film which stars Neil Maskell and Down Terrace actor Michael Smiley. “What Down Terrace is to crime, this film is to horror,” says Wheatley. “It has a loose and documentary style, but it’s very genre at the same time. Michael Smiley and Neil Maskell are these ex-army types who are now kind of contract killers. On one level it’s like a really high concept horror film—hit men versus Satantists—but on another level, it’s realistic, and chatty, and human. And quite violent.”
You can check out the trailer for Down Terrace, and Wheatley’s early Cunning Stunt viral video, below.