“It’s a slightly stuttery love letter”
Ben Wheatley on going back to his low-budget roots with Happy New Year, Colin Burstead
HAVE A GANDER at the cast list of Ben Wheatley’s last two movies, High-rise and Free Fire, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that he’d gone all Hollywood on us. Whether it was Tom Hiddleston or Brie Larson or Armie Hammer or Jeremy Irons, you couldn’t move for A-listers, Oscar-winners and general megastars. It was all a long way from Wheatley’s micro-budget origins, shooting films such as Down Terrace, Kill List or A Field In England in the blink of an eye.
And while he was having an absolute blast, and will work with big names again, there was something missing. Something Neil Maskell-shaped. “I really wanted to work with Neil Maskell again,” says Wheatley of his Kill List star. “I’d had a tiny tease of Maskell in High-rise, but I thought, ‘It’s just not enough. I need more Maskell.’ He makes me fucking laugh a lot. It’s a slightly stuttery love letter to Neil Maskell.”
That love letter is Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, a script, and character that Wheatley created specifically for Maskell. It’s been shrouded in mystery ever since it was announced back in January, but Wheatley is finally ready to lift back the veil. “It’s a family drama about a bunch of people who go to celebrate New Year’s at a lovely house,” he says. “It’s all organised by Neil Maskell’s character, and goes predictably, horribly wrong. And hilarity ensues.”
When the film was made public, while Wheatley and his cast and crew (including Sam Riley, Hayley Squires and long-term DP Laurie Rose) were already in the middle of filming, it was known as ‘Colin, You Anus’. Sadly, Wheatley confirms that was never a viable option (“I was told in no uncertain terms that I cannot get away with that”), and that it is, as had been rumoured, a pun on Coriolanus. Does that mean he’s taking inspiration from one of the Bard’s most violent plays? “In the loosest possible way,” he laughs. “It’s not something for scholars to mull over, but the very barest bones of the structure of Coriolanus are under there, I guess. I basically got rid of all the violent stuff and kings and princes — it’s a family trying to have a happy, fun time, and failing.”
None more Wheatley, then. And if that doesn’t sound high-concept enough for you, the director has something up his sleeve: “Neil Maskell does all his own stunts,” he confirms. “He does all the walking. And that’s all his own face.” Call this ‘Thrill List’. HAPPY NEW YEAR, COLIN BURSTEAD PREMIERES AT THE BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL AND IS OUT LATER THIS YEAR
Top: Ben Wheatley, director of ‘Colin, You Anus’... Above: Long-time Wheatley collaborator Neil Maskell as the title character.