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Kill List - Ben Wheatley interview

Ben Wheatley

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BEN Wheatley talks about some of the inspirations behind his critically-acclaimed and sometimes shocking hitman-horror hybrid Kill List, including the childhood nightmares that inspired it and the social comments he was trying to make.

He also talks about some of his forthcoming projects, including films with Edgar Wright and Nick Frost. Warning: Some answers do contain spoilers!

Q. Is it true that Kill List was inspired by your childhood nightmares?
Ben Wheatley: Yes, I trawled my memories for the scariest things I could think of and that whole thing of following cultists through the woods stems from a dream I used to have a lot as a kid. I just thought if it was scary as a kid then it could apply to lots of people, and weirdly, afterwards when we’d had a few screenings people were saying that they had had similar dreams, so it kind of made sense. The other side of it was looking at – what was the worst thing that could happen, what was my biggest fear? I think as a father, the accidental murder of your family through your own rage is something that – it’s not something that occupies my mind a lot [laughs] but that would be the worst thing I felt that that could happen, so that’s where that comes from.

Q. Were you inspired by any other movies in particular?
Ben Wheatley: Well yes, I mean it would be pretty disingenuous of me to pretend that I wasn’t influenced by The Wicker Man, but for me, The Wicker Man side of it is more the ending – and it was oddly more of a memory of watching The Wicker Man rather than re-watching it recently or as part of fandom and kind of going: “I really want to do this film again.” It was more thinking about watching it as a kid, when it scared the shit out of me, so the main thing there is the mechanics of the ending, you’re involved in it and the whole film is like a trap to draw you into that point. But equally, The Parallax View, as well, I think, for me – I love The Parallax View and there’s a very similar structure to that.

And then Race With the Devil as well, that’s another one that I hadn’t seen for years, and I watched it again after we’d done Kill List, and it seemed like quite a silly film, but the ending is very, very scary. I do remember seeing it as a kid, when the caravan pulls up and they think they’ve got away and then they see the fire all around them. And that scene is kind of referenced in Kill List, when they go back to the cottage, that’s a slight nod to that. But generally, the other side of it is non-horror stuff like Alan Clark and kind of mid 80’s BBC drama, socio-realist type of stuff.

Q. Can you talk a little about the social commentary you make in Kill List, in that this is as much about the effects of war on the people who fight it, and also about the small business situation at the moment.
Ben Wheatley: I think that the documentary [The American Nightmare] which looks at the old Romero and Hooper movies of the ‘70s shows that they were a kind of a direct conversation with what was going on in the news at the time, and the approach here was that this has to be about the environment that we’re in, we have to make some sort of comment about it. It seemed to me that there wasn’t any kind of movie coming out that deals with how we psychologically deal with the war, and also the idea of how the recession is pressuring everybody’s lives and affecting them that way and I wanted to put it through the prism of that.

My first film, Down Terrace, I like to think of as a kind of reaction to what Blair got up to – it’s about this family who declare war on people and they don’t have any evidence for it but they justify it afterwards by saying that they did what they thought was right. So, this is kind of about soldiers coming back from the war, and they can’t really understand why they were in it, which kind of upsets them psychologically. It’s like Jay says in the dinner party scene, he wishes he could have fought the Nazis, that’s what he signed up for, that’s what his ideal was, that’s what they’ve all been sold, the idea of a clean war, with that demarcation of who’s good and who’s bad. It’s just a mess, which kind of mutates their morality.

It’s the idea of the social contract, like what’s happening now with the riots, where the people at the top, the politicians and the multi-millionaires making up their own rules all the time, not paying taxes etc. go to war and don’t worry about the legality of it. But at the bottom of the pile, where we sit, if you f**k up your taxes they take you to prison – you could go to prison over two hundred quid. That message from the top trickles down, which is that actually, you should make up your own rules. And so people do and I think that’s what’s been going on. In the film, it’s similar, the war over there’s morally dubious, so when we come home we can make our own little wars, executing people for money is the same as fighting for money over there.

Kill List

Q. Is it true that the restaurant scene with the Christians is based on a true experience?
Ben Wheatley: Well, right up to the point when he complains, yeah! [laughs] It is, back when I was working on a show called Modern Toss, for Channel 4, I was staying in this hotel with a guy called John Link, who was one of the guys who writes and draws Toss. They did literally have this big meeting and they all started singing! It was like “What the f**k? This is un-f**king-believeable, this!” But it was really important that that scene was balanced, it’s not like taking the piss out of them, particularly. They’ve got a right to do that, but it’s that point when you realise that Jay just doesn’t believe in anything and is just going, ‘Naah’ and that’s part of making the case for the fact that he’s open to the plans of the cultists.

Q. What was the approach to the pivotal moments of graphic violence such as the hammer scene?
Ben Wheatley: Well, the thing with The Librarian was in the script from the start, it was actually more graphic than it turned out. It’s bang in the middle of the film – it’s minute 45 – and the film is almost sort of weirdly symmetrical, so you’ve got the hunchback killing, which is echoed at the beginning when he fights his wife with the kid on her back, and you’ve got that thing with killing the rabbit and eating it, and you’ve got the hammer scene. I was thinking of this idea that the hammer scene is so brutal that it almost ripples out and kind of unbalances the whole movie from the middle of it. You can see it in the film, time and space is all slightly rippled and moved around, around that moment. For example, the scene when they go to meet The Client and the cutting is all slightly broken.

The main idea from all that was from seeing The Orphanage, when they run over the old lady in the beginning and they do the cut away from it, you don’t see it and you go: “Oh, that’s okay, we’re not going to see it.” And then they cut back a little bit and you go: “Okay, I’ve seen this now, they won’t go back for another go on this.” And then they cut back and when her jaw falls off, it’s just like: “Oh f**king hell, no! Why did you do that? You already told the story of the woman being dead, you didn’t have to do that!” But it’s so clever, because it basically says: “Alright, we’ve shown you this, we can basically show you anything now. We’ve got the skills to do it, we can make an old lady’s face fall off and we don’t care, we’ve got no taste!” From that point you don’t trust the film-makers and you’re just shit-scared from that moment on. And in Kill List I wanted the same thing, a break of trust with the audience, where it’s: “Right, here we go, anything can happen from now on.”

Q. Probably the toughest thing about watching that scene is the way it doesn’t cut away…
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of viral ad campaigns and stuff online and I’ve done a lot of fake camcorder stuff – I’ve spent about four or five years making that kind of thing – and you learn the language of amateur film-making. It’s very tricky to copy, like you see it on Hollywood movies, they just shake the camera about. I think the one – oh no, I’m not going to slag anything off. I must not. But something that Scorsese talks about is his steadicam shots – long, long shots where they feel very real and it’s very intense.

Kill List

But I think that’s because there are no cuts and cut themselves are artificial and when you don’t have any cuts, which goes against the language of cinema, pretty much, the audience really thinks that this could be real, even against their own beliefs that it can’t be real. So the hammer scene, even though by Saw or Hostel standards it’s not particularly gory, really, but because it’s in the frame that it’s in, it’s triggering something in your brain which says: “Oh, this must be real, this is like execution footage on YouTube or something, oh, ffffuck!” For me, the main bit is the first blow – you’re going: “Oh, it’s going to cut, it’ll cut to the close-up, of course, the big gory close-up…” And then it doesn’t and you go: “Oooh!” And you feel it and you go: “Oooh, dear…” and then he goes again and you go: “Oh no, not – oh…A And then the third time it’s just… so, yeah, I’m pretty happy about that.

Q. Could you tell us a little about the music? That whistling motif is pretty chilling.
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, Jim Williams did the music, he did the music for Down Terrace as well. We listened to a lot of Morton Feldman stuff to start with, but then Rob Hill (the editor) and I, we laid in a lot of Feldman, but slowed it down to about 5% or 10%, and started to make these kind of sound-scapes with it, so we could really give something to Jim that he could work on, instead of just describing it. After he’d heard that then he just ran with it and did his own stuff. But it’s the song that’s really scary – that’s something that Jim found and it’s old Saxon or something, and the lyrics were something about stealing the tears from the moon. We got it on the Internet and just read it, and just reading the sounds off the page was really scary. And then his missus sung it and we just thought: “F**k, that’s it – that’s scary”.

I always think that’s the best thing about The Omen, the singing in that. Just hearing something that just scares you, it was very important to us, that. We did a lot of work on the sound design as well, we track laid that really precisely before we did the sound mix on it. I mean, there’s all sorts of crazy shit in there, there’s shark sonar noises, like a whale song but from a shark, which is just something you never want to hear! And that’s under a lot of the tunnel stuff, which is that weird screaming noise like “Raaaar, raaaar!”, that’s that. And then there’s tonnes of monkey stuff in there as well and pig stuff and it’s full on.

Q. So you’ll be having more nightmares?
Ben Wheatley: I can’t watch the hammer stuff when I watch it! I’m reasonably squeamish, so I’m like: “Fuck! Jesus Christ!”

Q. Have you been taken by surprise by the critical response? Or did you always know you were on to something special?
Ben Wheatley: It’s an absolute surprise. When we took it to South by Southwest we just didn’t know, for the first screenings, what the reaction would be. Because it’s pretty uncompromising from our end – it’s quite a nutty film, I think. And we weren’t reined in at any point by Film4 or by Warp or anyone – there was a tiny amount of notes but they weren’t ever anything that changed it massively, so there was never anyone saying anything about the violence and the creepiness or anything. So, we took it to South By Southwest and I’d have been just as surprised as if everyone hated it! I’d have gone prepared for that. With Down Terrace we got a really good critical reception and we just thought there’s no way that will happen again, it’s just such an anomaly. I’m just really blown away by it, I’m still waiting for the backlash!

Kill List

The hype side of it is a very scary thing – the South by Southwest screening was really hype-y because they held it back and held it back and no one saw it, there were no clips, there was no artwork or anything. Because the sales agent was the same one who’d done the Monsters campaign the year before, which was exactly the same. So, there was pressure because it had been so built up, and if they didn’t like it they’d be 10 times as angry as if they’d just slowly discovered it. But the reviews are coming in and they’re pretty good, there’s a few five star reviews kicking around now. But the screenings are still going on, but people aren’t going in saying, “scare me” and then coming out saying they weren’t scared. Some people are a bit confused by the ending, but you know, whatever. If the shoe was on the other foot and it was me, after reading that much stuff, I know I’d be saying: “This had better be f**king good…” Because then you’re judging it against the write-ups and not against watching the film. But that’s just the way it is.

Q. What have you got lined up next?
Ben Wheatley: We’re in production, about to start filming on a project called Sightseers, which is exec-produced by Edgar Wright. It’s about a couple who go on holiday in a caravan, and they kill someone, then sort of go on the rampage. But it’s a comedy, it’s much more light-hearted than Kill List because I just didn’t really want to make another horror film after that! It’s just too much! It just felt too miserable!

Q. Are you also working with Nick Frost as well?
Ben Wheatley: Yes, that’s the film after Sightseers, it’s called I, Macrobane. It’s got Nick Frost in it and Michael Smiley and Neil Maskell and MyAnna [Buring] too. The other part apart from Nick Frost, we’re in negotiations with someone really good, really interesting. That’s one I’ve written, again it’s kind of a comedy, based on comic strips I did online for the B3TA website, kind of a time travel, alternative reality thing. Smiley would play a character called George Clooney who’s not George Clooney, but he gets to f**k loads of women and then one of the characters gets in a time machine and is sent 24 hours into the future after someone smashes him in the head with a rock. It’s set in the present day but in a world where it’s like the Ulster of the ‘70s has expanded out into modern Britain, so there’s Saracen tanks everywhere and crazy architecture and stuff. Yeah, I’m really looking forward to that one.

Q. Does the success of Kill List help you become more ambitious with projects like that?
Ben Wheatley: Well, a lot of these scripts were written around the same time, Sightseers was something that’s been kicking around for a long time, it’s taken this long to get financing. Then all of a sudden Macrobane was ready to go, I’d written that after Kill List. We’ve got another big thing for Film4, a big sci-fi movie, which is in development so we’re doing all the concept art and things like that, but that’ll be in 2013.

Read our review of Kill List

Read our interview with Neil Maskell