Ben Wheatley, The Kill List
A rising star of the under-40 British indie director set, Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace) may not yet be a recognizable name in the States, but years from now his latest film, the brain-bending, spookily enigmatic The Kill List may well be regarded as a milestone in the horror genre. It isn’t just that Wheatley has concocted an ingenious new way of frightening audiences—the film’s ending shocked and thrilled viewers at South by Southwest, who flocked to the Internet to praise its unholy attributes—but that his free blending of seemingly incompatible genre conventions seems so natural as we enter the psychic landscape of his characters. The Kill List opens in an aggressive domestic mode not too distant from the dreary kitchen-sink realism of the late ’60s: edgy thirty-something Jay (Neil Maskell) and his outspoken wife Shel (MyAnna Buring), who have a young son too often present for their marital squabbles, are having a ferocious row about their finances. He’s incredulous that she has spent 40,000 pounds he had stowed away in their home; she assails him for being out of work the past eight months. Moments later, they are snuggling; their relationship is tight and loving, we come to understand, if turbulent. When they are joined for dinner by Jay’s best friend Gal (Michael Smiley) and his raven-haired companion, Fiona (Emma Fryer), we learn that the two fellows are professional hit men, and that something went traumatically awry for Jay on his last assignment in Kiev. With some prompting from Shel, who is close enough to Gal to confide her anxieties, Jay agrees to meet with a powerful and intimidating new client who assigns the duo a list of people to knock off.
Obviously old hands at the dirty-deeds business, Jay and Gal have a relationship every bit as intimate and volatile as Shel does with her husband; he’s a coiled spring who unleashes his obscure fury on a smut peddler and harmless merrymaking Bible thumpers alike. With a few deft moves, Wheatley subtly shifts the film from gut-punch domestic drama to heady thriller. But it’s when his killers find themselves on the grounds of a rural mansion inhabited by one of their targets—a British MP—that Wheatley and his co-writer/wife Amy Jump introduce a more fantastical element to the film. Soon Jay and Gal are being pursued by a cabal of devil worshippers into a sludgy drainage tunnel, a turn that pushes everything into far scarier—and much more nightmarishly puzzling—territory.
Filmmaker spoke with Wheatley about genre melding, audience creativity, Alan Moore, and the reasons why actors deserve writing credit for dialogue. The Kill List opens at IFC Center on Friday.
Filmmaker: After I saw The Kill List, I had one of the strangest nightmares of my life.
Wheatley: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s quite strong meat, isn’t it? The film tends to upset people.
Filmmaker: Yet there are so many mysteries packed within it: Early on, Fiona scratches a witchy glyph into the back of Jay and Shel’s mirror; there is guarded talk of something that went down in Kiev, though it is never spelled out for us. The ambiguity of the film really counts for a lot of its impact, as does the volatility of the character relationships—you really have us by the throat from the opening scene.
Wheatley: When I watch movies, I like to work them out. I like clues – I’ve never been a massive fan of exposition. If you have too many “explaining” scenes in a film, it destroys the whole. When I see The Kill List, I think I’ll never do another scene where someone looks at a load of paperwork and photographs and points something out [to the other character]. I watch that and go, Oh, no! That’s the only little bone we throw the audience. It’s like those scenes in CSI or any cop show that’s ever been made where someone pins a document to the wall and goes [imitating a TV detective] “Yessss, of course – this connects to this!” One of the things I was thinking about when we were putting this film together was how much I like American episodic telly, like Battlestar Galactica. When it’s asking questions, it’s brilliant. When it’s answering them, it isn’t so much. [Laughs] It’s got something to do with how, in your mind, you make up arguments [to address the gaps], which are really interesting. But people have different answers. I think [eliciting] that particular kind of creativity in the audience is one of the strategies we have in The Kill List.
Filmmaker: That’s a great way of putting it: trusting in the creativity of the audience.
Wheatley: Yeah. Because you have a conversation with a film always, don’t you? There’s a back and forth, which is what makes film viewing so exciting. I think about movies I’ve seen that give you no quarter, like Primer. You sit watching and think, “I don’t know what the fuck is going on. I don’t understand a word of it, but I really enjoy it.” When I can feel my brain actually moving and working, I love that! Or [think of] a David Lynch film, like Inland Empire. I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I really like the way he’s saying it.
Filmmaker: The Kill List is a social-realist drama in the tradition of Tony Richardson and the whole Angry Young Man lineage, combined with a hit-man thriller, to which you’ve finally added an occult horror element. How did you go about working in three different registers here without simply mishandling them?
Wheatley: I don’t know. It came quite naturally in telling the story. It certainly wasn’t sitting down and purposely splicing these things together or thinking, “Oh, I really love all these genres and I’d like to have a go at all of them!” It was much more, “This is where the story is going and this is what I’m excited about.” As far as handling those elements, we knew we had to get changes within it, technically, that we’d have to handle well or else the whole thing would come off the rails. And people warned us – the financiers were saying “It’s going to be really bad if it changes like that.” [Laughs] And we said, “No, it will be fine.” I think we were a bit naive about that. But we always knew the tone of it would be so scary that no one would ever think it was silly. Off the page, I think some people got nervous and wondered if it was really going to work. I was in Moscow the other day and this journalist asked me, “Ben Wheatley, are you afraid of naked people?” [Laughs]
Filmmaker: This is the first feature you co-scripted with your wife, Amy Jump. How did that work out?
Wheatley: Amy and I have written together for years, since we were kids, and the process is different on every project. She did a bit of work on Down Terrace that went uncredited. Generally, I do high-concept stuff and the first draft. I’m a very good filler of pages. Then she’ll look at it and say, “This is terrible!” and rewrite it. I don’t mean a light collaboration where someone tweaks a verse — I mean a fuck-it-all-off, start-again rewrite. We throw away a lot of versions until we settle on something that’s right.
Filmmaker: Your actors are credited with some dialogue at the end of The Kill List, which seems to suggest there was a bit of improvisation. But it doesn’t feel that way onscreen.
Wheatley: Yeah, that came out of working with Michael Smiley on Down Terrace. Someone had come up to me and asked, “Did you write that line, ‘I’m going to fuck you in the ass and set your hair on fire’? And I wasn’t going to say I had, so I told him no. And he said, “Yeah, I know, because Smiley’s been saying that for years.” [Laughs] Smiley is a stand-up comedian and a writer, so when you ask him to conjure something, he gives you material. Afterward I was a bit leery because Rob and I took credit for the writing, so I made a conscious decision never to do that again. There’s a lot of improvisation in the corners of that movie, and we relied on [the actors] for that. The editing is the last grasp at the script, and we really reconstruct a lot of it in the cut. But the funny bits and ad libs and turns of phrase all around the edges are often stuff the actors have come up with. To then claim that you wrote it is disingenuous in the extreme. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: What’s the hinge between your virals and adverts and the feature-film work? How did doing those give you the confidence you needed to move into narrative cinema?
Wheatley: I remember coming out of college in my 20s and friends of mine had actually made a film. They’d gone to Hollywood and gotten funding, and I was jealous of them. I thought, Oh God, they’re going to do the whole Reservoir Dogs Tarantino thing and put a movie out before they’re 30. And then I started thinking, Well, actually, I’m not that jealous because if I was given the money tomorrow, I would make a fucking nix of it. I don’t know what I’m doing. But I did have a vague plan, which was to go out and learn different aspects of filmmaking so that I wouldn’t have the wool over my eyes when it came to making my own film. So I worked as a storyboard artist, I was an editor, I wrote a lot, and then I started directing bits and bobs and doing corporate stuff and adverts. I was trying to get money in the bank in terms of experience, so I’d take on TV work knowing that I’d spend eight weeks learning camera moves or how to block, all skills I haven’t had a chance to use yet in cinema because we’ve always been low budget. Also, being older helped — not being so arrogant and desperate. [Laughs] You’re just more solid in yourself. You can look people in the eye and say, “I’ll take your massive amount of money and not fuck it up!” [Laughs]
Filmmaker: A kind of wicked humor fueled your virals and adverts, and it’s an important aspect of both Down Terrace and, to a lesser degree, The Kill List. You’re about to finish a comedy as well, The Sightseers. As a creative person, are you naturally drawn to humor?
Wheatley: Down Terrace and The Kill List are realistic genre films. But the idea that everydayness is very dour and serious is not true. It’s part of realism that things are funny – people make jokes. The Kill List is not a comedy by any stretch of the imagination – it’s not Shaun of the Dead – but it’s a film in which people have a sense of humor and use it in conversation. Sightseers is a trickier thing for me because it actually is a comedy and will be judged on that on a very basic level. How much you laugh during it dictates how successful it will be. Whereas with The Kill List you just had to scare people. [Pause] But I also find that hard. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: At a certain point, after the intensity and volatility of the first couple of acts, The Kill List becomes quite undeniably frightening. This turn toward the occult, where the film seems to gene-splice with something out of The Wicker Man, brings it into a very rich metaphorical terrain. Even the intertitles that appear to introduce each of the targets – The Priest, The Librarian, The MP – have a social dimension that accrues meaning beyond individual character.
Wheatley: Yeah. Totally. My favorite horror period is the mid to late 70s, with George Romero, David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper. These things aren’t made in a vacuum, you know? They exist within a political context and they’re very serious about that [aspect], even though there’s lots of blood and guts and craziness. They were reacting to their times – and those were interesting times. For me it’s almost a slight reaction against the way genre has been going to a degree, where it’s movies made by young guys about other movies. We’re in post-zombie/vampire terrain. All these creatures have been rehabilitated – they’re all seen as metaphorical outsiders, and I actually think that’s all wrong! [Laughs] These things are meant to scare you – you’re not supposed to identify with murderers and killers, it’s just stupid. It really swings [today] between postmodern, Scream-type comedy horror and balls-to-the-wall proper horror. The thing we found as we started really digging into the sound design is that grabbing people by the shirt and dragging them into a world and rubbing their nose in it and trying to terrify them as much as possible is a really interesting place to be. And we really went in that direction.
Filmmaker: Do you have an Alan Moore fetish? I assume you’re a fan since I see a video embedded on your website.
Wheatley: Yeah man, he’s a massive hero of mine. I bought the original run of Watchmen in ’85 and read all of his stuff. Have you watched the clip? It’s really fascinating because, you know, he came out as a magician and everyone was like, “Oh Alan, you crazy fucker.” But it kind of makes sense. I think his influence came mainly on my reading as a teenager, since he melted my mind. It’s that rigor and incredible love of structure that he has. I remember poring over every image of Watchmen as it came out and saying “What the fuck does it mean?” Which I think is really interesting.
Filmmaker: What’s your perspective on how British indie cinema is faring these days?
Wheatley: Well, I never thought about it all until I was involved in it. [Laughs] I watch a lot of films, blockbusters and art films. My taste is quite broad. The Kill List is a Warp X film, and the film on Warp before us was Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, and we share a lot of locations and crew with him. So I was really chuffed to be part of Paddy’s moment in current British cinema. It’s alive at the moment; certainly a lot of stuff is getting done. Beyond that, I don’t know. I’ve been asked a few times about a wave of directors [supposedly] happening. It may be, but it’s definitely a journalistic construct rather than a reality, as if there are cabals of film people in London going, “We’re all friends and we have similar tattoos – and this is the way British cinema should go!” Nothing like that. I think it’s just a love of cinema.