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Kill List: An Interview With Ben Wheatley

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Since it premiered at SXSW in 2011, word of British filmmaker Ben Wheatley's unconventional and unsettling horror flick Kill List has been zipping around the Internet, and the film opened in the U.S. at last on Friday, February 3rd. Kill List begins in the tense suburban home of Jay (Neil Maskell), a former hit man who reluctantly goes back to work with his pal Gal (Michael Smiley) to try and soften a volatile relationship with his frustrated wife Shel (MyAnna Buring), but it ends somewhere in the wooded, hooded hell of your childhood nightmares. Wheatley references recognizable genres and common fears but twists and recombines them to create something that is at once familiar and foreign, a lingering emotional disturbance that goes far deeper than your average hit or jump scare.

The charming and hilarious Ben Wheatley spoke to me about growing up afraid in the '70s, co-writing the script with his wife, Amy Jump, and why being chased by a horde of naked people is so damn scary.

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Farihah Zaman: Much of what makes Kill List scary is the overall feeling of it rather than tangible elements of the plot.

Ben Wheatley: Yeah. It's about expectation being risen and then dashed. It's being pulled lots of ways. It's lots of different styles of horror, as well. There's visceral, violent, graphic horror, but for me some of the more horrific stuff is the family arguments. That high pitch shrieking argument stuff that you might remember from being a child is more upsetting, I think, in many ways than supernatural stuff could ever be. So we were kind of thinking about those moments and how they would work, and also using a lot of sub-bass, and kind of moving the sound around... especially if you see it in a proper auditorium with 5.1 sound, just the movement of the bass within the space was a really planned-out element. I think that you could watch Kill List with no pictures and you would probably come out feeling really unhappy and tense.

Zaman: The film feels ominous before anything violent or even criminal occurs.

Wheatley: It's the tension of being with adults who don't have any boundaries in terms of how angry they are. It's also a testament to the performances of Neil Maskell and MyAnna Buring that you buy it so quickly. But I think when you're in the house with them, you're the kid, really, you're always kind of lurking outside of doors and watching them, looking through at them doing their thing, and that's really upsetting. That's where that tension at the start comes from.

Zaman: Speaking of domestic tension, your co-writer, Amy Jump, is your wife. Does your personal relationship make writing those scenes uncomfortable?

Wheatley: Well, we certainly know how to argue [laughs]. I mean, we've been together twenty years, so it gives those scenes the benefit of that emotional knowledge. On Kill List, I think it was important that it was a man and a woman writing it together so that both perspectives could be seen. I think if I had written the Shel character I don't think I necessarily would have gotten it right. I know the perspective of the aggressive child-man, so I can write from that place and she certainly knows the perspective of the somewhat reasonable woman trying to deal with a man who won't go back to work.

Zaman: The film has some very evocative imagery in terms of this cult you've created -- were you trying to tap into familiar images that have become part of the collective unconscious?

Wheatley: In some of the reviews they say they're like pagans or something, but I didn't really want to get into this thing of taking a known religion and making a film about it. Otherwise you get into this territory where you're basically being fucking racist, you know? You don't want to take somebody else's religion and fuck about with it and demonize it. I wanted to make a religion that had as little to do with other religions as possible so they couldn't be identified. So, it's kind of all made up. We imagined this religion in the film was like the most ancient of all religions and kind of adapts with the time, but it just sits underneath quietly doing its thing, being in control of stuff. And then we were looking at why religions have sacrifice, the sacrificial lamb and things like that. There are a lot of sacrifices that have to do with crop failure, and you kill animals because the crops fail, and we imagined that this cult was connected to the money market and the recession is the failure of the crop. They have some kind of ritual in which they sacrifice people to help the crop start again.

Zaman: Your film has garnered a lot of comparisons to the original The Wicker Man, both in terms of the aesthetic and the occult content; is there any truth there? Were you inspired by that film or '70s horror in general?

Wheatley: I think the main mechanism of The Wicker Man is a plan, a trap, for the main character that springs on them in the end. If there's anything that we've taken from Wicker Man, it's that. Jay gets to the end and it's all been a plan to get him. But then, so is The Parallax View, and so is The Manchurian Candidate. They're probably more comparable to Kill List than Wicker Man. There are certainly men wearing wicker in this film, and I think that's where people make the connection [Laughs]. But it was a film that I'd remembered as a kid, and I remember it being really scary, but I didn't re-watch it before we made the film. It's not the primary influence for me, but it's certainly something I had in mind. '70s horror, definitely, but I was thinking the other day about what really scares me, and I think the 1970s in general scares me, you know, and I think it's maybe to do with being a kid in the '70s or something. There's a lot of spooky stuff about that decade.

Zaman: Like what?

Wheatley: Well, the music of the '70s, you know -- that's what a lot of our score is influenced by. I was thinking a lot about the Lalo Schifrin score from Dirty Harry, and that kind of female vocal stuff really, really scares me. I also remember a general fear of us all being destroyed in the Nuclear War all the time. It was fucking scary! And they've kind of mutated that into something else now, it's more like, this kind of nebulous threat of terrorism, but I just don't think that's as scary as an instant apocalypse. [Laughs]. Which was really real! They had all the weapons ready to fucking do it. When I was a kid, I lived in a house that was near the woods and the woods scared me as well, so it's a lot of memories of that.

Zaman: You keep mentioning what scared you as a child, so this film's conceptions of fear come from things you learned to fear in a very instinctual way.

Wheatley: Well, I think your brain is just growing, isn't it, when you're little, and you're easily scared and you've got real worries which are losing your parents, because they look after you, and being abandoned, and all these things. You become hardened to that stuff as you get older, because you're more in control. Some of Kill List was based around recurring nightmares I had when I was a kid. The cult bit in the woods, that was from a dream I had when I was little. In the UK that kind of cult thing and that Ancient Druid stuff, and standing stones, these are real things, and they're here in our culture, and you can go and drive and find standing stones that have been there for 3,000 years. These aren't things from films, these are realities. And the nightmares I got when I was a kid were not from watching The Wicker Man because I would have been too young, it's from being next to the land, being near the woods, being in that environment.

Zaman: I think films have the ability to show you things you may not have realized you're afraid of in a more concrete way, and give a face to those strange fears that come from a deeper place than pop culture, like the dark, or caves...

Wheatley: But it's not that strange, that fear! You're afraid of the woods because people die in the woods, you know, and you're afraid of the dark because you die in the dark. You don't know what's in the dark, and then it kills you. That's not irrational, that's rational!

Zaman: A lot of horror filmmakers or genre filmmakers choose between atmosphere and violence, but Kill List really has both in spades. Why was it important to you to show violence so graphically in this story?

Wheatley: It was something that had come out of seeing The Orphanage. I didn't enjoy it, I found it terrifying, but they had a thing in it where they accidentally run a woman over and you don't see her face and you think, "That's good, they're going to cut 'round that, we're not going to see it." And then they show the woman's face and it's all smashed in, but only for a couple of beats and you go, "Oh, God, that's horrible, but, well, that's over now." And then they come back for a second bite on it, and she gets up and her jaw's hanging off and it's fucking horrible. It's really clever but they didn't need to do that; it's really gratuitous -- right over the top. The film is really tasteful, pretty much, up until that point. And I kind of figured what they'd done is to say to the audience, "We are not to be trusted, as filmmakers, and we have no taste. And we will stick your nose in this at any given minute and you will never know when we're gonna do it. You thought you were watching this really nicely produced Spanish film but no, you're not, you're watching something that has no boundaries and will really, really upset you." For the rest of the movie I was afraid they were going to show a load of dead kids and then they don't. It's brilliant. So when I wrote that bit in Kill List, I thought what we'd do is show something so gratuitous and horrible, that for the rest of the movie, the audience will be terrified that we're going to do something else like that. And then basically you don't have to show anything, but the audience is just sickened and terrified for the rest of the running time.

Zaman: It's like you taught us a lesson about what you're capable of.

Wheatley: Yeah yeah, and it's like, "Oh no, it's this kind of film, is it? Oh my god!" It was also that kind of idea that when you're looking at YouTube and you're just watching stuff, you click around and sometimes you end up somewhere where there's like execution footage from Afghanistan, and you watch that, but five minutes ago you were watching some stuff about kittens or something and you're like, why did I get here, what the fuck? And there's lots of talk about Kill List genre jumping and mashing and all that stuff, but the main bit of genre changing for me in the movie is going from being a film to being like a bit of news footage. And that's what that moment is, that hammer thing, it kind of goes, "Oh, we're watching a film," but then all of a sudden it doesn't cut away, and you think "Oh no, we're watching something that's real." That's the jump. And that's why that stuff's in there. If you did it again, within like five or ten minutes, the impact of it would be much less. Or if you'd done it at the beginning of the film, you just think "Oh, well, it's that kind of film, is it?"

Zaman: One of the most terrifying scenes in the film to me, unexpectedly, was when Jay and Gal are being chased underground by hordes of naked cult members. Nudity usually connotes vulnerability or sexuality -- what made you think to use nudity as an act of aggression? What makes it so scary?

Wheatley: Well, one thing is that their faces are covered by masks so it reduces them to animals, so that is scary. The people just don't give a fuck -- that's scary. And then, I was at a New Year's Eve party, the Millennial, the 1999-2000 one, and a friend of mine decided to take all his clothes off in front of us. And it was not good, you know, it was really aggressive, and that really struck me. I just thought fucking hell, he's basically raped our eyes with this, and we didn't have a choice, and it was his whole posture and everything was really odd. He was really drunk, but anyway -- I kind of glued all those things together. The other thing was we were very particular with the casting of it so that there would be men and women, and you would get male full frontal nudity as well, and the ages would be from 20 to 65, so that it wouldn't just be a cult of naked young women.

Zaman: [Laughs] So it's not the cast of Gossip Girl chasing you through a cave?

Wheatley: [Laughs] No! It's all sizes, all shapes, everyone welcome, equal opportunity employer of nudity. So I think that's part of it, that it isn't your Central Casting Amazonian kind of thing where everyone's beautiful and naked. I think that would have detracted from it. It's also kind of Caveman-y isn't it? Being trapped down there with a load of naked people could be quite scary. But the filming of it was quite funny. They were the gamest extras I've ever worked with, these people running around naked just throwing themselves on the ground, and they just didn't give a fuck. And they absolutely loved being naked as well, that was the thing. We thought we were going to have real trouble casting it, but not at all, we had loads of people who wanted to be naked. There were other scenes that we shot where some of the naked people had to have clothes on because we'd had enough naked people, and they were disappointed to put their clothes on. We shot this film Sightseers recently and this old guy came up to me and said, "I was in Kill List!" And I said, "I don't recognize you," and he goes "No, I was naked and I had a mask on." [Laughs]

Zaman: [Laughs] It's not his face you'd recognize.

Wheatley: Yeah, he'd have to be stripped off. But yeah, there were some weird looking characters. It was very cold as well, which wasn't very kind for the men.

Zaman: Well, thank you for teaching me to fear nudity.

Wheatley: [Laughs] There's always space for new things to be afraid of.