SXSW ’11: INTERVIEW: ‘Kill List’ Director Ben Wheatley

Just acquired last night by IFC Midnight was Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (review), an entry from the SXFantastic midnight series at SXSW. The pic is about a group of demobbed soldiers turned contract killers who run up against a devil-worshipping coven.

Continuing our SXSW coverage we’ve just now added our interview with Kill List director Ben Wheatley and star Michael Smiley.

Eight months after a disastrous job in Kiev left him physically and mentally scarred, ex-soldier turned contract killer Jay, is pressured by his partner Gal, into taking a new assignment. As they descend into the dark, disturbing world of the contract, Jay begins to unravel once again – his fear and paranoia sending him deep into the heart of darkness.


David Harley: Like Down Terrace, Kill List‘s leads live outside the law as hit men and, aside from a few small scenes sprinkled throughout, the horror elements really don’t swing into full gear until the third act and it’s a very stark contrast to the pacing of the rest of the film. Was Kill List always intended to be horror, or did the idea stem from a previously thought up story?

Ben Wheatley: Structurally, it comes from taking things that scare me the most and centering the script around that. And then taking the characters on a journey to that point. I think you have to have that calm before the storm because I thought it was pretty important to feel for the characters. I think if you brought them straight into that situation, you wouldn’t be invested enough in them to feel for the impact of the things that happen to them and it runs the risk of feeling silly. That’s why it’s got that slow burn so you live with them and you know them a bit, and then you pull the rug away more and more.

BD: It’s the little things that build up and make them start to lose it.

Wheatley: Right. The hammer thing is exactly in the middle of the film – 45 minutes in – and it splits the film in half and it turns you. You’re seeing these people you like, but after that you realize they might not be as nice as you’d hoped and as an audience member, you’ve lost your moral footing at that point. You’re like, `I like those guys, but they’re monsters.’ And you follow these monsters until you realize they’re going up against even bigger monsters.

BD: So Michael, apparently you’re a monster.

Michael Smiley: Oh yes, I’m a monster.

BD: Were there any real life events that inspired the film? Maybe actual cult followings or religious sects?

Wheatley: No, it’s more stuff from dreams. From these reoccurring dreams I had as a kid. They were pretty fantastical. But… no, not really.

Smiley: Just for the record, I’ve never killed a person with a sawed-off shotgun. (laughs)

BD: So what have you killed with a sawed-off shotgun?

Smiley: I’ve killed many things with a shotgun. Wolves, things that run around on four legs… maybe just things that are on all fours.

(Entire room explodes in laughter)

Smiley: But take that as you will.

BD: Jay and Gal obviously go way back. They’re really good friends, and a lot of the dialogue and skirmishes they get into ring true and it feels very organic. Did you guys improvise during some of the squabbling scenes to come off as naturally as you did?

Wheatley: Yeah. We did what we did on Down Terrace, where you take a scene and you do one take off the script and in the next take you paraphrase and improvise the dialogue, and then the next take is back to the script. It reinforces the script, and from that you get this… when people put the sentiment and meaning of the scripted pages into their own vernacular and rhythm, you get this thing that’s off the cuff, but really it’s quite structured. If everything was improvised, you’d have to shoot a lot of footage before you could put something together that felt right and made sense. It’s would kind of be like when you’re shooting a documentary and shoot tons of stuff and then look at the rushes to find a sort of narrative thread and then edit from there. It would be crazy to do it like that.

Smiley: Also, with the characters of Jay and Gal, Neil Maskell and I worked out a backstory for them; who they were and where they were coming from. And through improvisation, we brought in some new stories for them. Like, my character was having a religious epiphany and he was starting to believe again and he got back to his faith, so Jay’s character was against that and it came through a lot more and it informed how we interacted with each other and came off. We were snipers when we were in the army together, hence the little tattoos. We both had one die; he had a one and I had a two, so I was the spotter and he was the sniper. So that was why we were so tight with each other. My character was keeping his relationship with Jay tight, keeping him and his wife’s relationship tight, and it’s why we started the organization together.

Wheatley: In the business sense, Jay is the asset and Gal is almost the trainer. It’s like an owner watching a Rottweiler, this hardly trained creature. They have to do this job and Jay doesn’t want to because he’s slightly damaged. And they’ve done this before, so they have to kind of fall out of the action and they bring it on themselves. In a way, the story – we were joking about it, but it’s true – is about a small business that goes wrong. They’re running this business and there’s this economic downturn and they have to make money to pay for the houses. But the business is broken, and Jay falls off into his madness.

BD: And playing against that, you’re the one who keeps him in line and together. You’re the mentor.

Smiley: Really, I’m more like the older one. In our army experiences, I might’ve been higher ranking maybe. Because I’m older than him, there’s a protective bond with us. He’s more of a firecracker, and I’m slightly more reserved; as reserved as you can be in our relationship. I’d be the one who is trying to put the brakes on to see what’s going on around here and if we want to make this choice, while he is just going forward. Like when he finds the dead cat, I’m seeing trouble up ahead and I back off, whereas he kills every mother fucker as a message to not come anywhere near us. As an older man, I think of the repercussions, so that’s my weakness in his eyes. It’s when you’re sixteen and full of spunk, and you look at your dad and he’s this old man who’s lost it and doesn’t know anything. He shows restraint and thinks about what he’s doing and, to you, it looks like he’s gone soft. So it’s that sort of relationship.

BD: What was it like bouncing off that intense psychological persona? He completely spirals out of control halfway through the film.

Smiley: It was actually great. It was great because as separate people, we both have similar tendencies. (laughs) It was quite good to stand and watch. I got such an energy working with Neil Maskell. We knew of each other and had a couple of beers, but Ben brought us to work together, so each day we got closer on set and he became a real love affair. We did slightly fall in love with each other, but that comes through in the film; you can see it. By the end of the film at the wrap party, we were both heartbroken. I was looking forward to seeing my wife and kid, but still there was a part of me that was heartbroken to leave everyone so that’s great casting on Ben’s part.

BD: The overall tone of the film is that it tries to be as realistic as possible given the subject matter and, for me, that’s the kind of horror that really hits home. Even ghost stories deal with an aspect of faith for some people that deals with another life or existence that is very real to them. How did you find the balance between using the psychological elements of the descent into madness versus the horror of the cult?

Wheatley: It was tricky. We were always nervous for it when we wrote the script; the cult stuff is bold. If you did it wrong, you could come off as silly. That was a worry. The way we wrote and shot it, there was a lot of restraint in it. The problem with cultists is that it’s all been ruined by heavy metal by throwing up devil horns, the pentacle, and the goat heads. You don’t want the audience to feel that. But when you strip all that away, what you’re left with is terrifying and primal. It’s not just about cultists; it’s about something that we remember like villages and clans. They’ve come to get you and they’ve got their own ways, and there’s customs you don’t understand. I think people, in their hearts, are afraid of other humans so that’s what I was trying to get to. So that’s why it’s vague about what they do and it’s random, like the nudity among them. Why are half of them nude and half of them clothed?

BD: It’s the structure of their sect.

Wheatley: Exactly, and we had a good idea about how it all worked but we certainly didn’t want any exposition things where it was told. In your own imagination, as a viewer, you start putting it together yourself and it’s much scarier than when you don’t know exactly how it works or what their overall plan is.

BD: The procession scene that you have later in the film reminded me a lot of the Wicker Man. It’s very ritualistic and archaic. Was that a big influence on how you tackled those scenes?

Wheatley: Yes, but it was more the memory of seeing it as a child than the actual film itself. That was scary. In the UK, The Wicker Man isn’t a million miles away from the stuff that goes on procession-wise. You’ve got the traditions; it’s all like that. I suppose it’s maybe a bit stranger in the US, but not in the UK. I didn’t want to research real cults because I didn’t want to touch those real things and in the process get it wrong. Those are real religions, so I wanted it to come from another place. We based it on a religion that was a religion before there was sanctioned religion; a secret one that no one talked about that all religions came from. That was the world that he had a view into. If you had mixed and matched certain parts of different ones, it would’ve been a hodge-podge of reference. You’d have to have done a lot of research before you are bold enough to try and depict one accurately. If you took Judaism, Satanism ad Christianity and mashed them, it would be a mess.

BD: So the symbol in the film doesn’t mean anything then?

Wheatley: No. It’s the shape of the thing they sacrifice people on. The thing we were really fearful of is we’d find it on the internet and it would be some company’s logo or something. (laughs) The idea of the whole film is a spell; the logo is at the beginning and the end, and everything in between is the spell cast over the audience. Within that spell, you have Jay being prepared for something, but everything the cult is up to is shrouded in mystery.

BD: What’s next for both of you? Are you staying in the genre?

Wheatley: I’m doing a film with Nick Frost next called I, Macroman, and Michael is playing a character called George Clooney. It’s about two guys who, when they were kids, burned their school down. They’ve been sent to separate detention centers never to be seen together again, and then they meet up in their late thirties and go on a rampage. It’s a knock-about comedy.

Kill List