[Interview] TIFF ’11: ‘Kill List’ Director Ben Wheatley

Kill List has been playing the film festival circuit, including SXSW, London Frightfest and The Toronto International Film Festival this year. Director Ben Wheatley was in Toronto on the second to last day of the festival, the last Midnight Madness slot of the week.

We don’t want to spoil too much, so you can still discover the film fresh. It is basically about two hit men, Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), killing people on their list and discovering a cult conspiracy. Festival audiences have been blown away by the horrific surprises, though the film has opened to UK audiences this month.

A softspoken Brit, Wheatley sat in the Fairmont Royal York’s Epic restaurant eating a sandwich between interviews. Nearing the end of the festival circuit, he lamented that he hadn’t actually gotten to see other movies. Still, he was there to talk about Kill List so we got his spoiler light thoughts on the film, his horror inspirations and his next film, a change of pace comedy.


BD: Kill List is such a carefully constructed script. Did you start from the end and work backwards?

BW: The first thing I had was the following of the cult in the woods and then the ensuing chase. That had come from a recurring dream I had as a kid. I used to live in a countryside near the woods and I’d have nightmares about those woods. When Amy Jump, my cowriter and I started to think that we wanted to make a horror film, we started writing down the things that scared us the most, our anxieties and stuff. That was one for me that struck me a lot when I was smaller, being chased by these faceless people that you didn’t know what their intention was.

BD: Is Jay destined for this because he can’t function without violence in his life?

BW: I think he’s chosen. He’s been sought out and chosen by the cult because he’s open to these kinds of feelings and possibilities. Basically, they’ve sent this human resources character to turn up to probe him and look into his family and stuff. I think that there’s another thing that’s going on in the background of how the cult works. Obviously there’s the Kill List itself with the different people, but then the other people who have to die as well are all part of this kind of incantation ritual thing that brings him to the point at the end.

BD: Most hit man stories are about one last job and they suffer remorse. Were you interested in a totally different take?

BW: Yeah, a lot of reviews say it’s one last job. It’s not. He’s just taking some time off. He was always going to go back to it. The hit man thing is not in that traditional kind of Hollywood hit man mold. It’s more that they’re soldiers who’ve mutated away, they’ve left the army, gotten into some kind of Blackwater stuff, and they’ve gone out freelance on their own. It’s not so much that criminal world of Prizzi’s Honor or even The Killer. I guess it goes back to something like The Roaring Twenties or something like that where you’ve got soldiers coming back and reintegrating back into society and finding ways of using their skills in the straight world.

BD: We haven’t seen a lot of movies about cults in a while. Now there’s also Sound of My Voice and Martha Marcy May Marlene.

BW: There’s tons. There are loads more than that.

BD: Why do you think now is the time filmmakers are exploring that topic?

BW: I don’t know. I think it’s because the cults are other, aren’t they? I suppose it’s trying to find villains that have don’t have as much resonance in the real world. You couldn’t make a mafia film anymore because the mafia don’t exist really anymore. You don’t want to make a film in a time of war when we’re actually at war with people, making the people we’re at war with the villains in the piece. Maybe it’s something like that. People have got a general unease about the world and they feel that they’re being moved around by forces that they can’t understand or control and trying to give a face to that force, whatever it is. Maybe gangs of bankers is not as interesting as the metaphor of a cult.

BD: Cults prey on a certain sort of insecure, impressionable person. Are we in that place right now where we’re vulnerable to that?

BW: I didn’t see them like that. I think they’re more that they’re organized but you don’t know what their intentions are. They’ve got their own rules and their own credo but you don’t know what it is. That’s what’s scary about them, in the same way I guess you think of the government, you kind of understand politics a bit but they’re high politics, you just don’t know what they’re doing. They seem to be really stupid people half the time. Obviously they’re very intelligent people but what is their agenda? You can’t quite understand it. That’s what I find is so frustrating about it. You look at politics and go, “Why are they doing these things? I just don’t get it.” Obviously they’ve got a reason to do it but then you get embroiled in all this conspiracy sh*t which again is part of the whole game in itself. It’s almost an infinite amount of possibilities why they’re doing these different things but the more you say it out loud, the stupider you sound.

BD: How has the buzz of people discovering Kill List affected you?

BW: It’s pretty scary. It was depressing. We had it a lot with Down Terrace because somebody said it was like Mike Leigh meets “The Sopranos”. By festival number five, the Mike Leigh bit had gone and people were saying, “It’s “The Sopranos.”” Then people would go to it going, “I really want to see something that’s like “The Sopranos” ” and then it’s not. So they come out going, “It’s not the f***ing “Sopranos”, it sucks.” That’s where buzz can f*** you because people go in with an expectation and then they react to the movie against the expectation rather than meeting it the other way where they come in and go, “Oh, it’s this film, okay.” At the same time, for a film with no stars, a little tiny film, the only thing in your armory is buzz. Without that interest, you’re f***ed.

BD: Are audiences getting every detail of the film?

BW: No, not really. Some are, some aren’t. That’s fine.

BD: What are some cool things people are missing?

BW: The worst case scenario is people thinking that the last act bears no resemblance to the rest of the movie. I see that occasionally and I go, “But it’s signposted all the way through.” People sometimes aren’t reading it like that, or people aren’t happy that the whole story isn’t totally explained to them. I don’t know what I can do about that. That’s just the way it is.

BD: We usually complain Hollywood movies explain too much.

BW: Yeah, I love movies that are complicated and inexplicable. I don’t sit there and go, “I don’t understand Antichrist. I want to know every detail of what every image means, and if I don’t understand every image, I’m really angry and it sucks.” You can revel in these things. It’s like watching a David Lynch film. It’s like watching Inland Empire. You don’t sit there going, “It doesn’t make any sense, it’s rubbish.” You might do, I don’t know. I watch that thing and I’m really enjoying the way my mind feels as I’m watching it. It’s just really expansive and interesting. It’s a dangerous game that we’re playing with this film. If you’re a genre fan and you’re used to rules and you want the rules to be right and if they don’t add up then that’s a failure of genre, then people get angry. It is what it is.

BD: How many days did you have to shoot?

BW: It was three weeks of six day weeks. It was fast. All the stuff in the house we shot in four days I think. The tunnel attack stuff was all done in a day so it’s fast. I think we were three nights in the woods doing the end stuff.

BD: If people want to go back and see your previous work, is Down Terrace as mind blowing as Kill List?

BW: What a question. Yes! No, it’s a different film. It doesn’t go as crazy at the end but it kind of informed Kill List in many ways. There’s a lot of the kind of emotional ups and downs and the slight emotional pummeling you get in Kill List is in Down Terrace definitely.

BD: And you came from the comedy world?

BW: Yeah, I’ve done a lot of different stuff before. I directed a lot of comedy on TV and I’d done a lot of adverts as well, and then online stuff as well, animations.

BD: Had you been itching to get into the genre?

BW: I wanted to make films. I’d seen all the work I’d done up until that point as learning different parts of that craft. I came to a point a few years ago and thought, “I’ve got to make a film before I’m 40. It’s got to happen.” That’s why we went out and did Down Terrace. The important thing for me was you actually can go and make something without asking anyone’s permission. You don’t have to go and pitch stuff to people and get their opinion and all that bollocks. You can actually go and make something yourself and then take it forward. Really it’s what you need to do if you want to be a filmmaker.

BD: What were your favorite horror movies?

BW: I did a list for Film Forward. Proper genre horror films, my favorite one is mainly Romero stuff. Dawn of the Dead I really love. Then I love stuff like Raimi. Evil Dead II was a film I went into blind, I hadn’t read anything about and went into the cinema and saw that and I just couldn’t believe it. It’s one of the most intense cinema experiences I’ve ever had. I went back the next day and took all my friends and paid for them to go and see it. I said, “Oh my God, you’ve got to see this. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

BD: Evil Dead II was the first movie where I really noticed the filmmaking, that you could do different things with the camera.

BW: Yeah, that for me was a real “what the f***” film. It was like wha- – the- – uh- – you can’t be moving- – and it was back in the day when I’d get excited about camera movement because you think these shots are impossible. Like the shot that goes over the car or through the windscreen, you just go whoa. Then all those Coen Brothers movies as well like Raising Arizona. In this list I did for Film Forward there were other movies like Elem Klimov’s Come and See which isn’t a traditional horror film but it’s a film that terrified the sh** out of me. Then Threads which was a UK TV movie about what would happen if an atomic bomb is dropped on Sheffield. Oh, man, it’s terrifying. The other one is The War Game which is a Peter Watkins movie that got banned by the BBC which was about how would Britain fair in a nuclear war which is just harrowing. And then something like Ladybird Ladybird, the Ken Loach film which totally harrowed me. That’s stuff that scares me rather than traditional vampire movies or those kinds of films, Saw or things like that. That doesn’t get such the emotional response, if you talk about being scared.

BD: What kind of movie do you want to do next?

BW: I’m shooting in two weeks so I’m doing a comedy next. I don’t think I could do another horror for a while. I just needed a cleaning of the palette and a change of gears but I don’t think that comedy and horror are massively different. In many ways as a type of movie, in both types of films you can tell straightaway whether it’s working or not. With horror, you can feel the physical reaction in the room and with comedy it’s with laughter. It’s a lot about setting up and gags.

BD: Can a comedy have a twist in it also?

BW: Yeah, it’s a dark comedy but nowhere near as dark as Kill List.

BD: Will the fans of Kill List like the Ben Wheatley comedy?

BW: I hope so. Yeah, I think it’ll share DNA across the three films. I don’t think it’s possible for me to make a film that’s so [different]. You look at someone like Soderbergh whose movies really are very different from each other. There’s still Soderbergh bits in them but I don’t think I’m capable of having that kind of range. So I think there will still be a lot of handheld camera stuff. The performances will be very realistic performances and little bits of improvisation, but I think it’s like a slider. In Down Terrace there was a lot of emotion and bits of comedy and the violence was a bit light, but Kill List has got more violence and slightly less comedy. This one will be more comedy and more emotional stuff. It won’t be as graphically horrible as Kill List.

Kill List