With the film opening in select theaters today, I sat down with Ben Wheatley at the Andaz Hotel this week for a lengthy chat about the genesis of Kill List and the multitude of projects he has coming up.
I found him to be a genuinely amiable and intelligent presence, a guy who clearly loves making movies and is extremely grateful to be doing so.
I highly urge you to go see this film this weekend if it’s playing anywhere remotely near you. While it’s not for everyone (a topic we touch on in our interview), it resonates quite strongly with those who are receptive to it.
If you live in Los Angeles, the film is screening at Cinefamily tonight. The 730PM and 1015PM shows will feature a Q&A with Mr. Wheatley moderated by Devin Faraci. Tickets here.
Hit the jump for the interview! I love the movie. And obviously I have some questions about it, but I don’t want to pick it apart to the extent where it’s spoiled for our readers. But I do want to talk about the genesis of the idea.
It came from [the ideas for] a couple of short films. There was one where we had the chance to shoot in Jakarta. And that movie was going to be this London mobster who gets a phone call from his friend who is backpacking in Jakarta. His friend needs help and he goes out there to help him, but he’s involved in some sort of supernatural, horrible stuff. And that fell through. But I liked the idea of that character, someone who is so assured in his own world but is taken to this place he doesn’t understand. And also the idea of someone who is a bad person, but who meets even worse people.
And then we started developing a short film about a couple that gets laid off and they go from having a massive income to having no income. And they become very disenfranchised with society and decide to strike back and start robbing banks. And that one didn’t come off either, but it started to bounce around in my head.
I could also see [Neil] Maskell and [Michael] Smiley together. And if they’re together, who are they? So it all started to churn from that? That was basically the genesis of it. After Down Terrace we knew we wanted to make a horror film. Down Terrace had done very well critically, more than we could have hoped for for such a small budget movie. But it didn’t get an audience. And that may have been a problem with the genre we were in. It played in New York at the same time as the five hour version of Carlos, and the audiences were all going to see Carlos. And it’s five f*cking hours! Not to say anything bad about it, I love Carlos. So we wanted to make a horror film, but if we were going to make it we were going to approach it in the same way we did Down Terrace, bring in a load of gritty stuff. But the main thing was to make it as scary as possible.
Is that typical of your creative process? Do you need to percolate for a while on your themes and characters before the story comes to you?
Yeah, I kind of imagine it. I kind of go through it and play the film in my head while I’m walking along thinking about what might work. That whole thing Kubrick said about the non-submersible units theory of screenwriting, where you get like five amazing images and once you’ve got those you know you’ve got the moments that make the film. And then you make the rest of the story around that. I think that’s very true, you start with big images and work back from that. For Kill List the cult in the woods had been a recurring nightmare since I was a kid. So that went in. The tunnel stuff. And the ending. We knew we wanted those moments in it.
What’s your desired reaction for an audience member walking away from Kill List?
If we’ve done our job properly they’ll be shaken, upset and confused. But also their head is buzzing with thoughts. And their brain has been activated rather than lulled in to sleep. The movies that are completely hermetically sealed in terms of meaning become a bit like broadcast media, “this is it” and “this is that”. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I love those movies. But movies that aren’t like that and actively ask the audience to participate in figuring out what’s going on and engage with the ideas start to make your brain shift gears and feel different.
I think about something like Primer. I love Primer, but I couldn’t understand what the f*ck was going on in that at all. They start in a weird scientific language right from the get go. And I didn’t come out of that movie going, “this makes no sense, it’s a failure.” I came out thinking it was the best movie I’d seen in years because it actually made me think about stuff.
I think that’s certainly applicable to your movie. I was also reminded of Andrew Dominik when watching it.
Which one is that?
He did Chopper and –
Oh yeah. Got it. And Assassination Of Jesse James.
Which is one of my favorite films because you have to wonder which character the film wants you to side with.
And whether he was good or bad. Did he deserve it or not?
And I thought yours kind of got a similar reaction from me. Simultaneously sympathizing with and condemning the protagonist.
It’s interesting because the audience is the coward, isn’t he? The film is finished but the audience lives on. And then the audience is killed.
And that’s the most powerful part of the movie.
We named this movie our #1 film of the year. Some of our readers were very supportive, and some were very angry.
What were the angry ones? What do they think the film should have been?
I just think there’s so many different kinds of horror. We cover all of them but there are so many different schools of thought on what the ideal horror film is.
It’s a broad church, horror. Very broad.
It is. I would say that the people who aren’t pleased with it feel that nothing happens.
It’s bizarre isn’t it? I suppose it doesn’t have the pre-credit death and it doesn’t have someone dying every seven minutes. Which is fine. That can work. I think if you’ve had a diet solely of those kinds of movies called horror films then you maybe think they should all be like that. And I also think people are leery of things if they’re “artier”.
Well your film certainly has artistic merit, but I wouldn’t say that it’s willfully “arty”.
It’s not avant garde. No. It’s funny, I saw someone review the rerelease of Videodrome the other day. And they were saying it was sh*t. So I don’t know. There’s that thing where you get to a certain age and you realize that teenagers don’t know who The Beatles are and thing like that. The culture moves at such a rapid pace. And everything you think of as new, and I still think of Cronenberg as quite new, all that body horror stuff is ancient in reality. All that can move on at such a rapid pace.
You’ve also got ‘The ABC’S Of Death’ coming up. Can you talk a little bit about that?
My short is in the can, delivered. I’ve seen a few of the other ones and they’re f*cking crazy. I mean I went into it, and I’m wearing an Alamo Drafthouse t-shirt but I promise you I’m not some boorish advertiser, Tim League [owner/curator of Alamo Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest] asked me to do it and I said yes. They put Down Terrace on Fantastic Fest and it was an atypical film for that. I would have no career if it wasn’t for him. We did the ABC’s thing and really enjoyed it.
Can you talk a bit about your short?
I can’t. I sort of got a directive from one of the producers not to. But it’s got Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley (from Kill List) and Rob Hill from Down Terrace. And it’s got quite a lot of axes and blood and good violence. And really good sound design again from Martin Pavey, so they were quite excited.
And what’s Megaevilmotherf*ckers?
It’s a claymation feature I’m doing. It’s like a prison movie in a mixed prison. So it’s men and women together, kind of in the style of Riki-Oh, insanely violent. And we’re just in the stage of putting it together. I’m talking to Lee Hardcastle who did “T Is For Toilet” in ABC’s Of Death about it as well. I think we’re going to kind of co-direct it together.
And Sightseers is…?
Almost done. We’ve got about two weeks left. It’s a much lighter take on the Down Terrace and Kill List [aesthetic]. Still gritty and improvisational, but a lot more comedy. It’s got a cute dog in it, and a lot of sex. But still, loads of people die. It’s psychologically actually one of the more complex films we’ve done, but it’s been a laugh. It’s a road movie. And then we’re doing Freak Shift which is the sci-fi thing I’m going to be doing. We’ve been doing tests for that and it’s coming along quite nicely. Testing out mo-cap stuff for the monsters. It’s like police vs. monsters.
Freak Shift is another feature?
Yeah. We’re prepping it. It’s like “Hill Street Blues” vs. Monsters. But it’s like 15 million [budget] so it’s quite big. That’s our first kind of American film as well. We’re hoping to start it in the beginning of next year, all things being equal.
In terms of the response to Kill List, it’s been on VOD for about a month. Is it what you expected? It feels to me like it’s making a pretty big splash.
Yeah it’s pretty great! I just never know, I don’t have any expectations. But I’m really happy, IFC is happy, the VOD has turned out really well. I don’t know what will happen with theatrical. It will open out if it does well in New York and Los Angeles. I hope it does. I think it is a cinema experience. You need to see it with full sound and people all shrieking and gasping. That’s what it’s designed for.