Ben Wheatley: British cinema's new wunderkind
Tom Huddleston meets the writer-director of the sensational new Sheffield-shot horror film, 'Kill List'
With his second film, ‘Kill List’, Ben Wheatley, 39, has leapfrogged into the top tier of young British directors. After starting out directing TV comedies like ‘Modern Toss’, Wheatley’s 2009 feature debut ‘Down Terrace’ was a self-funded, darkly comic gangster movie which went on to win festival awards and acclaim across the globe. ‘Kill List’, funded by Warp Films, is a strong contender for best British movie of the year so far: a furious, shockingly violent, deeply idiosyncratic hitman horror movie which offers the same heightened realism and semi-improvised style as ‘Down Terrace’.
Was ‘Kill List’ written before making ‘Down Terrace’?
‘There’d been a treatment kicking about called “Get Djakarta”, which we were going to shoot in the Philippines. It was borrowing the plot of “Get Carter” and turning it into an HP Lovecraft idea with cults and everything. That was the germ of it. But the actual script was written afterwards. “Down Terrace” was a crime film seen through the filter of movie realism, improv and documentary, and we wanted to take those ideas, take everything we’d learned, and make a horror film.’
Why on earth were you going to shoot in the Philippines?
‘Andrew Starke, the producer of “Down Terrace”, was involved with the Mondo Macabro DVD label, so he had some connections in the esoteric underground horror scene there. They have an amazing infrastructure for filmmaking, and people were saying, “Bring us a movie”.’
‘Kill List’ is as much about tone as plot. How did you want the film to feel?
‘Well, I hate exposition so I just cut all that shit out. Fundamentally, I just wanted it to be really scary. Much of it was strung together from nightmares I had as a kid, recurring dreams of being chased. That was the inspiration for the last half of the film. ‘The first half is more domestic horror: hearing your parents arguing, being in an argument, that sense of things falling apart. Feeling the adrenaline rise and then dip, if you don’t get your point across or the argument goes badly. You feel helpless, but then you go back for more. I wanted to ride those feelings. You see it in Cassavetes, in Alan Clarke, in Scorsese, especially Joe Pesci’s big scene in “Goodfellas”.
’There’s a rich seam of suburban desolation in your work. What were you trying to say about modern Britain?
‘I’ve travelled up and down Britain a lot, filming. It’s homogenised now, everything looks the same. You can travel right up the spine of England for hours and it all looks exactly the same. I wanted to capture that feeling, the idea of travelling but getting nowhere.’
Stylistically, it’s a very intense film, filled with unique sounds and images.
‘We shot it like a documentary, with available light. We didn’t want to lose that feeling we had on “Down Terrace” where the performances were so in the moment. You don’t want to sacrifice performance just to get the lighting a certain way. With the sound, I wanted to make it a really heavy audio experience. I hadn’t had a proper go at sound mixing before and it was a real eye-opener. We spent a lot of time playing with the stereo, washing very low frequencies through the audience from back to front. That’s what makes you feel uneasy, all your internal organs are being vibrated. Then the punch always comes from behind, through you. It’s a major part of the experience.’
It’s a violent film. How do you feel about extreme violence on screen?
‘I think it was necessary in the film. I wouldn’t have put it in if it wasn’t. Hitmen are like folk heroes in modern cinema, and that’s just stupid. They’re murderers and people should be against murderers, really. So I wanted to question my own feelings about the genre. Why do we like these characters? Why do you like the characters in, say, “Pulp Fiction”? If you read a news report about them, you’d be appalled.’
So you see ‘Kill List’ as a moral piece of work, in contrast to a lot of modern horror cinema?
‘If you’ve got no moral position, then it’s not horror. It doesn’t horrify you, it’s just graphic, and you can see that shit on YouTube. If you want to see people get their heads chopped off, for real, you can. You need to make the audience feel something. Think about “The Exorcist”. The really horrifying scene is near the start, where they give the kid all the tests, there’s all the machines grinding away and the mother doesn’t know why she’s ill. To me, as a parent, that’s more terrifying than Satan.’
Read our review of 'Kill List'
Author: Interview: Tom Huddleston
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