Toronto Q&A: Kill List's Ben Wheatley

Michael Smiley, left, and Neil Maskell in Kill List

Michael Smiley, left, and Neil Maskell in Kill List

A normal suburban couple is arguing over finances (he's wondering where all of their money went; she's pointing to the hot tub outside) and goofing around with their son. Soon, two dinner guests show up: The husband's best friend and his new girlfriend. During the course of a long night, we gradually find out that the two gents—played by tough-as-nails Neil Haskell and the jovial Irish actor Michael Smiley—were soldiers-for-hire for a Blackwater-like overseas security company, and that the suburban everyman has quite a reputation as a vicious thug. There's a job that could use another pair of unclean hands, his buddy tells him, and he thinks this may be the answer to all of his monetary woes. All they have to do is dispose of a list of people that a mysterious client has provided for them. Easy-peasy stuff for a coupla former mercenaries, right?

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Then things get weird. Really, really weird.

Anyone who thrilled to the mixture of kitchen-sink realism and crime-film tropes of British director Ben Wheatley's 2009 debut Down Terrace knew that the 39-year-old filmmaker had potential, and his second feature seals the deal. A crowd favorite at last spring's SXSW and one of the Toronto Film Festival's stronger midnight-movie selections, Kill List starts out as a domestic drama before gradually revealing itself to be a horror film—and a first-class nerve-jangling WTF one at that. TONY spoke to the director during the fest's last weekend, right before his sophomore feature was set to screen at the witching hour.

It's hard to talk in detail about what happens in the movie without spoiling the let me ask this as vaguely as possible: How did you initially come about combining the story of this couple with the developments of the second half?
The genesis of it is a little skewed, really. In between Down Terrace playing on the festival circuit and starting its theatrical runs, I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. And my first notion was, well, I really want to do a horror film—but one that a very socio-realistic bent, in the same way that Terrace is a crime film done very real and raw. So I sat down with my wife Amy Jump, who co-wrote the film with me, and we started talking about what really scares us, jotting down recurring nightmares we have, the whole lot. Then once we had a few key images, we started to work out a story around it.

So the narrative developed later?
It was more that I tend to have one or two specific images that will set the tone of a project for me. For Down Terrace, it was a shot of the mother and the pregnant daughter-in-law standing together in that kitchen. And for this, it was an image of someone being chased down a long, dark corridor. I had that dream a lot as a kid, actually: There's a crowd standing in a field and suddenly they were chasing me. It's a shared fear, I'd say. That, and cults; they scare the hell out of me.

This is what you get from watching The Wicker Man at a very impressionable age, Ben.
[Laughs] Everybody has mentionined The Wicker Man when they talk about this, which is indeed a huge influence—as was the Hammer films from the '60s. But the thing that a lot of people don't realize is that in England, this kind of oddball, crazy stuff is deep in our soil. There's a long history of mystic weirdness in the UK; there's a small town near Essex, where I grew up, that apparently had a strong Pagan presence for a very long time.

Can you talk a little bit about the loose, off-the-cuff feel of the movie, especially in the early domestic scenes?
I've worked with most of the cast before when I was doing TV projects, and the roles were written specifically for them. So instead of what one usually does—write the film then cast it—I could form the characters around them. It was easy to think, "Okay, Neil Maskell has done a lot of these hard-man soccer-hooligan movies and MyAnn Burning looks like an old Hammer horror-film starlet—she could be the second coming of Ingrid Pitt! But realistically, what would they be like as a couple?" From there, it was easy to come up with a basic scenario and let them workshop it. We'd usually do several scripted takes and then a few takes where they'd paraphrase the lines in their own language. The dinner party scene at the beginning was actually shot in real time; we let the actors fix and eat a real meal, filmed the whole thing and then picked out bits to use for the finished sequence. When you have the luxury of being able to do that, you end up getting these great, off-the-cuff exchanges. You lay down this foundation of in-the-moment realism that makes the later stuff, I think, that much more terrifying.

Yet it's not like those early scenes don't have tension...especially when Neil and MyAnn just lay into each other during dinner.
Most of us don't know what it's like to be shot or hit in the head with a hammer; we have to rely on the movies' approximation of what that feels like. But almost everybody knows that uncomfortable, frightened feeling you get when you're watching your parents really argue as a child, or seeing your loved ones fight tooth and nail with each other. I've seen almost as many people cringe at the scene of Neil pulling the tablecloth off and screaming during the dinner party than in the later, more gruesome scenes. It strikes a real nerve. That was one thing I learned from Down Terrace: Emotional violence can be just as viscerally upsetting as physical violence.

The physical violence here is also pretty painful to watch, to be fair.
It's bloody fucking horrifying too. [Laughs]

You've been quoted as saying, "If you're going to make a horror movie, you should take it to some properly fucked up and disturbing places..." Do you feel that most modern horror films are tamer now than they were, or that they substitute gore for actual horror?
It's funny you ask me this now, because I was just asked to do a Top 10 Favorite Horror Films list for this Web site, and it got me thinking: Well, what's the most terrifying thing I've ever seen? And my number one pick ended up being Elem Klimov's Come and See—which anyone will tell you is not a horror film per se, but it truly unnerved me in the most primal way. I do love horror as a genre, but I'll be honest: A lot of modern horror doesn't scare me that much. It's just become very camp and too knowing in a lot of ways. Vampires, werewolves or indestructible killers in Halloween don't really frighten me anymore. A real person who looks just like your next-door neighbor but is capable of doing some seriously evil stuff in Bosnia or Rwanda? That terrifies me.

Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear

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