“Kill List,” Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to critically acclaimed debut “Down Terrace,” has been generating love from horror aficionados since premiering at last year’s SXSW. Bloody Disgusting went so far as to dub it “the best horror film of 2011,” while Indiewire’s Eric Kohn called the film a “brutally unsettling masterpiece that you need to see twice.” One thing’s for certain: “Kill List” will rattle your nerves.
The film follows Jay (Neil Maskell), an ex-soldier-turned-contract killer who is pressured into a new assignment by his old partner following a disastrous hit job in Kiev. As they set out on their latest series of hits, it soon becomes clear that Jay isn’t in the best headspace to handle the job. All the while, strange things begin happening; among those, a number of his hits start humbly thanking Jay for taking their lives. The whole sordid tale builds to a horrifying climax that critics (for the most part) have been kind enough not to reveal.
Wheatley caught up with Indiewire to discuss his need to traumatize audiences and what he has in the works. [IFC Films opens “Kill List” today. It’s also currently available on VOD.]
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The majority of critics have dubbed “Kill List” as a horror film. It’s terrifying, but it’s not a conventional horror picture by a long shot. How would you characterize the film on your own terms?
I think it’s a horror film. As things went on, I wasn’t sure whether I’d made the mistake of understanding the difference between horror and horrible. And I think that it’s definitely a horrible film, but it was definitely a film that I was trying to make that would be scary. I think my understanding of what a scary film is kind of broader than the straight-up genre definitions of what a horror film might be. I stretch it out to include things like Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” or some of the Ken Loach movies. So I think it’s psychological horror and those kind of things are not necessarily within the realms of the supernatural, but they’ll get into the audiences head and play with those kind of feelings.
When you say it’s “horrible,” you’re not being self critical, are you? You’re talking about the situations that the characters find themselves in.
No, I don’t mean it’s horrible in the sarcastic sense (laughs). It’s things that are horrible. I guess that you could see that in a lot of war films. They’re full of horrors and showing things that people don’t wanna see. They’re not necessarily the same as your straight vampire or zombie film — that’s the difference. But I think you can be traumatized by a movie and I think that any movie that traumatizes you is a horror film, regardless of how many creatures it has in it.
Given the horrifying climax that’s been generating a lot of press, what came first when you were first dreaming up of the project: the end, the beginning, or the journey?
I’m a kind of believer in the Kubrick thing about the non-submersible unit, where you look for the main images for the movie before writing the script and work backwards from that. I think that you then guarantee that your film has moments in it instead of just plot. That’s definitely how we worked on this movie. A lot of it is inspired by my anxieties and dreams, or should I say nightmares. Things like cults in the woods and the tunnels is all stuff I’ve had as a recurring nightmare since I was very little. I used to live near the woods. So that kind of side of it comes from there, cause a lot of people keep talking about “The Wicker Man” and it is a reference point, but it wasn’t “The Wicker Man” itself that scared me. These things, culturally, are quite close to the surface in the UK.
You must not sleep very soundly.
I do. I sleep very soundly now, I just didn’t sleep very sound when I was a kid.
Was making “Kill List” a way to exorcise those demons?
Well, it was that, but it was more. I knew that it was a recurring thing and it scared me when I was little, so I suspected that it would scare a broader audience. I didn’t want to get into that situation where you’re relying on other films to scare, where you’re building on other films. I wanted to show the actual fears that you’ve got.
A lot of critics seem to harp on the ending as this ‘big reveal’ that they didn’t see coming and are therefore very cautions, elusive, in their reviews. They’ve been nice to you in a way, by not spoiling it for the audience.
My heart goes out to critics on this one, because it’s hard to talk about it without revealing a lot of things. I think when they go into the screenings, the thing they enjoy about it is that they have no expectation what it’s going to be. Then how do you actually write about that back to an audience without spoiling, or even suggesting that there’s a twist at the ending, ’cause that can usually ruin movies. I’m making a film at the moment where I know I can take clips and put them online and it won’t spoil the film, but with “Kill List,” that’s not the case — it’ll just knacker it.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. It depends on what kind of viewer you are. If there’s a film that I wanna see, I don’t watch anything about it or read anything about it till I go and see it. Then after, I’ll read the lot. It depends on your practices as a viewer and if you consume all information about films at all times, then I suspect that all films will be ruined for you. But yeah, it’s a difficult one to write about, I don’t envy them that.
The violent scenes, of which there are many, aren’t the only tough ones to watch. I found the most unflinching scene probably to be the early domestic dispute that takes place at a small dinner party. How did you arrive at that very lived in realness with the cast that makes that scene so raw?
The script is written specifically for the performers. It’s not like a cast film where you write the script and then look around for the roles-they’re all written for those actors. So that kind of gives you a head start when you hit the ground on the first day. They’re gonna be able to do the things that you want because you’ve seen them do it before and the script kind of loosely plays to their strengths as performers and also as people. Not to say that Neil Maskell is a psychotic maniac, but he can go from being in normal conversation to being quite aggressive quite quickly. Michael Smiley is the same. On the surface he’s a warm, generous person, but also there’s a tough side to him.
I think that helps to get this kind of performance, but also it’s written in this jagged way where you get the ups and down of the emotions in the scene on top of each other. The meaning in the film is not necessarily about the individual scenes, it’s about the way the scenes butt up again each other. That’s the information that builds over the running time of the movie to give you this kind of rounded idea of what people are like in a kind of documentary sense instead of a movie sense, which usually is a lot smoother and more delicate or kind of artificial I guess. A script editor would be worried about scenes that are contradictory, like “why are these people so angry here and so happy here,” but you know from your real life that this is how life is. It does kind of ratchet up and down wildly all day long.
That’s the thing that is counter to how traditional scripts work, because people are worried about showing human behavior like that in case the characters seem inconsistent or unheroic. I think that’s kind of where that’s coming from. At the start it’s kind of a rough ride, but you soon start to understand these people are real and not just ciphers or puppets that are going to be sacrificed to some creature later on.
What can you tell me about your next film “Sightseers”?
“Sightseers” is a comedy, so it’s the funnier end of “Down Terrace” rather than the brutal, horrible end of “Kill List” so it fits within the two movies, but it’s kind of the most emotionally mature of the three films. It’s not as reliant, or inclusive, of the hysterics in “Down Terrace” or “Kill List.” It’s a quieter movie in a lot of ways, but it’s funny and it’s kind of touching. But obviously I haven’t escaped from killing — there’s still loads of death in it.
Does it take place in a similar setting to the first two films?
No, it’s a road movie so it’s more of a honeymoon killers vibe to it. I was just joking with Amy, my co-writer and wife, and she was saying “Down Terrace” never leaves the house and “Kill List” leaves the house after twenty minutes, so this film has to get out of the house earlier. So we kind of get out of the domestic setting within about six minutes, then it’s all kind of driving, campsites, and seeing the length of Britain and going to all these weird, kind of desolate places.
You gained notoriety early in your career through your work that blew up on Youtube. I’m curious, was feature filmmaking always on the horizon from the get-go?
Yeah, totally. The internet work came out of being quite isolated and only having that as a channel forward. The length of stuff is all short because the bandwidth was so narrow you couldn’t get anything else out but short stuff.
The early part of my career was before Facebook and Youtube in the wild, heady days of the early internet. I kind of saw it as a training ground to get as many skills as possible while moving forward. So I went from short internet stuff, into adverts, and then into short television stuff and then into longer form TV before finally coming out the other side and finally getting to do features.
Given how you’ve made your name, you’re an ideal candidate to put your own stamp on this found-footage phenomenon. Have you ever considered going down that route with a feature project?
I’ve been asked, but I kind of don’t really enjoy those films. I mean for me the whole found footage thing starts and finishes with “Cannibal Holocaust”, “Blair Witch Project” and “Man Bites Dog.” These are the real granddaddy movies of this whole phenomenon and they’re brilliant films. “Cloverfield” I really like as well. Everything since then is all a bit fakey and I’ve spent a long time doing fake camcorder stuff, a lot of the viral stuff I did was fake camcorder stuff, and it’s really hard to get right. A lot of these movies just give up halfway through as to how they justify the camera and that’s the main problem with this, the equation of how the fuck you keep filming when something interesting is happening. Cause usually if it’s something dangerous you’re just filing your feet and running away and when you don’t do that it, you’re just filming it in the film, it just feels unreal. I really like “[Rec]” and “[Rec] 2” as well.
How did you pull off The Cunning Stunt?
The Cunning Stunt is really easy. It’s just a bar stool in the middle of the road and Rob Hill, who’s in “Down Terrace” and is the poor swine who is killed in The Cunning Stunt. We put the bar stool in the middle of road, we waited till the traffic stopped, he ran out and jumped on the stool and jumped in the air and then ran back out, screamed, and then we made a mark on the monitor at the height where the feet were and then waited for several cars to drive by and waited for one of them that was low enough so that his feet would have cleared it. So that’s how we did the jumping part. He then walked forward and that’s just simple animation for the rest of it. It looks pretty hokey these days.
Now I have to ask… your work with your wife dates back to these internet shorts. What’s it like working with someone you share a life with?
“Kill List” is about a couple who have a small business, so that’s what it’s like from experience… except we don’t murder anybody. It’s usually quite shouty and she’s telling me to get off the couch and do some work. “Wake up” is a phrase that’s used a lot in our house. She’s the strong practical one, I’m the moody man-child. I don’t wanna do any work.
Well don’t go on a killing spree anytime soon.
I don’t wanna do that. Trust me.