In “In the Earth,” writer-director Ben Wheatley uses a backdrop of pandemic-struck Britain to explore the power of nature. And in doing that, Wheatley draws on seemingly disparate sources: from largely scientifically sound explanations of the underground networks of fungi and tree roots to 15th century witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum to folklore that Wheatley made up himself. For the filmmaker, it all comes down to narrative.
“I kept thinking of narrative and storytelling and how we’re so susceptible to it as creatures … Our brains have got receptors in them that are asking for narrative, that we need to make sense of everything,” he said in an interview at the Sundance studio, presented by Adobe. “We make stories out of our own lives that we tell, which are mainly nonsense. We take all these incredibly disparate bits of facts and we meld them together and draw a conclusion from them. And the conclusion, often, is ‘I’m right.'”
The film, which premiered in Sundance’s Midnight section, follows a scientist (Joel Fry) who heads into the woods with a park ranger (Ellora Torchia) to reunite with a researcher colleague (Hayley Squires) camped out in the forest conducting experiments. There, they must deal with a powerful natural phenomenon using both science and ritual.
Wheatley considers the film, which he wrote and produced during the pandemic, as a kind of sister piece to one of his earlier films, “A Field in England,” which is set during the English Civil War and involves an alchemist.
“Alchemy is really the beginnings of science. It just had to be formalized and become a bit more rigorous. It’s a period where magic and science live together for a bit. That’s part of what’s happening in [‘In the Earth’],” he said.
Reflecting on the ideas of narrative that prompted him to make this film, Wheatley said he’s found himself at the center of some of those very ideas.
“It’s also feeling a slight responsibility of putting stories out into the world and having worked on stuff that was in that kind of folk horror genre, where I’ve made stuff up, just totally made up, but then it takes this kind of weird patina of being true and mixed with other things and you see it crop up in other peoples stories and saying ‘I’m responsible for that, your nonsense, going out into the world,'” he said.
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