Interview: Ben Wheatley Checks Off His “Kill List”

The director of "Down Terrace" returns with a bloody scary and fiercely good thriller and explains how he learned to be a better director as an editor, how his...

BenWheatleyKillList

Once the initial shock of “Kill List” wears off  — and admittedly, this may take quite some time — a giddiness begins to set in, the mix of the nervous laughter one usually has to hide their fear along accompanying a lightheaded feeling of being completely disoriented. At least that’s how I felt as I staggered out of the sophomore film of Ben Wheatley, who inspired such feelings with his debut “Down Terrace,” though that was because the dark British comedy about a family of thugs came out of nowhere with the unexpected force of announcing the arrival of one of the world’s great new filmmakers.

That promise has been fulfilled rather quickly with “Kill List,” a tale of two hitmen hired by shadowy heavies to take care of some unwanted targets. To say much more would be doing a disservice to the film that not only was partially based on nightmares that Wheatley had as a child, but has the same elusive quality to its storytelling and what’s truly unsettling about “Kill List” is the realization halfway through that you know as little about what’s going to happen next as its trained assassins. In fact, the only thing keeping one from feeling completely destroyed after the film’s insidious plot finally reveals itself is the disarming skill with which Wheatley and his co-writer Amy Jump and editor Robin Hill have crafted such a psychologically demolishing experience that’s the mark of true horror rather than the kind doused in red corn syrup.

As a result, I didn’t want to ask Wheatley much about the specifics of the film when I was given the opportunity to sit down with him in Los Angeles — there are other great places for that – but rather about the path that led him here and how his work behind the scenes as an editor has helped shape his unique style as a director.

DownTerraceBenWheatleyAt the premiere of “Down Terrace” at Fantastic Fest in 2009, Tim League introduced by the film by saying this was not at all a film he expected to be produced by Mondo Macabro [a British DVD label which specializes in cult horror films], so was “Kill List” the kind of film you had in mind to make, but wanted to establish yourself away from the horror genre to some degree first?

What happened was I’d known Andy Starke [the film’s producer, who runs Mondo Macabro] for years and years and we’d been talking a long time about making something. I had written a crime film and he was plain about it, “You’d be better off making a horror film than this.” [slight laugh] I was like, “yeah, but read it.” He read it and liked it.

We always had it in mind that we were going to do a horror film next, but we didn’t have the budget and in a world where we had a little bit more money, “Down Terrace” might’ve been much more violent and graphic. I think there was a version of it where we were going to have the Uncle Eric character cut people’s heads off with swords in a pre-credits sequence. Once we finished the film, we were going to go back and shoot a lot of gore after people said they liked it. But thankfully we didn’t. [laughs]

We were always thankful for that whole thing to happen with Fantastic Fest that they did put it in because I figured this doesn’t fit at all in this stuff, but it kind of does because “Down Terrace” is so outside of the mainstream. Tim tells a really good story about that, where [he and other programmers] basically sat there, they watched five minutes of it and they said, “No, this is not going to Fantastic Fest.” And Noah Taylor was there and he went, “No, watch five minutes more because I live in Brighton.” And then they kept doing that all the way through until they finished the movie and they went from saying it was never going to be in Fantastic Fest to being in it and it wins. If he hadn’t been there or if Simon Rumley hadn’t been there making “Red, White & Blue” [the film Taylor was shooting in Austin, which is why he was crashing at League’s house], it never would’ve happened and we wouldn’t be talking now.

KillListCultHow did you get interested in making films in the first place?

As a kid, I drew comic strips. I wasn’t very good at drawing, but I did draw a lot and I didn’t really know that was the genesis of what would become filmmaking for me. I wrote stories and drew and it was this sequential storytelling thing. Then I went to college and saw an edit suite and it really intrigued me because I had been trying to make a film. But filmmaking is kind of abstract really. If hadn’t been to film school, no one’s told you how to do it. It’s easier now because of the Net and you can look at loads of people and how they do it and there’s much more conversation and much more books about it. But then when I was a kid, there’s nothing. When I saw an edit suite, I thought wow, films aren’t just shot, they have to be cut. I did a lot of editing and I really fell in love with that.

Ever since college, I’ve made lots of stuff and the big thing that gave me the kick up the ass to make a movie was the Internet. I’d been making short films and putting them into little film festivals and stuff, but it’s kind of pointless. It’s like 40 people had seen them and you’d take them to production companies and they’d just go, “well, these are shit – films on camcorders no one wants to know.” As soon as the Internet happened, it was like a mass audience. Out of that comes the proper interest from TV and from advertising and for all these things. 

The editing has been one of the most striking things about your films to date and you seem to push the limits of what you can do while keeping the audience in the loop in “Kill List.” Were you feeling more confident in playing with the form this time around?

I think it was taking stock after “Down Terrace” and having that around to festivals and seeing what I felt worked or what I saw would work with the audience. That really made a difference. We’re starting a grammar really, establishing upfront that you’re allowed to cut in a more jagged way and if you don’t have the shot, then just cut to black. Fuck it. That more muscular style editing is really influenced, I think, mainly by Thelma Schoonmaker. I really admired the cutting in “Goodfellas” and from being an editor, knowing that you could make stuff out of anything [you shoot], if you’ve got enough footage, you can always find [the movie] in it. It’s been fun drawing from that then develop that on again into [my next film] “Sightseers.” “Sightseers” is even more formally crazy than “Kill List” is.

KillListIt’s come in handy since you’ve said you hate exposition. Is it true you intentionally write much longer scripts than what ends up in the film? Is it to help the actors?

Those scenes are there for the actors and the financiers really so they know the script does make sense underneath the bonnet – it’s not just random. A lot of improvisation really helps the actors anyway, even if it doesn’t make it into the movie. It’s really important so that it feels like the characters have a life outside their lines.

I read a thing about New Order, and [the record companies would say] “Your style is so incredible. It’s really kind of industrial and modern” and they said, “Well, we don’t know how to play our instruments. We’re just learning and this is the sound that came out.” [laughs] I think with us, the exposition thing is informed by learning how to write. You look at a film like “Terminator”  — for me, the pinnacle of exposition, where it’s loads of stupid stuff about traveling in time and robots…it’s crap, but it’s said in such a brilliant way that it washes straight over you. You go, that’s amazing. I’d listen to that rubbish all day long. It’s so concise and it’s trying to get to that where you don’t notice it, but there’s just enough said that you get by on it.

Ironically, as cryptic as the films themselves can be, my favorite part of them so far is how you’ve fleshed out the characters, particularly by giving them such rich domestic lives. Why has that been important for you to reveal? 

It’s just money in the bank because if you don’t care about people, then they just become mannequins being thrown around inside a story and the more complex and human they are, the more you worry about what happens. On a basic level, it’s that. And it’s wanting to find some kind of reality within these things. The hardest scenes are the pure genre moments. In “Kill List,” a really hard scene is [the hitmen] going and getting the money off the guy who says “we’ve got these names, we want you to kill these people.” A scene like that’s been in a million movies. How do you get through that without suddenly feeling like it’s from another movie? So that was one of the hardest scenes in “Kill List” to cut, to make sure the information was being given, but it’s not being given in such a way that you’re immediately going, “ugh…” But when you see the bones of genre poking up through this kind of reality, it looks even worse than it would do in a film where everyone’s just fucking tropes.

KillListWheatley5Since this arrives at such a powerful conclusion, were you aware while making it that the film would be as jarring as it is?

Yeah. Rob and I watched it in the two-hour version of it and we were like fuckin’ hell and we went out and had to get drunk straight away, like wow, that’s strong. Then when we had the financiers’ screenings, just at the end of it, they were like God, what was that? I remember the first time we showed it with the hammer [alluding to one of the film’s more infamous sequences] because we never showed it without the effects in it. We had a strategy where we only showed it [after the effects were complete], so they never got that distance of going, “Well, it’ll be different when it’s fixed.” So I just remember the hammer thing and everyone in this really small screening room turning around and I was sitting in the back [throwing up his hands], “What? What? It was in the script.” [laughs]

So you felt the need to do something lighter with “Sightseers”?

Totally. It’s a law of diminishing returns as well. What are you going to do? Are you going to have people run over by a steamroller in the next one or ripped apart by wolves? I don’t think there’s anything in me at the moment that could go there, that would find out anything new. There’s stuff bubbling on now that I can think about, but I need a bit of distance from it. So “Sightseers” is much lighter and much looser. Then we’re coming back after working on this Nick Frost thing and then a sci-fi thing, so we’ll wait and see what happens.

You’re going to hit every genre.

I’ll never do a musical though.

You’ll leave that for Edgar [Wright, who is an executive producer on “Sightseers”].

Yeah, exactly. I fancy doing a romcom or something like that.

That’s the most exciting thing I’ve heard all day.

[laughs] No one will die. I’ve got to do a film where no one dies in it. That’s the thing. That’d be the hardest thing.

"Kill List" is available nationwide on iTunes, Amazon Instant, and VOD, but will open in Los Angeles at The Cinefamily and New York at the IFC Center.

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