Ben Wheatley and the Horror of ‘Kill List’

The director of the acclaimed new horror film on the movie's many mysteries, the inevitable comparisons to The Wicker Man, and Freak Shift.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

I meet Ben Wheatley in the back of a restaurant, in a corner that seems unnecessarily dark for a sunny Los Angeles afternoon. The British director of Down Terrace and now this weekend's horror release Kill List, about a pair of hitmen who discover that their latest assignment is not at all what it seems, has tea poured from a glass kettle. I have a sudden urge to tell him that I hope he has a masculine grandchild, but I resist. We have to talk about Kill List, the movie Bloody Disgusting called "The #1 Horror Film of the Year."  We'll get to my own thoughts tomorrow, but for now, let's talk to Ben Wheatley about Kill List, opening this weekend at The Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles.


CraveOnline: I want to start off – and I hope this isn’t a point of contention – every time I see something written up about Kill List, people seem to mention The Wicker Man. Is that annoying, or how do you feel about that?

Ben Wheatley: It’s undeniable. It’s a film, on one level, about a man who finds himself in a massive trap that springs shut at the end, with a cult. These things happen in Wicker Man, for sure, and that was a big influence. But equally so is Parallax View, The Manchurian Candidate, things like that. So it’s not irritating, it’s shorthand, isn’t it? But I think if you were a massive Wicker Man fan, and you went to the film hoping for The Wicker Man, you wouldn’t find The Wicker Man in it, you know.


I feel the same way, actually, aside from some surface-y elements. It’s interesting to me because it evolves over time, and it starts off as a film about a family, and you can tell that there’s something deep-seated, there’s something wrong, and you don’t know what it is. And then it evolves into almost more of a crime story, and it keeps going. What aspect of that did you start with, really? What seemed like the core?

The initial goal was to make something that was a horror film. So that’s the beginning. So I’m not sure whether… It’s a horrible film, whether it’s a horror film, I’m not sure. So there’s that. And then the casting was…in Down Terrace, it was a film that was very pragmatic, and the parts were written for the actors specifically. And I kind of continued that on. So it was a bunch of actors I wanted to work with, and I tried to see how they would fit together. So that influenced how the story came together. That kind of influenced why there was a husband and a wife, and why there were two guys who were friends, from wanting to work with Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley, and wanting to work with MyAnna Buring. So that kind of informed it. I think we’d been through a few bits and bobs over the years, we worked with a script called Get Jakarta, which was sort of a crime film meets H.P. Lovecraft thing that Neil was going to be in.


The title is a play off Get Carter?

Yeah, yeah. It was a working title, we wouldn’t have called it that.


“Get Jakarta”? Is that like a Lovecraftian God?

No, Jakarta is a city.


Oh, is it? I’m American. [Laughs]

Yeah, see, it’s not in America. [Laughs]


I couldn’t even tell you half of those, I’m sorry.

Hopefully that doesn’t go in the article!


Oh, that’s going in the article. I was wearing an H.P. Lovecraft shirt the other day. I feel like a dick.

So anyway, that is that. And then we also worked on a short film called No, which was about a couple who’d lost their jobs and they decided to start robbing banks, because of the recession. So those two ideas bubbled along with the casting thing and then turned into Kill List.


I looked at the press notes, and one of the things you mentioned was that you don’t like films that totally explain themselves. This clearly isn’t a film that totally explains itself. Did you have the full backstory written out in your head, or would that have defeated the purpose?

Oh yeah, of course.


Everything could just be written down on one page?

Sure, yeah. Otherwise it’s just random, isn’t it? And that doesn’t help anyone.


Well, you could go the Hausu route.

Oh yeah, but they’re totally different.


Yeah, of course, I just mean conceptually.

That’s a classic experience for me, but it doesn’t matter. Or with a lot of Lynch stuff, but I’m sure Lynch has got all the schematics to why those things come together.


I read this great interview with him where he was talking about Lost Highway, and he said that Lost Highway makes perfect sense… He just took out the five scenes that made it make sense. He just took it out, before they shot it.

Yeah, we shot scenes for Kill List that would have propped it up, but it was like the psychiatrist turning up at the end of Psycho.


Oh, it kills it. It kills that movie. So we won’t see those on the DVD release, do you think?

No, I don’t do deleted scenes. As much as possible. Unless it’s contractual.


Is that contractual? Are you obligated to give the deleted scenes ever?

I think you can be, yeah. Because the studio owns a copy and you don’t, so you don’t get to say. Depending on where you are in the food chain, you can complain and maybe they’ll do it. But if they’re looking for content then they might do that. But I don’t like deleted scenes. I’ve shot a comedy, and deleted scenes from that would be okay because they’re funny. But you don’t want to see, like, the scenes that didn’t work, pulling apart the carefully constructed movie you just made.


When I was learning about movies, the deleted scenes actually helped me learn a bit more about the process, but the more I get involved in the industry, the more I see people are just frustrated, like, “I wouldn’t want to show anyone that!”

My experience of watching DVDs and watching deleted scenes… You watched the film, you really liked it, you’re left wanting more, so you watch the bloody sh*t that didn’t make it into the film and ruins it, and you go, “Why didn’t that get in there? Oh, right, I know why that didn’t get in there. That’s terrible.” I don’t know if you watch Doctor Who, but there’s a Doctor Who Confidential. So you watch Doctor Who, you turn over and watch how they do the effects work. So immediately, it’s like The Wizard of Oz, they pull the curtain away, and go, “And that thing that you were just watching, that you suspended your belief for, this is how we did it,” and you just kind of go, “Oh yeah, that’s really sh*t. Oh yeah, but now I know.”


So are you going to do a commentary track for Kill List?

Oh yeah. I broke my rules on that, really. We had a thing with Kill List on the Blu-ray where there was quite a long “Making Of” thing – like an hour long “Making Of.” And I cut it down to like six minutes, because it was too much of the cast all laughing and having a good time, and just showing how the film was, like…


It messes with the tone, yeah.

Yeah, exactly. But then I went ahead and did a commentary track that was just laughing all over the film and making jokes about it, so you know.


Well, I find that with a lot of horror movies, a lot of horror fans aren’t just watching the movie, they’re trying to find a connection with the people who made it, and so I think that’s actually probably a good idea, to give them something.

I think it’s impossible. Doing commentaries is like being at the psychiatrist. Because you’ve got to talk. Yak, yak, yak.


Yeah, I’ve done a few, it’s a lot of pressure.

Yeah, you end up revealing all sorts of things you should have been keeping your mouth shut about. [Laughs] But it was good, it was nice. I did it with Amy Jump, my writer and my wife. So we did that together, and it was quite nice.


How do you make that work, working in a creative capacity with that much pressure for a whole film, with your wife? Were you able to separate that, or is that sort of all together, that sort of emotional connection?

Yeah, I mean, you know. We’ve been together for a long time, so it’s fine. But it doesn’t mean that the directing process isn’t particularly shouty, because it is. But we usually have got our shit together by the time we do the commentary. [Laughs] I think it’s most volatile in the script stage.


“I told you those masks were a bad idea!!”

Well literally, she did say… Well anyway, you definitely need to see the commentary. But she does say, “I told you not to do that.”


Does she really?

“I never liked this bit,” she says.


So your next film, is that Sightseers?



Tell me a little bit about Sightseers. I know that it’s about sightseers.

Yeah, it’s people caravanning, and then it turns out one of them is a serial killer, and they start killing people. So it’s much lighter than Kill List. It’s much more played for laughs. But it still fits within the world of Down Terrace.


Do you want to stay within that tonal realm, or that budgetary realm, or do you want to do something bigger…?

I think we developed this idea of doing… of keeping things as real, you know, real performances, raw performances, that’s really good. We’ll keep that. And then it’s just kind of working around… I think the camera work will change over time as, with a bit more money, we’ll be able to… the style of shooting, in a documentary style, is pretty much dictated by budget a lot of the time. But I’ve done a lot of TV, which doesn’t rely on that style, so if we can get more money, we’ll move away from that style. But having said that, we’re doing like a fifty million dollar sci-fi thing, which will be handheld.


Has that been announced? Is that official?

Yeah, that’s Freak Shift. Sort of a police versus monsters thing.


“Hill Street Boo’s.” You can use that.

I’ll make a mental note of that, yeah. [Laughs] So yeah, that’s in development at the moment, and we’ve just been doing test shoots and creature tests for that.


That’s really cool. Is that going to be a lot of CGI, a lot of practical, or…?

A bit of both. Whenever they interact with the creatures it will be practical, with the bodies and stuff, but the actual movements and stuff will be MoCap, which I think is going to be fine.


Well I’m really interested in seeing where you go in these sort of more fantastical… What would you say are some of the films that have sort of inspired you to go into that genre?

The Thing is a big movie for me. Carpenter’s The Thing.


Yeah, not the new one.

I’ve never seen the new one, actually.


It wasn’t particularly good.

Aw, that’s a shame. I mean it.


Oh, we all hoped for the best.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think that, for me, is like the pinnacle of, you know, amazing physical effects, amazing ensemble cast, and really clever writing and clever, you know, that whole thing of setting it somewhere that’s really concealed, it’s brilliant. So that’s always a big touchstone picture for me, and then Alien and Aliens, all the Scorsese stuff, and all the Kurosawa stuff, out to the outer reaches of like Solaris and Stalker and all the Tarkovsky stuff. It’s a broad range.


It’s kind of like asking someone what their favorite film is. If they actually care, they don’t have just one.

It changes every day.


Exactly. Someone asked me yesterday, and I was like, “Oh, f*ck you.”

Yeah, what would it be at the moment? I don’t know. I watched Seven Samurai the other day with my son, who’s eight, and he was reading all the subtitles, and I was really proud. He got through it, as well, and it’s quite slow for a kid. So that was encouraging. It’s always been one of my favorites.