There’s nothing more frustrating than investing in something and then finding out it’s all been something very underwhelming once the mystery is over. You never feel satisfied about those kinds of things, and I think that’s part of it for Kill List: You’ve got to leave things open. As soon as you put your finger on it and say, “It was that guy there,” it becomes like Scooby-Doo.
What’s cool about that ambiguous approach for Kill List, as well as other strong films of its nature, is that, as a viewer, you get the sense that the filmmaker himself knows exactly what it is—it never feels like a cheap, misleading parlor trick in any way, and that’s one of the film’s biggest strengths.
It’s not good if you think that you failed at watching the film because you feel that there’s a definitive answer but you’re unable to figure it out for yourself, and therefore you don’t think you’ve gotten the most out of the movie—I don’t think that’s true. I think the experience of watching the film is a physiological experience; it’s the tenseness and the fear and anxiousness that you feel while watching it. That’s the movie; that’s what it is, that’s the meaning of it. And the ins and outs of whodunit aren’t that interesting at the end of the day—it doesn’t really matter.
The actual meaning of these things can exist in several different layers, and coexist. They don’t have to be absolutely defined for it to work. It’s all in the film. It’s this idea where you call a film Kill List and, typically, you’re making a straight-to-DVD movie that can be sold in a gas station, and the DVD cover has two big faces on it, and someone holding a gun, and it’s about hitmen—that is really straight-ahead, and someone else could’ve made that movie. But then you make another film called Kill List and it’s about a man who’s trapped in nightmare, but he also happens to be a hitman. It’s a hitman film and it’s also a horror film, so these meanings can just float around, they don’t ever actually have to be tied down.
What inspired you to meld together a hitman story with a horror film? Was there a connection between those two worlds that you saw and thought could work really well for Kill List?
Yeah, I think it comes from a lot of different places. I wanted to definitely make a horror film, that was a starting point for it. And then I kind of ended up gravitating toward hitmen because I wanted them to be kind of dangerous, but then, as a storyteller, you’re in a very small pool of people. Are they gonna be soldiers? Are they gonna be policemen? Are they gonna be criminals? And then by process of elimination I ended up at hitmen. I also had this idea where it’s all about how morality is being stretched to its breaking point.
They started off as mercenaries, and then at the end of that mercenary road they fall into hired killing. So you go from this place where your job is basically to say that the morality has slipped from underneath you, so you’ve now gone from being on the right side, presumably, to the wrong side, and you don’t really know how you got there. That was really important for these characters—they’re good people, but they’re doing bad things. I think that’s life, isn’t it? We’re all a massive contradiction, and we’re all trying to do it right but we’re often doing things quite badly wrong. Maybe not flat-out murdering people, but doing bad things to others emotionally. We can be quite horrible to people that we love but also very caring to them at the same time.
And there’s the line in the movie where Jay (Neil Maskell) says, “They’re bad people, they should suffer,” which reflects both his positive morality and inclination to inflict damage onto others.
Yeah, and that’s just another excuse, isn’t it? He’s projecting that onto other people—he wants someone to suffer. He doesn’t really care who, and once he has someone he can focus on to make suffer then he’s happy, because he doesn’t have to think about it anymore. Morally, that feels right.
That’s where you get stuff like the Salem witch trials, because everyone wants to have a go at other people, but they can’t within the framework of society; you can’t just pick on people, so as soon as there’s something else that everyone can get behind and yell, “Yeah, cool!” then everyone lines up with iron filings. It’s the same thing with fascism, I feel; everyone felt a bit put-upon and miserable, and as soon as they were the focus and they could have a go at it, however ridiculous the focus was in terms of its reasoning, they were all for it. It’s that kind of sheep-group mentality.
Which leads into the Pagan cult aspect of the film. Is that degree of fanatical, religion-based group mentality something that has always fascinated, or even frightened, you?
Yeah, that comes from dreams, for me. I used to have nightmares about that when I was little. I lived near the woods, and I was afraid of the woods. When Amy [Jump, his wife] sat down to write the script, we tried taking these things that are recurring nightmares, fears, and anxieties of ours and writing them into the fabric of the script, to make sure that we’d hit these beats and make people feel uncomfortable.
For me, I guess, the script really started from this dream I used to have, which was being in the woods, hearing music, and following an awful lot of people who were going off to do some kind of worship that I didn’t understand, and then me watching them and them turning, seeing me, and chasing me. That was the key image for me, that disturbed me since I was very small.
Kill List’s music and sound design, particularly during the cult sequences, with that macabre drum beat, all work incredibly well. That drum beat, specifically, has been embedded in my head since the first time I saw the movie. How important was sound design for you?
Massively important. Sound means everything, I think, and I come from a heavy animation background, where sound lays out and I had a hand in how the sounds were designed. Martin Pavey did the sound on Kill List, and Down Terrace, as well, and when we edit, we edit with all of the sound in; traditionally you do a cut and then send it to the sound editors, and then you go and mix it. But I like to cut with all of the sound in, so all of those odd noises and sounds were laid in with the original cuts.
I think the sound is the key to why the film is so disturbing. We spent a lot of time working on the 5.1 surround sound, as well, so when you watch it in your own home cinema, there’s a lot of odd, sub-base noises in the film that kind of rumble. That’s a sort of physiological thing to make your heart and intestines feel uncomfortable. I think that’s a lot of the reason why people come out of the film feeling so unhappy. [Laughs.] Because the sounds have assaulted them physically, you know?