The sound design also gives the film a very heavy, haunting dreamlike feel, which seems to fall in line with your nightmare influences.
I think cinema is a dream, though, isn’t it? That’s the thing. You go into a dark space, you have a vision, and then you leave it—that’s a dream. All films are compressed time. They don’t make any sense; they jump around in time and space, and you’re looking up close at things and looking far away at things. If you think about what your reality is, your reality is a fixed camera that moves through space. The only other time where you have something that jumps through space and time and you move very close from things and very far away from things, very quickly, is dreams.
The film’s nightmare aspect certainly comes into play through its parceled-out use of incredibly brutal violence, and the hammer/librarian scene sticks out in my mind as Kill List’s most gruesome moment. Up until that scene, it feels as if the movie won’t go all that far with its violence, but then the hammer comes down and you think, “Oh, wow! They’re not playing around here!”
Have you seen the film The Orphanage?
Definitely. That’s a really underrated one.
Absolutely. You know the bit in that when they run the old woman over, and she starts getting up but her face falls apart? That really struck me. I thought it was really clever; it happened at about 15-20 minutes into the film, and the way they cut it is, she gets run over, and they cut the scene so you think, “OK, they’re not going to actually show the body, because why would they?” And they do show it, and you think, “Oh, god!” But they won’t show it again, because why would they? That’d be gratuitous, and these are very tasteful, arty Spanish filmmakers, but then they do show it again and it’s really horrible?
I thought, well, why did they do that? That was really odd in that film, and basically what it is, I’ve started to understand, is that they were saying to the audience, “You shouldn’t trust us—we’re gonna do anything here. We’re totally irresponsible with our images here. You thought you’d come to this kind of clever, subtle film, but we’re actually big fans of incredible gore and nastiness.” And then later, when the heroine of that film is going around the house trying to find the bodies of all the dead kids, you’re wondering what’s going to be seen. There’s a strong fear in the viewer, and you feel really tense and uncertain because there’s this suspicion that the filmmakers are going to show you all of these dead kids.
And that fear only comes from that sequence at the beginning of the movie. They’ve already instilled in you that they’re willing to do anything, and I think that is really clever. I wanted to use that technique in Kill List, so what I thought was, I’ll have a really fucking horrible scene that you cannot escape from, and that will color, basically, the rest of the movie. From that point, you’ll think that anything can happen, and then you don’t have to show anything.
When I see that scene, it makes me feel really uncomfortable, as well, and I shot it. [Laughs.] I’ve gotten a bit deadened to it now, though, since I’ve seen it so many times, but that first time you get a heart rate that goes up, and you feel tense, worried, and anxious, which lasts for about eight, nine minutes and goes across the next few sequences. So then you’ve got the sequence where Gal (Michael Smiley) is going into the house with the shotgun and going down the stairs, and while you’re watching that you’re absolutely terrified. If the hammer scene had been handled in any other way, you wouldn’t be terrified there and the film would completely lose its teeth. It’s very specific, that scene.
It comes down to the way you shot the scene, too; after I saw Kill List for the first time with a colleague, we both couldn’t figure out how you managed to not cut away in the slightest bit. It really does look as if you held the camera on a guy bashing another man’s head into a bloody pulp. It looks so real.
Yeah, yeah. What you’re reacting to is the absence of an edit, because as a cineaste and as a savvy filmgoer, you understand what will happen there, even in a kind of gore film: As soon as they get their head hit, then you push in really close, into a close-up of the head going smash! Because that’s how these films work, you know? It’s a horror film, and that’s what they do. But the scene in Kill List doesn’t do that, and in a way that’s much more shocking than seeing it really close-up; seeing it from a distance, you go, “Oh, no—so the actor is really dead now?” It’s irrational, but you can’t help but feel it, and that’s really sickening.
There’s a lot of talk about the film using different genres, but that’s a real example of a genre shift. It goes from being a genre film to being a bit of news footage—that’s what really upsets people, I think.
Just talking about that scene right now, or how you openly talked about the film’s Pagan aspects, it’s cool to chat with a filmmaker who’s so open and willing to go into details about his movie, especially when the movie is as ambiguous as Kill List. After I saw the film for the first time, I left it thinking that the filmmaker might be a bit guarded when discussing it; I’ve done interviews with filmmakers who’ve made enigmatic movies and they’re very much on some, “Well, I don’t want to answer anything like that, specifically.” What would you attribute your openness to?
I don’t answer everything, and I don’t offer up everything. There are layers and layers of different meanings in the film, and some of it is very personal meaning that would be difficult for anyone to read in any way. That’s not a failure of the film not being clear enough—it’s just very personal meaning for me. Or meaning for Amy, and there are other little bits that are just jokes for us. So there’s a private interpretation of the film which I don’t really talk about it, but it’s there. You can piece it together.
Some people have even cracked that far down into it, which is quite interesting, even some of the most incredibly oblique meanings in it. I’ve seen stuff on IMDb and some people have just laid it all out, and I go, “Fuck!” [Laughs.] It would have been good to read all of that stuff before going into some of the interviews, because it’s much clearer than I’ve ever said it. It’s fine to talk around it, and talk about the reasons for why things aren’t said. It’s not helpful to splurge it all out, in terms of “This character did this,” and “This means this,” because that could ruin the fun of it.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)