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The new year is only nine days old, yet English writer-director Ben Wheatley has already given us a reason to start drafting up our “Best Movies Of 2012” list. Released overseas last year, Wheatley’s sophomore film, Kill List, is just receiving its stateside unveiling at the top of ’12, having debuted on IFC Midnight’s Video On Demand platform last week, before opening in limited theatrical release on February 9. Trust us, you shouldn’t wait another five weeks—consult the nearest VOD-compatible machine right away.
Equal parts hitman film, domestic drama, and batshit crazy horror, Kill List follows Jay (Neil Maskell), an out-of-work mercenary who, with old friend Gal (Michael Smiley), plans to murder three random folks targeted by their new employer, a wealthy and wholly suspicious elder gentleman (Struan Rodger). Complicating matters is Jay’s wife (MyAnna Buring), who’s constantly in his ear about his inefficiences as a provider for herself and their young son. Not to mention, their employer has a much more insidious, primal, and horrific agenda than simply offing people. Put it this way: A recent tutorial of ours would’ve come in handy for Jay and his buddy Gal.
To say any more at this point would be spoiler-ific; interestingly enough, however, Mr. Wheatley himself isn’t as worried about ruining Kill List’s specific beats. The highly talented filmmaker—whose previous effort, the lo-fi, gritty, and darkly funny organized crime study Down Terrace (2009), is also worthy of attention—is confident that audiences are intelligent enough to appreciate the film’s sneaky devastation and stomach-turning horror, even if they’ve approach the opening title sequence with detailed knowledge.
Horror fans, take note: Kill List is on its way to achieving the same level of you-have-to-see-it buzz previously afforded to imports such as Inside, [REC], and Martyrs. In this candid, lively chat with Complex, Wheatley discusses his approach to ambiguous storytelling, how Kill List’s scariest elements come from his own childhood nightmares, what negative lessons he learned from watching Lost, and his inspiration for Kill List’s immediate addition to our recent Most Vicious Beatings In Movies countdown.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
I have to start off with an admission: I’ve seen Kill List three times now, and after each viewing I walked out with more questions, ideas, and visceral reactions—all positive, mind you. Needless to say, it’s had quite an impact.
Wow, so you’ve seen it three times? [Laughs.] Something like that is good, though, isn’t it? It’s interesting that people would be patient enough to go back and watch something again and again. I really appreciate that. The amount of time that people are taking in over-analyzing it, even the people who aren’t really getting it… It’s like taking medicine—people are really forcing themselves to understand it, and I think that’s really good.
It’s much better than just that knee-jerk, “That didn’t make any sense—aaahhh!” reaction. [Laughs.] Or, “Why have they done this?” That kind of reaction that you get from Twitter, but that whole reaction is quite interesting, as well. You’ll often see that people who immediately react with anger and confusion will come back a day or two later and go, “You know, I actually really enjoyed it.” It’s not something that can be consumed in the traditional, straight way, or understood and forgotten about by the time you’ve left the cinema.
As a moviegoer, are those the kinds of films that you gravitate toward—ones that you need to see multiple times in order to truly understand them? In terms of its ambiguities and bewilderment, Kill List gave me a David Lynch vibe in some ways, and his movies are all about requiring multiple viewings.
Yeah, I love that approach to filmmaking. I love all sorts of cinema, though—I’m as happy going to see a blockbuster as I am a Tarkovsky film, but I think that the idea that things will win or fail depending on how immediately understandable they are is a mistake. It’s that kind of idea of pictorial, incredibly straight art, isn’t it? If you judge everything by how photographically real it looks, then you’re missing out on a lot of what art is about and what communication is. There are ambiguities in life, and that should be reflected in art, cinema, and storytelling, I think.
As a screenwriter, is it difficult to write a script that’s as ambiguous and concealed as Kill List is? Is there a conscious effort to not spell anything out too much, or does it just come out naturally once you have a handle on the material and the story you’re trying to tell?
No, actually. What we did for this one, we wrote a much fuller script. So you’ve got a lot more things in the original script where people absolutely hammer explanations over your head, where they go, “I am this,” and “I’ve done this,” and “I’m going to do that,” and you shoot those scenes, but sometimes you lose them in rehearsals. You weed them out in the edit, though, but you never lose them entirely, just in case the thing doesn’t make any sense once you’ve put a full film together.
That’s the worry—you don’t want to make something that doesn’t hold up at all. You want to make it kind of skeletal enough that people will understand it. You’re having a conversation with the screen when you’re watching a movie, don’t you? You talk to it, and you say, “What are you doing? Where are you going? How is that going to work?” And most times you totally understand the movie; even with the most tenuous of clues, you can piece it together and understand where it’s going. I think audiences can be incredibly sophisticated like that.
You really have to be careful with the clues you lay into the film—if they’re too heavy-handed, or you’ve pandered to a slightly stupider audience, then you’ve spoiled it for the people who are even slightly smart. That’s the worry. Also, a lot of people enjoy that teasing out of information and how that makes them think about it even harder. Otherwise, you might as well just have a banner up at the beginning of the movie that flat-out says what’s gonna happen and where it’s gonna go; then, everyone can relax because they know they’re not gonna have any problems understanding it.
As much as I agree with everything you’ve just said, there’s still a small part of me that would love to read that original, all-spelled-out script.
[Laughs.] The thing is, though, that it doesn’t matter. It depends on how much weight you put on narrative, or how much weight you put on the experiences. Finding out exactly what happens isn’t as interesting as all of the theories that are bouncing around in your head. Your fears are your own fears, and if I tell you mine specifically, and say, “This is the most terrifying thing that could happen to me,” you might look at it and go, “Well, that’s ridiculous—I’m not frightened of these things at all.”
Suggesting these fears and mixing in your own fears make the experience much more potent. It’s a thing I’ve found, narrative-wise, from American long-form television, like Lost or Battlestar Galactica. They’re brilliant, and they’re so frustrating yet riveting when they’re asking questions but so tedious when they’re telling you the answers to those questions, and they never really wrap them up right, do they? Your reaction ends up being one of, “Oh, so that’s what it all means? I went through all of that for that?”
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?
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)