Q&A: Ben Wheatley Makes Up His KILL LIST

An archive interview from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · January 4, 2019, 5:00 PM PST
Kill List Wheatley.jpg
KILL LIST (2011)

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on February 4, 2012, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Kill List isn’t your typical horror film, in part because for a good deal of its running time, it’s a crime film. And as writer/director Ben Wheatley explains below, that’s not the only way he intended to keep audiences off guard.

The follow-up to Wheatley’s low-budget, well-received black-comic criminal caper Down Terrace, Kill List focuses on Jay (Neil Maskell), a hitman who’s been out of the business a while. His lack of income has been stressing his relationship with his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring), so he agrees to take on a new job with longtime friend and partner Gal (Michael Smiley). What appears at first to be a typical contract killing leads the two into even darker, unforeseen territory that’s as frightening as it is surprising.

Certain scenes in Kill List employ a lot of suggestion; for example, you don’t see what the Librarian is watching. And then others are very explicit, like when the Librarian is killed. How did you go about determining which scenes you wanted to hint at, and which you wanted to blow out and make it extreme?

It was all about the dance with the audience, and their expectations. You kind of throw out messages one way and then the other, setting up this idea that maybe we’re tasteful filmmakers and we’re not going to show anything, and then totally zag the other way and show it all. Then, that moment becomes much more shocking than if you started out with a pre-credits sequence with a lot of horrible, visceral gore. Because if you do that, then the viewers go, “Oh, OK. It’s that kind of film, and we’re safe.” But if you pull them in slower, then they’ll doubt that you’ll go too far. They’re seeing something that is more dramatic, or like another type of movie altogether, so when the violence comes, it’s much more shocking.

It was an idea I had from watching The Orphanage. They played a very good game in that with the scene where the old lady gets run over. You think they’re not going to show it at all at first, then they show a bit, then a bit more. Then you see the woman all smashed up, and you go, “Well, I’ve seen that now, they won’t show any more.” Then they go back for a third bite, and her jaw is all hanging off and you go, “Oh, God! This is not the kind of film I thought I was watching! I thought I was watching some tasteful Spanish horror film, but now it’s some gory…” And for the rest of the film, you don’t trust them; you think they’re going to show you stuff you don’t want to see at the drop of the hat—and they never do, but you fear for it. I thought that was very clever. It made me really scared through the movie, and that’s kind of what we felt we would do with Kill List, that we’d play that game where we’ll show you something really bad, and then you’ll be scared we’ll show it to you again, but we might or might not.

Did the extreme moments cause any trouble when you were seeking backing for Kill List?

Not really. I think the thing was, it’s easy to write this stuff in description in a script, but the financiers might not necessarily understand how graphic they are. There’s 100 ways of skinning a cat. You could say x, y, z happens, and you can film it in a way that isn’t that horrible, or you could film it in another way and it’s revolting [laughs]! But the experience of making the film was very hands-off from everybody. They just kind of left us to get on with it. And we presented them with the finished movie and everyone was appalled, and then that was it, it was released.

There’s a recent tradition of British gangster films, some more violent than others. Were you trying to subvert that at this point in the trend, or were you just trying to do your own thing and let those elements speak for themselves?

Obviously I’m aware of those films, and I’m a fan. But I think these British crime movies come from a place that started with something like Mean Streets and came down through Goodfellas and into Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and then it got to Britain and became Guy Ritchie movies, and disseminated down into the rest of the stuff that’s been made. And my starting point was more like Alan Clarke, who directed Scum and Contact, and the granddaddy movies of British crime, like Get Carter and The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa. We certainly didn’t set out to subvert that stuff, it was more about having a different mix.

Also, it came from a budgetary thing; you can only pull those kinds of Guy Ritchie/Martin Scorsese gags if you have enough money to push your camera around, and we didn’t. Also, I was coming from the position of wanting to focus more on the performances and less on the camera craft. The looseness of the movie, and of Down Terrace as well, had to do with relaxing the actors and making sure we got the best performances out of them. So we didn’t have any focus marks on set, we don’t have a massive crew; everything was shot very quickly so we could get as much out of the performances as possible.

Kill List is played straighter than films like Guy Ritchie’s as well; there are humorous moments here and there, but for the most part it’s done very straight.

Yeah, the difference is it’s obviously not a comedy. What it is is a rounded look at people, and generally people have senses of humor and can laugh about situations. These guys laugh about stuff, and are funny in themselves, but the film isn’t a slave to jokes, which is the difference between something that’s funny and something that’s a comedy. A comedy is something that is constructed as a machine to make you laugh, and some are a bit lumpy because the gags don’t fit together and make sense as a story, while others are much more skillful at that. But this is more of a story where the characters are having a good time within it. In fact, we had to cut a lot of laughs out of Kill List, because it undercut the horror if we did that too much.

In this world of Internet chatter, where word gets around instantly, has it been a struggle to preserve the secrets of the end of Kill List, or have you found that most people are honoring it and not revealing anything?

I don’t know; my feeling is, why would you be searching for the keywords “kill list” unless you either have a list of people you want to murder, or you’re interested in the fate of dogs and cats that have been gassed? There’s actually a cats’ home in New York that has a kill list, and people are always up in arms, tweeting about it all the time. You know, “Tiffany’s about to be gassed!” Whenever I search “kill list,” that’s all I ever see—dead animals or high-school kids going, “Oh, they found my kill list, my mom’s going to kill me!” [Laughs] So unless you’re really looking for it, you won’t get it spoiled.

There are plenty of reviews which are basically just descriptions of the whole movie and that’s it; they’re not really reviews. And if you’re searching for that stuff, if you go and read these things, then you’re going to find out. From my experience of using the Internet to read about film, if there’s one I want to see, or have an inkling that I want to see it, I stay a million miles from the Net in terms of finding details about it, because it will be ruined. And then if I’m hungering for information about it later, I’ll go and look on-line. But then you see things like the IMDb comments pages… I just saw someone had written, “I was watching Videodrome the other day. It’s rubbish, it’s just so slow…” They’re just ripping Videodrome apart, and it’s like, “What?!” [Laughs] What kind of a world is this? This guy’s an idiot! The thing about the Internet is that generally, and I’ve said this before, as long as there are people saying it’s good and bad, then you’re covered. Because it doesn’t matter after that. People either like it or they don’t. It’s just opinion and everyone’s got one, so you can’t get upset. But that doesn’t stop needy filmmakers from reading everything [laughs].

And on that note, a SPOILER ALERT; what follows is a discussion about the ending, which, while it doesn’t get into specifics, will still reveal too much if you haven’t seen the film. So read on only if you haven’t already seen Kill List!

One of the things that struck me about Kill List’s conclusion was that it makes the movie kind of a stealth remake of The Wicker Man. Was that a movie that influenced when you were writing and making yours?

Yeah, but it was also The Parallax View and The Manchurian Candidate. Those are in the subgenre of film as trap, and The Game as well—a very similar movie where the protagonist doesn’t know at the time that there’s a massive amount of people conspiring against him. The Wicker Man was a movie I saw when I was a kid; I haven’t watched it recently, and I consciously kept away from it because I didn’t want to know. I think with a lot of those older movies, the memory of them is much scarier than the reality of rewatching them. Particularly with another film that influenced me, Race With the Devil. I love that film. I watched that before we made Kill List; I’d seen it as a kid, but I think I’d only seen the last 15 minutes, which are really scary. I hadn’t seen the bit where Loretta Swit spends 20 minutes in the library looking up Satanism [laughs]. I’d completely forgotten about all of the quite long sequences with the dirt-bike riding in the beginning that go on and on.

But the end is like Road Warrior; it’s insane. It was part of that time where every movie had a massive car chase in it. It’s incredible; they kill about 1,000 people in that sequence at the end, it’s brilliant! But the thing that really scared me at the end of Race With the Devil was the characters thinking they’d got away, and then the fire circling the RV, and the cultists coming out of the night, which is referenced directly in Kill List. To me, if people pull me up for anything I’m referencing, it’s that movie over The Wicker Man. That’s scarier to me.

Another movie that has been brought up in comparison to Kill List is A Serbian Film.

Yeah, though I haven’t seen it. That all started at South by Southwest, with someone in the first Q&A going, “Have you seen A Serbian Film? Is this referencing A Serbian Film?” I was like, “What the f**k? What are you talking about?” But what are you going to do? You can’t defend yourself against that. Obviously I’m an egotistical maniac and read everything written anywhere about Kill List on the Internet, and I see people saying, “I can’t believe he hadn’t seen Serbian Film, and I can’t believe they didn’t change it when it came out…” It’s like, what are we supposed to do? It was impossible for us to have seen it, we were in postproduction when it came out! Also, the other day, I read someone saying, “The ending of Kill List is just a ripoff of Paranormal Activity 3!” I’m like, “What the f**k?! We made our film before them!” So it’s like, whatever. You can’t get too upset about these things. It was not anything to do with Serbian Film.