In Kill List, a hitman embarks on what should be a simple job but spirals into darkness and the occult - all set against a backdrop of domestic melodrama. The film debuted at last year's SXSW and has been lighting up the festival circuit ever since. We sat down with the film's writer/director Ben Wheatley, who talked to us about inspiration, blending genres, and the writing process.
Kill List is very complex, very layered. How do you describe it to people?
The initial "elevator pitch," the one that got us the funding, was "hitmen versus satanists." Which is a total misnomer, but it made it very easy for people to get their checkbooks out when they hear that. To me, it is a horror film.
Horror is so broadly defined, it is more like what scares the filmmaker. So what scares you?
When I wrote the script, the starting point was recurring nightmares I had as a kid. In one of them, I was following a cult through the woods. They were naked and they had torches and I chased them. So that was the primary image that started Kill List. Then we kind of worked backwards from there.
I like what Kubrick said. You get six amazing images and you build [the film] around that. As long as you have those moments, you know you've got the film. So that is how we put it together. We knew there would be the cult chase, we knew there would be the tunnel stuff, we knew there would be the hammer stuff in the middle. We've got the kid, and if you are a parent, anything happening to a kid is horrible. So that is my biggest fear: getting caught in a tunnel or something happening to a child. I'm a big Nick Roeg fan, and I can't watch Don't Look Now at all, can't even get past the first five minutes anymore.
How do you go about building all the interstitial segments to bring those "six amazing images" together?
I don't know.... I have a process for writing to get into first draft that is kind of mechanical. I write like, one to thirty for each of the three acts so I know what happens every minute and then I look at those three pages and if those make sense as a film, and the pacing is right, I write a page for each minute, and that's the script. That way you get an overview so you don't write yourself into circles. If you know where the film is going, I find you don't have to write so many drafts.
The normal problems with writing are that if you write straight out of your head you find that by the end of the second act you don't know what the fuck is going on, or you write the whole thing and you find it just sags in the middle. That process helps me avoid that.
That process, is that out of necessity, or do you just really hate doing rewrites?
I co-write with my wife. My particular skill is to fill pages up. She has a real problem with empty pages, but she can deal with filled pages. So I supply the first draft, and I supply the high concept, then she totally rewrites everything until there's hardly anything left, then I'll go and rewrite bits. I'm the keeper of structure, and she's more the keeper of text and subtext.
You've got so many genres going on in Kill List. How did you find the balance to make it all a cohesive film?
I think it's because we didn't think in terms of genre when we wrote it. It wasn't like a post-modern thing. I don't feel it's like From Dusk Till Dawn, it's not that definite change in the middle. I know sometimes the experience is like that for the audience, but when you actually look at the film as a whole, it is actually signposted what will happen. The beginning of the film tells you the end of the film and where it will go if you allow it. But because there are so many different signs throughout of where the story is going, people sometimes forget what is going on. In retrospect, I think if you look back at the movie it is not as crazed as people might lead you to believe on, say, Twitter.
What has Twitter been saying?
One Tweet will say, "It's the best film I've ever seen," and the next will say, "It's the worst film I've ever seen." That's business as usual on Twitter.
Do you read the fan chatter and the reviews and all that?
Yeah. A bit too much. Just today I had my fingers poised over writing a reply, but I was like, "must... not... engage." It's pointless. What it is is pure egotism and a desperate need for everyone to be happy. If you make stuff that pleases everyone then you've made a particular piece of work that becomes simpler and simpler to please everyone's tastes. To utterly contradict what I just said, I think any response is valid, really. They are all useful when you read them. You wonder why people hated it so much, what it is about it that would cause that reaction, which helps with the stuff we are doing in the future.
Do you ever take any of that criticism to heart?
Not general criticism. I absolutely stand by the film because that is my taste. But I think there is a see-saw, where the more money you take off of people, the more you have to get back. It's fine to be willfully obscure with a film that cost half a million, but it's not so good if you make your version of Transformers with all the robots standing around weeping or staring into the corner.
I don't know... that may have been better than what they put out.
I'd say those movies are more structurally insane than something like Kill List.
I don't think Kill List was structurally insane. I just think it was complex. Do you prefer making smaller films then, or are you eager to get your hands on more cash?
I direct adverts, I direct TV. I've dealt with big-budget stuff, and it's just different. The first film we did, Down Terrace, was a six thousand pound budget. We shot for eight days and we could do whatever we wanted. I know that if I ever wanted to make my auteur piece about... I don't know, weeping about my childhood or something, I can just go and do that. There is nothing stopping me from doing that. If anyone wants to see it, great.
I know you are sick of having Kill List compared to The Wicker Man, especially at the end, so what are your influences?
I'm a big fan of The Parallax View and Manchurian Candidate, which is closer because they are both hitman movies. But I think the other distinction is that The Wicker Man is based on my memory of seeing it when I was little, not necessarily watching it recently. Also, the difference is that, in the UK, this stuff is all around. It's not a film reference; it's just culture. There are standing stones everywhere and pagan stuff going on and witchy stuff and it's old. Everything is really old. It's disingenuous to say it didn't influence me but it wasn't the big influence.
You have your fingers in many different genres. Do you have a favorite?
Not really. I love horror and I love crime. I'd be careful before I made a war film. I don't think I'd dip my toe in that because I think, morally, it would be hard to justify. And I don't like musicals. At all. No musical war film crossovers for me.
That would be awesome. Any other projects you are working on?
We're doing this thing with Nick Frost that will hopefully go this year. It's an alternative reality, comedy, time travel movie. It's called I, Macrobane. It's the worst title ever because I always have to repeat it, so we might have to call it something else. That's the main character's name. Hopefully that will go this year. Then we've got Freak Shift which is coming along, and we are working on a claymation feature as well. And we just keep writing.