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KILL LIST, which begins its limited theatrical release today
from IFC Films, 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
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 (see our full review here).
Not resting on the many laurels he’s received for KILL LIST, Wheatley is
wrapping up the serial-killers-in-love story SIGHTSEERS (see item here)
and has a number of intriguing genre projects in the works (details here).
But for now, here’s the filmmaker on KILL LIST…
FANGORIA: 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?
BEN WHEATLEY: 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 to far.
They’re seeing something which 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.
FANG: Did the moments that are very extreme cause any
trouble when you were seeking backing for KILL LIST?
WHEATLEY: 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.
FANG: 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?
WHEATLEY: 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
FANG: 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.
WHEATLEY: 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
FANG: 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 are not
WHEATLEY: 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 for what follows; below
the next photo 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!
FANG: 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?
WHEATLEY: 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 at the beginning that go on and
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.
FANG: Another movie that has been brought up in comparison
to KILL LIST is A SERBIAN FILM.
WHEATLEY: 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.
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