I’m not really sure what Ben Wheatley’s The Kill List is about. I haven’t seen the film, which is unusual in situations like this, where I’m interviewing the filmmaker. The movie just wasn’t ready to be seen yet, and so I had to go in blind. Well, not completely blind - I was very familiar with Wheatley’s last movie, Down Terrace, a great British crime dramedy that doesn’t go the route most British crime movies go. It’s a wonderful, funny and even emotionally resonant movie that was a huge hit at Fantastic Fest in 2009.
So it’s fitting the Wheatley is bringing his next film to SXFantastic, the section of SXSW curated by Fantastic Fest. The film premieres Sunday at 11:15, playing the Alamo South Lamar.
Can you give a basic rundown of what The Kill List is about?
Did you see Down Terrace? It was at Fantastic Fest two years ago. It’s taking the style of Down Terrace, so it’s taking genre and giving it a twist so that it feels loose and improv-y. It’s not a crime film like Down Terrace, it’s a horror film. You’ve got two guys who are servicemen, who are soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, who have come back to England and they’ve set up working up for a security firm like Blackwater, but the UK version of that. They’ve branched out on their own and become freelance killers. They take on this job and are given a list of people to kill and from that point it goes very, very wrong for them.
One of the things I loved about Down Terrace is that it had genre elements and it had emotion, but it was also very funny. Is Kill List funny as well?
A bit at the beginning, but it becomes quite heavy. There’s not so many gags in it, it’s not so light hearted. I watch a lot of horror films and they have this thing where they set people up to knock them off and you don’t care about them really, but I want you to care about these people. That’s where the characterization and psychological stuff from Down Terrace comes in - you really feel bad when bad stuff happens rather than a more formulaic horror thing. It’s quite spooky and you feel it quite heavily. We’ve done a few test screenings and we’ve identified it as the Kill List Stare - when the lights come up everyone is staring into space! It’s quite disconcerting the first time; we were with the financiers and they looked at me like ‘You’ve done something. What have you done?’
You brought Down Terrace to Fantastic Fest two years ago and it was a big hit there. How important was that to you getting Kill List made?
Massively important. We had no preconceptions about how we would move forward with Down Terrace until it played Fantastic Fest. And we went in quite blithely. I wasn’t around for the awards ceremony bit but the producers were; they weren’t even going to go to the awards but they were told ‘You should go.’ So they went! We knew it had gone down quite well, but we didn’t know how well it had gone down. And I think it catapulted us to being on a stage in front of distributors and critics. We were innocent, thinking that if it didn’t work out we would throw it away, but it became quite serious after Fantastic Fest.
The thing about me, personally, is that I’d been reading the internet and seeing posters and stuff from Mondo and buying them for a couple of years and reading about the Alamo Drafthouse and always wanted to go, so for me it was like a pilgrimage. There just aren’t any cinemas like that in England, so I was very jealous. But it was a real thrill to see our film at the Drafthouse and order a beer.
You mentioned you watch a lot of horror films. Where do your tastes lie?
My general taste in movies is pretty broad. For me the pinnacle of horror is The Shining, but at the other end there’s Threads, a UK movie about a nuclear holocaust. Also one we watched early on was Race With The Devil. When I sat down to write the script I basically thought about all of my worst nightmares and wrote them down and built it around those nightmares instead of setting it in a specific vampire lore or serial killer stuff. It was all stuff that scared me and worked my way back. It’s all stuff you can look at and go ‘I’ve had those dreams as well, that’s the kind of stuff that scares me too.’ I’m hoping it’s stuff in the subconscious zeitgeist.
With Down Terrace you were able to take a genre and mix it with realism. Crime films are already close to being realistic anyway, but horror films are another matter. Is it hard to keep the psychological reality going when you’re dealing with horror elements?
You’ve got the same issues with exposition. You don’t want to get the characters explaining, and once they do you hear the hiss of the tension leaving the film. The Kill List moves from a very realistic thing to a genre film and then in the final act moves into a full-blooded horror story. It didn’t feel that hard. What was nice about it is that it frees you up to be more expressionistic with the sound design, we’re having fun with that. And with the music, we’re able to use very scary soundscapes.
Audiences who have seen the film have ended up with what you call the Kill List Stare. Is this the sort of movie that gets them with jumps or is it the kind of movie that disturbs you long after you go home?
I think there are jumpy moments and there are definite action beats, but it’s more upsetting. [laughs] That’s the poster quote: “Upsetting!”
For me the scariest parts of The Exorcist were in the beginning when she was going through the medical tests. That makes me upset. It’s a kind of primal fear, and Kill List deals with those kinds of fears.