Ben Wheatley ticks off his "Kill List" - An interview with the director and co-writer of the thriller, starring Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring and Harry Simpson.
Ben Wheatley impressed plenty of people with his feature debut, "Down Terrace," about a couple of gangsters doing their best to find out who set them up, while also trying to live their fairly mundane lives. Wheatley, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Robin Hill, created rich, vibrant characters whose dialogue crackled with realism, and he's done the same thing in his new movie, "Kill List," about a pair of contract killers who find themselves going deep into the rabbit hole as they try to complete a job. Neil Maskell is Jay, a former military man who became a killer-for-hire after he got out. He's clearly damaged goods, and a botched job eight months ago has kept him from working. This is a problem because Jay has a wife (MyAnna Buring) and a son (Harry Simpson), and it's getting harder and harder to keep up with the bills. So when his partner, Gal (Michael Smiley) approaches him with a three-person job, he's reluctant to take it. He does, though, and it soon becomes clear that there's something strange going on. The client is creepy, and the victims are involved in something exceedingly disturbing. But there's no turning back for either of them, especially Jay, who feels as though he may be marked for something greater than just finishing off what's on the kill list. Wheatley spoke to Upcoming-Movies.com about his new film.
Upcoming-Movies.com: There's clearly a larger story going on in "Kill List," though we only see Jay and Gal's side of things. Do you know the entire story, the stuff we don't get to see?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you need to, you have to, otherwise everything becomes really inconsistent. What's the thing they say, it's easiest to tell the truth because you can remember it? We wanted it to be from their perspective, so that you never knew more than they knew, because you were getting the information at the same pace they were. But the clues were always there, bits of clues, so you could bring it together in your own mind. Everybody's fears are different, and as a viewer, your fears are different, so as soon as you start pinning down the specifics of these things, you start to shut down parts of the audience, in terms of what their fears are. So if you show what's on the video that they watch in the lock-up that makes Jay so angry, if you show that footage, the fact is that my idea of what the worst thing that could be is not your idea of it. As soon as you see it, you think, 'oh, is that it?' When you don't know that, in your own mind, you paint a picture.
So many films these days end up spilling the beans and putting everything into context. Why did you choose not to do that?
Ben Wheatley: I just didn't think it was important. It's their story. Otherwise you get dangerously close to Scooby Doo, people telling you what happened. Exposition is fucking boring. It's really boring, and you don't really need it. The experience of the film is the tension and the fear, and you're in their position and you're as confused about it as they are. But you don't really need to know any of that information to make the film work. The more you do know about it takes the edge off your own experience.
That's true, but it feels like filmmakers and studios are used to giving that information out, and audiences are used to getting it.
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, sure, but that's what's kind of dull about so many films. It's the kind of thing that used to happen back in the '70s. Filmmakers weren't worried about the end of things.
And it's not like, in life, we usually get the answers.
Ben Wheatley: No. And also, when you watch stuff like episodic American TV, shows like "Lost" or "Battlestar Galactica," which I really enjoyed, the climb up to the top of the roller coaster ride is really exciting. But when you come down the other side and you find out what everything means, you're kind of disappointed. And that's not something I wanted. I don't mind people being angry because they weren't told, but it's a better trade-off than telling them and having them go, 'oh, that? I knew it was that.'
You seem to have a penchant for telling stories about people who do bad things as regular people.
Ben Wheatley: I think you have to do that. Most people's lives are actually quite boring. When you have a film where the guy in the black hat is going to get killed because he's a bad guy, and the guy in the white hat is going to be all right because he's a goody, and everyone will be sorted out, that's unsatisfying in a way, because it's predetermined. You want something more from your storytellers, something a bit more real.
At the same time, both the white and black hats have to pay the mortgage.
Ben Wheatley: Totally. Where's the James Bond movie where they tell him he's got AIDS? Or they bring in the bill for blowing up all these buildings?
These characters are so clearly based in the actors you're working with. Jay's a really interesting character, and Neil Maskell does a great job bringing him to life. How different would he have been if you'd had another actor in that role?
Ben Wheatley: We did write the parts for the actors, for sure, specifically for those people. I played to Neil's strengths a lot. He's very soulful and very intelligent, but he can also be very angry. But if you look at "Down Terrace" as well, Rob Hill's character in that is another angry child-man. I couldn't possibly say where I'm getting any of that from, but it's probably from my own experience.
But what if Neil hadn't been able to make the movie, last minute? Could you have even slotted someone else into that role?
Ben Wheatley: It would be tricky, yeah, but you'd be pragmatic, and find a way through. When you're working with really low budgets, you don't have a lot of room to maneuver, and you don't have the luxury of having people in who aren't any good. The idea of writing stuff specifically for people is key. I'd worked with them all before, so it wasn't a gamble. You can't get actors on set who don't get along with each other on a personal level. Or there's some kind of ego going on, or they're arguing about politics and shit. You've got to eliminate that as much as you can. It's hard enough doing it, but you need to have the least amount of friction to the creative process as possible. That's the kind of thinking behind it. But sure, if he'd been hit by a bus, what would we have done? Thank God he wasn't.
Of course. But what's different here from a lot of projects is that it's all personal. You're not just casting random actors into random parts.
Ben Wheatley: Sure, but there shouldn't be any rules for this stuff. In production, we work in different ways, and from the top of it, in terms of how you pay people and how you treat people, it's not taken for granted that you work in a certain way because other people have done that. No one's telling you what to do, you can do what you like, as long as you get the film done. We tried to be as fair and convivial as we could, and I think that's reflected in the movie. It's like a family, and that's good. It really helps. It just makes things work smoothly, and that's what you want. You don't want to be marauding around, treating everybody badly. It doesn't help.
Another thing that works is that you really let your actors work, using long shots and giving them space to act.
Ben Wheatley: I think it's because I'm a writer and a director and an editor, so I'm across a lot of the major bits of making the film. It's all about harvesting as much good material as possible. But there's nothing wrong with shooting in a more traditional straight way, but the main thing we've got with these low budgets is performances, great performances. And you've got to get them, however you the fuck you do it, you've got to get them. Then you can really punch above your weight. If you don't do that, if you try and copy how the big budget movies are made--and I don't mean in terms of the story, I mean in terms of the style and structure--then you come up short, because you don't have the money. You don't look like those movies. You just look like a cheap film. Then everyone knows. They can smell the blood in the water and then you're fucked. You know, when your car chase lasts ten seconds and includes just some harsh braking. No one's interested in that. So you have to find another way through. But if you get raw emotion and really amazing performances, it's worth a thousand fucking massive meteors crashing to earth. All people remember from the end of a movie is how they felt.