Interview: Ben Wheatley (2012) Kill List

Kill List is a dark tale about Jay, a British family man and his horrifying journey when he takes one last job as hit man to make ends meet. Part domestic drama, part thriller, and part terrifying horror, it is a film that defies any easy attempt to classify its genre. Director and writer Ben Wheatley creates a disturbing story that leaves audiences with lingering questions that will be sure to haunt them. Wheatley shared with Working Author what went into creating Kill List, his preferred way of telling stories, and the magic of letting audiences fill in the blanks for themselves.

Wheatley loves using an improvisational approach with his actors in film, an approach he also utilized in his 2009 crime film, Down Terrace. “You do a take on the script and then you do a take off the script, and the off-script takes are kind of paraphrased instead of wild improvisations. And you basically get them to put the script back into their own words, you get  the tight meaning of the script but you also get a stuttery, slightly wild feeling of real improvisation, it’s really helpful. We use that a lot in Down Terrace…so that’s why Kill List is additional dialogue…‘by cast’ because they are throwing stuff in that’s really good.”

Wheatley wrote Kill List for the actors he had already chosen, a method that allowed him to capitalize on the abilities of people he had worked with before. “I really like that way of working, because you play to their strengths, and their own characters, you amplify it….the improvisation gave us sweeter, funnier moments then are written in the script.”

One of the most unsettling aspects of the film is how certain major questions are never fully answered, such as Jay’s botched job in Kiev, a major detail in the film that is never fully revealed. Says Wheatley, “It could be anything from a mission that’s gone horribly wrong to a drunken dancing incident or badly handled karaoke. That’s the whole point of why it’s not said, because what you imagine in your head is probably worse.  It’s your Room 101, that scary thing that they did…and it goes through the whole movie as well…you run the risk always of showing what ultimate evil looks like is not my ultimate evil, or it’s too much for me and I don’t want to see it…but your idea of it in your own head is much more personal…you look into the film but the film looks into you as well, your own prejudices and kind of assumptions come out in reviews. So be careful…Its from the perspective of the guys and they don’t know anymore than we know as the audience, and they wouldn’t know, so why would the audience get to know?”

Wheatley drew inspiration from several other films when creating Kill List. “The one I actually consciously reference is Race With the Devil…. I remember it vividly of them being chased by these cultist people off the side of the road, and thinking they will go away, and then the fire encircling their camper-van thing, and that terrified me. It stuck with me since I was little. We kind of have a version of that in the film. Obviously there’s elements of Wicker Man in it, but in terms of Wicker Man it’s more the idea that the film is a trap for one character, and it springs shut in the end…. Other movies like that are more referenced are like Parallax View or Manchurian Candidate, which is more about assassins who are involved in a big conspiracy and then are caught in a trap.”

Kill List moves along at a rapid pace, which Wheatley says was highly intentional, in his own joking way. “I want a 90-minute film. I don’t want a two-hour film. I don’t want a long film. And maybe it’s because my ass is so fat now that I can’t bear to sit in the seat for more than 90 minutes.”

Audiences will find Wheatley’s method to writing and directing film authentically character based, a method that allows the audience to connect to the characters from the very beginning. “I wanted to approach the horror film in the same way that I approached crime films, so you know, Kill List is to horror as Down Terrace is to crime, so it’s using those strategies of kind of taking that socio-reality stuff and spending a lot of time with the character to enforce the mood of the rest of the piece and kind of leaven it…the seedier aspects of genre against the more believable aspects of docu-drama and see how that makes it work…it is kind of this genre-bending thing…you frontload it with a lot of characterization so the stuff later on actually works. But then these scenes of violence are amplified, because you think you’re in another film, because you’ve come out of this thing of knowing who these people are, and it’s…hopefully, chiming with what your relationship is with your partner and what your relationship is with your parents, your memories of your parents arguing, your memories of partnerships, and then it gets into the more crazy horror, so these things have already primed you for that. Whereas if you do it the other way around then you’re already at this really crazy heightened unreal position, and it can never recover from that. Then it’s a horror film, which is fine, but it’s a different beast. “

Ben Wheatley’s genre-defying film Kill List opened February 3rd, and is now playing in theatres.