Interview: Ben Wheatley, Director of KILL LIST

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Director Ben Wheatley's new film, Kill List, has generated some serious word-of-mouth buzz over the past few months. As a British genre picture it could well be destined for cult classic status. It takes the typical hitman thriller and presents it in a new, terrifying context.

Starring Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley and MyAnna Buring, the film sees a traumatised hitman taking up a new job offer that keeps getting stranger and stranger and stranger. Very recently Starburst chatted to the director about his movie, its reception and the mysteries within. 

Starburst: Where did you get the idea for Kill List because it’s such a different blend of genres?

Wheatley: It came from a lot of different places really. It started before we did Down Terrace and thought what kind of movies do we want to make and my producer said ‘you should do a horror film’. I did my crime film first but there was always the intention to do a horror film. It was in the back of my mind even when we did Down Terrace. The film, oddly, came from some casting ideas and I’d worked with Neil Maskell on a TV show and I really liked him. I wanted to write something specifically for him. We were gonna do something set in Jakarta, in the Phillipines, a mixture of a crime film and cop thriller and it never came off. I took the plot from that grew into Kill List.

It’s a very funny film too. Was that always something in the script, the humour and comic dialogue?

I had this question a lot on Down Terrace. They’re not comedies but they are characters with a sense of humour. So they’re funny but not funny in a stand up comedy sort of way. People deal with very extreme situations with humour.

When you were writing the script did you ever worry that there would be too much genre shifting.

As a viewer you’re trying to second guess what’s going to happen next and it feels very chaotic but when you see it as a whole, I think it makes sense. There have been a lot of reviews where people go ‘oh it’s just tacked on’ and I think well no it’s not if you think about it. It’s all been structured. We’ve had feedback of different reactions to the end and coming back a few days later and telling us they understand it more. I think this is where people – even critics – get confused as if we’ve made it up on the day and we don’t know what we’re doing. As a filmmaker you’ve got to know everything and have a plan.

My own response to the ending was seeing like some sort of mad job interview to work for the Devil. That’s my interpretation, I’m not saying that was your intent.

You can read it in a lot of different ways. I don’t think you necessarily have to have one idea. You can take from it what you want. In Sight & Sound they said it’s about him having combat shock in Afghanistan and he’s gone insane. But then there is this other level of him becoming… at the start of the film, Fiona, says she’s in human resources and she is… she scouts for these people who are potentially evil enough to be employed. There’s loads of criteria we just don’t know, but that makes it much more scary because if you knew specifically there would be no mystery.

Yes, I thought the cult was quite interesting. It’s very non-specific. It might be Satanic, it might not be.

Yeah, Christians would call them Satanic. I like to think they’re a religion beyond religion, that they were the oldest kind of religion in the world. 

Have you had audiences coming to you with their own interpretations of the film?

Yeah. There's loads of stuff. There's even blogs that have written about Biblical meanings in names and stuff and it's really flattering. Some of what they'd got was really right and on the nose and other stuff I hadn't a clue, to be honest. Other things were just so wide off the mark. We weren't really making a comment on a specific cult or religion.

The character Jay goes through a transformation as the story progresses. Did you write a backstory for Jay?

There's lots of stuff. Amy my co-writer and I... you have to know exactly what happened. Even the dull stuff... the TV movie version of the film which would reveal everything. We tried to make sure there was an internal logic to everything. 

The violence in the film is pretty hardcore and the scene with the hammer is insane. The film doesn't offer typical horror violence does it?

It was always in the script that it would be pretty hard. I think there's a few things going on. These characters get money for murdering people and you want to see them [doing it]. You can't paper over what murder is. You've got to take it seriously. When you see violence you can't flinch from it.  Also, the film isn't that violent really. It's not like Hostel or any of those movies. In those films you don't feel all that scared about the violence. The hammer scene, you feel in the lead up it's going to cut away and it doesn't. The scene doesn't talk in the language of horror cinema or action cinema but a health and safefty video or snuff. If you bash somebody's head in with a hammer it doesn't explode like it would in a horror film, it's something more muted. That's what's scary about it. It happens forty-five minutes into the movie, at the half way mark and you realised somebody you like, his job is pretty horrific. 

Jay's increase in violent responses to situations even worries his partner Gal (Michael Smiley). 

They're both pretty wanton and the most careful hitmen. They throw people out of windows and they think nobody is looking at them. If you're that confident then you don't worry about getting caught.

I'd like to talk about the laptop scene. There's been plenty said in reviews about what is on the video they watch even though the audience never sees it and only hear screams and such. When writing it did you make a decision what it was?

It's like Room 101. In that Joel Schumacher film, 8mm, they show you what Nicolas Cage's character watches... the script by Andrew Kevin Walker is really scary but the reality of it is people in gimp masks and it's not scary. It might be scary for some. But you're putting a name and a face to the horror. If you just hear bits of it, I think that's more terrifying than if you show it.

Now you've made Kill List do you want to work more in horror features or make different kinds of movies?

I want to do as much as I can. I'm doing a comedy next. It's a much lighter film than Kill List and not as brutally dark. There's also an alternate reality kind of film we're doing with Nick Frost. It's going to be a big thing and based on a comic strip I used to do. We're in development to do something I describe as "Hill Street Blues versus monsters".

KILL LIST is out now on DVD/Blu-ray

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