Dialogue: 'Kill List' Director Ben Wheatley Talks Hammers, Sound Design and the Shark You Didn't Even Know Was in the Movie

Dialogue: 'Kill List' Director Ben Wheatley Talks Hammers, Sound Design and the Shark You Didn't Even Know Was in the Movie

Jan 10, 2012

One of the movies people simply would not stop talking about at SXSW was Ben Wheatley's British hitman movie, Kill List. Time and time again I found myself standing in line making idle chat and hearing that The Innkeepers was pretty great or that Insidious was creepy or that Attack the Block was a ton of fun, but when people started talking about Kill List, they took on an ominous tone. People wouldn't even tell me what it's about, they just demanded that I see it and promised even if I didn't like the film, I'd still want to talk about it.

Well, they were absolutely right. I not only ended up loving the movie, but I haven't been able to shake it since. I've been patiently waiting for it to come out here in the US so I could see it again, and now, thanks to IFC Films, we all can do just that: Kill List is currently available on most VOD services (check its availability here) and will be getting a limited theatrical release starting February 3rd.

In a perfect world, everyone would see Kill List knowing as little about it as possible. However, that's not always enough, so if you need more to go on than my assurance it is an impeccably crafted, atypical horror movie, here's the official synopsis:

Kill List tells the story of an ex-soldier turned contract killer who is plunged into the heart of human darkness. Eight months after a disastrous hit job in Kiev left him physically and mentally scarred, Jay (Neil Maskell) is pressured by his partner Gal (BIFA Winner Michael Smiley), into taking a new assignment. As they descend into the bizarre, disturbing world of the contract, Jay’s world begins to unravel until fear and paranoia sending him reeling towards a horrifying point of no return.

And here's our spoiler-free chat with director Ben Wheatley where we talk about everything from using comedy lessons in horror films to his history with viral videos to what exactly that unsettling sound in the movie is.

Movies.com: It might be surprising to someone who hasn't seen you talk in person, that you're actually incredibly funny. And I'm kind of curious how and when you decide to turn that switch on and off when making something like Kill List, which, aside from a few moments of levity, is not at all comedic.

Ben Wheatley: There's a relationship between comedy and horror and the thing they share is gags. I've done a lot of TV comedies, I've done a lot of skit shows, directing and editing, and it can come down to precise things like framing. It's the same with horror. If it's cut a certain way, things aren't scary or believable, but if you cut it a completely different way it can suddenly become unnerving and horrible. And I think that is what really helped me with making Kill List scary.

We had a really good time shooting it and I think being very light-hearted on set and having a good time is very fortunate. It's making sure the actors and the crew are working fast and it's not tense and bad tempered. That's just useful on a practical level in life.

Movies.com: How long did it take you to find the edit and how quickly were you happy with that cut?

Wheatley: I don't' think it was very long, maybe six weeks or something like that. We've actually been talking about that a lot because we're working on the new movie and trying to get a process that's similar to Kill List. I think we did about three screenings. One for friends and family, then an actors' screening, then a financiers' screening. It was between those three main screenings that we boiled it down. It wasn't pulling whole scenes out or anything like that. It was just whittling things down. I remember the first client scene, when he cuts his hand, that took a while to get right. There wasn't a lot of coverage and it just didn't play how he pulled him in, how deep he cut him, how he reacted. We played with that a lot. Plus, the tunnel scene wasn't amazingly hard to do. There was plenty of coverage, so it came together quite quick.

Movies.com: I think that's a bonus of working indie and having to have a full vision of the edit while you're still in production. Is that how it is for you?

Wheatley: I like the way that I work. I didn't look at Kill List after and regret not having loads more money because then it wouldn't be the film that it was. It's the same way we wrote Down Terrace. We knew we had a certain amount of resources, so we wrote for that. It was the same thing here, so it's not like we ever had to pull back, though in retrospect it was a bit ambitious for the scale of our production. Now that I'm on the new movie, Sightseers... Kill List was shot in three weeks, Sightseers was shot in a month, and just an extra six days makes a huge difference. Here, I think the entire tunnel sequence was shot in a day. All the night time stuff was shot in three nights. You wouldn't even get someone walking completely through a door if that were studio time.

Movies.com: The violence is so sharp and so jarring. There's no build up, it just erupts abruptly. So I'm curious what your philosophy is there and, more specifically, I've got to know what your trick is to creating such convincing and effective hammer-on-body effects.

Wheatley: The hammer thing particularly came from two things. I'm a big fan of Alan Clarke's films, things like The Firm and Scum and Contact. If you look at those films, well, they're TV movies, really, but if you look at those they have a sort of matter of fact, documentary feel. There's no musical cue, no sudden change that signifies it's going to be violent. It just happens, and it often happens all in one shot. His original version of Elephant, which Gus Van Sant did the remake of, is all long, long takes with violence at the end.

So there's that, but I also have a background on the Internet doing viral adverts and stuff like that. A lot of the early days of my online stuff was taking camcorder footage and making it look real, and it's stuff like that that's really the grand daddy of films like Paranormal Activity and all those big studio movies. These were just maybe two-minute clips of an accident, and then something crazy happens that makes you go, "Whoa!" because it's all in-camera. Or, rather, all seemingly in-camera.

That camera thing comes from being outside the grammar of what a normal film would be. In normal cinema, you'd have the hammer going down and then there'd be a close-up of the head crushed, and it would be really horrible, but at the same time you totally expect it, really. It's a cinema convention, the edit. And particularly for kind of gory things like that you go right in and you see it and you rub the audiences nose it, but they know it can't be real. They just know it.

It's like when you see something like Transformers, you know it's not real because your brain knows at all times that a car can't do that. It doesn't matter how good the effects are because that just doesn't happen in our world. But, if you do an effect that has a real world equivalent, and if you do it the right way, people's brains start to think it is real. They know it can't be, because it's a film, but for a second maybe it is real. The thing that makes the hammer scene work is the absence of a cut. Your brain goes, "Oh, I know what's going to happen. He's going to cut."

It's like whenever Roger Moore jumps off the side of the cliff you cut to a wider shot and you know it's a stuntman. You just know it is because you know how it works. Take out that cut, and it really works. Honestly, it's not that gory. We've all seen worse in Saw or Hostel or even Saving Private Ryan. You've seen effects a million times more gory than that, but it's the context and the tone that sell it.

Movies.com: I didn't know you had a background in viral video. Was that just a hobby or were they for commercials? Was that how you got your start in filmmaking?

Wheatley: Kind of. I've done a lot of different jobs-- storyboard artist, an edit assistant. I ended up doing kind of corporate stuff. Interviewing people on the street, real world stuff like that. So when that took off, I started writing copy for radio competitions and stuff like that. Then I started writing copy for Internet competitions, and that was, oh, '97 or '98 and that was really around the start of Internet videos and the broadband roll out. I shot a lot of stuff around the time and had my own website where I posted my own stuff, a lot of it was animated, and that's how I ended up getting asked to do online ads, then TV programs. It all started kind of happening at the same time.

Movies.com: Getting back to Kill List, what was the psychology behind the sound design? I'm a big nut for sound design, and I love that it starts out pretty normal, and then you hear strange things like whistles in the background. Then as things get more and more intense for Jay, you hear an almost sort of wailing whale song in the background.

Wheatley: That sound is a shark, actually. I worked with Martin Pavey, and Pavey did this thing where I just thought it was the horriblest sound I'd ever heard. It plays into the reptile brain, that sort of fear you get when you hear animals roaring. People don't like the sound of lions roaring because they can remember it from when they were apes. I have no scientific evidence to back that up [Laughs], but I do think the sound of a shark singing underwater is something that is primary terror.

I love sound design. I've done a lot of tracks in my time and I've worked in animation, which is a world where track laying really matters, and I think you cannot underestimate the power of sound. On Kill List we wanted to unnerve the audience absolutely, so we really went for it. There's more animals in there. There's a monkey, there's some pigs. We worked a lot on the 5.1, so there's a lot of sub-bass in there to move your guts and your kidneys and your heart around. If you can hear it properly in a really good cinema, you get these beams of bass moving rightways through the auditorium, and I think even if you sat there in the dark, you'd come out of that auditorium terrified.

Movies.com: I would never have guessed that was an actual shark.

Wheatley: No, I don't think you could. It's weird, though, with 5.1. I've seen the film a lot and I've never heard it the same way twice. Every auditorium I see it in is set up differently. It's weird, but that's the way that that works. I think that's the reason that mainstream cinema doesn't use subtle 5.1 like that, because it's not consistent from cinema to cinema.

Movies.com: I think that's a tragedy that happens to both projection and sound. I saw a film at a recent film festival where the guy who did the color correction happened to be there, and I talked to him afterward and while I thought it looked great, he said it didn't look like it was supposed to.

Wheatley: Yeah, I think the same thing happened at, I think, SXSW with The Innkeepers. I heard about reviews that complained about the way it looked and the DP was like, "Yeah, I know where you saw it and it f**king did look horrible and that wasn't our fault." We had a similar thing with Down Terrace at Fantastic Fest. It was massively overexposed, that first screening of it. They blew out all the highlights and we just sat there going, "F**king hell, what is this?!" And I remember someone coming up to me after and saying, "Bloody cool grades, dude!" [Laughs]

I think another part of the problem with 5.1, and you probably get this in your home theater, is they'll do the THX logo and it will sound incredible, the best you'll ever hear. And then the movie comes on and it's basically just stereo straight out of the front. It's something I've actually been working on a lot, surround sound. I don't think Sightseers will be a massive surround sound movie because it's just not that type of movie, but the next couple movies will be kind of radical with their sound design.

Movies.com: What are you working on after Sightseers? I know you've got an ABCs of Death segment, but is there anything else you've got lined up?

Wheatley: I'm sorting that out at the moment, because I've been working on Sightseers, I'm sort of terrified because it's like, "Oh, f**k, I've got to make ABCs by the end of the month." But we have sorted it all out, and so we're going to make that in a week or so time. We're finishing the Sightseers edit, so that will be all done, and then we're doing a test shoot for Freak Shift, which will be a cops versus monsters film. It will basically be pump action shotguns and monsters and Hill Street Blues. It's set in America, so I'm really excited about that. We've got development on that, so we're just getting the whole package together. There's a whole lot of art work done, and this test shoot, then we'll go to finance in the next couple months and hopefully someone will pay for it.

Movies.com: You've got a pretty good track record of moving projects along quickly.

Wheatley: Yeah, thankfully, but even if this doesn't happen, we'll just make our own thing. That's the reality of it. I don't think you should stop unless you're absolutely broke and can't move forward. We've got other scripts we can do for very little money, so we'll just do those instead if the big stuff falls out.

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