By Drew Taylor | The Playlist February 1, 2012 at 12:06PM
When we saw "Kill List" back at South By Southwest last year, well, we almost pooped ourselves in fear. Not really. But it was close. The movie, a clever-as-fuck mash-up of suburban domestic drama, hitman thriller, and occult horror film, really left an impression on us (one Playlist team member was visibly shaken – we had trouble finding him afterwards) – and we saw it at 9 o'clock in the morning! This weekend, "Kill List" is finally unleashed on unsuspecting theaters nationwide and we can't wait for everyone to get a look at this new genre classic. In anticipation of its release, we got to talk to writer/director Ben Wheatley, who discussed the film's development, sneaking an unauthorized script rewrite in, trying to sell a movie that you didn't want to spoil, and why naked people aren't that scary. Tread lightly if you haven't seen the film, though, spoilers ahead.
We first wondered about the development process for "Kill List." It's Wheatley's sophomore film, after the more straightforward crime film "Down Terrace," and we asked how he came up with the project. "I had done 'Down Terrace' and I kind of knew that if it went well we would be offered to do another movie. And I thought I would need to have a script ready by the time 'Down Terrace' hit the festivals," Wheatley said, sounding less confident than cautious and prepared. "So I sat down and I had a few ideas and one of the things I definitely wanted to do was a horror film."
When Wheatley finally got the call, he took a meeting with Warp Films, an offshoot of Warp Records that had helped finance Shane Meadows' terrific "Dead Man Shoes" as well as Richard Ayoade's "Submarine" and Paddy Considine's "Tyranosaur." (In other words: they don't shy away from the dark stuff.) "We basically presented them with these options – there's an expensive film, a middle film, and a cheap film. And 'Kill List' was the cheap film," Wheatley said. "It was the film I had written with the thought that if no one wanted to make movies with us this year, we could go out and make it in a similar way to 'Down Terrace.' " The film, which Wheatley says was one of the last movies co-financed by the British Film Council, was turned around at an alarmingly quick rate. "I remember having to put 'Draft 9' on the cover because I didn't want anyone to know that it had just been written," Wheatley said. "Then Amy Jump re-wrote it after I had shown it to Warp and we had a rehearsal period before we were going to shoot, and we rewrote the whole first twenty pages the weekend before we shot."
What happened in that extensive, last-minute re-write? Well Wheatley says it was partially a victim of the rehearsal process. "I rehearsed it in the house, on location, with all the actors, and I could basically see the whole first act as if it was a play," Wheatley explained. "And I thought it wasn't dynamic enough so we spiced it off with more confrontation and basically in the development process it never would have made it through because people don't like shouting. Any kind of argument between a couple is bad news."
Wheatley got around any discussion by, he says, with an impish laugh, "We shot it before anyone could stop us. But then the rushes came in and the financiers thought, 'What the fuuuuuuck?' " They knew what he was up to, though, and didn't put up a fuss, letting him continue without any intervention or reshoots.
Not that the film was a terribly easy thing to tackle. The movie has to weave a very delicate tonal balance, between horror and humor, everyday domesticity and cultish outlandishness, and it was something Wheatley was keenly aware of. Again: beware of spoilers. "It was pretty scary. It was harder in script stage, convincing people that it will work. You'd say, 'It'll work.' And they'd say, 'But naked people aren't scary. They're funny. They're going to be funny.' It was that kind of conversation," Wheatley said. "You either buy it, or you don't." He then made a pretty apt (but nonetheless unexpected reference): "It's like 'Arachnophobia' – you're either scared of spiders or you're not. If you're not afraid of spiders, 'Arachnophobia' is quite stupid," Wheatley said. "S0 if you're not afraid of the occult, it doesn't work. So you just kind of have to say, 'Different strokes for different folks.'"
Back to those naked people, though, which apparently were a real problem. "What's really hard is to get people to run, because it looks silly," Wheatley said later."We had a lot of footage of people running as they attack. Unless you're an athlete, most running is crap. Especially naked people running. It just looks awful. We have to be very delicate. It's a situation where you say – 'Oh that's comical, that's comical, oh no that's scary.' You chip away at it until you land at the bits that are the scariest." And trust us, he landed at some pretty scary bits, particularly in a sequence set in a subterranean tunnel.
Most critics, including us, compared the film to another British landmark – Robin Hardy's recently sequelized "The Wicker Man." But Wheatley says that wasn't really his inspiration. Instead, he recalled on his childhood emotions while watching pieces of these films – he wanted to make a film that, even if you saw it for ten minutes, would leave its mark. "The idea was more the memory of films, really," Wheatley said. "I remember seeing 'Race With The Devil' [editor's note: a marginal, but charmingly weird 1975 road race/revenge/occult movie starring Peter Fonda and Warren Oates] when I was a kid. And it really scared me. I don't think I even saw the whole film. I'd seen bits of 'Wicker Man' but I hadn't seen the whole film."
Wheatley sounds a little ruffled at the frequent comparisons. "This kind of 'Wicker Man' referencing comes up a lot but the main idea that was taken from 'Wicker Man' was this idea of the trap slowly sprung on a person," Wheatley says, matter-of-factly. "But you could say 'Parallax View' and 'Manchurian Candidate' is much more hitman-based." Back to "Wicker Man," though: "The way Summerisle [the character played by Christopher Lee in 'Wicker Man'] worked is not that similar to what we're doing here," Wheatley cautioned. "But I remember it being the kind of tone of it being really scary, of being in an environment where the whole community wants to kill you."
We also wondered what the challenges were in terms of trying to sell a film that you really shouldn't tell anyone about. With secrecy a premium for this film, it runs directly counter to the way most movies are sold – with most marketing based on a preexisting property that will leave an impression on would-be filmgoers' minds before they've even seen a minute of the film. Wheatley admits it wasn't easy. "It was really hard," Wheatley said. "I think the kind of sales agents had this idea not to show anybody anything about it before South By Southwest. So it worked really well. I thought it was pretty bold." Wheatley described the discussion, with a wink, as, "We said, 'Well what are you going to release?' And they said, 'Nothing!' And we went, 'Okay!' That's why you get the big bucks. But it worked the treat because everyone was rabid to see it." Wheatley said the response was similar when it was actually released in his native England. "I think it was an interesting thing to see how mainstream media dealt with it," Wheatley admits. "When the reviews came out in the U.K., they really didn't blow it. They didn't give the plot away. The reviews were based around 'I can't talk about this but it's great.' I know it was really hard for everyone."
But the caginess seems to have paid off, with the buzz surrounding the film almost deafening. And now everyone will get a chance to see it for themselves, when the film is released this week into theaters (it's already available On Demand and on iTunes).