Kill List interview: director Ben Wheatley, plus stars Neil Maskell and MyAnna Buring

With the terrifying Kill List out this week in UK cinemas, we caught up with director Ben Wheatley and stars to discuss the making of the film...

After receiving its UK premiere at FrightFest last weekend, the terrific, terrifying Kill List is released on Friday. In anticipation, we spoke with director Ben Wheatley, and stars Neil Maskell and MyAnna Buring, about low-budget filmmaking, improvising on set, and how best to describe this twisty, twisted film.

Kill List is a really interesting cross-genre film. It starts off in a similar mould to [Wheatley’s previous film] Down Terrace, with the domestic setting, but then you pull the rug a couple of times on the audience. What was the starting point for the film? Did you set out to make a horror movie?

Ben Wheatley: There’s a lot of different starting points, I think. There’s one which is that we definitely were going to make a horror film after making a crime film. We didn’t want to make another crime film. Lots of people have been saying, “Oh, it starts like a crime film”, and the first few times I heard it, I was like, “Aw, shit, I guess!” But I never think of them as criminals, they’re more like blue-collar soldiers. There’s no geezer with gold chains who gives them the cash to go and do their stuff.

Then there was this thing. We’d written a thing called Get Jakarta, which was for Neil to do. There was a possibility of doing this thing in the Philippines, so we were going to go out there and shoot it. This was quite early on, I think. I think this was still while we were doing [UK comedy series] Wrong Door, even. It was bubbling along.

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It was basically like Get Carter, which becomes like a HP Lovecraft thing. So he goes out to find his mate, but then his hand gets cut, and he gets infected and he starts hallucinating. But nothing ever came of that, but that basic thing was kicking about. And then there was a casting idea.

Obviously, I worked with these guys on Wrong Door, and Michael Smiley was in Wrong Door as well. And after working with him in Down Terrace, I really wanted to work with him again. So it started to become this idea of getting Michael and Neil together, and then what would they get up to.

And then we were trying to do a short, which was with MyAnna and Neil, and that didn’t come off, but we had a meeting, and got them together. So we had different bits of casting kicking about, and then it all started to coalesce into this movie.

And all the script was written specifically for these people, so there was no casting in the traditional sense, we just shot a five minute, six minute chunk of Kill List, and we showed the financiers that. And we went, “This is who it’s going to be”, and they went, “…okay!”

Financing is an interesting point, because this is a very cheap film. In fact, you could make about 300 Kill Lists for the price of one Captain America.

BW: Not cheap, economic!

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The funding is split up between a number of companies – Warp X, the UK Film Council, Film4 – is that easier to work with, or is that just the way it worked out?

BW: Usually what happens is that there are structures in place, so that companies will come together and say, “I’ll do this bit, I’ll put this bit of money in”, and there’s a scheme. So we were part of Warp X, which was meant to be Optimum, regional funding from Screen Yorkshire and Film4. That deal was already in place, so we came along. We didn’t have to go and find someone, and say, “Can we have 200 grand, can we have 200 grand”, they’re there waiting for the process to kick in.

Is that a hard part of the process, making sure the money’s there?

BW: It wasn’t for this film, but I’m sure it is. I think if you have to go out and raise the money, it might be. That’s why films fall apart all the time, or low budget stuff does. It was straightforward enough almost to the point of possibly ruining me from doing other stuff, because it was so quick!

Down Terrace finished in May, we’d written Kill List by Christmas, then we were green-lit in March, and we were shooting the following September. So it was really quick. And I think I squeezed another series of Ideal in between, and did a load of ads as well.

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MyAnna Buring: But don’t you think your way of working, Ben, actually aids that process, it makes it easier for schemes like that to fund your project, and help you along?

BW: I don’t know. What happened after Down Terrace, was that we’d written three or four scripts at different budget levels, with Kill List being the cheapest one. Actually, Kill List was meant to be like Down Terrace, so we could do it ourselves if we had to. If no one was going to fund anything else, we could have done that film anyway.

I don’t know if it would have had the… the tunnel stuff would have been very hard for us to do, and the extras, but the rest of it is the same kind of production level as Down Terrace. A third of it is set in one house. So that’s how we thought of it. But now we’ve started to get those other scripts funded as well.

Your career trajectory is very interesting. You’ve done the YouTube thing, the commercial work, television work and low-budget filmmaking. And that seems to be what people are currently touting as a way into the industry. Do you have any advice for people starting out now?

BW: Yeah, I think you have to just make work. You have to do it. And I think this whole route of trying to get funding for stuff, and not doing anything until you’ve got the funding, and thinking that you have to make short films that cost £30,000, and all this stuff. It’s bullshit. You’ve got to just make stuff. And cameras are all dirt cheap now, sound gear’s dirt cheap. That’s how I did it, basically, I had a website and I made stuff and I put it on it. Every day, I made more stuff and I made more stuff, and you’ve got to be kamikaze about it, and not think about everybody else. Just make more and more stuff, and get better at it.

And even though my career in retrospect looks like a plan, it wasn’t necessarily. It’s just to go, try and find out how everything works. So I’ve been an editor, and I’ve done effects supervising, and obviously directing and writing, and now I’m heavily involved in the producing of the stuff, and how distributing works. You just have to know the lot, because if you don’t, and you’ve got blind spots, then you just fall into massive holes, where things go wrong and you don’t know why, and it’s out of your control.

You need to have an understanding of the whole system, so you don’t waste any energy getting angry about stuff that you’ve got no control over, or ceding power to people when you could be in charge of it. As an editor, I know what to shoot, so I don’t overshoot, and I know when a scene’s done. For instance, with the death scene, which I had no end of aggravation about from actors, because it was done in one take. I knew that on the spot. We saw it and it looked great. I think the editing side of it really colours how you direct.

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So it seems that the project had an interesting start. MyAnna, Neil, how did all that come about from your points of view?

MB: Like Ben touched upon, I first got a call from Ben about this short film, and to come and meet Neil. So we met up for a coffee, and he told me about the idea, which I thought was fab, and I was definitely on board. And that fell apart, I think because of timing, so we couldn’t do that. So I thought that was it, and that maybe if we could do it again, we’d come back to it.

And then I got a call from Ben, just saying would I like to do a reading for this new project, Kill List. And it took me a little white to realise that it had been written with me in mind, as well, which was brilliant. That’s amazing. As soon as somebody says that… I don’t like to think of myself as ego-ridden, but I kind of went, “Woo-hoo!”

It was kind of out of the blue, all of sudden I was working with Ben again, which was great. I loved working with him on Wrong Door. And then I was in a room with Neil and Michael Smiley and Emma Fryer, who are just fantastic actors. And like Ben says, it was very fast.

Often these ideas are talked about, and maybe two, three years later they happen. But this was literally one thing after another. We did a reading, then we had to do the teaser for Film4, and then very soon after that we got a call saying it had been agreed, and then September we were there shooting. It’s like those things, when you say, if something happens easily, then it’s right. That’s definitely how this felt.

NM: Yeah, Ben and I did an Internet viral for a beer company. And then we spoke about Get Jakarta in a jacuzzi in a five-star hotel in Bucharest.

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BW: With a stuntman who specialises in children! He told us with a straight face, “I do children, mainly.”

NM: Yeah, a five-foot two stuntman whose girlfriend was six-five.

BW: Oh God, I’d forgotten about that!

NM: So we spoke about Get Jakarta then, and I was surprised. I’d worked with Ben for two or three days on Wrong Door, which was a good laugh. Then we did a day on this Internet viral thing, so I was surprised that he was saying, ”I’d be interested in you playing a lead role in this film”. I’ve been in the game quite a long time, since I was quite small. And I’ve heard enough bollocks to sink a thousand ships. So I was like, “Okay, that would be great”.

BW: “Good luck with that!”

NM: “…with your Philippines, Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia slapstick romp!” Then as MyAnna said, very quickly we were onto this short, and making the teaser thing in a house in North London somewhere, we were on set shooting it. So it was something of a surprise how quickly things moved.

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When watching both this film and Down Terrace, it’s sometimes hard to judge which parts of the dialogue were improvised, and which were written – all of it just seems so natural and believable. Was there a lot of improvising in the shoot?

BW: One take would be on the script, and the next take would be a paraphrased version of the script. That’s one technique that we had. And then you’d go back to the scripted version. So you get improvised stuff, and you get one of them looking in each other’s eyes, in a way that they don’t know what they’re saying next, but we kind of do. So you get that realistic feel to it. But, you don’t get that thing of going wildly off and being unusable, or being uncuttable, which is a big problem with improvisation usually, technically.

Then we would just run on on scenes, and just let them go on a bit. Sometimes you just let them talk, and they’d get on with it, where it’d be purely improvised but around themes. And that was it, really. There was a lot more improvisation that we shot that we couldn’t use, though it was really funny, but it just didn’t fit thematically, or it was just too funny that it bent the film out of shape. It slightly punctured the film too much.

The comedy side of it is really important to me, that they are characters that have senses of humour rather than there’s gags. Because films are just too po-faced half the time. Like Tree Of Life, everybody was like [exaggerated, awe-inspired gasp], and I was like, what, do these people, in forty years of their lives, never laugh once? There’s a bit of laughter, but it’s not enough. And I think people are generally pretty funny, so you want there to be funny people. So, it was on and off improvisation, but pretty controlled.

MB: That’s what’s great about working with Ben. It’s true, if you’re playing a character and it’s a rounded character, then as a human being, you can very quickly be affected, and become upset. You can very quickly find things funny, and start to laugh. You can very quickly become subdued. We switch between emotions, up and down, all the time, depending on what’s around us. And that’s what you get, working with Ben, which also, as an actor, keeps you on your toes. You’re not, as a person, just playing one constant emotion, you’re playing a reality.

It also means that you get to very seriously consider what’s being thrown at you from other actors. So if they say something, it might not necessarily come across on the page as you read it. Neil delivers things in a way that just make me laugh naturally, but there were also things that, in character, Jay would say, as opposed to just being annoyed, Shel would react to with a smile.

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It makes it feel very natural, and that aspect can make some of the little, realistic character touches very funny.

BW: The thing that makes me laugh a lot, is the scene where they’re shouting to each other in the garden. She’s going “Jaaaaay!” I just love that, because a lot of us spend half our time shouting up and down the house like that. And you never see that in films. People never interact like that. It’s just trying to find those human bits, because once you get invested in the characters, and you love them, then you get upset when bad things happen to them.

Whereas if they’re just very stock-y, TV-style ciphers, then you just don’t give a fuck. Those characters are interchangeable, from Taggart to Morse to fucking Midsomer Murders. They’re all the same people, having the same lives, and they’re written lives. Scripted. It feels really scripted, because it’s very trope-y.

So when you’re writing a film like this, how do you find that sense of naturalism?

BW: It’s written in. The gear changes and the emotion are written into the script, so they get angry and happy. Down Terrace is very much like that, where they’re screaming, then they’re not screaming, then they’re cuddling. And sometimes when you do the script, you structure it, you say “So, it’s going to be shouting, loving, pathos”, like that. They’re the big beats of the script, that’ll colour the whole of that scene.

I’ve got to go off and write the review now, and I’ve got to write about it without giving the game away. You all must have had to talk about the film with so many people, friends, journalists, etc, without spoiling it. So what’s the best way of talking about it?

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BW: My intro usually at screenings is, “Good luck!”

NM: If you just write, “The greatest film ever made: five stars”, that wouldn’t have given anything away!

Ben, Neil and MyAnna, thank you very much.

Kill List is released on Friday, 2nd September. You can read our review here.

You can follow Michael on Twitter here, or read his blog here.

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