Well-versed in British comedy TV, writer-director Ben Wheatley explodes into cinemas nationwide with Kill List, one of the films of the year so far.
We discuss violence, hitmen and improv, and delve into the dark details of one of the most surprising British films for a very long time...
LOVEFiLM: Kill List is a hard film to talk about without spoiling it. Do you think people are going to be surprised?
Ben Wheatley: It's a really odd film to go into – expecting you're going to see something really extreme, like Hostel or something, and then you have to sit through 20 minutes of dinner party where nothing happens! I think that might make people really angry. But I think Blair Witch was the same. You relax into it and it creeps up on you.
LF: It's a mystery as much as a horror or a hitman film. How did you put the story together?
BW: I had the idea that the violence would ripple out and warp the whole film. That's why there are the time jumps: it's like the film's slightly broken. Once you know the filmmaker's prepared to anything, everything becomes much more scary.
LF: How much of the film is improvised?
BW: Amy Jump is my wife and we wrote it, but it's also got additional dialogue by cast. It's something I've lifted from Armando Iannucci-style stuff. I know that on The Thick Of It, they would do scripted versions and non-scripted versions. It's not straight improvisation, it's more paraphrasing.
LF: Is that why it's so natural and funny?
BW: It makes it more real for them because it's a live situation. The dinner party scene, where he takes too much food, was just stuff they did. Neil had taken this big lump of meat and was saying, 'This is really f**king hard to cut.' And we were like, 'What the..?! Oh, actually, that's really funny!' It's terrific – and you get the best performances.
LF: Which scene scares you the most?
BW: I like the stuff in the woods. It was really scary to shoot! There's hardly any light and it's all in real time. We had music there on the day, lots of drumming, so that was all really, really moody.
LF: And so much screaming...
BW: It's not what you want, is it?! That, in itself, is the basis of horror: it just affects you – there's nothing you can do about it. That's why the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still really mind-blowing today. That's the whole soundtrack: screaming and screaming and screaming. It's trying to find those things that you can avoid, that you just react to.
LF: Do you think people are going to be shocked by the hammer scene?
BW: The hammer scene buys you about 15 minutes of adrenaline from the audience, where they're like, 'Oh God...!' and they don't know what's going to happen next. Reece Shearsmith from The League Of Gentlemen went to see it and said he was really shocked. I saw him afterwards and I was like, 'But you're Papa Lazarou – what the f**k?!'
LF: Did you want the violence to really carry an impact?
BW: It shouldn't be shied away from. Hitmen are like Robin Hood in cinema. You sit through something like Pulp Fiction or In Bruges and they're like heroes. But they're people who get paid to murder people. They don't really have anything good about them. In this, because they're hitmen, you don't mind seeing priest get shot in the head. It doesn't even register, does it? But then the hammer scene happens and this is them in the raw. Now how do you feel about it?
LF: It's pretty graphic. How did you shoot it?
BW: We had a rubber hammer. So Neil Maskell was whacking him with it! And Mark Kempner, who played the librarian, had a safety word which was: 'Enough!' It was like eight or nine times he hits him. Bang, bang, bang. Full pelt. And he broke the hammer!
LF: What's next for you?
BW: I'm directing a comedy called Sightseers, which is basically like Honeymoon Killers with a caravan. Then I'm going to do this weird time-travel comedy with Nick Frost, which is a bit more ambitious. And we've written a sci-fi thing set in America for 2012. It's like Hill Street Blues, but they go out at night and shoot monsters. It's a meeting of Verhoeven-y violence and Kill List-y performance. Really looking forward to that...