Kill List is not an easy film. Brutal and uncompromising to the extreme, the thriller is made unique by director and co-screenwriter Ben Wheatley, who expects a lot out of his audiences—and they, in return, have made Kill List a VOD hit in advance of its theatrical roll. This story of an ex-soldier-turned-contract-killer begins as a family drama, melds into a crime thriller and then reveals itself for what it really is: a startlingly unusual horror film. Kill List's deliberately bizarre ending, inspired by occult horror films of the '70s, makes it memorable and mystifying—and that's just how Wheatley wants it.
I've spent many hours thinking about Kill List in the months since I first saw it, and what makes it so compelling is that total refusal to play nice with the audience's expectations. But I am that audience, and so I decided it was time to sit down with Wheatley to grill him about his influences, how growing up under the threat of terrorism influenced his filmmaking, and, most importantly, about people he calls "End Deniers"—meaning, well, me.
Let's begin with the most-talked about aspect of your film: the end. I'm sure you're not unaware of the the unilateral "WTF?!" reaction people have had to your ending.
We call them "end deniers."
I, too, wrestled with that.
Yeah, the reviews where people say the film was ruined by the last 15 minutes because it takes a really weird turn that no one can see coming.
Your intent with Kill List was to make a horror film with a crime film frame. Did you start with a film about two hitmen and it grew from there, or did you decide on the idea from the beginning?
That's a funny question. I've been trying to wrack my brains and figure out exactly how it did come together. It came from a few different places I think and one of them was a casting decision. I wanted to work with [Kill List lead] Neil Maskell on something, and I'd come up with this idea for a crime movie that turns into a horror film we were calling Getchie Carter, about a London criminal who gets a call from a friend of his who's backpacking and gets lost. He has to go and find him and runs into a kind of H.P. Lovecraft thing. We were quite please with ourselves over that, but it never came about.
Then I started thinking about a short film, and I wanted Neil and Myanna [Buring, who plays Maskell's wife] to be in it. We had this script called No, which is about a couple in this recession who've just lost their jobs and they turn to crime, kind of like Bonnie and Clyde. That also didn't happen, but I put the two of them together and saw they fit well. And then around this period we did Down Terrace in which I worked with Michael Smiley and I knew. "Yeah, I definitely want to do something with him again." So there you've got the principle performers, and we had to consider how they'd fit together in a story. I knew I wanted Michael and Neil to be friends, and I wanted a domestic drama along with their being hitmen. Now, when you say it's a crime film, it kind of is—but we took great pains to avoid conventional themes. There's no sort of mafia-like organization, they're not shadowy career criminals.
I got the impression they were former military, ex-SAS, that kind of thing.
Yeah, we were thinking how, say you're a soldier and you kill people but you're doing it for a reason-what you hope is a good reason. But you leave the military and perhaps you go work for a private company, like a Blackwater or something, and the morals become kind of hazy, but you're still kind of all right. You're still kind of like a soldier but you're paid significantly better, your boss is slightly different, not the government anymore. You're getting used to it, and it's only a tiny baby step away from becoming a contract murderer and you find yourself in a very dark place, but a place that feels very similar to where you started off. That is how we saw the crime element, rather than that these are people who enjoy this, like psychotics.
Kill List is divided up into three sections, and starts with a family drama at the beginning. You said about this having grew out of a story about a couple in the recession driven to crime—did you take a look at what you already had and cram it into Kill List?
No, what happened is kind of how we approached Down Terrace, which is that you look at genre and try to put it through a sort of socio-realist filter. You try to get as real a psychology out of these people as possible. You avoid the cliches of the genre, but you still get all the fun. And then we thought, if you make them believable enough, then when the unbelievable stuff happens it will have more weight. There's a version of Kill List that begins with a cult sacrifice in the woods and then we introduce our characters, but then while the audience knows exactly where they are, they have no idea who the people are. We've waved the violence in their faces, but they don't have any connection to it.
One of the interesting things about this movie is that you refuse to hold the audience's hand at all. Did you go with the ending you have because you didn't want to feel that you might have been leading the audience too much?
I think my general approach to filmmaking—and we did the same with Down Terrace—is that exposition really shouldn't figure too much into things. Exposition feels to me like you're saying, "Here are your thoughts"—you're broadcasting a point of view to the audience. And actually, I think that watching a film, you're having a conversation with it. And if your conversation doesn't match with what's being broadcast, you become disenchanted with the movie. But if you're busy having the conversation, and thinking thinking thinking about it, there's something much more interesting about that rather than being told what to think.
Sometimes you want to avoid things that are just fundamentally silly, and exposition risks that. We are, of course, fundamentally guilty of it in the movie. Moments where people have to look through photographs, look at videos, all this kind of stuff. You can only go so far relying on that, you've got to give the audience something. The script had many moments of exposition written into it for a number of reasons, one being so the actors know what's going on, two so that the financiers understand the way the film is going, and three just in case when we cut the film together it makes no sense.
That's been a complaint!
Purposefully. [Laughs] Now the film makes sense to me, and I made the movie for myself. So long as I know that underneath the hood of the movie there is logic, and it makes sense, I'm happy. People will come to that sense eventually, and I think the fun of it is piecing it together for yourself. For example, I don't walk out of Inland Empire shouting "What an idiot David Lynch is!" because he doesn't make sense. And think further, that the disingenuous thing about that comment is that people think it's going to be genre, and genre is somewhere where everything is explained. If you give additional context where it isn't needed people just shut off. And there won't be any going on about it, but something is lost.
You mention David Lynch, and I've read you mention Stanley Kubrick's The Shining as your example of a perfect horror film. What were your other influences while making Kill List?
What it was mainly is kind of the memory of movies, watching them as a kid more than the actual reality of watching them now. I'd seen a film called Race With The Devil. I don't know if you know the film but it's great. Warren Oates, Loretta Switt, they come across a devil cult and then they get chased by them. I remember it being terrifying as a kid, but I rewatched it as an adult and it's a bit hokey, a bit like a TV movie than a great horror film. The memory of how terrified I felt I wanted to harken back to. The same thing with Wicker Man—I wasn't literally influenced by that movie, but I was thinking about the feelings I got from it. Of course there are elements I use structurally, the whole idea of a trap for the main characters, cults. I think equally you can look at a film like The Parallax View, the paranoia throughout that movie, or films like The Firm. They're all about shifting tones from a focus on family life to violence. Another movie I watched quite a lot while putting Kill List together was Grey Gardens. Thinking about how Grey Gardens was shot, the way they depicted them so lain bare like that.
Thinking about that paranoia, Kill List begins to feel as though the events of the film are in Maskell's character's head, like he's losing his mind. Was that intentionally suggested?
It's a tricky one isn't it? The classic cop-out ending that it's all just a dream. We wanted to avoid that as much as possible. I'm not denying that this could be the case, of course, but I wanted it to be more direct. It's called Kill List, which is a f--king great straight-to-video title isn't it? A great VOD title. "Oh, let's watch Kill List!" You can imagine what the DVD cover would look like. So it works on that level, but I wanted different levels of meaning, subtext, how far is it going into Jay's mental state. What you were saying before about it being in three chunks, I see it like that, but I also see it as sort of symmetrical. You've got a fold in the middle, the hammer attack at the 45 minute mark, and you've got the two hunchbacks at the beginning and end. You've got him finding and killing and eating rabbits, you've got Neil and Michael rolling around on the floor. Of course, some of this is just stuff for Amy [co-writer Amy Jump] and I, and yet you see people watching this and pulling it apart and back together again. The level of intelligence in an audience is just so high. They've been seeing complicated cinema for decades, and if it's in there they will find it. Ultimately, what I want is something put together so that it is enjoyable on every level.
I was struck by how the main character's wife is aware of his profession and doesn't seem to have any issue with it. In fact, aside from the fact they kill people for a living it's treated almost as a kind of mundane thing.
The wife always knew. It was important that she didn't become this thing like in The Shining, the woman screaming in the corner, terrified by the men. The wife doesn't just know—she's part of it. In fact, it's like a business. They run a small business together: he does the killing and she's managing their finances. I also wanted to touch on the inevitable fact of our lives. You can't deny that we have all this stuff [pointing to the recorder] because our governments go to other countries, kill a lot of people and that blood is on our hands. These characters, the blood is literally on their hands. But they don't care about it, either—they're just happy for the income. And there's this idea of the war coming home, and for these characters the war has literally come home. You think about terrorism, the idea you could get blown up on the train coming home. These characters are, in a way, the extension of that.
It seems from our perspective here in the US, Britain has a much longer and more direct relationship with that kind of terrorism. We've obviously had some very terrible events here, but given our size, most people don't encounter that kind of thing. Do you feel like in Britain, terrorism is more intimately or immediately felt?
If you mean worried, no, I never did. Even as a kid—and I remember being 5 and 6 and hearing them blowing buildings up—I remember talking to my Grandfather about the Blitz. He told me you didn't worry too much about it at the time because you either weren't dead, or you were dead—it's just what it is. It was like that for me. When I was going to school, we'd be late because of a delay on the Tube due to a bomb alert all the time. I remember this one guy who killed himself with his own bomb because he messed up setting the timer. Michael Smiley [who plays Gal] could really talk about this, growing up in Belfast, it doesn't get any heavier than that. But I don't think that affected the characters directly. It's more depressing and perhaps relevant to reflect on the fact that we've been involved in wars now going on 10 years—endless, endless wars. I remembers as a kid in the '80s, you'd see these documentaries about the Vietnam war going on and on about how long the war was, how the American population would passively see that war on TV. We'd go, "How terrible, imagine that!" but that's just the reality now. For us, it's been like that since about 1993. Just constant war, we are that generation. Vietnam wasn't that long. We've been in Afghanistan longer than the Second World War.
Is this something you might explore in a future film?
Perhaps, but I feel like these are themes already present in all my films. Down Terrace was actually maybe even more about that idea-they kind of declare war on a neighborhood and start knocking people off left and right. I was reminded of Blair's quote after the invasion of Iraq when we didn't find any weapons of mass destruction and Blair said, "We went in believing they were there." That, in some way, is a kind of justification for any kind of mistake. It's real TV talk, like on chat shows where some one says, "I'm just trying to be myself,"—but if yourself happens to be diabolical, it's fine, apparently!