Though he would probably scoff at the designation, Ben Wheatley has quietly become one of Britain’s most important filmmakers. That’s because this child of the video nasty era learned early on in this career how to expertly navigate a national filmmaking landscape that usually traps individuals like him in the “heritage film” industrial complex. Wheatley has a unique gift for lacing macabre scenarios with jolts of black comedy, and his rough-and-ready approach is evident in everything from his 2011 horror breakthrough Kill List to his 2017 actioner Free Fire, which he designed inside of Minecraft.
Wheatley’s latest, In the Earth, is set during a global pandemic and kicks into motion with a young doctor (Joel Fry) traveling to a remote woodland facility where a colleague (Hayley Squires) has been conducting experiments into the area’s unusually fertile earth. Bursting with spontaneous energy and tense right out of the gate, the film turns into a surreal, maximalist fright-fest after the main characters encounter a man in the woods (Reece Shearsmith) with a fixation on Parnag Fegg, a fabled forest spirit, and are left to fight for their survival. Where a return to nature has seemed for many of us like a retreat to safety throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, here it’s a cruel reminder that the Earth is all too ready to pounce on us.
On the eve of the film’s release, I had a chance to speak with Wheatley about conceiving and shooting In the Earth in the midst of the pandemic, his belief in why stories come from within us, and why every film should tackle Covid in the foreseeable future.
Early on in the film, there’s a moment when a staff member at a briefing facility refers to the forest as a hostile environment. Is In the Earth, then, a political film?
It’s political with various sizes of P. All of my films are. Even just talking about what’s happening to us is politics. The writing of the script was trying to pass the experience of what’s happened during the pandemic. But it was impossible to say how it was going to pan out, or what was going on. It’s almost too big to understand. But the need was to make something contemporary and of the moment more than anything.
So the script was conceived and written during lockdown?
Totally. The release in America will be the same time as the first draft of the script. I started in the second week of lockdown, in the middle of March.
How did it get into production from there?
[Producer] Andy Starke and I had talked about it. Often the films start when we have a tiny bit of money and we say, “We’ll make it.” Then we got talking to Neon—[executive producer and Neon CEO] Tom Quinn picked up Down Terrace at Fantastic Fest back [when he was at Magnolia]—and a lot of the marketing and acquisitions people we’ve known for years. They poked around and realized we were up to something, and said they could finance it to a small degree. It happened like that, and it couldn’t have happened any other way because if we needed to go to financiers and pitching and hustling, well, everything was closed. Nobody was thinking about making stuff at that point. No one was crazy enough.
Did you see this film as an opportunity to sneak in politics or violence that might not have made the cut in a less frantic time?
It needs a level of grit. Once you’re in the indie horror space you have to ask how we’ll stand out from a hundred other zombie films, vampire films, or whatever the flavor of that time is. It has to punch through, which we knew from A Field in England and Kill List.
So you’re actually making it more violent?
The budget allows it to be as violent as it needs to be. I don’t think of these things cynically and I enjoy things that are graphic so it doesn’t bother me. I’ve always been of the mind that—and I’ve gone to the BBFC [British Board of Film Classification] and done the courses there in terms of where the certifications lie. I know what certifications you can get for what kind of things you show on screen, and I’ve always thought that way so I wouldn’t get in the problem of being censored. Or being worried that I wouldn’t hit a certificate. That’s stupid. You should know what you’ve done, where it will lie and what the audience is for it. This is for a horror audience, as well as the broader audience that might go as well.
Why did you decide to use so many signifiers of the pandemic?
Ultimately, it’s not about the pandemic. It’s just a film that’s happening in one, which is happening to everybody globally. I would have thought the worry is making a movie that doesn’t reference it! I mean, why the hell are you not referencing it? What happened? Are you living in a branching reality where cinema is now in a world where the pandemic never happened? Which you would be forgiven for thinking if you watched any blockbusters this summer. Who are these people that never experienced the pandemic? Never spent a year indoors, and are now in crowds with haircuts from 2019?
That did create an interesting paradox in the film though, where the virus was so specific, and much of the mythology is quite vague.
It’s the idea of us being confronted with something that we can’t comprehend. We make stories up. I’ve been thinking about narrative as the one thing that separates us from animals. The narrative idea of ourselves—that we will take a load of stuff and experiences and turn it into a story. You’re the hero of your own story, and everyone around you is against it or supporting you. This is the story in your head. When you talk to other people about what’s happening in your life, or why you’re cross, you’re telling them a packaging of all that nonsense. All these things may be completely random elements that you’ve gathered in. But you just don’t get that off a dog. It doesn’t think that way—nor does the Earth, which is a great strength for people, but also a great weakness. That Parnag Fegg stuff is all nonsense, it’s all made up. It meant something to people 200 years ago and the Zack character just keeps on going with it. But there’s a kernel of truth about it somewhere in that story, and as they get closer to the center of the forest they start to understand what that is.
And so, with a quick 15-day shoot—
That depends on your definition of “quick.” One of the inspirations for the movie was finding the original production schedule for John Carpenter’s Halloween online. That’s two days more than us. The bedrock of genre is to make it fast and lean. Look at Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, that’s nine days, and that was the norm. It’s only recently that the genre film has become supersized, costing 200 million and taking two years to edit. This stuff used to be agile and sharp. So, this shoot wasn’t quick, it’s the normal speed of production.
It sounds like the pandemic conditions didn’t have a large effect on the production?
There were cosmetic things: masks, sanitizing, whatnot. But it didn’t make any difference to the pace of filmmaking in the end. It was slightly uncomfortable, but it wasn’t a big deal, and because it was all shot outdoors, a lot of the Covid safety stuff was already dealt with.
I assume that’s why you set it outside in the first place.
That was sheer pragmaticism. We knew we could make a film, but not indoors, which would have cost a lot more money, because you have to keep sanitizing every surface. But when you’re out in the woods there’s actually less chance of you catching it full stop.
The film is full of primal tensions between science and religion, above and below earth, man and woman. How do you navigate the story so that each theme comes through without unbalancing the others?
It’s a case of balancing the script. You keep looking at it, reading it, and finding where the main points are. If you can step back, you see it as an equation of where different elements come in. I wrote it in a different way than normal. On Rebecca, we cut stuff in 19-minute reels rather than acts, so I also wrote this script in reels. It made a difference because now there’s a story within 12 or so minutes that rises and falls. It has a different set of rhythms than other scripts I’ve written. I felt that helped keep the management of all these things straight.
And are you sticking very close to the script then?
There’s bits of improvisation in there. I like to see the human-ness of people. But thematics and dramatics don’t work with improvisation unless you’re workshopping over a long period and “Mike Leighing” about. Then you have control. But what you want in this situation are real reactions, like when they set the tent up. You can’t write that, you need to see it. But everybody involved has a great skill in improvisation so I let them show off a bit.
In the Earth flirts between your two major styles: handheld realism and hallucinatory horror. How do you approach these on set to know you’re striking the right tone?
Tonal stuff is a management of keeping on watching. Sometimes you’ll feel that it’s gone one way or another and you know where you lose the audience. I saw when we did Kill List what extreme violence does to an audience. Seeing it in cinemas, you’d feel the room go cold. They don’t recover, and their heartbeat is like a physiological assault on people when you watch stuff in the cinema. Using that when we worked on Sightseers, you’d see the opposite: Comedy would be like a flame you had to keep alive that would gutter out. If it went, it wasn’t coming back, even though the stuff was funny. You keep reminding the audience what they’re watching. Leading them a little, because if they go too far down one root…the whole of cinema is a conversation between the audience and the screen. What you want is their conversation to match what you’re showing them, because as soon as they divert, then they start talking at the screen, and they’re angry, and out of the film. It’s trying to simulate that as you edit.
How, then, did you sequence the images in the hallucinatory scenes, and stop the viewer from being completely lost?
It’s done as loops. Each set of images that flash is a little story linked together in a type of logic. They’re very condensed bits of storytelling that you experience. When you swap the order of them you get slightly different things each time. And you get different rhythms of all of them happening on top of each other and whatnot. Within that, there’s flash frames, single frames that you don’t even see on first viewing or depending on the rhythm of your eye bleach you’ll see different things every time you see the film. It was trying to create a world where you get a slight insight into how the creatures communicate, and how alien it is, how hard it is, to understand what the creatures are saying and why the humans are having such trouble with it and they are creating stories to explain away why it speaks that way.
Your next film is The Meg 2. What lessons will you take from this stripped-down production onto that presumably very large one?
In the world of performance, it doesn’t matter if it’s a million-dollar movie or an iPhone film shot with your mates. The one thing that doesn’t really change is how you deal with actors and get performances and takes. Everyone’s different until they get on the floor. It doesn’t matter your reputation, everyone’s equal.
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