Interview: Ben Wheatley Discusses Spoilers, Killers, and the Theories of ‘Kill List’

By  · Published on February 9th, 2012

About a year ago, I saw Ben Wheatley’s Kill List at SXSW. I walked in to the theater unfamiliar with what the film was about and what exactly I was in for with my viewing experience. Wheatley’s dark, unpleasant, and funny hit man story was my favorite viewing experience of last year, and explaining why has been a real chore.

However, it isn’t a problem for Ben Wheatley, who was open to discussing the big spoiler topics, in particular the final minutes of the film. Much of my chat with the writer/director dealt with the ending, and the many theories it has spawned.

Here’s what Ben Wheatley had to say about seeking out interpretations, the wonky logic behind Minority Report, and tedious exposition in our [SPOILER] conversation:

Have you been hearing some interesting theories about the film?

You know, I’ve gotten to thinking about this a bit recently. I know I shouldn’t, but I look online at everything that’s written about it, which is the power of the Google alert, sadly. I think the theories that are popping up are mostly right. I haven’t seen one that made me think, “Oh God, they’re insane.” There’s a few details people quibble over, like who’s involved in the cult and whether Gal or Shel’s involved, and she’s not. The rest of the stuff seems pretty spot on, and I’m really happy about that. People are reading it [well], so it’s clear what we’re saying [with the film]. There’s not loads of people making up stuff. [Laughs]

[Laughs] I plan on doing that after this interview.

[Laughs] What you need is a piece of paper and write down one to six different words, and then just roll the dice and see where you go.

[Laughs] How about calling it an allegory for the Iraq war?

Yeah, that’s good, you can have that. [Laughs] That’s absolutely fine.

[Laughs] Good. You mentioned the theory about Shel being involved, but I don’t really see that, since she clearly loves him.

Yeah, I don’t think she’s involved. There’s a confusion over the laugh at the end, which makes people think she’s involved. I always read that as she’s going, “Oh God, you fucking idiot!” I saw someone Twittering the other day, “God, I can’t believe she couldn’t recognize her own husband without his clothes on!” [Laughs] Yeah, the last time I had my kid strapped on my back as a hunchback with a mask I couldn’t recognize my wife, either.

It happens.

[Laughs] It’s a common problem!

[Laughs] When it comes to Shel’s laugh, it’s like, how could she see something this insane happening?

Yeah, that’s exactly it ‐ it’s an ironic laugh. It’s caused a whole matter of trouble of, “Oh, she’s involved!” She’s really a poor ‘ol gal and is innocent in all this.

Even though you don’t think that’s a logical takeaway, you must enjoy that people are digging this deep into the movie.

I love that people are interested enough to think about it, and that’s the biggest compliment of all. They’re taking time trying to unravel it, and that’s great. You know, there’s many films you see that you can barely remember as you’re leaving the cinema.

Definitely. So far the tag for the film has been a “hitman horror movie,” but what about a “love story”? It’s a bit of a love triangle between Jay, his wife, and Gal.

[Laughs] Yeah, an awkward love triangle. On the commentary we had to sum it up, and we described it as the trials of a failing business and a nasty man who wins a hat [Laughs].

[Laughs] That’s perfect. With that love story, though, it paints these guys as very human, and not just as killers.

Yeah, totally. It’s the same approach we had with Down Terrace, where it’s pouring a load of social-realist stuff into genre. Like, who are these people and what do they do when they’re not doing their genre stuff? They’re real people who live, love, and have these lives. If they have all that stuff, you feel a lot more awful when things happen to them, rather than just going, “Oh, this is an interchangeable character with a thousand different hitmen. He can be any fucker. If he gets killed, you don’t care.” I think that’s what we were looking to do: make the audience identify with them as much as they could.

Obviously you see Jay commit horrible acts so was it a challenge finding an actor who could find that level of humanity?

The whole thing for this film was the parts were all written for the actors. You know, I was always going to use Neil Maskell. There was no casting involved with this film. I was always going to use Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring and Emma Fryer, and they were in the front of my mind when I wrote the parts. I always knew Neil could do that stuff. I knew he was very versatile.

How long ago did you start writing the script?

Around the Christmas of 2009. We had the green-light around March of 2010.

That’s pretty fast. Do you write fairly quick?

Yeah, yeah. There was a couple of drafts after that, but we moved very fast after Down Terrace.

Were there a lot of changes made along the way?

There was a bit more to it. The stuff that came out was for pacing, really. There was another layer. Like, [there was] a fixer character before the client. It was all just points. You want to strip it right down. The first cut of the film was two hours, so there was a load of scenes that came out, which were mostly Jay and Gal mooching about, going to hotels, and stuff. We pulled it right back to the barest essentials.

The film’s especially lean in exposition, which, if I recall right, there’s not a whole lot of in the film.

Yeah, there’s a couple of tiny little investigation scenes into the cult, which involves Jay drinking whiskey and looking at a couple of photographs [Laughs]. That was about as far as we got towards traditional exposition.

Do you find exposition tough to write?

I just find it dull, you know? I think the only good exposition I can think of is Kyle Reese describing terminators to Sarah in the car chase, which is a crazy idea but he delivers it insanely well while in the middle of a car chase. Beyond that, I find exposition pretty tedious.

You usually get the worst of it in sci-fi.

Yeah, it’s like, “Who cares?” [Laughs]

I think a great recent example is Minority Report. The first twenty minutes sets up everything during an action scene.

Yeah, you gotta be moving fast while explaining stuff, otherwise it doesn’t work. If they’re sitting across from each other, it just falls out of their mouths. What I wanna know about Minority Report is the ins-and-outs between the distance of the precogs and where you could commit the crime, and if you could step over the line [Laughs].

[Laughs] Do they say how far they can see? I remember it only being for DC.

No, they don’t [Laughs]. They go to the pond and show the murder, and it’s just on the edge of a lake. What does the line look like? Can you jump across? [Laughs] Who knew the future had an actual physical boundary? It’s crazy. What kind of shape is this precog distance? You can commit crimes in the desert, but you can’t commit crimes in a town!

[Laughs] In terms of explaining things, do you have an answer, for yourself, when it comes to the ending?

Yeah, for sure. We know exactly what it’s about, and all the evidence is definitely there for it. It’s not even that the answers aren’t there, the only thing missing is someone doing a summing up. I was going to say there’s no Scooby-Doo scene, but they all take their masks off at the end! [Laughs] There’s no summary of, “As you can see, the cult had been planning this all along.” You know, I don’t think anyone would thank me for that.

The way I see it is that the character’s so violent, that violence will always overrun his life.

Yeah, totally. He was totally open to all this shit. He wants to be alone, and he gets what he wants. In the end, he gets rid of everybody he loves. He’s just left there seething with anger with a bunch of maniacs. It’s kind of a “be careful what you wish for” [story].

Kill List is now in limited release and available on VOD.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.