Ben Wheatley on ‘In the Earth’ and why he used the pandemic to write movies he wanted to watch
Written and Directed by Ben Wheatley, In the ground is a throwback to the filmmaker’s low budget and stimulating creative roots.
The horror, born of the global pandemic, unfolds during the search for a cure for a devastating virus. It follows a scientist and a park scout who find themselves stuck in a nightmarish reality after venturing into a forest that harbors a darkness that seems to come to life around them.
I caught up with Wheatley to discuss the evolution of indie, what he has in common with John Carpenter Halloween, and the advantages and disadvantages of In the ground premiered at a Sundance digital festival.
Simon Thompson: In the ground is a homecoming, low budget filmmaking. Does a smaller budget keep your cinematic skills up to date?
Ben Wheatley: I’ve always thought filmmaking was a muscle. You have to keep working. It hurts not to do stuff, and so when I have the time that’s why I do a lot of TV too, if I get the chance. In the ground is definitely a conversation with some of my other movies, definitely with Kill list and A field in England. There are also influences from British horror. On a plane, it is Hansel and Gretel, and then it goes in the genre of the 70s Doctor Who and Quatermass and all of those things. It was interesting when I did because I felt like I had things that I knew I was referring to and other things that I didn’t realize before shooting. Like, Hayley Squires ‘accent in there, I was like,’ Oh, my gosh, this is straight out of a Hammer movie. Fantastic.’ So there were little surprises in there, even for me.
Thompson: In the ground sounds original, but i got a feel for several of the influences.
Wheatley: I don’t think I’ve ever been there with a checklist. It’s more about having a feeling of these things and a dialogue between me and my memories. It can be things that scared me when I was a media kid, but also things from reality that scared me. These things are intertwined. I have great memories of watching the era of Tom Baker Doctor Who episodes, which were terrifying, but then come out of my house in the woods and be actively terrified. It’s that sort of thing. These scars are right there, and they never really go away.
Thompson: You say In the ground is part of a conversation between your movies. Is this your version of a cinematic universe?
Wheatley: It would be squeezing the straws a bit to create a cinematic universe purely out of terrified people. I don’t see them as interconnected, but they kind of look more like a back and forth. Kill list and LEDs are effectively the same movie but made twice from slightly different perspectives, and In the ground maybe i’m trying to understand A field in England a bit more. It is this conversation between the two films that takes place. There are things that are the same, but there is also a discussion that continues, or divides, above all.
Thompson: Was In the ground an idea you had for a while or something new?
Wheatley: It was brand new. It started in part locked out, as I tried to pull myself together, figure out what was going on, and also try to look busy. Also, I found out that I didn’t want to watch any movies at that time. I didn’t want to watch anyone else’s stuff, so I ended up writing and writing three or four scripts so I could see those movies. I literally wrote down what I wanted to watch. I wanted to see this movie. With this one, I spoke to our producer, Andy Starke, as we started to prepare the idea that we should actually shoot it. There was a time when it looked like the pandemic, the first wave, would drop, and then there would be a time when everyone was jostling and production would start again. Of those, there is a chance to make a movie because everyone would be available.
Thompson: Because it was another low budget movie for you, was it also a quick movie to shoot?
Wheatley: From script to availability of the finished film, it took about a year. I was still writing it until we shot it, and the shoot took 15 days, which was pretty long for us. My first film, Downstairs terrace, was eight days and A field in England was 11 days, and Happy New Year, Colin Burstead was 12. 15 days, which is what you would expect from a ’70s genre film. We found times for the original. Halloween, and they were about the same time and the same budget.
Thompson: Did you have funding in place or did you just go and do it?
Wheatley: I’ve always had this kind of kamikaze thing where if we have the money we’re going to use it. We had a tiny bit of money, so we were going to win anything, but then we talked to the Neon guys. We’ve known them for ten years so they were there from the start with us and picked up Downstairs terrace at Fantastic Fest. A lot of the guys there had also worked on A field in England, so there was an instant adjustment. I don’t think there is another way we could have done it. It wouldn’t have worked if there had been a traditional development cycle or if we had written it and then went to various studios. You needed people who knew exactly who we were, who knew us personally and trusted us. They could have lost the whole budget right away. We had liability insurance, but there is no insurance that would cover the budget in the event of a drop. It was an incredible leap of faith.
Thompson: The pandemic has kept people at home, and many of us have experienced more of what we are seeing. Horror is one of the genres that seems to have seen a rise.
Wheatley: Horror itself has always been quite adventurous, and as a genre and a fan of people it is very broad. I think that’s a very fertile ground, and that’s why people often go to horror in this space. Whether or not people understand the horror when they do it is another matter, or if they even like it to begin with. I think you have to love it, and you have to love all genres to be successful in horror otherwise it stands out a mile away. In my experience, when browsing Prime Video and Netflix, there are all kinds of crazy things in there. Prime is full of Giallo at the moment, for some reason. There are tons of them. I watched a bunch of horror stuff that I hadn’t seen in the donkey years, since I was a teenager. It’s a good time for the curious, that’s for sure.
Thompson: In the ground debuted at Sundance earlier this year, which was held digitally for the first time. How was it for you?
Wheatley: It was frustrating because In the ground is the first movie I had as a movie premiere that I didn’t go to. I didn’t sit down with an audience to hear their reaction. It’s a film that needs to be seen in theaters and with an audience. However, on the other hand, no COVID, no movie, so you can’t really complain. The fact that he showed at Sundance was amazing. This whole thing where people could access these movies all over America was pretty amazing. Suddenly, the screens went from 300 to 2000. Each screen represented 2000 people.
Thompson: How would you like to see this format continue alongside an in-person event in the future?
Wheatley: Digital festival screenings are more, in a way, the filmmakers helping festivals, because if you are showing your film to multiple screenings of 2000 people it can be a problem, certainly on a slightly more niche film. . You might end up blowing up your movie where it’s seen by everyone who really wants to see it before it’s proper release. Kill list went to 60 festivals, but there were only 200 seat screenings each. He builds and builds in the back of things like that. If you start showing your movie to 100,000 people across America on virtual screens, you might find that it’s the whole audience and you won’t make any money.
Thompson: Finally, you mentioned Kill list earlier. It is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. Do you have any plans to mark the occasion?
Wheatley: I blew the 10th anniversary of Downstairs terrace. These films which reach this stage follow one another. Next year is the tenth anniversary of LEDs. We’re supposed to put something in place for this, but we haven’t done it yet because we’re all a bit slow. Maybe we’ll just hold on for the 20th anniversary or something.
In the ground lands in theaters on Friday, April 16, 2021.