We’ve all been spending the last year doing whatever we can to get through the mental, physical, and emotional toll the pandemic has been taking on us. Some people learned how to bake all kinds of fancy bread, while others took up jigsaw puzzles. For Ben Wheatley, his way of helping to get through it all was to make one of the best movies of his career.
Premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival (see our review here), In the Earth tells the story of a scientist (Joel Fry) and a park ranger (Ellora Torchia) who head out into a mysterious part of the woods to try and locate another scientist (Hayley Squires) who has fallen out of contact. Out in the wilderness they meet Zach (Reece Shearsmith), and Wheatley forces his characters to not only confront the dangers of other people out there in the scary world, but also the dangers of the world itself.
Having written and shot the film over 15 days during lockdown, it’s no surprise that In the Earth taps into a lot of our collective anxieties that have been weighing us down this last year as we deal with the fear of the outside world and who is inhabiting that space beyond the safety of our front door. Opening up his mind for the world to see, Wheatley also dives into kaleidoscopic, sensory overloading filmmaking techniques that make this one of his strangest, most captivating, works to date.
I spoke with the filmmaker about how the film worked as a sort of therapy for him, exploring how it feels like a return to some of his earlier films that he co-wrote with Amy Jump while also creating its own new, very specific identity. Wheatley was a down to earth conversationalist who clearly puts a lot of thought into the work that he creates. It will be exciting to see how that manifests in his next project, Meg 2: The Trench, which I had to make sure to ask him a little bit about at the end of our discussion.
Read on for my interview with filmmaker Ben Wheatley:
Mitchell Beaupre: In the Earth feels like a return to your earlier films like Kill List and A Field in England. What was your motivation to head back into the woods, so to speak?
Ben Wheatley: I think this film is in conversation with those movies, and a lot of it comes from me still trying to work through those ideas and understand them. I always think of Kill List and Sightseers as kind of the same film, which was totally unintentional, but even Rebecca is Sightseers again because it’s about a guy who turns out to be a murderer and they’re going on a holiday. It’s all the same stuff, but I never set out to do that. This one was a bit more specific because I was thinking about Amy’s script for A Field in England and coming to terms with that a bit. To a degree though, I’m really thinking about the last 11 years of making feature films and thinking about what those films were, what I like about horror, and how that fits with my current thinking of the world. I remember going to do a talk in Chicago where I was showing Kill List after I hadn’t seen that film in a few years, and I found it very difficult to watch because it made me wonder about who I was when I made it and how angry and furious I was for some reason. I think In the Earth is trying to digest all of this kind of work that I’ve been doing.
MB: The movie was shot in 15 days, which is impressive because it doesn’t feel rushed or incomplete at all.
BW: The 15 day thing is interesting because I think it’s only in recent years that films have become 3 hours long and cost $200 million, or even a film like this would normally cost $40 million these days. We were really inspired by Halloween, and seeing the schedule that Carpenter had for that film. That one was shot in around 20, but movies all used to be like that. My first film Down Terrace was shot in 8 days, Field in England was shot in 12, I think Colin Burstead was 11. Looking at the schedule for Halloween, and its budget which in adjusted dollars was the exact same as our budget here, I feel like that really is the right amount of money and the right amount of time for a film that lives in this space.
MB: Something that’s exciting about a film like this is getting to see the texture of it, getting to see the creativity of an intelligent filmmaker who doesn’t have a $200 million budget to lean on. How do those kinds of limitations help to drive your decision making and creative process?
BW: All of the films I’ve made have been a case of writing the script so that it matches the budget. That way you’re not in a situation where your vision is enormous but your budget is tiny, and then you’re trying to fit these two things together and there’s all sorts of frustration and people shouting at each other. We always back into the budget so that we’re writing pragmatically for what we know we’ve got. In that way, working on a $1 million film is the same as working on a $40 million film because you’re never over-stretching yourself. I’ve really enjoyed bouncing back and forth between those different experiences, because mainly I think that directing is like a muscle where if you’re not doing it a lot then you start to atrophy. As a director you’re literally the only member of a crew who doesn’t work regularly, so then I’ll step onto a set and I can’t even remember who I was the last time I made a film because it was two whole years ago. That’s why I like making the gaps between productions as small as possible.
MB: Is that part of what inspired you to make In the Earth happen? I know you were announced for Tomb Raider 2 before the pandemic hit and then that didn’t work out. Did you just feel like you needed to be working on something?
BW: I wrote the script as a form of therapy, almost. I needed to feel useful, but I was also trying to process what was happening in the world and with myself. This is actually one of three or four scripts that I had written around that period, but with this one I had a half of a thought in the back of my mind that if the pandemic kept going on too long we might actually be able to get this one made. All of those bigger films were never going to be able to go into production as the pandemic pushed on into over a year, so this was kind of the perfect thing to do instead. We set it outdoors so it could be shot safely, and we had a small group of characters to focus on. It actually goes back to Halloween again, as that movie is very similar when you think about the emptiness of the houses, the emptiness of the streets. They go to the school in that film and there’s only about four people there. They could have easily shot Halloween during lockdown.
MB: There has been this really eerie feeling this past year of going out into the world to the grocery store or somewhere and there’s no one else around for miles.
BW: Exactly, I remember I went to central London to finish off Rebecca, and it was like 28 Days Later out there. You’ve never seen anything like it, you look down these streets and there’d be no one anywhere both ways. It was literally deserted.
MB: This movie taps into a lot of the paranoia that has been festering over the past year – our fear of the outside world, and of other people. Now that people are being vaccinated and things are starting to shift back a little in the other direction, does it give you a bit of anxiety having to interact with the outside world again?
BW: It’s a weird thing because my actual year experience of lockdown hasn’t been that different from what it would have been normally. I’ve always worked from home, I’ve never had an office, so when I talk to friends who have these big production offices and they’re freaking out about having to work from home I would just tell them that I’ve been doing that for years and it’s going to be fine. It’s honestly better, and much cheaper too. You struggle to articulate anything good that’s come out of this past year out of respect for all of the bad that’s come out of it, but I did find the space to think, which I wouldn’t have had, and that was very useful to me. I quite like the slower pace. It also helps with stuff like this a lot, because right now I’d be in America doing press, and they’d have me in a hotel somewhere and you’d still be chatting with me over Zoom. Or I’d be getting called up to some 20-minute meeting in London which takes me four hours to get there from Brighton where I live. I’ll never do that again now.
MB: You being announced as the director of Tomb Raider 2 was quite the surprise to people, and even though that didn’t work out your next film now is going to be Meg 2. Have you always wanted to make a blockbuster at some point in your career or did the opportunity just show up unexpectedly and you wanted to hop on board?
BW: A bit of both, really. I’ve got that instinct of wanting to make different kinds of genre movies at different styles and sizes, so I feel like I’ve been moving in that direction a bit. Pardon the pun, but doing the blockbuster is the big fish, isn’t it? I like the idea of getting a hold of that big studio movie and being able to talk to that big audience in that way. I’ve never had a linear sort of career though, where you can trace the line and see the budgets go up and up that would be leading to this eventually. I’ll always do lower budget stuff because it’s more nimble and easier to get financed, and you can just go and do it. I’ve been really enjoying the experience on Meg, though. I’m loving diving into the scale of it, and the technical side with the storyboarding of it all has been fascinating. Also getting to work with Statham is a massive plus.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]