For our very first guest conversation, I’m really chuffed, and incredibly humbled, to introduce award winning director and screenwriter, Ben Wheatley, into the Liminal Worlds. Ben is one of the most original, and exciting, filmmakers of the past decade, best known for Kill List (2011), A Field In England (2013), and his 2015 adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise, amongst many others.
Last year saw Wheatley’s much anticipated production of Daphne du Maurier’s, Rebecca, premiere on Netflix, and which later garnered both Bafta, and British Film Designers Guild Awards nominations. Now Ben is back with In The Earth, a film which sees science and folklore interweave to create a truly terrifying story.
In this interview we talk about the importance of place, connection, and imagination, amongst many other things. So, sit back, make yourselves comfortable, and let’s take a trip with Ben Wheatley…
LL: Thank you for coming to chat, especially with the new film coming out shortly. It must be extra manic for you at the minute?
BW: It’s not too bad, we’ve been doing bits of press here and there, but I think these things end up being maybe two, or three days’ worth of press so that’s not too bad.
LL: I like the fact that we’ve had the teaser trailer (for In The Earth) that came out a few months ago, which really whetted the appetite. Then the longer trailer, which looks amazing, landing last week. Your aesthetics are something that I’m really interested in, especially in relation to liminality, as well as your interactions with folklore, which are especially prevalent in A Field In England (2013), and your latest film, In The Earth.
So, I’m guessing that a good place to kind of start is at the beginning? You were born in Essex, and I know that you didn’t live there for all of your early life. It has a really rich folkloric history, especially in relation to the 17th century; Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, and the English Civil War, which, for people who don’t know, was the basis for A Field In England. So, I’m going to hit you with a bit of a double whammy to start with. Did being born in Essex initiate an interest in folklore? Do you have any specific views on the supernatural, and if so, have these changed through your interactions and engagements with the eerie through your film making?
BW: When I was a kid we lived by the woods, and I think just the actual physical presence of the woods made a difference to me, and fed into a lot of stuff, and a lot of the things in Kill List are from nightmares that I had as a child, about that very specific place where I was living, Billericay.
We were told a lot about our own history in terms of the founding fathers in America and stuff like that which I kind of took for granted. I thought that I understood what that was about. I thought I knew what my own background was, but then I kind of went back and rediscovered it, and that’s been a kind of weird journey. I think the movies themselves have all been that kind of investigation into the slightly disturbing thoughts of the kind where you think you know where you are, and you think you have a kind of a solid relationship with the society that you are in, through the history that you’ve been taught, but then you don’t really know anything. It’s not really teaching, it’s kind of like a shape of teaching that you’ve had, but then it’s kind of up to you, as it should be as a citizen, to look into stuff and work out what’s actually happened to you, and what the context of you yourself is.
I’ve been asked a bit about the folklore/folk horror stuff recently, obviously in relation to the new film. When we made Kill List there wasn’t really such a term as folk horror really. That is something that developed through the Mark Gatiss documentary on horror movies (Mark Gatiss: Horror Europa, UK release date, October 2012). We had already made Kill List (2011), and Sightseers (UK release date November 2012) as well by that point. Both of those movies were kind of a way of coming to terms with the Britishness of things. We’re trying to work out what, and who, we are in terms of being islanders, as much as anything. What our relationship is to our own history, which is particularly complicated, and bloody, in terms of the basic makeup of the country being very diverse. From the Beaker people onwards, it was always all up for grabs. So, that’s kind of how I started with it.
I wasn’t thinking of obvious things like The Wicker Man, and Blood On Satan’s Claw, not that I’d seen that at that point to be honest. They are part of the make-up of folk horror, but my film making isn’t necessarily just about film making. I live in Brighton, and there’s an Iron Age hillfort within a five-minute walk from me. Standing stones, hill forts and all sorts of stuff, are all within throwing distance in the UK and in Europe. That culture is not based on cinema it’s based on experiences. So, the idea of being close to an idea of magic or folkloric tradition, it’s inside you anyway. It’s not something you’ve learnt from cinema necessarily.
LL: I go back to places that have played significant roles in my life since childhood. I tend go back maybe every five or 10 years because each time I go I’m going to see the site differently. I’m going to engage with it in a different way because of the accumulation of life experiences etc. So, have you been back to those woods from your childhood, and if so, do you go back frequently, or was In The Earth written primarily through engaging with your childhood recollections?
BW: I think it’s a place of imagination. I don’t think it’s a place that you can go back to because your point of view is much higher because you’re taller, and that makes a massive difference. It’s not as big, not as incredible. It’s suddenly much smaller, and tireder. I think it’s something about when you live somewhere and you just get the space ground into you psychically because you walk around it so much, and it becomes a thing almost in your head which then becomes the arena where your dreams happen. It’s a slightly different, alternate place, to the one that exists.
I had a lot of dreams about a farmhouse that was located near us. I have no reason to fear it. I don’t know why, but I just had very vivid dreams about it for years. I’ve never been in it. Have never even been through the gate, but it just somehow terrified me. I went past it some 5-6 years ago, and now, it’s just a house, t’s nothing special. I think folk horror in general, feels like quite a mish mash of films that are glued together.
LL: I must admit that when I saw both the teaser, and longer length trailers for In The Earth, and saw the standing stone with the circular aperture, I just saw The Owl Service straight away.
BW: Yeah, it’s definitely The Owl Service, straight from it. In a way the first three or so films, did have elements of folk stuff in there, but they were kind of automatical. This one is more specific because it is a reaction to those other movies really, and what’s happened since. I was thinking about a responsibility, almost, for having put the images and ideas into culture which were thoroughly unresearched and made up, specifically in Kill List. In that movie, we made a point of not creating the ‘horror’ around an existing religion, or paganism, or any of those things, because we didn’t want to step all over someone else’s beliefs for horror. A Field in England is different because there’s a lot of fact in there, in terms of how people did interact with Scrying mirrors and necromancy. I started to think, “well what do I actually think about it all?” and then when you see it (In The Earth), you’ll see what it is. It’s kind of a mixture of, and a mirror to, A Field In England. In The Earth deals with folk, but it also deals with science, deals with British science fiction, and British horror.
LL: It also feels like there’s a distinct nod to John Wyndham too. When the character, Martin Lowery, a scientist (played by Joel Fry), is asked why he’s there, and he tells, both the other character, and the audience, that he’s researching agrarian genetics, how to make crop farming more efficient, the alarm bells immediately start ringing. We all know that playing around with nature is never going to end well.
BW: Yeah, there are those kinds of things, and Doctor Who, and Quatermass, to a degree, but then there’s other stuff thrown in too. The idea of the characters trying to make sense of it all. There’s the faction that tries to make sense out of what the woodland is doing, and that’s the folk element, but the other group are looking towards science to find answers. Then you get a mixture of those two positions.
LL: Indeed. We can see nods to things that have come before, both in folkloric, and science fiction film, literature, and television, but, for me personally, your work is always completely unique. When you see that Ben Wheatley is directing a movie, or is attached to a project, you know it’s going to be unique, which is great.
BW: That’s cool, thank you. One of the things about horror is that it’s generic. It has elements in it that you can predict, and that’s what you want. “Is it going to scare me?” but it’s also got to be “something I know, and like, because I like this kind of stuff”. These two positions which are kind of uncomfortable with each other. There’s so many kinds of pedantic rules within horror, but then also, it’s supposed to be transgressive and aggressively weird as well. It’s a contradiction a lot of the time.
LL: I guess that audiences can be very exacting too?
BW: Yes, which is good. Without fans there’s no scene and there’s no audience. If there’s no guaranteed audience, there’s no films. There is, kind of the grottier end of fandom, which can be a bit obsessive and aggressive, but then you only take it as seriously as you take it.
LL: I was wondering if we could briefly return to science and magic and stuff? People talk about the mushroom scene in A Field In England and I noticed in the introduction to the In The Earth trailer that we’re asked to “take a trip with Ben Wheatley”. This got me thinking about ideas relating to technology, science, and that which runs deeper, is older. We see the ingestion of mushrooms in A Field In England opening up gateways, so to speak. Initiating change which can be euphoric, or terrifying. Then in the new film we’ve got signs of science, of the ‘rational’, trying to harness this power, and also curtail it. Lowery, representing science, the rational, a person who believes he can control and manipulate nature going into the forest with Zack (played by Reece Shearsmith), a person who appears to have a very different, far more reverential, and, thus ultimately, more powerful, relationship with the land. When Zack speaks about communing with the forest; “They tell me his story. These are his memories. Can you feel him now, in the earth? This made me think deeply about animism and The Hum. I just wondered how this juxtaposition resonates with you?
BW: I think that my thinking on it is in two places at the same time. One place is that I don’t believe in anything, and I think the way that In The Earth works is that it pushes an idea of humans having created a narrative around things, to try and explain things away. That’s the kind of cynical approach; “that there’s no magic, there’s no nothing, it’s just people”, but then at the same time feeling that there is magic, and there’s a fight, there’s a fight in the films too, certainly In A Field in England. It’s like, is it just the mushrooms doing this to them, or is there another level beyond? I’ve always loved the stuff that Alan Moore says that spells come from spelling, and words are magic in themselves. In the purest form it’s just marks on a bit of parchment but then it can conjure something into your head, and it can make people do things, and that’s basically magic.
Now magic in the world of literature is a much more gussied up version of that. Spells that make light appear and all this nonsense, but essentially these two things are the same. The word written on the page is even stronger than the world of the Harry Potter magic. We’ve seen wars being fought over these words, and they’re just shapes, so how’s that possible? And that side of it I think about quite a lot, the idea of narrative itself being like a weapon or being a technology, but also the thing that makes us different from every other creature is that we would make these stories up. That we could move people’s hearts and minds with a story.
LL: And that’s the thing isn’t it, storytelling has been with us since forever, since Genus Homo came into being really. And the fact that people will come together to hear a story, sit around the fire, in the dark, letting the imagination take us away to these places, like you said, can be incredibly powerful, create visions, so to speak.
BW: But also, the story, that of your own story. That you’re the hero of your own story and you create stories around yourself, your own mythos, even on stupid tiny things. Being depressed, having an ego collapse, is because your story is collapsed, and you don’t understand why the story that you’ve set is not being adhered to by other people. and their stories, and that seems to me to be a lot of what goes on. That’s what In The Earth kind of deals with a little bit, and that’s Zack’s story, and the strength of Zack’s story, but is there something underneath it?
A lot of this folk stuff that it comes from, there is something there but maybe we’ve interpreted it wrong. Also, the feeling I got, and this was what I was saying before, is that a lot of these things are made up and they may not even have been made up that long ago sometimes.
LL: Definitely! Adam Stout wrote his PhD on the druidic orders and I didn’t know this at the time, but the sacred rites that we see being performed at Stonehenge and similar places, were created in the late 18th and 19th centuries. At present, there is still no evidence for any form of written language in the British Isles during the Later Prehistoric, when the Druids are believed to have lived. And the only contemporary evidence that we currently have is somewhat sketchy, as it was written by the Romans
BW: Yeah. You can feel these people. You feel the shape of them, but you don’t know what was happening, and I certainly get that when I go up the hillfort. I can see this, what this would have been like, and how, you know, just the weather, and the position, looking down and knowing where I am.
LL: Ben. I just want to, once again, say thank you so much for taking time out to have a chat with me today, I’m really grateful. I can’t wait to watch In The Earth, and I wish you all the luck in the universe, but you’re not going to need, as you’re going to absolutely smash it!
BW: Cheers Bec
In The Earth has its USA premiere on 16th April 2021, and will be released in the UK, and throughout the rest of the world, from June. If you would like to access the unabridged copy of my conversation with Ben, please consider joining the Liminal Worlds Patreon group. There are 3 different tiers, ranging from £5-£10 per month, which will unlock a number of benefits that are only available to Patreon supporters.
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