For many of us, much of the past year will have looked like the plot of a horror movie. So when in March 2020 British writer and director Ben Wheatley, 48, found himself with unexpected free time, it was clear what the genre of his next project would be. The result, the terrifying and black comic In the ground, went from concept to virtual premiere of Sundance in less than 12 months. It takes place in the midst of a pandemic that may seem familiar in some ways, but, on a two-day forest hike, a scientist (Joel Fry) and a park scout (Ellora Torchia) also have to deal with a malevolent spirit of the woods and a deranged Reece Shearsmith. Wheatley has an eclectic, never boring and often macabre background list that includes Visitors, Kill list, Free fire and Rebecca. He lives in Brighton with his creative and real partner, Amy Jump.
Travel back in time to March 2020 – is it true that you thought Covid could be the end of cinema? And precisely that you weren’t going to work anymore?
I didn’t think it was necessarily the end of cinema, but I thought I wasn’t going to work anymore. But I think a lot of people felt it. Everything became very neat, because all of a sudden there were only three different jobs left: working in a hospital, working in a laboratory and delivering food… There was really nothing else that. seemed to make sense. And, of course, the director is very far from basic national needs.
Are you saying directors aren’t key workers then?
I mean that, yeah. What scared me was that I could hear my voice getting very high-pitched, tight and high-pitched. But then I went to the office and started writing, basically. I thought, “I’ll write my way if I can. “
Before that first lockdown you were supposed to start filming Tomb Raider 2 with Alicia Vikander. Is there a period of mourning when a project you’ve been working on for a long time comes undone?
Well they say nothing is real until you are standing on the set with tea and a bacon roll in your hand. There are so many factors that can prevent things from happening. But I think that’s why in my movie catalog you see big or medium budget stuff, down to low budget, because I have a line in the sand. If I haven’t worked for a while, I’ll switch to filming mode with a more sustainable budget.
In the ground is a smaller production, with a lower budget, than some of your films. Is it difficult to go back?
No, that doesn’t stand a chance. To use a musical analogy, you wouldn’t ask these questions of someone who was in a rock band and only made an acoustic album. And there is a lot of fun in making low budget movies. There is speed for them, the way of working is much, much faster and freer in many ways. And having a lot of money to build stuff, and a lot of crew, doesn’t necessarily make life any easier. There is a level of complication that occurs with this, which becomes exponentially more difficult in a way.
One of the most gruesome scenes in In the ground – when certain toes are “forced” to be ax amputated – is strangely also very funny. Do you see a connection between moments of intense horror and comedy?
I believe from experience that this is the case. Even in the most difficult situations, there is humor in things. But this scene is precisely a time trap for the audience: they are trapped in this space and in this moment for too long. They don’t know what’s going to happen, but they know it’s going to be mean. And they know it’s just going to go on and on. And I think it gets funny then, because there has to be an element of liberation from misery. Otherwise, it’s unbearable.
The risk with a movie set in a pandemic is that people won’t want us to remember what we’ve been through. Have you personally researched escape entertainment in the past year?
The first thing we looked at was Terror, the shining thing of Antarctica. And that basically finished me off. I couldn’t watch anything after that. Those first two months, I didn’t feel like it was time for fun; it was like the time to cut your hair and have a mohawk and prepare a crossbow to chase oil out of old broken cars.
Your next movie is The mega 2, the sequel to the very popular and very profitable giant shark movie 2018 with Jason Statham. What do the public love so much about Statham?
It’s that he feels very genuine and real, and you need that person in a generation, don’t you? Michael Caine was that character for a long time who played himself in pretty much everything, but he appeared in shark movies and also gangster movies and all that different stuff. Statham is the same. And i think why the mega worked so well you feel like he’s trying hard to be tough, but he’s also vulnerable, that he can be hurt. This is something that a lot of cinema no longer has. The characters seem absolutely indestructible.