The memory of the first Ben Wheatley movie I saw sticks with me with the prickly clarity of a childhood trauma. It was just after midnight, during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Kill List, a film screening in the festival's Midnight Madness genre program, was being hyped up by some pretty reliable cineaste types, though they were obnoxiously unforthcoming about the details. What was the movie even about? Some kind of kill list?
From the opening image of a witchy sigil being carved into the screen, through its scenes on pitchy domestic unrest, its sinister hitman plot and its jaw-dropping climax paying homage to the hallmarks of British folk horror (think: The Wicker Man, The Blood on Satan's Claw, Penda's Fen), Kill List was riveting. After a long, sensory-numbing day of movie-watching – tough work, I know – it was like having someone take a Microplane® to my eyeballs. Kill List wasn't only a great horror movie – scary, cerebral, utterly indescribable. It also marked its makers, British director Ben Wheatley and his co-writer/producer/wife, Amy Jump, as major talents.
Wheatley and Jump have become almost annual fixtures at TIFF since 2011. The festival screened the sadistic horror-comedy Sightseers (2012), their psychedelic English Civil War experiment A Field in England (2013) and premiered the J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise (starring Marvel Studios heartthrob Tom Hiddleston) at last year's festival. (Wheatley also directed a segment in the horror anthology The ABCs of Death, which screened at TIFF in 2012, for anyone keeping score.)
The latest Wheatley/Jump joint is the Martin Scorsese-produced Free Fire, a comically violent shootout flick that splits the difference between Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Sam Raimi's Crimewave. It opens this year's Midnight Madness program, so The Globe and Mail got hold of Wheatley in London to talk about his new film, and how TIFF has helped nurture his career.
What was the reaction when you screened Kill List in 2011?
I remember it very vividly. Everyone was very quiet! [Laughs] They seemed to be palpably upset. That was quite interesting! Half of the people seemed to enjoy it, the other half seemed quietly appalled.
Do you think maybe it was a bit more of a slow burn, a bit more cerebral, than what that audience might be used to?
Different strokes for different folks, right? I think there's room for all kinds of genre films. It's not a film that was going to get the audience award, let's put it that way.
After Kill List you returned with Sightseers, which was a bit lighter. What was the reaction there, to seeing you change gears?
I went through a period where I was making quite different films, one after the other. We were a bit worried that we'd lose the fan base from one film as we'd go on to the next one. Now, it seems people are quite happy with the films being very different from each other. I find myself in a position where people are constantly saying, "This is the best one yet!" or "This is the worst one yet!"
In 2013, A Field in England screened in TIFF's more experimental section, Wavelengths. Do you think you won over any converts in the hard art-house set?
I don't know! It played well, though. We had a very nice crowd for the Q&A. That's not a spectacularly easy film. You have to sort of relax into its rhythms. But yeah, I enjoyed that. I didn't have to stay up until midnight.
With High-Rise, I think many people thought it would be your commercial breakout –
Me too! [Laughs]
Well, maybe you turned some kids into anti-capitalists, who went in to see Tom Hiddleston and got High-Rise. But it was certainly uncompromising, if nothing else.
We wanted to do the book. If you're adapting the book, why change it too much? We tried to stay as true to it as possible. We sort of thought it would be more of a straight, commercial film, too. But it ended up being another weird one. The book pushed into certain shapes, and that was sort of interesting.
How does Free Fire fit into the Wheatley/Jump canon? It feels, for lack of a better word, like your most "fun" movie.
Yeah, it is quite fun! I love that kind of cinema. That's kind of how I work. I look around to see if I can find the films I want to see, and if I can't, then I make them. I watched Assault on Precinct 13 quite a lot and thought, "I want to see a film like this," but I wasn't seeing it anywhere.
It also feels experimental: an exercise in claustrophobia and tension.
I wanted to reduce action down to its component parts. A lot of movies have got out of control, with effects where you can blow the world up or crash a massive spaceship into the sun or whatever. You watch that and it just kind of washes over you. The movies I like are quite small. Like, I was rewatching Robocop the other day. And the ending of Robocop is four guys, a van, a robot and a woman in a scrapyard. That's all that happens.
Isn't that what Jean-Luc Godard said? "All you need to make a movie is a woman and a robot and a scrapyard."
I think you've added in the robot. [Laughs] But yeah! Basically. I try to think about why those things work. I think it has to do with human scale, and making action understandable – even if it's something you might have experienced a small amount of. If you keep those stories small enough, then it's really engaging. It's sort of like how Warner Bros. cartoons work.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Free Fire plays TIFF Sept. 8, 11:59 p.m., and Sept. 9, 11:30 a.m., at Ryerson (tiff.net/tiff).