Ben Wheatley on In The Earth first published (in a slightly different format) by Sight & Sound, Summer Edition 2021
Seeded from small beginnings, the filmmaking career of Ben Wheatley has grown steadily. He has gone from making viral online comedy clips and animated shorts in the early Noughties to ever larger rôles contributing to television’s Modern Toss, Time Trumpet, Comedy Shuffle, Ideal and The Wrong Door. His nanobudget feature debut Down Terrace (2009) was followed by the microbudget titles Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012) and A Field in England (2013) – all idiosyncratic genre films occupying different margins of Englishness, and offsetting their darkly comic streaks with the odd flash of ultraviolence. Their success led to greater industry recognition and ever bigger budgets, from the Ballardian adaptation High-Rise (2015) to the America-set shoot-em-up Free Fire (2016) to the glossy du Maurier/Hitchcock reimagining Rebecca (2020), made for Netflix. Since then his name has been attached, with intriguing improbability, to big studio properties like Tomb Raider 2 and Meg 2: The Trench – yet far from never looking back, Wheatley keeps returning to his low-budget roots. First there was his intimate family reunion drama Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018), and now, after the disruptions of Coronavirus ended his involvement with the Tomb Raider sequel, he both conceived and made his latest, the forest-set freakout In The Earth, under lockdown conditions. It premièred earlier this year, aptly given the Covid conditions of its production, at all-online Sundance screenings – although eventually Wheatley would like people to see it in a cinema with other viewers. “Including me,” he tells S&S, again aptly distanced over Zoom rather than in person. “I haven’t seen it in a cinema. That’s weird.”
In The Earth was born of pandemic, and is set in one. “I started writing it in the second week of the lockdown, so I was trying to process what I was feeling about what was going on, to a degree,” Wheatley says. “There’s a kind of line in the sand, like a pre- and post-Covid, that’s a little bit like the Second World War to filmmaking, and if you’re making stuff that doesn’t reference it, it feels really odd. Which ties back to Colin Burstead, as well. That was a similar sized production, with similar thinking as well: what are my feelings about what’s happening with the Brexit situation and the family of Britain. I wanted to make something where you make it fast and get it out fast so that it actually fit inside the discourse of the moment.” Shooting with masks and other health-and-safety provisions proved more inconvenience than impediment to the filmmaking process. “The PPE side of it was a little but of a pain, but it wasn’t enough of a pain to slow down production,” Wheatley explains. “The main problem was that I didn’t know basically what the crew looked like. A lot of people I’d worked with for weeks, and I only knew them by their eyes. Shooting it outdoors was a creative decision obviously, but it’s also a pragmatic one, because the transmission rate is zero outside effectively, so it was the safest environment we could shoot in. And that made our life a lot easier. I know a lot of productions trying to shoot during that period were indoors, and that is just a nightmare, because you have to have antiseptic foggers which are just putting antiseptic stuff into the air all the time, and you need legions of people washing everything down all the time.”
In The Earth concerns diffident scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) who, in the middle of a deadly global virus, has felt drawn to rejoin his former colleague Dr Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires) in her field research into the brain-like ‘mycorrhizal mat’ of an isolated and unusually fertile forest. On the long hike to Olivia’s isolated camp, Martin and his guide – the park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) – are attacked and robbed, and when pagan squatter Zach (Reece Shearsmith) offers to help them out, it becomes clear that they have wandered into an entrapping ecosystem whose human residents are no less toxic than the flora all around. The film’s opening (and recurring) image is of a standing stone with a circular window in its centre that reveals the trees beyond. Like the mystic menhirs of Stonehenge, or the obelisk in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), this enigmatic orthostat is a construct of unknown purpose through which a similarly impenetrable natural world is framed. Both Zach and Olivia are also, in their different ways, trying to frame the mysteries of nature – the former with religious myths, the latter with science and technology – and in their attempts to conjure the ineffable, the tools that they are using (a camera, costumes, lights, a musical score) are also, notably, the tools of filmmaking itself. Yet as their multiple, clashing explanatory matrices fail fully to satisfy, In The Earth proves, like that stone, to be an object with a big hole (and a gaping void of meaning) at its centre, demanding to be filled with whatever viewers may bring to it.
In criticising Zach’s unhinged occult beliefs, Olivia speaks of “the psychological problem with humans to make stories out of everything” and “to make meaning where there isn’t any”, even as she fails to diagnose precisely the same problem in herself and her own increasingly unorthodox research. In The Earth is about the stories, often deluded or even dangerous, that we tell ourselves when faced with the incomprehensible. Wheatley explains what inspired this theme: “It had come out of drowning in all the Trump stuff, watching American politics the whole time and British politics, and thinking about the erosion of fact, and this kind of weird weaponising of narrative that was happening, and that started to make me think about the folk stuff I’d done. Does it contribute to the problem of what people believe and don’t believe? or is it just taken as entertainment? or is it something that becomes part of the conversation? And then you’re responsible for that. That was the overall thinking behind the movie: that various people were using the narrative to try and push a reality, but in the end they’re trying to make a story around a thing that’s beyond their comprehension. The reality of the thing that is in the woods makes its own decision. And it decides on someone who isn’t a narrative maker, someone who is practical and is more likely to understand what it wants.”
In other words, In The Earth is a reflexive exercise in storytelling and mythopoeia that constantly questions the very narratives from which it is constructed. By his ‘folk stuff’, Wheatley means Kill List and A Field In England, although he is careful to point out that Kill List predates the television mini-series A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss (2010) which helped popularise the genre term ‘folk horror‘. “Even with A Field In England,” he says, “we weren’t aware that it was a thing – we were just carrying on, following our own interests.” What keeps drawing Wheatley to the genre’s tropes is “a kind of historical context of Britain, of thinking: what is here? and what was here before? and is modern life in a total bubble of itself? or are we connected backwards to the things that happened here before? Where I live in Brighton now, I can go walk out of my house and be on a Stone Age hill fort in two or three minutes. It’s that kind of stuff I find really fascinating. The place is ancient, but we’re also at the bleeding edge of the history at the same time.” Nonetheless, despite featuring tales of an ancient woodland deity called Parnag Fegg and a medieval necromancer-cum-alchemist said to have turned to stone, In The Earth itself is not straightforwardly folk horror, but “a conversation with the genre, the made-up-ness of it, in the way that Zach has totally made up all this stuff. Parnag Fegg is not real, none of it is real. So he’s projecting it, he’s created a story that fits the information he has.”
Surprisingly, Wheatley did not have to fight hard to keep the more elusive or esoteric elements in this ambiguous film. “Neon who financed this one were just totally behind it,” he said. “But when you look through the people who work at Neon, you’ll find people who distributed Down Terrace, people who distributed A Field In England, and did the marketing for A Field In England, and people I’ve known basically since the beginning of working – and I think that’s why they’re fine, I mean, they know what it is. These were the guys that invited journalists to take magic mushrooms and then review A Field In England. It’s a rarefied group. The fact is that the lower the budget, the more control you have, and there’s a lot of pleasure to be had out of low budget filmmaking. You can make a much wilder movie at a low budget than you can necessarily with a massive budget. I remember having a conversation with the financiers on A Field In England at the time, and people going, ‘You know, we can make this more commercial.’ I’m like, ‘Well, 1) you can’t; and 2) it’s only 300 grand, so it’s already commercial, because it’s already broken even and it’s a third of the cost of an hour of television. So there you go, that’s commercial.'” Wheatley adds: “The bedrock movies that built genre weren’t that expensive, they weren’t big productions and they were done quick,” citing John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968) and the B pictures of Roger Corman.
That said, Wheatley is delighted to be working on studio films. “It’s not like a defeat to make something that’s bigger budget, it’s more that I love Hollywood movies, but I also love Cassavetes movies. I don’t see a contradiction in jumping around and doing all these things.” He certainly leapt at the chance to do a sequel to the giant shark movie (and Jason Statham vehicle) The Meg: “I wanted to do something that was really really massive, and massive action, and to get out on that big canvas. So that was the beginning of it really, where you go from making something like In The Earth, which is designed to upset from moment to moment, and then you flip it all upside down again, and you go, ‘Right, what’s the opposite of that? It’s entertainment, [it’s] something that’s brighter and poppier.’ So that’s why I was excited about it.” Meanwhile, the heady sylvan psychedelia of In The Earth will leave its viewers lost in the best of ways, unable to see the wood for the trees.
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Here are some brief snippets from the interview, originally intended for a sidebar:
Were the Covid conditions of production a help or hindrance to In The Earth?
Ben Wheatley: Without Covid we couldn’t have made the film because I would have been making Tomb Raider. So there’s that, fundamentally.
In The Earth is clearly set in the immediate future, but like many of your films, it has the feel of the 1970s. What keeps you revisiting this period?
BW: I remember someone saying, What are you most afraid of? and I think my answer was, The Seventies. The horror of the Seventies, it’s not Witchfinder General or Wicker Man or any of those things, it’s the public information films about not drowning in shallow lakes, and not playing frisbee by pylons. They’re the things that terrified me as a kid. And then the general vibe of, like, murder and terror and all the things that were going on here. And a lot of films that I love that affected me are from the Seventies. I think as prep for this I had watched quite a bit of [Lucio] Fulci.
It’s your first horror film in a while…
BW: I was excited about making a horror film again, and being able to work with prosthetics and all that kind of stuff. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it. The movie itself is ike Hansel and Gretel, but it’s also like a journey through horror in a way: you go to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and then you’re in kind of a body horror thing, and then you end up in Quatermass, and then into 2001, so you’re kind of moving, they’re journeying through all those moments. And some of it I planned, and some of it, when I was making it, I just went, “Ah, ok,, we’re here. I didn’t realise I’d written this in, but this is what this is.”