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In the Earth 5

Ben Wheatley on the perils of shooting a psychedelic pandemic horror

In the Earth was shot over 15 days in August 2020 – here, the director discusses the bewildering return to filming post-lockdown, and why he thinks the world may need a break from zombie movies

In March 2020, Ben Wheatley started writing what he feared could be his final film. “I was feeling panicky that first month,” the 48-year-old director tells me over Zoom, 15 months later, from Sheffield, the latest stop in his Q&A tour for In the Earth. “In the news, they started saying it could be a year. I was like, ‘A year? What?’ Then when you get a Tory government suddenly instituting what is effectively a universal income and paying everyone not to be at work, it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s unheard of. This is really insane and super-serious. The film industry is the least of anybody’s worries. That’s a thing that’s never going to get fixed’.”

Still, Wheatley powered through with several screenplays, one of which was the gnarly, psychedelic horror that is In the Earth – in August 2020, he shot it in 15 days with a skeleton crew. While the microbudget feature does recall some of Wheatley’s early genre fare like Kill List and A Field in England, the virus-related storyline means that it’s upsettingly topical and brand new territory for the idiosyncratic director. More specifically, that territory is a spooky forest in the west of England, where an agricultural scientist, Mark (Joel Fry), casually mentions, “I know that Bristol took a bad hit after the third wave.”

Furthermore, In the Earth is the only film of the past year to grapple with the outright weirdness of stepping outdoors when there’s a deadly virus floating in the air. Otherwise, pandemic movies have mostly been Zoom-shot horror (unwatchable after a day of Zoom meetings) or feel-good comedies in denial like Locked Down (unwatchable in terms of quality). In fact, the emotionally drained facial expressions throughout In the Earth may not even be acting – who around that time didn’t look like they were in the middle of a Ben Wheatley horror movie?

“None of us had been out,” Wheatley explains. “We were genuinely surprised to see other people at that point. It was a pleasure but also bewildering. Crew members said they hadn’t worked for five months and were going to be knackered. And also, it was the psychological weight of going, ‘We’re trying to make a film – is that something we should be doing? Should you put people at risk to do it?’ But we had such a heavy amount of PPE and preparation for it, and it was all outdoors. It was as safe as it could be. We tested every other day and had no infections.”

So was he following the Dominic Cummings scandal in May 2020 and rethinking his plans? “No. I think it was more that we were the first production back. There was Mission: Impossible and Jurassic shooting at the same time, but they had started before the pandemic. And we were the first thing that wasn’t with a massive budget. We were dealing with protocols that no one else had dealt with at that point. It was setting the scene for what other productions would be like. If we made a mess of it, it could affect everybody’s work going forward.”

While COVID-19 isn’t named specifically (perhaps it’s predicting a COVID-20), In the Earth buries itself deep into a pandemic-stricken society. Before Mark enters a building, he’s sprayed down at a disinfection point by a figure in a hazmat suit; when Mark then comments that he’s not used to being outside, he’s also speaking for the viewer. Less relatable is Mark’s two-day expedition with a field guide, Alma (Ellora Torchia), to track down his ex-girlfriend, Dr Wendle (Hayley Squires) – she apparently, with the magic of mycorrhiza, has developed a more efficient method of growing much-needed crops. Along the way, Mark and Alma learn of the mythical monster Parnag Fegg and then, thanks to an axe-wielding weirdo, lose a few toes. The duo endure such hardship on their journey, In the Earth doubles as a PSA to remain indoors – or at least skip the camping trip until 2022.

However, In the Earth doesn’t contain zombies. “The zombie genre is damaged by all of this, because we’ve got first-hand experience,” Wheatley says. “Horror films are metaphors, obviously, but when you’ve lived through the reality, it breaks the metaphor. It becomes redundant.” In August 2019, Channel 4 commissioned Wheatley to write and direct a six-part zombie-comedy series called Generation Z about teenagers battling flesh-eating boomers. Unsurprisingly, those plans were scuppered. “We were right not to do that,” Wheatley laughs. “The premise was very specific and would have been in the most extreme bad taste at this point. Zombies are going to take a while to come back properly.” He describes zombie movies as metaphors about civil war – but with COVID, the victims lose their anonymity. “If you’re watching a proper civil war movie with neighbours murdering each other, it’s really traumatising and horrible.”

That Generation Z was proposed at all is yet another reminder that Wheatley’s filmography is as unpredictable as his storylines. In his early days, the prolific multitasker dabbled in TV (he wrote for Armando Iannucci’s Time Trumpet), animation (his viral videos earned him a CGI-heavy BBC sketch show, The Wrong Door), and adverts (he’s to blame for many Go Compare commercials). In 2009, aged 37, he wrote and directed his first feature, the chaotic comedy Down Terrace. By 2013, he’d also helmed the folk-horror Kill List, the semi-improvised murder romp Sightseers, and the black-and-white psychedelia of A Field in England.

As Wheatley’s reputation increased, so did his budgets. In 2015 and 2016, he released two A-list heavy, multiplex oddities: the JG Ballard adaptation High-Rise (Tom Hiddleston strips naked and eats a dog – not at the same time) and the screwball crime-comedy Free Fire (Martin Scorsese approved so much, he signed on as executive producer). More recently, there was his Mike Leigh-style drama Happy New Year, Colin Burstead and his lavish remake of Rebecca. All of which makes In the Earth Wheatley’s ninth film in 12 years – at this rate, his eighteenth feature will hit whatever replaces cinemas in 2033.

“None of us had been out. We were genuinely surprised to see other people at that point. It was a pleasure but also bewildering” – Ben Wheatley

I would also argue that In the Earth is a found-footage film. It isn’t, really, and probably no one else would be stupid enough to have that thought – and certainly not say it out loud to Wheatley. But in the second half, the plot turns increasingly trippy; when the scientists pass the point of no return, hallucinogenic, disorienting colours frequently explode all over the screen. It’s as if we’re watching Wheatley’s attempt to shoot a film during the pandemic – but then magical, plant-based forces and fungi buried their way into the camera and took over the footage.

“There are elements of that,” Wheatley says. “I’d seen 16mm footage from Chernobyl that they’d shot after the meltdown. The footage had been distorted by the radiation. It was all mottled and weird-looking. So the idea was that (In the Earth) mutated the closer they got to the centre of the woods. It’s almost breaking the fourth wall. Also, we shot it on ARRI Alexa cameras, but we had loads of iPhones on them, filming the same thing. Throughout the film, the closer they get to the centre of the woods, sometimes the footage will be coming from the iPhones rather than the main camera, so that gives you that feeling of: ‘Jesus, something feels broken – it’s not as authored as I thought it was!’”

He continues: “By the end of it, the psychedelic creature, or whatever it is, is trying to communicate with them but can’t speak in their timeframe. The whole thing is about the problem of humanity and narrative. When it talks to them, it’s full strength, and it’s not in a narrative structure that we understand. They can’t understand it. But it’s trying to look into them, and take their memories, and reconfigure them back at them in a way that makes a language – but it isn’t. So they’re like, ‘Argh, stop!!!’”

In the Earth also marks Wheatley’s fourth film with a Clint Mansell score. When Wheatley was writing the initial drafts, Mansell was stuck indoors in LA and eager to send over demos. Some of the more unnatural sounds were, ironically, derived from nature. “Clint bought a MIDI sprout, which is an interface for bioelectrical feedback from plants. He plugged it into these plants, and was touching the plants, and making music with the sound of plants. That developed over a period of months. But then he also seemed to channel a (John) Carpenter and (Lucio) Fulci giallo edge with an 80s synth sound.”

Last year, Wheatley was supposed to shoot Tomb Raider 2, but the pandemic shut down his plans. Instead, he signed on to direct The Meg 2. The move isn’t as far-fetched when considering that The Meg, really, is a “human vs nature” tale, just like In the Earth. “It’s the relationship between men and women and nature, and our humanness, and how we are part of nature, and yet we’re not, and we fight against it,” Wheatley says, I think about In the Earth, although he could be alluding to the psychological complexity of why Jason Statham feels compelled to punch CGI sharks.

Funnily enough, the terrifying screeching that appears out of nowhere in Kill List is actually shark-song. “You don’t know what it sounds like, but you do, because in the centre of your brain, there’s a trace memory, and that’s why you’re so uncomfortable in that film,” Wheatley says. “It sounds like whale-song, but it’s darker.” So if I see The Meg 2 in an IMAX, will I have shark-song forced upon me in Dolby Atmos? “It’s probably the first film I’ll be able to justify putting in (shark-song), to be honest. I don’t know what Meg-song will be like. I think it’ll be even more terrifying.”

“The zombie genre is damaged by all of this, because we’ve got first-hand experience. Horror films are metaphors, obviously, but when you’ve lived through the reality, it breaks the metaphor. It becomes redundant” – Ben Wheatley

Throughout our Zoom call, Wheatley happily dishes out industry knowledge. Although In the Earth is receiving a massive cinema push by Universal, he estimates that it’s a similar release to Sightseers when factoring in that cinemas currently use fewer seats. He explains the intricacies of why Colin Burstead mostly skipped cinemas and went straight to iPlayer – millions more would watch it that way. Did Netflix tell him the viewing figures for Rebecca? “Yes, they did, and I can’t talk about it, which is a shame, because it was unbelievably huge!”

The secret to productivity, he explains, is flexibility with budgets. He estimates that Colin Burstead and A Field in England required one week of prep, three weeks to shoot, four weeks in post, and then were done. In contrast, The Meg 2 is almost a year of prep, four months to shoot, and then a year in post – if it actually goes ahead. Although he spent six months dreaming up action sequences for Tomb Raider 2, those ideas are all owned by the studio. However, Wheatley notes: “It was an amazing experience that I’ll take onto The Meg 2. When I was going to Tomb Raider, I was taking experiences from Free Fire. None of that’s ever really lost.”

Between March and August of 2020, Wheatley wrote three scripts that weren’t In the Earth; since then, he’s written a few more. A project he hopes to make one day is Freakshift, the sci-fi thriller he wrote with his wife and regular collaborator, Amy Jump; during press for Free Fire, he continually referred to it as his next movie. According to AlloCiné, it’ll come out in 2024 with Alicia Vikander and Sasha Lane – Wheatley laughs and says there are no plans for it at the moment.

If COVID has changed his mind on zombie movies, then will Freakshift feel redundant? “It’s a creature feature thing,” Wheatley says. “It’s a hybrid of a Harryhausen monster flick and Doom and Hill Street Blues. It’s a police procedural. It’s lots of things mixed up. There’s a zombie element, but I think it’ll be alright, because I don’t think it’s going to get made in the next six years. We’ll have a moratorium on it when it comes back round again.”

For now, though, there’s In the Earth, which Wheatley is finally seeing in cinemas. After editing it at home, he was unable to attend any festival premieres (it launched online at Sundance in January) and didn’t fly to America for its theatrical release. “It’s very late in the day to be seeing it with an audience,” he says. “Usually I’d have seen it five months ago. I didn’t even get to check the DCP when we made it.”

From how Wheatley describes In the Earth, it sounds as if he’s still processing the rawness of the emotions behind it. “The point of filmmaking is to reflect the time,” he says. “It’s for you to be a filter for the time that has just happened, and to try to understand it. If you’re a genre filmmaker, you do it through the filter of genre as well.” He describes speaking to journalists around the world and concludes that COVID was, and is, a unifying experience like no other. “Everything is about chasing the zeitgeist all the time in film and art. But this was the first time I’d ever felt like the zeitgeist was right in front of my face.”

In the Earth is out now