Ben Wheatley released his most recent film, Rebecca, only six months ago on Netflix. He’s already back with his second film to arrive during the pandemic: a horror feature inspired by the virus called In the Earth. He shot it in fifteen days and wrapped the movie during lockdown, using the latest on-set procedures to ensure everyone’s safety.
In the Earth is based in a world not unlike our own. A disastrous virus explodes with millions of infected people across the earth, sending civilization’s brightest scientists on a mission to cure the outbreak. Joel Fry plays a scientist and Ellora Torchia plays a park scout who ventures deep in the forest for a routine equipment run. During the night, their journey becomes a terrifying voyage of survival when they’re encountered by hostile forces and a forest that comes to life around them.
I spoke with Wheatley about making In the Earth while major film productions were paused. Coming off the heels of his film Rebecca at Netflix, the NEON-backed Earth has a fraction of the former’s budget but as luck would have it, natural sunlight beaming into a low-budget set made of tarp added an unexpected Giallo vibe to a pivotal scene. Wheatley also discusses how John Carpenter’s scrappiness and certitude influenced this movie and his entire career. We talk about using body horror for empathy, scares, and laughs on the unexpecting Martin, played by Fry. As one of the few directors to release two movies during COVID, he also contrasts the Netflix experience for Rebecca with the cinema release for In the Earth.
The Film Stage: You put Joel Fry’s character Martin through hell. The cut on his foot goes through so much trauma that it becomes physical comedy, not unlike Jackass or video nasties.
Ben Wheatley: A big part of Joel Fry’s performance is that you like him a lot––you just feel for him and you feel his discomfort and pain. Joel plays pain really well, we believed it on set a lot. I knew the audience would latch on to him because once you stay with characters for a certain amount of time you channel through them. It’s the essential Joel-ness of it, I think, is what really gets you in the end. It was the thing of the film trying to hurt him basically, that it was relentlessly trying to punish him. And in its punishing, it is that slightly queasy thing of he’s being punished for your entertainment. So on one hand, you’re projecting through him and feeling it that way. But on the other hand, you want him to get hurt. It’s that weird split. That’s a general feeling I have from horror always. It’s like your perspective shifts from being the victim to being the aggressor all the time and backwards and forwards. The other thing I wanted to do is play with the timescale of the movie, so that you would feel that you were stuck and that you were in a really awful situation that you couldn’t escape from, and just how that tension as a physiological thing goes through your body. For that you need the audience to relate to what the pain is and the way to do that is through relatable pain, rather than something that’s massively over the top. The world of people exploding or people getting their heads chopped off wouldn’t work––you need it to be a pain that people could understand and completely relate to.
It’s one thing to make a movie about a world-shifting pandemic, but it’s another thing to make it during the pandemic. Why did you want to be first out of the gate with a COVID-inspired story?
It’s part of my normal process. We usually make a movie a year if we can, and make movies that are time-specific. Happy New Year, Colin Burstead is about the Brexit situation here in a political situation in the UK. Kill List is the same, and to a lesser degree Sightseers, so it wasn’t so crazy. But also, we felt there was an opportunity to do something. We knew that film production would start back up again in the UK in the summer. We figured that there would be a gap between them announcing it coming back and people going into gainful employment. So at the start, the producer and I figured that there would be a sweet spot when we could actually make something. So that’s how it was on the production side, the boring production story. I’d written quite a few scripts during the lockdown and we looked at In the Earth, and it was actually achievable because it’s designed to be shot as a low-budget horror, but also designed to be shot during the pandemic because it’s outdoors and the transmission rate is very low for that. So it would be a safe thing to do, because we never want to be in a situation where our crew are in any kind of risk.
This is your second movie released during COVID. How does it feel for Rebecca to have this at-home viewing experience and In the Earth being one of the first new movies to hit cinemas?
The whole Netflix experience was really interesting, because the viewing figures were so huge, just unbelievably massive. It was really humbling. You go, “Oh my God, it’s been seen by so many people.” The other films I’ve done have been seen by a fraction of people compared to it. So that side of it was interesting, because by the time Rebecca came out, everyone had watched everything, so we were hungry for anything that was coming on onto the platform, so that was pretty amazing. But I never saw it with an audience, so that side of it was really sad, and the same with this. I never had that experience of seeing it at Sundance with a midnight crowd all screaming, which hopefully I’ll be able to do in the next month or so––to see it big and loud and on a screen with an audience. Also a film that will be seen in the cinema, but reviewed by critics watching it at home on telly is odd.
In your last movie, the character Rebecca was omnipresent though physically absent. That’s not unlike COVID, in a way.
I felt like Rebecca is lucky, because it’s a period film so it doesn’t really get affected by COVID. But everything else that was made that was contemporary, when it comes out after COVID, is going out to an audience that has spent a year indoors and the experiences of the characters in those movies is not the experience of the audience. I thought that is a weird schism, that hasn’t happened maybe since film noir hit France after the Second World War. There is a massive disconnect and part of the job as a filmmaker is processing the contemporary moment, if you can. Certainly it’s something that’s part of horror filmmaking; processing what is happening now through metaphor. It’s difficult, because the main problem that horror has is that a lot of its metaphors get gobbled up in a pandemic and become true, so it breaks a lot of horror cinema.
You’ve said elsewhere that John Carpenter’s Halloween was a big inspiration for In the Earth for logistical reasons. How else has Carpenter influenced your work?
He’s a massive, massive influence. He came to talk in the 1990s at the National Film School, and I wasn’t at the film school, but I heard he was there and managed to sneak into the lecture that he gave and it was incredible. They tried to introduce him by playing the opening titles and music from Assault on Precinct 13, and he just walked into the room and turned it off and said, “No one wants to see this!” Then launched into a lecture about the mechanics of indie cinema and how movies are made and how you have to pivot from one project to the other. I love that he has one foot in pure genre, and then there’s art cinema inside his movies as well. But he’s really gruff like the old Hollywood legends and no-nonsense, but it’s also incredibly crafted. He’s got that thing that the great directors have: he’s a genre of one. But also you can go, let’s watch some Howard Hawks movies and see where it comes from. You can see the influence on Carpenter, but they’re not doing the same thing. It’s not a copy, it’s processed through him, and then transformed into something else. That really opened up a lot of cinema history for me by watching Carpenter movies. A couple of weeks ago I rewatched all of them again and watched ones I hadn’t seen before like Ghosts of Mars, which got an absolute kicking when you read the reviews, but then I really enjoyed it. Now why was everyone upset about this? It’s a pure Carpenter movie. It has all the elements of a Carpenter film and the craziness of a Carpenter film. It’s great. They’re like nothing else and they jump around all over the place and he obviously loves those movies. I watched Village of the Damned and that was great as well.
Will you talk about the labyrinth of tarps and how you used it to shade the lighting inside the tent?
One of the scoutings we did early on to find a forest for the movie, the guy who was taking us around the woodland that he bought, he said there was a guy who’d lived there secretly fifteen years ago and there was a site of where he’d been living. We went there and it was crazy. It was like a pit in the ground and then he’d used ropes around the trees. He used tarp to make his house and it really struck me as amazing. Bits of it were still left. It doesn’t decay because it’s plastic, so that was the beginning of it. The trees had grown over the rope and the nylon rope was inside the bark, so that started making me think about how would you build a house out in the woods if you have foraging stuff for it? I was thinking that you would get the materials from farmland so he’s using the tarps that you put over the top of hay and wheat after it’s been harvested to keep it dry. You would steal that and then it would be easy to tie it all up. It actually worked pretty well and the house materials cost about $700 in the end. The idea that the tops will be translucent I hadn’t really clocked, but when the sun started to set we saw these incredible colors coming through and realized that is a smart move rather than a wooden structure. It gave us that odd, really strange Giallo feeling in that room, which was a nice surprise.
Will you talk about playing the movie’s sound design and score in the woods and then re-recording it off the trees? It’s like you give the music the forest’s voice.
I knew what I wanted the film to play to its strengths, so instead of just having music, the music was embedded in the film, it was embedded into the script, it was part of the story. It’s non-diegetic but it’s diegetic as well. That gave Clint Mansell license to be really extreme with it. And then the same with Martin Pavey on the sound design, I wanted the woods then to support the music and that when there wasn’t any music, the sound of the environment would be picking up and carrying that feeling in a way that wasn’t just moss that was laid underneath, it was very carefully like orchestrated and put together from lots of layers. Then we went out into the woods and played the mixes out and re-recorded them off of real environments as much as possible. One of the things about COVID was that we got an extraordinarily long time with Clint, so he started writing demos for the film almost when I was writing the script. By the time we got to the shoot, we had the complete, full-blown score, which I’ve never had before. We played that quite a lot into scenes so the actors knew what the sounds that Dr. Wendle (Hayley Squires) was making.
What drew you to direct Meg 2: The Trench?
I get stuff coming in from my agent and when I saw Meg 2, I was like, I love The Meg! I love the first Meg and everyone I know loves The Meg, and I thought it would just be brilliant fun. A massive action pic and to work with Jason Statham. So all those things drew me to The Meg. It’s an action itch I always wanted to scratch. I’ve scratched it a little bit with Free Fire, but I saw this as an opportunity to scratch it massively and with massive monsters all over it. It’s very exciting so I grabbed it with both hands.
In the Earth is now in theaters.