City sites make a killing in enigmatic horror thriller

Ben Wheatley, director of Kill List
Ben Wheatley, director of Kill List

MALE strippers, jihadists and now contract killers, there are some rum people driving around Sheffield – at least on screen.

Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which goes on release this week after creating a buzz on the international festival circuit, is the latest to be filmed in the city.

“The Sheffield location wasn’t meant to be anywhere specific although people who live there will probably recognise things,” he says. “I didn’t know Sheffield at all and gradually began to see it has many different sides to it and can double for different places. I’ve only recently got round to seeing Four Lions and recognising some of the locations that were supposed to be London.”

After self-financing his debut feature, Down Terrace, he went into partnership with Sheffield-based Warp X to make his enigmatic horror thriller, also using locations at Leeds, Wakefield and North Yorkshire.

“Warp have got a sensibility and are creative people and they give you suggestions that you think afterwards, I never thought of that,” he says.

“They have a wealth of experience and their roster of movies includes a lot that I admire. They are saying something about the state if England.”

Which presumably Kill List does too, even though nominally it is about contract killers and secret cults.

“The characters are a product of the recession and wars in which this country has waged for a whole decade,” he says. “When we look back on this time it will be like when you were a kid watching stuff about Vietnam and thinking life was going on while there was a war on the other side of the world. It’s creeping around the edges everywhere – the riots are a symptom of it.”

Wheatley seems to have incorporated a whole lot of movie styles from domestic drama to Wicker Man horror, from hit man thriller to bantering comedy, but insists it’s not just to please cineastes.

“It’s a Tarantino thing,” says the director. “It takes these types of movies and brings them back into reality. I imagine that hitmen are like plumbers, sitting in cars eating pasties, not doing John Woo acrobatic action.

“The horror stuff is the same. That is talking about the idea that England is so old it has had previous religions. Christianity was built on Paganism and the idea that it’s still there in the soil. I remember being on a bus going past Green Park and suddenly feeling anxious as though something bad had happened. And, of course, that’s the site of Tyburn and there would have been hundreds of people hanged on gibbets.

“The comedy comes out of the characters. They are funny people and in different situations when they are under stress they are not going to stay po-faced, they are going to joke between themselves.”

Wheatley had worked with all the principal actors before and wrote (with co-writer and partner Amy Jump) the characters with them in mind.

“It was like wanting to cast Neil (Maskell) and Mike (Michael Smiley) and thinking what would their roles be together and I thought of a father-son relationship and then they would be ex-military and that led on to hitmen.”

Although he had filmed BBC3 comedy drama Ideal up North with Manchester and Yorkshire-based crews, working up here was a pleasant surprise for the Brighton-based film-maker.

“The main thing, without wanting to sound patronising, is that in London it can be a nightmare trying to get a location and they can be cynical and aggressive whereas I was surprised how people were open and helpful and pleased to have us there. I spent months up in Sheffield and had a brilliant time.”

It will be a change of tack next for Wheatley. “We felt a bit drained after making something so horrible and decided I needed to do a comedy,” he explains.

Sightseers is in pre-production and stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram in what The Playlist describes as “a dark comedy about a pair of psychotic caravaners”

“It’s set in the Lake District but we will be filming at Crich Tramway Museum and the Blue John Cavern in Derbyshire.”

The fast-moving film-maker has two more projects lined up after that, one a comedy with Nick Frost, the other science fiction.