The British director conceived of, developed and shot the low-budget project, which Neon recently released, during the COVID-19 crisis when other films, including the ‘Tomb Raider’ sequel, fell away.
Trust Ben Wheatley to devote a fair chunk of lockdown to trying to creep audiences out.
The cult British filmmaker — who made a name for himself with indie genre titles such as Kill List and Sightseers, moved into bigger budget action with Free Fire and High Rise and recently went in a totally different direction with Netflix’s period adaptation of Rebecca — used the pandemic to go back to his roots.
In the Earth, which Neon recently released in theaters after the film bowed at Sundance, is a trippy folk horror film set — funnily enough — in the midst of a deadly pandemic. The increasingly disturbing story follows a scientist (Joel Fry) and park scout (Ellora Torchia) who venture deep into a forest, coming up against the wildness of both man and nature, and with plenty of old-school prosthetics thrown in for good measure (including an axe-meets-foot scene that should leave many laughing and grimacing simultaneously).
Entirely conceived of and made in the U.K. during the COVID-19 crisis, In the Earth is a result of other projects — including the Tomb Raider sequel — falling away for Wheatley as the pandemic shut down global productions, alongside, as he admits, a bit of a panic he had in the first week of lockdown.
It’s also Wheatley’s final film before he takes on easily his biggest production to date – the sequel to 2018’s $530 million box office smash The Meg.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, the filmmaker describes how the lockdown ended six to seven years of back-to-back work and gave him a chance to breathe, why the schedule for 1978’s Halloween proved an inspiration and the key elements that attracted him to The Meg 2 (predominantly: Jason Statham).
Congratulations on showing most of us up by using the lockdown to actually do something productive like make a film rather than get excited simply because you’ve baked a loaf of bread. Is directing a low-budget indie horror the Ben Wheatley equivalent of making some sourdough?
The thing is, it’s not dissimilar to what we did after Free Fire, doing Happy New Year, Colin Bursted or after Sightseers doing A Field in England. It’s the normal rhythm of stuff, it just happens to be an outrageously horrific year.
Was the whole film conceived of, developed and shot during lockdown?
Yeah, it turned out something crazy, like from the first draft to being in cinemas in a year.
There are obvious pandemic-y themes running throughout. Was the inspiration purely drawn from everything that was happening?
I started writing it to try and make sense of what was going on, and it just then it just went from there, really. It’s been so mad and with so many things going on, I just needed something like a like a rock to hold on to. Basically, I panicked quite badly in the first week and made a show of myself. I had to redeem myself by scurrying away and looking like I was working. And out of it came this.
Were you supposed to be doing something else?
Totally. That week it just felt like the end of everything. On Wednesday it was like, we might lock down on Friday. I had quite a few projects, and they all just gutted out. We were doing a bit of Tomb Raider but that looked like it was going right into the long grass and wasn’t going to happen [Wheatley pulled out of the sequel earlier this year, with Misha Green taking over]. And that was an international production, shooting all over the world, so there was just no chance. And then I was thinking, is this the end of cinema? There was a flurry of articles in the press.
I wrote some of those. I’m sorry. It was an awful time.
Ha! It did become a bit more optimistic a couple of months in. But I thought, people have got to watch something — we’re all watching so much stuff. So I thought basically that I wanted to write something that was completely contemporary. All the scripts from before are about another world, and that world’s gone. I felt like the person I was was gone. That person who was bouncing from movie to movie, from Rebecca to Tomb Raider, whatever. That run, which had been maybe six or seven years of solid work, suddenly stopped, and I had a chance to breathe and kind of think what I actually wanted to do next.
And did you purposefully write something that could be shot in lockdown, given the restrictions that were in place? In the Earth obviously feels very scaled back, with a very small cast and what looks like minimal crew.
Yeah. It’s pragmatic filmmaking like a lot of stuff I’ve made. So you couldn’t shoot indoors because the protocols were too onerous and expensive, and it’s just dangerous. We didn’t want to make a movie that was going to make someone sick. So outside was the beginning, and you go well, that’s your palette, and it kind of went from there.
What sort of logistical issues did you face?
Not much, to be honest. We we were all worried that we’d never be able to have the same pace that you need to get through a 15-day shoot because of the protocols, but as it turned out, it wasn’t a thing. The hardest bit was wearing masks, but after a day I didn’t really notice it so much. But the PPE becomes quite a large proportion of your budget. That was the one thing we spent the most money on, which is ridiculous and outrageously expensive at the time. We would have been better off just getting the art department to make it.
Fifteen days seem pretty tight to shoot a film like this. Or is that quite standard?
It’s a model, but part of what inspired us to make it was finding paperwork from Halloween online. Their schedule was longer, like maybe two or three days more. But the movies that are the bedrock of genre are made on that kind of schedule. And these movies are 90 minutes — they’re in, they’re out, and they’re shot in three or four weeks. I think even our budget was similar to Halloween in the end. So that side of it was really inspiring. You’re looking at something like Halloween — it’s such a masterpiece but it was done incredibly frugally.
You touched on this earlier, but after Rebecca did this feel like a return to your indie roots and films such as Kill List? And was that part of the appeal — doing something off your own back without a major studio involved?
I always enjoy making films and it’s a privilege and a pleasure every time. And I was lucky to be able to make something during this time. But it was nice just to make a horror film, just to do it and be like, we’re gonna take pleasure in terrifying an audience — and simple stuff like working with prosthetics, which I loved doing but forgotten about, or firing a bow and arrow in woods. It was really good. But it’s nothing new — I go backwards and forwards all the time, with lower budget and higher budget, and I enjoy it.
Is In the Earth the last splash of indie horror before you dive into a big pool of water with a massive prehistoric fish for The Meg 2?
Yes! Hopefully. I’ve been in soft pre-production for a while. We’ve been storyboarding for about four to five months, so that’s all very exciting. It’s happening.
I’m not going to lie, I was surprised when you’re name came up for the film, but I’m very excited to see what you do. Is going to carry on in the same footsteps — a big, action-packed, multi-million dollar epic?
It’s going to be exactly on from what was before. I come at it from really enjoying The Meg. So when I was offered this, I was like, yes, I can do this! It’s going to be fun, and it’s action on a ginormous scale, and it’s Jason Statham. They were things that made it for me.