One of this writer’s favorite films out of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival was In the Earth from writer/director Ben Wheatley (you can read my review HERE). Wheatley’s latest is set to hit theaters today, courtesy of NEON, and Daily Dead was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with the U.K. filmmaker earlier this week in advance of the film’s release.
During our interview, Wheatley discussed the real-world scientific inspirations behind the story of In the Earth, as well as his thoughts on why the woods make for the perfect setting for horror stories. Wheatley also chatted about shooting In the Earth during the pandemic, his experiences collaborating with Clint Mansell for the film’s haunting and unique score, and more.
Great to speak with you today, Ben. I remember in your intro at Sundance, you were talking about working on this movie within the confines of the pandemic and everything like that. Can you talk about what inspired the science behind this? Because I think it's really fascinating how you've blended real-world science with this otherworldliness, which I won't be too specific because I don't want to ruin it for readers, in a way that feels really authentic and unsettling. I just think that In the Earth is a really fascinating movie that speaks to where we're at these days.
Ben Wheatley: Well, I had read about the way that the fungus leeches onto the roots of trees and then works with the forest to control it and I thought it was fascinating. One of the things it made me think is like, if the typical arrogance of humans that we think we're it and we think there's something about modernity where we all think we're fantastic because we've got smartphones and we can tweet about stuff and whatever, but the actual landscape that we're in is far more complicated, so it seems the technology of nature itself seems to be far in advance of our own technologies or almost our technologies mimic the ancient technology of the forest. I thought there's something about that, that speaking for myself, like just floating through the world, thinking that I'm the absolute center of it, where there's stuff all around me which is far more complicated and far more intelligent, basically.
I like how you mentioned how we think we're more evolved than the world that we live in and yet there's stuff about nature and science that really is very humbling. I'm curious through your own research process of trying to figure all of this stuff out and determining what you wanted to put in this story, was it an eye-opening experience for you, as a storyteller and as a human being, just to see the things that our world is capable of? And how did you then take those elements and amp them up to make them really terrifying?
Ben Wheatley: I had been thinking about that research on fungus, but also, I had been thinking about weaponizing narrative and narrative technology and all these things that basically humans, the one thing that sets us different from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to make stories up about ourselves and our experiences. And the film is those two things smashing together, like this networked intelligence versus these humans who are trying to understand it, but by trying to understand it they create stories which distort what it is. And then the end of the film is them having to confront this creature, which doesn't deal in narrative and it doesn't deal in traditional story sense. So how do you communicate with that, or have an understanding of that or the weaknesses of our own stories break down in the face of something that is vaster and more intelligent?
I think a lot of people think when you go and you shoot in the woods and the forest or things like that, that it's almost easier in a way, but I actually think it's a lot harder to work in natural environments because there's a lot of things that you have to control that ultimately you can't always control. How were your experiences taking this out into the woods and putting your cast out there and again, making this natural environment one of the most terrifying elements of this story?
Ben Wheatley: For me, I think that horror goes back to the woods because it's primal, in our brains it's hardwired into our early minds to be afraid of it in the same way that we are afraid of the sea as well and of tigers and other things in nature. I think the woods are scary and it doesn't take much to strip away the things that make you modern and for the woods to kill you, if the circumstances are right. And so if you show the woods, then you talk directly to that part of your brain and I think that's a lot of it. I mean, I think that when I was writing it, I just had this thought that the only thing that has to go wrong for you is that you lose your shoes and you're screwed. That's like a death sentence. You'd think it'd be something more dramatic, but it doesn't even have to be that big a deal; it's just that loss of shoes is enough probably to kill you out in the wild.
I would love to talk about shooting a film within the pandemic, because it's changed our world in a lot of ways, but I think it's had to force filmmakers to get creative and resourceful. Were there challenges that you guys were facing making this movie and how did you adapt to those challenges throughout production?
Ben Wheatley: Well, it had its advantages and disadvantages, really. I mean that the disadvantages are things like, at that point anyway, you couldn't really make something that was indoors because the infection rate was higher indoors. It was more dangerous and you also have to wash everything all the time, every surface has to be cleaned between takes and it's onerous on the budget, so it would be impossible to do it unless you are one of those big budget movies. So that forced us outside in many ways. But then other things were good, like the fact that I got to spend a lot more time with Clint Mansell on the score than I ever would have done. I think it was the day before we started shooting and this email turned up, which was the full score from Clint, which was wonderful to have. And it was a similar situation with Nick Gillespie, the DOP, where I got to do loads of testing with him, even though we didn't meet up until we shot the film.
But we had a period of testing that went on for months, which we never would have had normally, so Nick got to build tanks of oil and experiment with those things and build macro lenses and all sorts of stuff. So it wasn’t all doom and gloom and the actual shooting and dealing with PPE and sanitizing and stuff was a bit of a pain for like half a day and then we just got into a routine and we got on with it and it didn't really affect how fast we shot. The actual filmmaking was never really affected by it. Maybe we had to spend a big proportion of the budget on that safety stuff, which is a shame because it never gets to be on camera, but at the end of the day no one got sick on the crew and that was our main concern.
I know we're already getting close on time and I'm so glad that you mentioned Clint's score because it is unlike anything that I've ever heard before and I think it's just incredible. I know he had such a unique process in terms of creating the music for In the Earth, utilizing plants and such. Was that something that you guys initially planned from the get go or was that something that came to him as he was thinking of the themes of this film and realizing that this is a movie about nature so incorporating nature into the score would be a brilliant way to go?
Ben Wheatley: Because we had a lot of time to experiment, we were having a lot of conversations and one of the things that he'd found in his research was this thing called a MIDI Sprout, which was a thing that you could attach to plants and the biofeedback of the plant could then be fed into a synthesizer and that led some of the compositions. So that side of it was really interesting. But then also, when I thought about it, I had to write something for the press release of the album the other day, that one of the great things about this is that normally, Clint would do his demos and then the demos would be arranged and then they would be re-recorded with an orchestra. But this stuff is all straight from him; it's his fingers on the keyboards, it's the synthesizers from his studio, so in a way, it's a very personal score in that respect. It's pure Mansell. And I had written the script so that the music is embedded into the script so that it can be right at the front of the script, in terms of the experience of the audience, so it's diegetic and non-diegetic at the same time and the structure of that allowed him to be really free.
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