Ben Wheatley on pandemic-shot horror In the Earth
Ben Wheatley is so prolific, it's no surprise he's managed to write and shoot a film during the COVID pandemic. He fills us in on the production of In the Earth ahead of its UK release
“We were the first people back and – whether it's true or not – we really felt like the eyes of production were on us across the board.”
Writer-director Ben Wheatley is speaking to The Skinny over Zoom about In the Earth, the horror feature he wrote during the first few weeks of the COVID pandemic and shot with a small crew over 15 days in the early summer, as the UK came out of its initial lockdown period.
While Hollywood blockbusters with hired studio spaces – such as Jurassic World: Dominion – were able to resume shooting in the UK last summer after they had to hit pause, In the Earth was among the very first low budget productions to get going in late June 2020. And being first off the blocks had its pressures.
“If we ballsed it up,” says Wheatley, “A, it would have been really embarrassing. B, it would have been dangerous. C, it might have endangered how insurance would look at other productions going forward. So, we took it super seriously. We were filming in the woods with full PPE and masks, and COVID czars. It was temperature checks every morning and during the day, and then tests every other day. And nothing happened. No one got sick and no one had to be isolated, so it was good.”
Most of the other films shot last summer were projects that had already been in production before COVID-19 caused a shutdown. In the Earth is one of the few to be shot and entirely conceived within the pandemic. “For the budget that we had,” says Wheatley, “quite a proportion of that went into the safety stuff, which was a bit alarming. But absolutely necessary."
The film’s American distributor, Neon, provided the majority of that budget, having been in talks with Wheatley and his company Rook Films. “You write something and then it's a modest enough budget that you know you can put it into production,” he says of penning the film last spring. “I've been doing this thing of a larger film and then a smaller film, back and forth, over the last ten years. So, it fits into that A Field in England, [Happy New Year,] Colin Burstead kind of world, which is reacting to the moment.
“I like that kind of cinema,” he continues. “It's very rare to be able to get something out as fast as we have done, because usually, from writing it to – if you've got the finance – distributing it is a good couple of years. But from writing this to being in a screen with audiences, it’s under a year, so it's been quick. And that way you can actually write about the experiences that you're having, rather than most cinema, which is so far behind the ball it has to be almost historical to make it make sense.”
If it seems like we’ve been deliberately vague about what In the Earth is actually about, be assured there’s a good reason. A hybrid of folk- and eco-horror (Alex Garland’s Annihilation would be an example of the latter), Wheatley’s return to explicitly scary territory thrives on hallucinogenic detours and unpredictability. We tell Wheatley the film reminds us of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass stories, alongside John Carpenter’s Kneale-influenced Prince of Darkness. He tells us that 1970s Doctor Who was a reference point; presumably a far gorier version of Doctor Who than most saw.
What’s worth knowing beforehand is that In the Earth features only six credited actors, including Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Reece Shearsmith and Hayley Squires. It’s set during an unspecified pandemic, where scientists are seeking to cure a catastrophic virus. There’s a curiously fertile forest outside Bristol where studies are being performed. It’s there that one scientist (Fry) and a park scout (Torchia) venture to find the site of the former’s old colleague (Squires). Things quickly get weird(er).
The outdoor locations proved beneficial to the production for their relative safety when it comes to transmission rates, but also for Wheatley to explore the freaky potential of the territory: “A lot of the things I think about and dwell on are about the problem with modernity, and where we think we are in this moment. I feel that we're more than just the people we are at this point, we're all the people we've ever been. I think about that a lot. And it’s to do with the context of your own history and the context of the country's or the world’s history.
“The woods themselves are so primal,” he continues. “And it's a very straightforward route to scaring people. Even now, if you went wandering off stupidly and don't respect it, you can get into trouble, even in Britain where the woods are reasonably small. You can go wrong quite quickly. It’s a legitimate fear. I'm very unlikely to be attacked by a vampire or zombie, but I could probably get myself into quite a dangerous situation in a wood if I wasn't careful.”
In the Earth is released 18 Jun by Universal