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Ben Wheatley’s latest feature In the Earth was born of the pandemic, and is set amid one.
“I started writing it in the second week of the lockdown, so I was trying to process what I was feeling about what was going on,” the director tells me when I speak to him, over Zoom, in early May. “There’s a line in the sand, like a pre- and post-Covid, that’s a little bit like the Second World War to filmmaking, and if you’re making stuff that doesn’t reference it, it feels really odd.” In the Earth premiered at Sundance in January this year – aptly, given the Covid conditions of its production, at online-only screenings – although eventually Wheatley would like people to see it in a cinema with other viewers. “Including me,” he says with a laugh. “I haven’t even seen it in a cinema. That’s weird.”
In the Earth concerns a diffident scientist named Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), who, in the middle of a deadly global virus, feels drawn to rejoin his former colleague Dr Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires) in her field research into the brain-like ‘mycorrhizal mat’ of an isolated and unusually fertile forest. On the long hike to Olivia’s isolated camp, Martin and his guide, park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia), are attacked and robbed, and when pagan squatter Zach (Reece Shearsmith) offers to help them out, it becomes clear that they have wandered into an entrapping ecosystem whose human residents are no less toxic than the flora all around.
Wheatley says that he has long felt a creative impulse to respond quickly to the historical moment, noting that his intimate family reunion drama Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018) was likewise driven by a preoccupation with the politics of the present. “That was a similar-sized production,” he says, “with similar thinking: what are my feelings about what’s happening with the Brexit situation and the family of Britain? Both there and with In the Earth, I wanted to make something fast – and get it out fast – so that it fits inside the discourse of the moment.”
To Wheatley’s surprise, when it came to the actual shooting over 15 days last August, the need for masks and other health-and-safety provisions proved to be more a mild inconvenience than a real impediment.
“The PPE side of it was a little bit of a pain, but it wasn’t enough to slow down production,” he explains. “The main problem was that I basically didn’t know what the crew looked like. A lot of people I’d worked with for weeks, and I only knew them by their eyes. Shooting it outdoors was a creative decision, obviously – but it was also a pragmatic one, because the transmission rate outside is effectively zero, so it was the safest environment we could shoot in. That made our life a lot easier. I know of a lot of productions during that period that were trying to shoot indoors, and that is a nightmare, because you have to have antiseptic foggers putting stuff into the air all the time, and legions of people constantly washing everything down.”
The opening – and recurring – image of In the Earth is of a standing stone with a circular window in its centre that reveals the trees beyond. Like the mystic menhirs of Stonehenge, or the obelisk in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), this enigmatic orthostat is a construct of unknown purpose through which a similarly impenetrable natural world is framed.
Both Zach and Olivia are also, in their different ways, trying to frame the mysteries of nature – the former with religious myths, the latter with science and technology. The tools they’re using in their attempts to conjure the ineffable – a camera, costumes, lights, a musical score – are also, notably, the tools of filmmaking itself. Yet as their multiple, clashing, explanatory matrices fail fully to satisfy, In the Earth proves, like that stone, to be an object with a big hole (and a gaping void of meaning) at its centre – demanding to be filled with whatever viewers may bring to it.
In criticising Zach’s unhinged occult beliefs, Olivia speaks of “the psychological problem with humans to make stories out of everything” and “to make meaning where there isn’t any”, even as she fails to diagnose precisely the same problem in herself and her own increasingly unorthodox research. In the Earth is about the stories – often deluded or even dangerous – that we tell ourselves when faced with the incomprehensible.
“It came out of drowning in all the Trump stuff, watching American politics and British politics, and thinking about the erosion of fact, and this weaponising of narrative,” Wheatley says. “That started to make me think about the folk stuff I’d done. Does it contribute to the problem of what people believe and don’t believe, or is it just taken as entertainment? That was the thinking behind this movie: that various people were using the narrative to try and push a reality, but in the end they’re trying to make a story around a thing that’s beyond their comprehension. The reality is that the thing in the woods makes its own decision; and it decides on someone who isn’t a narrative maker – someone who is practical and is more likely to understand what it wants.”
In other words, In the Earth is a reflexive exercise in storytelling and mythopoeia that constantly questions the very narratives from which it is constructed. By his “folk stuff”, Wheatley means his features Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013), although he is careful to point out that he made Kill List before transmission of the television miniseries A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss in late 2010 that helped popularise the genre term ‘folk horror’. “Even with A Field in England,” he says, “we weren’t aware that it was a thing – we were just carrying on, following our own interests.”
What keeps drawing Wheatley to the genre’s tropes is “a kind of historical context of Britain, of thinking: ‘What is here? What was here before? And, is modern life in a total bubble, or are we connected backwards to the things that happened here before?’ Where I live in Brighton, I can walk out of my house and be on a Stone Age hill fort in two or three minutes. That kind of stuff I find fascinating. This place is ancient, but we’re also at the bleeding edge of the history at the same time.”
Nonetheless, despite featuring tales of an ancient woodland deity called Parnag Fegg and a medieval necromancer-cum-alchemist said to have turned to stone, Wheatley insists that In the Earth itself is not straightforwardly folk horror, but “a conversation with the genre – the made-up-ness of it, in the way that Zach has totally made up all this stuff. Parnag Fegg is not real, none of it is real. So he’s projecting it, he’s created a story that fits the information he has.”
I love Hollywood movies. I also love John Cassavetes movies. I don’t see a contradiction in jumping around and doing all these things.”
Such is the unique space Wheatley has carved out for himself in contemporary British cinema, he didn’t have to fight hard to keep the more elusive or esoteric elements. “Neon, who financed this, were totally behind it,” he says. “But the people who work at Neon include the same people who distributed Down Terrace  and A Field in England, and those who did the marketing for A Field in England. They’re people I’ve known since the beginning of working, and that’s why they’re fine – they know what it is. These were the guys that invited journalists to take magic mushrooms and then review A Field in England! It’s a rarefied group.
“The fact is that the lower the budget, the more control you have, and there’s a lot of pleasure to be had out of low-budget filmmaking,” he continues. “You can make a much wilder movie at a low budget than you can necessarily with a massive budget. I remember having a conversation with the financiers on A Field in England, and people going, ‘You know, we can make this more commercial.’ I was like, ‘Well, one, you can’t; and, two, it’s only 300 grand, so it’s already commercial, because it’s already broken even and it’s a third of the cost of an hour of television.’”
Citing John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968) and the B pictures of Roger Corman, Wheatley adds: “The bedrock movies that built genre weren’t expensive – they weren’t big productions and they were done quickly.”
That said, Wheatley insists he is also delighted to be working on studio films, such as his updating of Daphne du Maurier/Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca last year. “It’s not a defeat to make something that’s bigger budget, he says. “It’s more that while I love Hollywood movies, I also love John Cassavetes movies. I don’t see a contradiction in jumping around and doing all these things.”
For his next project, he certainly leapt at the chance to do a sequel to the 2018 giant shark movie – and Jason Statham vehicle – The Meg: “I wanted to do something that was really really massive – massive action – and to get out on that big canvas,” he says. “You go from making something like In the Earth, which is designed to upset from moment to moment, and then you flip it all upside down again, and go, ‘Right, what’s the opposite of that? It’s entertainment, it’s something that’s brighter and poppier.’”
We’ll wait to see what the ever-prolific Wheatley makes of that particular entertainment. Meanwhile, the heady sylvan psychedelia of In the Earth will leave its viewers lost in the best of ways, unable to see the wood for the trees.
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