For many of us, much of the past year will have felt like the plot of a horror film. So when, in March 2020, the British writer and director Ben Wheatley, 48, found himself with some unexpected free time, it was clear what the genre of his next project would be. The result, the terrifying and blackly comic In the Earth, went from concept to virtual Sundance premiere in less than 12 months. It is set in the midst of a pandemic that may feel familiar in some senses but, on a two-day forest trek, a scientist (Joel Fry) and a park scout (Ellora Torchia) also have to contend with a malignant woodland spirit and a deranged Reece Shearsmith. Wheatley has an eclectic, never-dull, often grisly backlist that includes Sightseers, Kill List, Free Fire and Rebecca. He lives in Brighton with his creative and real-life partner, Amy Jump.
Wind the clock back to March 2020 – is it true you thought that Covid could bring about the end of cinema? And specifically that you weren’t going to work again?
I didn’t think it was necessarily the end of cinema, but I did think I wasn’t going to work again. But I think a lot of people felt that. Everything came into very sharp focus, because all of a sudden there were only about three different jobs: working in a hospital, working in a lab and delivering food… There wasn’t really anything else that seemed to make any sense at all. And, obviously, film director is very far away from core national need.
Are you saying that film directors are not key workers then?
I’m very much saying that, yeah. What scared me is that I could hear my voice getting very shrill and tight and high. But then I went away into the office and started writing, basically. I thought: “I’ll write my way out of this if I can.”
Before that first lockdown, you were supposed to start shooting Tomb Raider 2 with Alicia Vikander. Is there a period of mourning when a project you’ve worked on for a long time unravels?
Well, they say nothing’s real until you’re standing on set with a tea and a bacon roll in your hand. There’s so many factors that can happen to make stuff not happen. But I think that’s why, in my back catalogue of movies, you see high-budget or medium-budget stuff, down to low-budget, because I’ve got a line in the sand. If I haven’t worked for a certain amount of time, I’ll move into making-a-movie mode with a more sustainable budget.
In the Earth is a more modest production, with a smaller budget, than some of your films. Is it hard to go back?
No, doesn’t make any odds. To use a music analogy, you wouldn’t ask those questions of someone who’s been in a rock band doing just an acoustic album. And there’s a lot of pleasure to be had from making lower-budget movies. There’s a speed to them, the way of working is much, much faster and freer in many ways. And having loads of money to build stuff, and loads of crew, doesn’t necessarily make life easier. There’s a level of complication that happens with that, which gets exponentially harder in a way.
One of the most gruesome scenes in In the Earth – when some toes are “required” to be amputated with a hatchet – is strangely also very funny. Do you see a connection between moments of intense horror and comedy?
I think from experience that’s the case. Even in the most dire situations there’s humour to be had out of things. But that scene specifically is a time trap for the audience: they’re trapped in that space and in that moment for far too long. They don’t know what’s going to happen, but they know it’s going to be nasty. And they know it’s just going to go on and on and on. And I think that then does become funny, because there has to be an element of release from the misery of it. Otherwise, it’s unbearable.
The risk with a film set in a pandemic is that people won’t want to be reminded of what we’ve been through. Did you personally seek escapist entertainment in the past year?
The first thing we watched was The Terror, the brilliant Antarctica thing. And it basically finished me off. I couldn’t watch anything after that. Those initial couple of months, it didn’t feel like it was a time for entertainment; it felt like a time for cutting your hair and having a mohawk and getting a crossbow ready to hunt for petroleum in old, smashed-up cars.
Your next film is The Meg 2, the sequel to the very popular and highly profitable 2018 giant shark movie starring Jason Statham. What is it about Statham that audiences like so much?
It’s that he feels very genuine and real, and you need that person in a generation, don’t you? Michael Caine for a long time was that character who would play himself in everything pretty much, but he would crop up in shark films and also gangster movies and all these different things. Statham’s the same. And I think why The Meg worked so well was there’s a feeling that he’s trying hard to be tough, but he’s also vulnerable, that he can be hurt. That’s something a lot of cinema hasn’t got any more. The characters seem to be absolutely indestructible.
You went to sixth form in north London – at Haverstock School – with the Miliband brothers. Were they well-known figures at the school?
No, I didn’t know them at all. I got a call from the News of the World back in the day going: “Did you know the Miliband brothers? One of them got beaten up in the school, was it you?” And I’m like: “No! I don’t know anything about it.” But more excitingly, Steve McFadden [Phil Mitchell from EastEnders] also went to my school and the drummer from Madness [Daniel Woodgate]. It gets called “the red Eton”, but it just felt really rough.
• In the Earth is released 18 June