Best known for his gripping and visceral work on “High-Rise” and Netflix’s recent “Rebecca,” director Ben Wheatley’s latest Sundance offering “In The Earth” is a return to the bloody, brain-scrambling flicks he cut his teeth on.
Wheatley joined his cast Ellora Torchia and Joel Fry at Variety’s Sundance Studio, presented by AT&T, to discuss his psychedelic woodland horror film.
“In the Earth” takes place in the middle of horrific pandemic. After months of quarantine a scientist (Fry) joins a remote science outpost deep in the forest. But before he can get settled he must journey out into the unknown with a park scout (Torchia) deep into the forest for a regular equipment run. As all things Wheatley, the forest (and those that inhabit it) are not at all what they seem.
“It’s designed as an audience film,” Wheatley said. “I would have loved to have been there to hear the gasps.”
In giving up the communal theater-going horror movie experience, Wheatley positioned that releasing the film at a later time would have lost its relevance.
“The film itself wouldn’t exist without COVID in the first place,” Wheatley said. “The impulse for it was to make a film about the moment, and this is the moment.”
His mission in the first place was to write something that felt modern, a troubling task when films can take years to create before ever hitting the screen. Actors Ellora Torchia and Joel Fry had no problem signing on, both being immediately enthralled by the script.
“I read it super quickly, which is always a good sign,” Fry said. “There were bits in it where I was like, ‘oh what is this going to look like?” It’s kind of a shame. I’m pretty envious of the people that watched it on cinema screens.”
Spoiler talk ahead, be warned, one of the larger conversations in “In The Earth” was a meditation between science and mysticism. Dissecting social myths is nothing new to Wheatley, but it was important to the director to continue this exploration in 2021 as well.
“Having been a person who’s made other films, folk-horror films, that’s what started me on the route of it,” Wheatley explained. “I’ve created stuff in some of the other movies that I saw echoed in other bits of culture. And I thought, ‘Well I made that stuff up, I didn’t research it, it’s just come out of my head and it’s got a life of it’s own.’ When you look at movies like that and you look at ‘Wicker Man’ as well particularly, where it suddenly becomes historical but it’s not, it’s properly made up. It’s not real at all! And there is a responsibility about that.”
“[‘In The Earth’] the characters are basically making their own histories and they’re responding to phenomena in different ways. Some people are trying to research it scientifically other people are making up whole, great histories about it which are all probably nonsense as well. It’s just, how do we deal with the unknown? I’ve been fascinated by the idea of narrative itself being a technology. And you see it in our news cycle, particularly, how narrative is a thing that’s used as a weapon. We’re all kind of vulnerable to stories and happy endings and explanations and anything that kind of makes sense and that sort of fed into it for me.”