Ben Wheatley Goes Digging In The Earth

Of mushrooms, men, and subterranean superintelligences ..

Joel Fry and Ellora Torchia have their Hansel and Gretel moment in In The Earth, the new folk eco-horror from Ben Wheatley (Image Courtesy of Neon)

Over the last few years, forest management has become part of pop science, and everyone knows about clearance. Not so fast, explained In The Earth director Ben Wheatley. He'd read a study showing that, when foresters removed a dead tree in a forest, "that affected the trees around them. It made them sicker."

It's because of the mycorrhiza, the complicated system of underground fungi that surround plant roots, and serve a vital symbiotic role. With the trees, Wheatley said, "The mycorrhiza was feeding them nutrients from the rotting tree, and it was actually supporting them."

Mycorrhiza is the biologist's term for what's happening. Others look at the phenomenon, and would call it the mystical spirit of the woods. From a different perspective, it's a colony organism, or an emergent intelligence. Everyone has a theory, which is often dangerous, because they become plans - like ripping out that dead tree. "It's the typical arrogance of humanity," Wheatley said, "that they think they can rock up and know better, and that what they're offering is better when it's not."

That concept underlies In the Earth, a melding of eco horror and folk horror that Wheatley described as a "journey through a Seventies childhood," with nods to Doctor Who, The Quatermass Experiment, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. In it, research scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) and park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) leave the Covid world behind as they take a walk into the English forest, only to run into the pagan Zach (Reece Shearsmith) and the scientific Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), with their rival theories as to what the thing in the soil really is.

In the Earth is one of Wheatley's smallest films, basically a four-hander in the countryside. There was a practical element for filming during the pandemic ("the woods is where you're gonna be, because that's the only place you could film in the pandemic and be safe for the crew. ... While we were shooting, other big Hollywood movies were opening up and shutting down, opening up and shutting down") but it also presented an opportunity to examine that concept of a greater life in the soil. Wheatley said, "It fed back into research I'd been doing into mycorrhiza, and I really loved the idea that the wood was really organized, much more intelligent than humans, and when humans get involved in it they always screw it up."

At the same time, Zach and Olivia's rival theories opened up a discussion about something that is uniquely human: Narrative. It's a point of fascination for Wheatley, keying in to his long-running occult and mythological studies, with references to Andrew and Nora Lang's landmark 19th century Fairy Books, and the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index of folklore, "and my journey through horror, as much as anything." However, he also took a step back to explore the very nature of narrative, and its impact on people. He said, "Story helps us, because it galvanizes groups of people together with a kind of magic - but it also fucks everything up because the stories are often corrupt and self-serving."

Austin Chronicle: You've make a kind of comedy of manners. So much is dependent on people going 'Please don't do the terrible thing' because no one wants to seem rude.

Ben Wheatley: From my experience, you're paralyzed in those situations. It's only in movies that you leap about and fight people, and say 'No way, man, I'm not doing this.' Or, if you're of strong character like my wife, you wouldn't let anyone near you in that situation. But for me, and I've been there, I know that under certain psychological circumstances you'll end up letting them slit your throat, and you won't stop them. It's something that you never see in films, except maybe in A Room for Romeo Brass - you see a really good version of that at the end of that movie.

With the Martin character, I was after an idea with him that was much closer to myself - cowardly, useless, feckless, not very good in the wild, but in a 1950s movie he would have been the action star. In War of the Worlds, he would have been in charge."

“Story helps us, because it galvanizes groups of people together with a kind of magic - but it also fucks everything up because the stories are often corrupt and self-serving.” Ben Wheatley, director of In The Earth
AC: As a writer, what are the challenges of writing a protagonist like Martin, who does nothing proactive, who is so passive and reflexive?

BW: I think that, if you have no characters who will hold the momentum of the story, then you're in trouble. But it was more a sleight-of-hand. I figured that the audience would go with him, and go, 'Oh, he's going to be the one who ... oh. No, he's gonna ... no.' In the background you see the other characters, [and] that was always the arc. You get Zach being the folk horror religion side of explaining the thing that's happening in the woods, and then you have Wendle going, 'Well, this is the science-y, Quatermass-y, 1970s Dr. Who side of things," but what she's offering to whatever this thing is as just as disgusting as the idolatry that Zach is offering. What the thing wants is someone who's a bit more grounded.

AC: The pandemic setting does add another level of isolation that helps the story. People do get lost in the British woods, but it's a lot harder than, say, remote Utah.

BW: Or the Appalachian Way. That regularly kills people that go the wrong way.

I was surprised. Obviously, we didn't shoot there, but there are woods that are massive, but they are all up in Scotland, these 100 kilometer square spaces where you could manage it, just about. I think you'd have to share it with a lot of mountain bikers.

AC: And you got another great performance from Reece. Someone asked me what he was playing, and I said, "Well, Alan Moore, basically."

BW: [Laughs] Pretty much. I've worked with him three times, and every performance has been completely different. There was a relaxedness to this one that I'd not seen before. He must get exhausted from all those episodes of [British anthology series] Inside No. 9, where he's just spanking through different performances. It's like four seasons of it now, of playing a different character every episode.

AC: And Zach has this oration when he's explaining everything, but when he's doing that he's pulled into the background, like you're cutting away from him and whatever he's talking about in that particular moment of insanity, not letting him overshadow everything that's going on.

BW: There's a version of the film where it's just enough to have him, and the rest of the movie is just them being chased around by him. That could have been a movie that would have been perfectly fine, but we would have had to blow him up at the end, or someone lights him a match and it lozzes along a bit of petrol and explodes him or something. But I really enjoyed that it suddenly takes these extreme right turns away from that, so you're always trying to deal with your expectations.

But it's also a stretching of time. I really wanted that tent to feel like you would never really escape it, that feeling of "This is the worst decision I've ever made," that sickness in your stomach. It's also do to with the trust in the filmmakers, that, oh, this is going to go really bad and they're going to show it, and they're going to show it slow, and we're never going to escape from this

That's part of the thing with Zach - he's woozy, going in and out of this conversation. Because he's playing it so soft, it's much more scary than if he was really aggressive.

AC: Even when he spells it out, the gentle tone make him a very British slasher.

BW: That's how you go out. You fall into the hands of a poisoner, and it's really fucking shit because you can't do anything about it. It's the Doctor Crippen end of the street, isn't it? A lot of those horrible murderers are like that. You've fallen into the spider's web, and starting to understand that is proper horror.

In The Earth is in cinemas now. Read our review and find listings on our Showtimes page.

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Ben Wheatley, In The Earth, Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index

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