Neil Maskell talks about the making of Ben Wheatley's Kill List, including researching his character and experiencing nightmares afterwards as well as filming the soon-to-be infamous hammer sequence.
How did you first become involved with Kill List?
Neil Maskell: I first heard about it... I'd done the Wrong Door with Ben [Wheatley, director] and then we were out doing an internet viral for Heineken. I had to fall down a load of stairs... well I didn't, a stuntman dressed as me fell down a load of stairs. We were out in Romania doing that and Ben and I were in a jacuzzi and he said... there's an image for you! We were both talking about films and we're both obviously keen cinephiles, sort of thing, and he started talking about this idea he had that was set in the Philippines about a guy who finds himself amongst a religious cult who are... well, I don't want to give too much away just in case he ends up making it! But it was like a blackly comic version of Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. He said he'd pitched it to Warp [Films] with me playing the lead role. So, that was interesting because I didn't know him that well. By that point, I'd worked with him for something like four days on these two different jobs and, as MyAnna [Buring] has said, he came to us with this short, which developed into Kill List.
MyAnna has joked that that's how Ben must see you... as an angry, borderline psychotic kind of character...
Neil Maskell: [Laughs] I had this recently with a very close friend. I was talking about something else and I said: "I'm as easygoing as anything..." And he said: "Do you know what? All the time I've known you, you say that all the time and you're not! You're really angry!" [Laughs] So, you don't always see yourself as clearly as someone else.
How much of a scene like the dinner party is improvised and how much is on script?
Neil Maskell: Probably sort of 60/40 in favour of scripted stuff. It's strange, the way Ben works, you shoot one on script, then you go off script entirely and kind of can go where you like with the scene, and you might shoot for like 10 or 12 minutes. But that's one of the useful things about shooting digitally - not having to worry about the roll running out. So, you shoot for long, long, long takes of improvisation, probably most of which is completely unusable waffle, and then you go back to the script and he likes to do one where he asks you to be concise and to try and do the script but with as little dialogue as possible, so cutting off sentences halfway through as you do with your own wife or your own best friend. You know, you only need to say a few words of a sentence and we both know what we mean. I think that comes over in the film. But it becomes like a history. If you do an improvisation and then go back to the script, the improvisation is still kind of inside the relationship and so it feeds the dialogue again. It's an amazing way of working.
Ben has talked about being influenced by his childhood nightmares, particularly in regards to the latter part of the movie. Did you bring any of your nightmares into your performance?
Neil Maskell: Not directly... not personal dreams or nightmares. Although strangely, after we finished filming I kind of had a lot of bad dreams around that time - not necessarily directly linked to being chased by loads of naked pagans. But it kind of had an effect. More than anything, what fed it other than exhaustion - which we were all feeling by the end because of the long days and stuff - was my research. I looked at a lot of personal testimony and the blogs that are online from the soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq and the other worldliness of that situation. Ben talked to me the other day about being in a situation where your morality has to rapidly adjust to circumstance... I mean that's how [people] ended up being in the riots the other week, where they just walked into JD Sports and nicked everything because that's where morality was right now. So, that stuff fed it more, so maybe the nightmares or even true life scenarios that I'd come across in preparation emerged... I was ready for that stuff right at the start but as we worked through it, towards the end it felt almost like I was reliving those experiences.
How big a challenge was shooting the film given that it switches between three main genres: domestic drama, horror and almost a buddy comedy between yourself and Michael Smiley? How much do you have to keep on your toes for that?
Neil Maskell: To be honest, the shift in genre is something that you're aware of when you read the script or when you see the final product, but inside the work I was more concerned with the fact that there's more than one thing going on in terms of what Jay's representative of. So, the truth of it is that maybe it's in his head and maybe this is a dream and he can behave with the logic of a dream whilst trying not to lose that reality and you are effectively playing the West as an entity and as a kind of purveyor of violence, if that's the right expression, and as a victim of the response. So, you're kind of trying to find the tri-ality of that while holding onto a central truth of the character. That was a much more complicated challenge as an actor than necessarily the genre differences because Jay's journey... as it's happening to the audience, it's happening to Jay and I had to try not to think: "Now I'm in a horror movie... now I' in a buddy movie." But also, when you're working with Michael Smiley, he's just funny, so there's not a lot you can do: it becomes a buddy thing.
What was shooting the hammer sequence like?
Neil Maskell: We were very deep into the film by that point, so i''s hard to have a direct memory. But Mark Kempner, who played The Librarian who gets bashed up, kind of had an unfortunate day really because we had to shoot it in two different ways. Obviously, there's the version where the head comes apart but we had to shoot a version where I had a foam hammer. Ben said: "Look, it is OK if Neil hits you on the side of the head with the hammer?" I think Mark had some important meeting or casting the next day but he said: "OK, that's alright..." Ben then warned him that I'd probably be hitting him a few times, so suggested having a code word for if it becomes too much. So, they agreed on "enough". I wasn't really thinking straight. Normally, I'd go out of my way not to hurt another actor but Ben said: "You need to hit him." Well, I must have hit him 18 or 19 times with it and you wouldn't want to get hit with this thing, even though it was only foam. But I hit him until he went: "Enough!" I stopped and when he stood up half of his face was just like these massive red welts. I was a bit lost in it, to be honest... you have all that stuff where he [The Librarian] is thanking me and you're going down the hole a little bit as an actor at that point, but I did have a feeling of guilt thinking he had to drive back to Windsor that night in order to go into his meeting the next day. I can't imagine what they must have thought... whether he was into some kind of S&M or something [laughs]. So, it was a strange day.
Interview: Rob Carnevale Photo: Optimum Releasing