'In the Earth' Director Ben Wheatley Discusses How COVID-19 Will Change the Film Industry Forever

"It's the thing that everyone is going to have to struggle with going forward, because the psychology of being indoors for a year has got to affect everybody just on that basic level"
'In the Earth' Director Ben Wheatley Discusses How COVID-19 Will Change the Film Industry Forever
It's been over a year since everything was flipped-turned upside down because of COVID-19 — so when Hollywood decides to capitalize on the pandemic and produce films set in our present day, it's unsurprising that many audiences aren't automatically game.

Perhaps our social media-driven, trend-stricken world has put creatives in a head space where they feel like they must utilize COVID-19 in their work lest they get left behind. And considering just how much the pandemic has changed our world, there is something to be said for acknowledging our present.

When speaking with writer-director Ben Wheatley about his latest film, In the Earth, a folk horror set in an eerily relatable virus-laden world, he states that disregarding the pandemic would have been strange. "It's weird to not talk about [the pandemic] or to ignore it. That is the bizarre thing," Wheatley observes. "It's the thing that everyone is going to have to struggle with going forward, because the psychology of being indoors for a year has got to affect everybody just on that basic level."

When making In the Earth, Wheatley was careful to not directly address the elephant in the room. "We didn't want to make a [movie] directly about what was happening, because we all know what that is and we have our own personal stories," Wheatley says during a phone call with Exclaim! "I didn't feel that there was a direct story about COVID particularly [to tell] because we'll have a million documentaries to watch about this. But we don't even need to watch [those] because we know exactly what happened."

Wheatley says that the horror genre is a perfect conduit to tell his pandemic-set folklore: "Horror is always there to talk about things that we can't talk about directly and kind of come at [from] a slightly different angle that is entertaining." And given Wheatley's own personal preparedness in lockdown, it's in keeping that In the Earth explores the idea of what it takes to survive. "Our family had gone into lockdown about two weeks before the government said to," Wheatley remembers. "We already started thinking about surviving and what we were going to do and how we were going to get food quite early on. We dug up our garden [in] week two [of lockdown] and turned it over for cultivation so we would have some food."

Wheatley is also quick to point out that this pandemic is not the first major event to change cinema. The recession in 2008 saw films like The Big Short and Up in the Air meditate on the banking industry and the consequences of its fall. But perhaps it was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York City that created the biggest shift in the movie industry. "I think when you watch stuff before 9/11, [like] '90s movies, you go, 'Oh they're really cheery!'" Wheatley chuckles. "That world's kind of gone [now]."

And Wheatley's right. Especially in contemporary movies, how can we expect filmmakers to carry on as if the pandemic never happened? But there is a delicate balance that needs to be struck.

Adam Mason's Songbird was developed and filmed in the middle of 2020 and imagined a world still battling the pandemic in 2024 with COVID-24 being the newly mutated virus — but that movie was criticized for being fear-mongering and gimmicky. But then there are movies like Host, which takes place over a Zoom chat amongst friends that was set in the pandemic world. Much like In the Earth, it wasn't the driving force of the story and didn't feel like it was using COVID as a creative crutch.

It will certainly be interesting to see where contemporary movies go in the next few years and how filmmakers reconcile the fallout of the pandemic with their storytelling. Even more interesting will be to see to what degree the future generation of directors and writers are informed by the pandemic and lockdown orders.

"There's a whole generation of kids that will come through [lockdown] and go to college. Their stories will be from a very different perspective going forward. And I think that's where the big change will come," says Wheatley. "I don't think it's a conscious thing of overnight you're going to suddenly write a certain type of story. It's more of an attitude, isn't it? And I think the attitude of the younger generation of seeing what the adults did in a crisis, and seeing how it panned out, what a mess it all was, how the mad conspiracy stuff reigned supreme, and [how] everyone lost their minds a little bit. That I think will imprint on a whole generation."