He’s injected odd moments of kitchen-sink realism into a gangster saga (Down Terrace) and surreal dollops of WTF horror into a hit-men thriller (Kill List); surely no one expected director Ben Wheatley to play a comedy about a camping vacation straight, right? His latest, Sightseers, follows Chris and Tina (co-writers Steve Oram and Alice Lowe), two lovers who are embarking on their first trip together, a caravan tour of the Yorkshire countryside. It turns out that Chris has some rather homicidal tendencies—and once the mousy Tina discovers her own knack for dispatching annoying passerbys, the movie becomes a sly variation on the serial-killers-on-a-spree chestnut (Natural Brit Killers?), albeit one with a very dark sense of humor. The 41-year-old filmmaker spoke to TONY over the phone from Northern England, where he was scouting locations for a new project. (Read our five-star review here.)
Time Out New York: Sightseers was something the actors—Alice Lowe and Steve Oram—had been working on in various incarnations for a while, right?
Ben Wheatley: Alice and Steve had been doing something close to these characters on stage together; they’d also done a short-film version of Sightseers that I had just randomly happened to catch on TV long before I’d met them. I’d gone in to meet with this production company after Down Terrace, and they told me they had this script they thought would be a good fit for me. I recognized the title and their names right off the bat, so I basically said, “Yeah, I’ll do it” without even reading it. That was going to be my second movie, and then Kill List was immediately ready to go, so we did that first. Which was a good thing, actually; once the reviews for Kill List came out, it made getting this film green-lit that much easier.
Time Out New York: Having seen the short but not having read the script, did you just assume there’s enough in that short that would justify a feature-length film”?
Ben Wheatley: It was a leap of faith, yeah. But I knew that, having seen the short, this would be a great opportunity to work more with improvisation, which is something I’d used a bit in my previous films. I also liked the idea of working with actors who’d been doing these characters for a long time. Actually, given that a lot of the scripts I’d been working on were for films that were going to be very technically demanding and possibly FX-heavy, I liked the idea of doing something that was very actor-intensive, period.
Time Out New York: How did you start fleshing it out?
Ben Wheatley: Well, the short was very broad; it was only ten minutes long, so you could get away with it. The version they’d do onstage was very over-the-top as well, which is sort of what you need to do to make that work as a comedic bit in an act. But we knew that you couldn’t sustain that kind of big comedic broadness for 90 minutes. You know, it’d be funny for five minutes—and after an hour, it’d just be fucking annoying! So we aimed to make it feel much more real, much more grounded. They’re doing these horrible things, so as a viewer, you need to be more sympathetic to these characters. Otherwise, we’d be fucked.
Time Out New York: The use of “realism” in your movies seems to be a key component in how you up-end the notion of a genre—the gangster film, the hit-men-on-one-last-job film, the serial-killer-couple film—even more than, say, humor or unexpected violence.
Ben Wheatley: Definitely, yeah. If you feel like you’re watching a genre character, then you sort of go on autopilot; you know what their behavior is, because you've seen this type of hero or villain a million times before. If you feel like you’re watching an actual human being, however—if they feel real to you—you’re invested in that person in a much deeper way. You care about what they do, what they don’t do, what happens to them. Once you’ve established a human bond between a character and an audience, you can take those characters into very exciting, emotional places no matter how far out you may go. It’s not a coincidence that you spend a lot of time with the characters in my first three films before the story really kicks in; you get to know these people so that you actually care about whether they live or die.
Time Out New York: Is that why you tend to watch documentaries before you start production on a film, as opposed to other horror films or black comedies?
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, you want to remind yourself what reality looks like. I mean, the sort of reality that’s been shown in a documentary; that’s a whole other conversation, of course. But I like the looseness of documentaries, and how they tend to retain a lot of the oddities and kinks and off-rhythms of real life. That stuff gets ironed out of a film in the scriptwriting process, so by using that sort of loose, almost doc-like style combined with on-set improvisation, you can add a lot of that back in.
Time Out New York: You and your wife, Amy Jump, worked together on the final version of the script; did you find yourselves adding elements of your own relationship? I mean, I can assume neither of you are serial killers…
Ben Wheatley: Well, we haven’t been caught yet, so….
Time Out New York: Why do I suddenly feel like I’ve just become an accessory after the fact?
Ben Wheatley: [Pause] Maybe we shouldn’t be discussing this in a transatlantic call. [Laughs] No, I mean, there are definitely elements of our relationship in there, for sure. I don’t think you can keep from adding personal elements into your writing, ever. We’ve gone on long trips; we’ve undoubtedly irritated each other at times. That’s all in there. I know Alice and Steve, who aren’t in a romantic relationship, put a lot of their own dynamic in it as well. They went on a road trip together for research before they wrote the first draft, and I know a lot of their personal experiences made it into this movie as well. Everyone has had to negotiate the same space when you travel with someone else, even if you love that person. That’s universal.
Time Out New York: This is a very British film, however, especially in terms of its landscapes and the sort of people in the movie that Chris and Tina meet up with. How would you characterize the relationship between the English and these sort of naturecentric road trips?
Ben Wheatley: Well, I’d hate to speak for all of England; that would be dangerous.
Time Out New York: You’ve already admitted you are a serial killer…how much worse could it get?
Ben Wheatley: [Pause] I’m pretty much past the point of no return already, aren’t I? [Laughs] I think a lot of folks like getting out and seeing those natural settings. I mean, the places where the characters go…I go on holiday to those exact places. Some English folks may think that going to a pencil museum is stupid, but I don’t; I’d go on a road trip to a pencil museum in a second! I have a lot of affection for places like that, and it was important to all of us that we didn’t seem like we were having a go at these folks. There is a version of the film that we could have cut, for sure, where it seems like everyone is mocking these folks. You’d have thought snooty Londoners had made it! But that’s just not me.
Sightseers opens Friday, May 10 at Landmark's Sunshine.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear