Released just in time for summer, Sightseers is the delightful story of a repressed woman (Alice Lowe) and a lonely man (Steve Oram), who fall in love while caravanning across the British countryside.

The appearance of Lowe, an actor who has made a career out of cult favourite dark comedies like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, should give you a hint that there’s more to the movie than that. That might then be confirmed by the directorial presence of Ben Wheatley (the writer/director behind the zero-budget crime comedy Down Terrace and the deeply disturbing hitman horror masterpiece Kill List).

The serene vacation quickly turns into a killing spree once Oram starts killing the people he finds annoying and Lowe proves to be just as adept at taking lives as her new lover. At that point, Sightseers transforms into a twisted dark comedy pitched somewhere between Mike Leigh’s Nuts In May and True Romance.

Heartfelt, disturbing, and laced with a cynical sense of humour, the film could only have come from Wheatley, who transformed two sketch comedy characters that the actors developed for years into fully realized sociopaths.

TORO got a chance to chat with Ben Wheatley and Alice Lowe about Sightseers when the film screened at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, delving into the origins of the project, the improv-heavy production, and why the director won’t ever deliver a happy ending.

You’ve had these characters for a while, were they always this psychotic?

AL: Yes, they were always psychotic. The starting point was, “Imagine two very sweet nerdy tourists had a killing hobby.” We started developing on stage and for a TV series, then we had the opportunity to do a film and the characters became more real and human. We started researching serial killers and their psychology.

All good comedy material.

AL: Yeah, great comedy material. But they started to become more human and real with proper backstories and nuanced personalities. Which was lucky (laughs). It would have been bad if it didn’t.

How did it change when Ben got involved?

BW: We just did a little pass on the script as we moved towards filming. It was more about looking at the things we’d learned from the other movies and applying it to this, just in terms of pacing and stuff like that. We kind of restructured it a bit and added a couple of bits of bobs. Then there was loads of improvisation, which we did through workshopping.

AL: We were probably doing that this time last year.

BW: Yeah, it was good. We had all the actors in one by one and did interviews in character. That was a good week-and-a-half to two weeks and helped us all focus our mindset and calmed down the tone a bit. It was coming from the original short film, which was a bit broad and toning that down into a more documentary style. That took some decompressing. Then we ran through the entire movie with the actors to toy with it and see how it was shaped. It was good. You start there and then on the day we’d play around with it again. That’s just part of the process. We tried to almost act like an observational documentary crew following them around instead of a more traditional “set up, do the scene” approach and send everyone back to their trailers to set up their next job.

Have you ever actually done that type of production before or have you always been able to shoot in this more fluid way?

BW: I have. I’ve shot a lot of TV that was done in a more traditional way. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it’s just a different type of performance. I find it frustrating waiting for lighting. I like to light in the round and then go in and shoot as fast as you can think. Otherwise you end up saying, “We’re going to do this, this, and this.” And they say, “OK, I’ll see you back here in a couple of fucking hours when we’re done.” That still works, it’s just not what I like to do.

AL: It’s nice as an actor because you’ll sit around gearing up for your single and then your performance can get annoying because of that. I think the less time you have to think as an actor, the better. It makes it more natural. Quite often when people say the big dramatic thing in life, they aren’t even making eye contact. They’ll say, “I’m leaving you,” while doing the washing up.

BW: When I was shooting Ideal, I was in one scene. Someone said, “We have a character who doesn’t speak, want to do it?” I said, “I can get my face on telly, great!” I wish I had done it before because it gave me a nice perspective on what a nightmare acting is. I remember walking down a corridor kept thinking in my head “I am that character, I am that character.” Then I walked into the room and thought, “Oh there’s the camera” and then you’re fucked. After that, I tried to get rid of as many things that the actor has to think about as possible. Then they can get on with the job of actually acting. It’s beautiful when you work with people who are very technical and can handle all that stuff. But you’ve got to be careful that you aren’t filling the actors’ heads with a lot of shit.

How big of an influence was Mike Leigh’s Nuts In May? The characters even look somewhat similar?

AL: Well, I don’t think it’s something you can get away from. If you’re going to be doing a camping movie, you’re going to be wearing camping cloths.

BW: And you’re going to be bald with a beard as well.

AL: That’s true. It was irresponsible of Steve to lose his hair like that.

BW: He lost his hair at 25 at a card game. Actually and this is going to sound like a cop out, but I hadn’t seen it until a couple of weeks before we shot. Then I saw it and thought, “Oh, ok…fucking hell.” [Laughs]. I mean there are elements of it visually and tonally because it’s dealing with the same type of passive aggressive anger. But I think apart from that, it’s a lot different. I think maybe in the first 10 minutes are similar, but then it goes off in another direction. I would argue with anyone who thinks its derivative.

Oh, I didn’t mean that.

BW: No, no, its a classic. So it’s a Twitter snipe, “Oh, it’s Nuts In May #fuckingripoff.”

I wanted to ask about how you approach the violence in the film. It can often be funny in terms of the circumstance in which it arrives, but you always play it very disturbing and dark. What was the thinking there?

BW: Well, it’s playing with mood. It’s the same as in Down Terrace or Kill List, where hopefully you feel, “Oh, this is funny, no it’s scary, ahhh!” I think that helps to disarm the audience in terms of expecting what’s coming next. It makes things feel more immediate when you do it like that. Also, I think movies are about feeling. You’ve got to make people feel and take the audience on a journey. And if you don’t make them feel revolted by violence, then you’re doing something wrong. Unless you’re doing The Three Stooges or Evil Dead, then they should enjoy the violence. Also, it’s kind of a moral thing. It’s horrible that they’ve killed someone, now look at it. This is what happens.

Alice, your character goes on an interesting journey in that becoming a psychopath brings her out of her shell into adulthood. What was your approach to that as a writer and actress?

AL: I think it’s a liberation for her of sorts. Chris is a man of rules even though they are bizarre rules. So he finds this passive, easily manipulated character and thinks, “Great, someone who I can groom to be my sidekick.” She goes from one very domineering relationship with her mother to another, but actually by showing her that he is transgressing society’s rules by killing people, it sort of releases her. The trouble is that she doesn’t know where to stop. It becomes creative expression and she’s better at it than he is. She’s more spontaneous and wild in a way that’s almost artistic.

BW: If he had another hobby like hang gliding, she would have become obsessed with that as well. She’s just interested in what he’s doing and that happens to be murder.

Ben, are you committed to sticking with these endings that leave audiences in a really terrible, uncomfortable place when the leave the theatre?

BW: Oh yeah. I was thinking about endings the other day. A lot of the big budget Hollywood movies tend to end with a load of police cars parked around an ambulance and the characters going, “Fuck, yeah!” I don’t know if I’ll ever get there in my movies, where everyone’s thrilled and you leave feeling great. Well, never say never. I probably couldn’t do another one like this that cuts out so hard at the end, because it would be too many in a row. But Down Terrace isn’t like that.

True, but the main character still murders his parents.

BW: Yeah…well, you know….people die. [Laughs]

0 Comments | Add a Comment
*Your Name:
*Enter code:
* Comment: