Carry on Killing: Director Ben Wheatley on Sightseers
<b>Ben Wheatley</b> was kind enough to take some time out from editing new picture <i>A Field In England</i> to be quizzed by The Skinny on this month’s <i>Sightseers</i>, and what he’s got coming up next
Witty, urbane and with a dark streak a mile wide, 40-year-old Brighton-based writer-director Ben Wheatley has made an auspicious start to his filmmaking career. Beginning in TV with Modern Toss and Time Trumpet, he then made a splash with his micro-budget directorial feature debut Down Terrace, then cemented his reputation with last year’s excellent Kill List. What makes him stand out from the genre crowd is that he manages to retain the idiosyncrasies of British character and culture while still delivering the Kensington Gore.
Wheatley's latest film is Sightseers, a murderous road movie following a seemingly benign couple who go on a killing spree around various Midlands landmarks and museums. Written by co-stars Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, Sightseers is a similarly dark tale to Wheatley’s previous films, albeit with a greater emphasis on laughs. A need to lighten the load somewhat, and to ensure a variety to his work, appears to have been on the agenda for the director from the off.
"Yeah, I got offered it before Kill List, and I knew that Kill List was about to happen, and I kind of thought that I definitely wanted to do a comedy after doing a horror film," explains Wheatley. "That’s why I took it really; and that I knew Alice and Steve, and I’d actually seen the short film version that they’d done [with the same characters], so I kind of knew what the project was. And, when I began making films I always wanted to make sure that I didn’t end up doing the same thing again and again, if that was possible."
Filming someone else’s material for the first time, Wheatley seems to have hit the jackpot in colluding with likeminded artists. Oram and Lowe were also happy to collaborate, and the presence of Wheatley's spouse and Kill List co-writer Amy Jump on the writing team helped add familiarity to the project.
"Amy did a pass on the script, so it was kind of tailored to the kind of stuff that would fit with the way that we’ve been working," he says. "The script itself is very well represented on-screen. The improv stuff is extensions of those scenes – not a massive amount of new scenes, because it would be very difficult to work like that. You can’t just trawl about making stuff up randomly. But we would find locations, and we would make up extra scenes within those spaces."
Wheatley is particularly enthusiastic about these heritage sites, as evident both on-screen and in our conversation about their scouting. "The locations had come from a trip that Alice and Steve had done – a kind of research trip – a year or so ago. And the actual locations had been found by Steve’s dad, Eddie Oram, who knew the area really well all around the Midlands and up to the Lake District. He basically designed all that and said, you know, you want to go to the Pencil Museum, and the Tram Museum, and things like that."
The Pencil Museum holds one of the standout moments in the film, which could have been played to belittle the eccentric attraction. "I think it could’ve easily been that. You know, taking the piss out of those places, but I have an absolute affection for them. The comedy is about the characters, not the places. But, I mean, even the Pencil Museum is a really interesting place, you know… but there is something funny about a giant pencil."
The comedy of the characters is crucially juxtaposed with the full human effect of the couple’s crime spree. "You need to see the aftermath of what they’ve been doing. If you don’t, then somehow the filmmakers condone it, you know?" This is a doctrine Wheatley clearly sticks to, as evident by his body of work. "You don’t collude with the characters to say, 'it’s okay to murder people.' And you give the evidence to the audience to make their own decision, and then they can feel like, y’know, they like the characters, and they feel that they’ve got a point, but they also understand that what they do is wrong, and, if you don’t show that stuff, you’re basically saying that what they’re doing is right, and it’s not. It’s a bit like when you see The A-Team, isn’t it? They machine-gun loads of people, or barns explode and then people stagger out afterwards. It’s a very strange message, isn’t it? Because you’re saying that it’s alright to shoot at people, cause they won’t die. I don’t think that’s right!"
The marriage of comedy and horror seems set to continue with Wheatley’s upcoming projects. Along with A Field In England, the filmmaker has been keeping busy by directing a segment of highly-anticipated horror portmanteau The ABCs of Death, and beginning work on the decidedly John Carpentery sounding Freakshift, where hunters defend a world overrun with grizzly monsters. With a slated budget of $15 million, it’s a dramatic upping of the financial stakes for his team. "We’re in a kind of pre-pre-production mode at the moment, so we’re doing storyboards and designing creatures and starting to think about the casting of it, so, y’know, it’s pottering along. But it’s such a big movie for us, so it’s kind of going to take a bit more time to get together than the usual."
The ABCs of Death is something Wheatley is clearly excited about too: "I met up with Tim League, who’s one of the producers on it – he’s the guy who runs the Alamo Drafthouse in Texas, and he runs Fantastic Fest. Fantastic Fest gave Down Terrace, my first film, its first showing, and they really championed it, and we won some awards there; basically, I owe quite a lot to Tim. So, I ran into him in Cannes, and he went, 'D’you wanna do The ABCs of Death?' and I was like, 'Yeah, okay. Whatever.' The one we did was a kind of a vampire thing, and I just got the feeling I possibly will never get to make a vampire film, cause it’s kind of been so done. But I still wanna do one, y’know," he says with a laugh. "So, I got my chance to make a little version of it."
And what of A Field In England, which seemingly came together in practically a matter of days? "It’s a period film set during the English Civil War, and it’s got Michael Smiley in it, Reece Shearsmith, Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover, who’s in Sightseers. Ryan Pope’s in it, who’s one of the guys I worked with on Ideal, who’s really brilliant, and Julian Barratt’s in it as well, and it’s kind of like a… it’s a period movie meets a Roger Corman psychedelic movie. So there’s a lot of mushroom taking in it. And magic." Sounds a suitable marriage of genres and good old-fashioned British weirdness to continue his current rich vein of form.
Sightseers is released 30 Nov by StudioCanal.
A special preview of Sightseers takes place 21 Nov, 6.15pm, at the Cameo in Edinburgh, where writer/star Steve Oram will join the audience for a Q&A following the film.