It might not have been a banner year for comedy movies so far, but there’s one shining light arriving this week (for U.K. audiences at least — American crowds are going to have to wait another few months), in the shape of “Sightseers,” the third feature from “Down Terrace” and “Kill List” director Ben Wheatley. Blending the outstanding visuals and unsettling sound of the director’s earlier films with a unique pitch-black sensibility, it also sees the arrival of two fully-formed comic talents on the world scene, in the shape of the film’s stars and writers, Alice Lowe and Steve Oram.
Both have been familiar to fans of British comedy for a while — Lowe, with Richard Ayoade, Matthew Holness and Matt Berry, was one of the members of cult comedy “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” along with extensive other credits, while Oram’s been a favorite on the live scene for some time — without quite being household names. But since “Sightseers” premiered at Cannes back in May to rave reviews (including ours), it looks like, happily, they’re going to be major presences in cinematic comedy for some time to come.
Based on a script by the pair (with additional material from Wheatley’s partner Amy Jump), the film sees Lowe play Tina, a woman from the Midlands still living at home with her mother (Eileen Davies), and mourning the death of her beloved dog. Her new boyfriend Chris (Oram) takes her away on a caravanning holiday, which nearly unravels after a horrific accident. But the pair soon discover a taste for death, which they start to unleash on all the petty annoyances they come across.
Having talked with Wheatley about the film at TIFF back in September, we were lucky enough to have a chat with Lowe and Oram at the BFI London Film Festival last month, the night after the film’s premiere, to dig into the genesis and evolution of “Sightseers.” In the film, it’s revealed that Chris and Tina met at a capoeira class, but as it turns out, the first encounter between Lowe and Oram was rather more prosaic; at the Edinburgh festival, the month-long marathon of comedy that the world stand-up and sketch industry revolves around.
And it wasn’t long before the two crossed paths again, with Oram explaining “We probably started working together at Ealing Live, which was a now defunct sketch and character night at Ealing Studios, about seven or eight years ago.” Lowe adds, “It was people like [TV comedy actress] Katy Brand, [‘Bunny and the Bull‘ star] Simon Farnaby, [sitcom megastar] Miranda Hart, Steve’s double act partner Tom Meeten, lots of people who are now working on TV. They were trying to make it like ‘Saturday Night Live,’ they said we’re not going to pay you, but we’ll supply you with rehearsal space, and a director, which was a great thing, really. So we started working together as a group, and bonded, and found lots of creative ideas, it was a creative time.”
But it sounds like the material was of a similarly dark nature to “Sightseers.” “We were the weirdos,” Lowe said, with a laugh. “One of our sketches, in Edinburgh, someone shouted from the audience ‘This is an outrage!'” Oram elaborates: “That was me wheeling her around, she was sort of semi-dead woman, and I was a medical orderly, wheeling her around stage. Doing a sort of sexy dance. And accidentally, she fell out of the chair, and someone found it really offensive. I think we were playing to the wrong audience… That was the last time we did it.”
It was around this time that the seeds for what would become Chris and Tina first emerged. “It came from us, really, from our Midlands background and shared experiences of holidays. The funny concept of the Brummie geek going on holiday and killing people, that was the first idea, and we followed it through to the bitter end,” Oram said. From there, they started workshopping the characters on the live comedy circuit occasionally, and quite soon, the TV world started sniffing around. “We had quite a lot of people expressing interest,” Lowe said, “saying I think there’s some depth to this, you can take it further. So we developed it as a TV idea, and did a little taster, and made the decision to make a short film. We could have done a rubbish trailer, like you do, but we wanted to make something that stands alone, and I’m really glad we did that, because all the TV channels rejected it, they said it’s too dark, we don’t want dark at the moment.”
With TV closing its doors, it turned out to be Edgar Wright (who directed Lowe in “Hot Fuzz” and ended up as an executive producer on “Sightseers”) who suggested taking it to the big screen “We put it online,” Lowe continued, “and started sending it ’round, and I sent it to Edgar Wright, who’s a friend of mine, and who I’ve worked with, expecting nothing. And he came back to me immediately, and went ‘There’s a film in this, go to [Wright’s regular producer] Nira Park, get her to have a look.’ And then we started developing it with [Park’s company] Big Talk and Film4. They’d just started an initiative to try and develop comedy films with Film4, and I think we were the first people on their slate for that.” Oram adds, “Edgar was great, because no one knew who we were, he gave us cred.”
With projects including “Shaun of the Dead” and “Attack The Block,” Big Talk are at the forefront of a renaissance in British comedy film over the last few years, something that the duo think has been long overdue. “The irony is that we’re really good at comedy in Britain,” Lowe told us, “but for some reason we make very few comedy films. And when we do, they’re either quite American in style, or very Richard Curtis. And I like Richard Curtis, but I think only Richard Curtis should write Richard Curtis films, and other people should try and find their own style. So there’s this weird preconception of what British comedy films should be, and really it should spring from this fertile training ground we’ve got, which is live comedy and TV comedy. It should come from that and develop right through. I think the internet has been amazing for us, because it lets you leapfrog that process. Even TV, you can pick up bad habits, start thinking you have to include certain things, not really creatively expressing itself, so it’s not as fresh. Whereas if you make a short film and put it on the internet, it can be as fresh as you like.”
Indeed, given their past experiences on TV, it seems like the pair are happy with having found their way into the movies. “There weren’t really many opportunities for us to do our original work on TV,” Oram said, “despite us really trying and banging our heads against the door for ages. I had a pilot, Alice had a pilot…”
“I had about four!” Lowe interjected. “And they never go anywhere, because they were too odd. People go ‘Oh, if it was only five years ago, when BBC3 were still doing interesting things'” Whereas, as Oram says, “Film seems much more democratic, if you’ve got the money, you can do it. And you can do a low budget film. Go out in a field, get a camera, film your mates doing stuff. It’s so simple, the technology’s so brilliant now. It’s what Ben did with ‘Down Terrace,’ and it’s so inspiring.”
The film marks the first time that Wheatley directed a film he didn’t write himself, and although it bears some stylistic hallmarks with his earlier films, Lowe says that some of them were already present before the director got involved. “We were meeting directors and saw ‘Down Terrace,’ and we were like ‘Oh my god, the themes overlap so much.’ ” Even the more mystical side of the film, reflected in “Kill List,” pre-dated Wheatley’s involvement, according to Oram. “We already had the pagans, the stone circle stuff, ‘cos we’d actually been to these places. We were sort of inspired by the landscape.” Wheatley still had a huge influence, though. “Ben brought his flair, and his editing skill, creating this really visceral thing. Particularly with the murders. Originally, we didn’t see as much of them, or for as long…” Lowe agrees, saying that the director helped enormously with the structure. “I think he helped us to see the film in a less linear way, because we’d gone ‘It’s real time, they’re doing this journey,’ and he taught us it was alright to have imaginary bits, and flashbacks, which gave it this added layer of mysticism.”
As we revealed before, both Lowe and Oram are planning their own directorial debuts, so have no immediate plans to work with Wheatley again on his ever-growing stack of projects (although, as Lowe jokes, “We did voiceovers in ‘Kill List’, which is funny, because people are always going ‘What are you in ‘Kill List?” It’s always nice to have an extra film credit on IMDB, even though you didn’t really do anything…”). But they’re definitely keen to work with the director again at some point. “He’s just the most fun you can have, to work with him. Even though the films are so dark, and seem so impressive, the team he has around him, and the atmosphere he produces, there’s a real camaraderie, and a real light touch. ‘Cos it’s low budget, you’re there because you want to be, and that’s true with everyone. It’s very fulfilling for an actor, you get so much freedom, he wants you to be instinctive, and to do what you want. He makes sure as an actor that you’re not hampered by anything, you’re as much in the real moment as you possibly could be. And it’s such a privilege to work in that way.”
“Sightseers” hits UK theaters on November 30th, and IFC Films will release it in the U.S. in the early part of 2013.