Acclaimed British helmer Ben Wheatley is back in theaters this Friday after terrifying audiences last year with the sinister “Kill List,” with a decidedly different film that’s still no less twisted. Unlike “Kill List,” his new effort “Sightseers” is a laugh-riot, albeit an extremely dark one. The film, which premiered in Cannes this time last year, follows a young couple (Alice Lowe and Steve Oram — both of who also collaborated on the screenplay) on a holiday through the British Isles who murder anyone that rub them the wrong way — that includes litterers. Think of it as “Serial Mom,” filtered through a Mike Leigh lens.
Indiewire called up Wheatley to discuss the macabre comedy and his upcoming gonzo period film “A Field in England,” and find out whether he’d ever go down the Marvel route if the studio were to call. IFC opens “Sightseers” in select theaters May 10. It hits VOD May 13.
The thing that separates this from both “Kill List” and “Down Terrace” is that you didn’t write it. Had you long been looking to direct something that came from another source?
No, that’s just the way it turned out really. I got off with it after “Down Terrace” and I like to work, so it was just the next thing up. It doesn’t really bother me whether I’ve written it or not particularly. It’s not a big concern, but Amy Jump did a rewrite across it, who co-wrote “Kill List” with me, so the material was pretty familiar by the time we got to make it.
The film’s hilarious, but also extremely dark. How do you characterize “Sightseers” in your own terms?
It was definitely conceived as a comedy, but also a romantic comedy as far as I’m concerned. “Kill List” was designed to make you upset and kind of feel scared and terrorized and this film was made primarily to make you laugh, even if it’s a dark chuckle.
How would you describe your own sense of humor?
I’ve got a very kind of wry, kind of very sarcastic, dark sense of humor. It can be witnessed in the other movies I’ve made. Those kinds of things make me laugh and it’s much easier to make a comedy that comes from your own sense of humor. I might have struggled with something that was more broad.
All my family are down beaten and pessimistic. I think my sense of humor comes out of that and about being realistic about life and being about to laugh at failure as a way to stop letting it affect you.
You’re known for encouraging a lot of improv on your sets. How do you keep your cast on the same track whilst giving them the freedom to do their own thing?
I think you don’t. You just let them do what they want and if it’s something funny then you follow it down that route and you make an atmosphere that says, kind of, no one can fail and no one can embarrass themselves. Just go for it. But the control then comes in the the edit. You have to be really brutal in the cutting of it and make sure that you get the right stuff. But it’s just taste at the end of the day. But yeah, we shot a lot of stuff, it was great, it was a real treat that we got to choose from so much.
Was it tough to keep the endgame in mind when shooting amid so much improv?
We had a really good script so we used that. We shot the script out then we’d shoot things around the script, then we just made stuff up as well. The script would then have to fight with the improvised things for a part in the film. It’s Darwinian like that, it’s all about a very cutthroat world of whether things are allowed in are not.
You shot something like 120 hours of footage, is that right?
Yeah. Which would’ve got me fired off the film if it has been 10 years ago (laughs).
Cutting it down to feature length must have been quite the laborious process given the amount of footage you had.
Oh, not really. I love it, it’s never a chore. The more you shot the more stuff you’ve got to play with, the more opportunities you’ve got to get yourself out of difficult corners. I think I could’ve actually dealt with 200 or 300 hours. It wouldn’t really make much difference to how I work.
In addition to you’re upcoming period pic “A Field In England,” you recently teamed up with HBO for the thriller series “Silk Road” and have a slew of projects in development. Quite the juggling act.
I’ve always made stuff and always written stuff, but now more of the things I’m writing and making are a deeper interest so my actual work-rate hasn’t really changed. But I don’t know, I think if you love what you’re doing you don’t really think about it as work. It’s fun. It can feel a bit claustrophobic knowing the next few years are filled with stuff, but that’s a problem that’s nice to have. It’s not a real problem (laughs). No ones going to want to read about me complaining that I’ve got too much work.
And as a filmmaker it can feel really odd if you get in a situation where you’re only making one film every five years and the rest of the time is spent trying to get the money together. I want to make films, I don’t want to spend my life in meetings. I’ve been really lucky, but then I make films that are quite modestly budgeted so the pressure is different.
So you’re not going to pull a Terrence Malick on us any time soon?
I couldn’t afford to, to be honest (laughs). I don’t know how he’s managed to do that. I mean everyone has to live and pay for their food and housing and stuff. I don’t know how, you know I couldn’t afford to not be working as hard as I do.
Of all your upcoming projects, which one are you most excited for?
Well the new film, I’m looking forward to everyone seeing “A Field In England,” which we’ve just finished. That’s next on the horizon really, getting that out there and seeing what the reaction is to it. And it’s pretty crazy, the most extreme of the films I’ve made I think in many ways. I’m just doing a lot writing… the HBO thing, I’m working at that and I’m working on a couple other feature scripts we’ve got going.
“England” centers on a group of deserters from an ongoing war, who consume magic mushrooms and go on a trip. How nutty is it?
It would be foolish to go on and on about how crazy it is and then everyone go see it and go “Come on, show me something crazy!” I don’t know, we’ll just see what people think. I mean I’m really happy with it and we think it’s one of the best films we’ve made. It’s going to be a kind of you-love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing, but that’s alright. It didn’t cost that much money so that’s cool.
Do you see your films in love-it-or-hate-it terms?
I think if you make anything that’s extremely one way or another, you start to limit the audience for it. But as long as I’m happy with it it doesn’t really matter, but then I like a lot of different kinds of movies. I mean I’ll be happy watching obscure, difficult art films as I am watching “The Avengers.” It’s different strokes for different folks in those respects isn’t it?
Have you seen “Iron Man 3”?
No I haven’t, but I’m a big Shane Black fan so I’m sure it’s great. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” was fantastic and “The Last Boy Scout” is one of my favorite scripts.
If Marvel approached you to helm their next superhero picture would you ever consider it?
Yeah of course. It’s not for me to say it’s for them. Phone me up! (laughs). Yeah I’d be interested in stuff like that. But I don’t see it as like a career trajectory. There’s opportunities to make all sorts of different kinds of movies all the time. I’d love to make one of those big Hollywood films, but I want to make my own personal, kind of controlled films and I can still do that.