Camper van holidays in the north of England and murder do not, traditionally, go hand in hand. But trust Ben Wheatley, the mind behind pitch-black breakthrough films “Down Terrace” and “Kill List,” to bring them together for his third feature film, “Sightseers.” From a script by British comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (who workshopped the characters on the U.K. circuit for years), and executive produced by Edgar Wright, the film is a darkly funny, curiously moving film that drew rave reviews when it premiered at Cannes (including our own).
“Sightseers” is now making its way through festivals in the rest of the world, stopping at the Toronto International Film Festival last week for the film’s North American premiere, and we took the opportunity to sit down for an interview with Wheatley. You can find out what he said about upcoming projects like “A Field In England,” “Freak Shift” and “I, Macrobane” here, and below, you’ll find discussion of the genesis of “Sightseers,” his partly-improvised process, and the director’s prolific work rate. Read on for more.
So how did the script for “Sightseers” find its way into your hands?
Through Nira Park, and Big Talk, who produced “Shaun of the Dead” and “Spaced.” They’d seen “Down Terrace,” and got a meeting there, and they said “Do you want to do this” and I was like, “Oh, i know that, cos I’ve seen the short film, and I knew Alice and Steve.” So I said “Yes, sounds good.” I’d written a comedy that we were teeing up to do next anyway, we were going to do them back to back, but that didn’t happen. But I wanted to do a comedy, basically.
Was the script you filmed pretty much the same as the one you read back then?
No, it was different. They did a lot of drafts, in development, and when I came on board, I looked at them all. Also, the structure of it wasn’t too dissimilar from “Kill List,” in many ways, a couple driving around, meeting characters and knocking them off (laughs), so we’ve learnt quite a lot from that about how not to do it. So Amy Jump, who’d co-written “Kill List” with me, restructured the script, and added a few characters in, changed some bits around. But on top of that, we did some improvisation, so when we got back in the edit suite, we had tons and tons of material, which Amy and I edited it down. So that was really the final version of the rewrite.
Was a lot of material cut out, then?
There was tons and tons of scenes that were in the script. But we were conscious that in “Down Terrace” we never got out of the house, on “Kill List” we spent half an hour in the house, so we wanted to get out the fucking house. There was great stuff, like a great dinner party scene like in the other two movies. But we felt like we’d done it before, it was adding extra shades to the characters, but we really needed to get on with the story.
Will we see any of that on the DVD?
I think so, but not necessarily the long, uncut improv. But there’s whole other sequences that got dropped, just because of pacing stuff. There were whole characters that went, they were really funny, but we just couldn’t find the time.
What sort of films did you watch for inspiration, in the run up to shooting?
Actually, the films I watched for “Kill List” were the same I watched for “Sightseers.” “Grey Gardens,” the Maysles Brothers documentaries, and D.A. Pennebaker stuff, that kind of looseness of observation documentary, before [the form] became all shaky and camcorder-y.
The film’s much funnier than “Kill List.” Were there particular influences there, or was that just your own sense of humor?
Yeah, we didn’t look at specific films, it has the same sort of thing that “Down Terrace” has, of up and down, going from laughter to crying, from violence to laughter, and back and forth. That kind of gearshifting, it happens in “Kill List” too. You break the audience down until they don’t really know which way they’re gonna go.
In terms of the locations for the film, were they scouted out in advance, or were you sort of shooting wherever you ended up?
The locations were all in the script. Basically, Steve’s dad, Eddie Oram, had a strong knowledge of the area, so he planned a trip for them, years ago, and Steve and Alice went out and did that trip, in a camper van, but in character, improvising all the way round. They had this research trip tape, part of this package of stuff that I got when I came on the project. So the film was shot in chronological order, and that route was the real route they traveled.
Was that helpful? Having actors who’ve been living those characters for so long?
Yeah, that was one of the things that attracted me to it, that they could improvise, but improvise with a depth of knowledge of the character. These films are quite low-budget, so you don’t get the luxury of that long rehearsal period, that other films get, where they can workshop their character. So to have it already built in is invaluable.
Does that cause issues with the schedule, improvising so much?
Well, we shoot very fast: available light, a lot of handheld, it’s like shooting documentary, so you’ve got plenty of time. Once you get into three-point lighting and dollying track then you’re fucked, but if you’re already decided that your style’s going to be looser, capturing life as it happens, then that improv style isn’t going to be a problem. Like the house at the beginning, only the front room and the kitchen needed to be dressed, but we ended up dressing the whole house, because I knew I wanted to try other scenes when we were there.
You seem to work amazingly quick, jumping from one project to another. Is that a conscious plan?
It’s my job. It’s like if I said to you, “Would you like to write an article and wait four years to write another one?” The really great filmmakers of the past, made a fucking shitload of movies. There’s a lot of pressure now that you’ve got to make the first film and it’s got to be amazing, or you don’t make the second one. But John Ford did a hundred movies. Hitchcock had a London period, then a French period, then a London period again, then he goes to Hollywood, he had hundreds of film under his belt. It’s not a coincidence that these guys are really good from making loads and loads of films, that’s how you learn.
With that in mind, do you go back and look at “Down Terrace” and “Kill List” now?
We think about the structure stuff, and the storytelling. I don’t tend to watch them again. But we talk about how we put them together, and how not to make the same mistakes, or use too many of the same tricks, things like that. I like watching “Down Terrace” because all my friends are in it, it was a particular frozen moment in time, that house is really [actor] Bob Hill‘s house. “Kill List” is still too raw to watch for me. But again, it’s got [Michael] Smiley and [Neil] Maskell and MyAnna [Buring], and I love seeing them. We’re just going through the “Sightseers”cycle now, so I quite enjoy watching it, but that’ll probably stop soon (laughs).
With the films getting wider and wider exposure, have you had opportunities come from the major studios?
Yeah, I get scripts and stuff, there’s opportunities, but the lead time is massive, it’s years. You can say you like a script, but it’ll take ages to get together. And also I’m too busy at the moment anyway, til the end of 2014 we’re busy, so you can’t really look at scripts. Plus I’m gonna stop telling people what I’m doing, because it looks stupid. It looks like you’re making it up.
Is that what you’ve learned from the press so far?
I think that’s an ongoing process. I’m always acutely embarassed by anything I say in the press, I’m getting used to that. You don’t want to give too much away. It’s also that irony never works in print, so you end up looking like a conceited fucker.
“Sightseers” opens in the U.K. on November 30th, and will follow in the U.S. at a time TBA, most likely in early 2013.