Brit filmmaker Ben Wheatley had brought his prior two low-budget features, “Down Terrace” and “Kill List,” to the Cannes market. Then he made his proper Cannes debut with “Sightseers” in the Director’s Fortnight, an unexpected breakout during an unexceptional year. Then the film played the fest circuit, including Toronto. IFC opens it in New York and L.A.on May 10. See my flipcam interview with Wheatley below.
Much like darkly humorous SXSW hit “Kill List,” which reveals the angry impulses of seemingly ordinary people, “Sightseers” takes a mild-mannered newly-married couple (co-writer/comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram) on a road trip through the English countryside with an Abbey Oxford Caravan to escape their banal lives (and her clutchy mother). When the klutzy husband backs the enormous trailer right over a man he had argued with earlier, we wonder: was it really an accident? During their gorgeous scenic tour, the seemingly innocuous couple discover unexpected depths of anger and violence in each other.
Wheatley thanks several folks for his slow and steady rise. At the suggestion of his producer, Andy Starke of DVD label Mondo Macabre Movies, Wheatley submitted “Down Terrace” to Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League, who booked it for Fantastic Fest, where it won best feature. He also booked “Kill List,” about an unlikely team of best chum assassins, as one of his midnight showings at SXSW, where it was championed by critics and picked up by IFC Films, which also picked up “Sightseers” after an early Cannes buyer’s screening.
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Wheatley, a commercial director, and his producer Claire Jones are slowly building up to bigger casts and crews. Wheatley likes to shoot multiple takes; the actors stay true to the script, then do improvised scenes, and also add their own two-minute bits before and after each scene. Then the filmmaker hunkers down in the editing room for four months to whittle away at the final cut.
Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) brought Wheatley and his team to Big Talk Pictures, where they developed the “Sightseers” script by writer-actors Lowe and Oram, who had refined the characters of the Midlands caravan lovers during standup gigs. They sent a link to Wright; he and producer Nina Park optioned the script.
When Wheatley came on board, “we reworked and restructured it a bit,” he told me at Cannes. “I liked the idea that they had a background in standup comedy.” He shot 120 hours of footage for “Sightseers,” which unfolds at a good clip.
The Wright connection makes sense; Wheatley is playing in the same naturalistic human comedy ballpark as the Duplass brothers or Lynn Shelton, but brings a mordant British “Ladykillers” wit to the proceedings. We get a kick out of watching this latter-day Bonnie and Clyde act out impulses that we cannot. That’s what movies are for.
And enjoyably, Wheatley likes to keep the audience guessing. “Mystery is more interesting to me, I want you thinking, not dozing,” he says. “I don’t want you to already know so far ahead that you’re already thinking about the next film you’re going to see. I like dragging the audience hither and thither so they’re behind you, not in front of you.”
No kidding. You never know what’s going to happen. And the film’s final shot is a humdinger.