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Interview: Ben Wheatley Talks The Dark, Twisted & Hilarious ‘Sightseers,’ Says ‘Freakshift’ Is Next & Casting Soon

Interview: Ben Wheatley Talks The Dark, Twisted & Hilarious 'Sightseers,' Says 'Freakshift' Is Next & Casting Soon

After a very successful run on the festival circuit, Ben Wheatley‘s dark and somewhat ghastly comedy “Sightseers” is finally making itself available to theater-goers in hip cities and VODers across the country. It is, in my opinion, the most assured work from the British director of “Kill List” and “Down Terrace,” a very funny vacation-comedy about pair of social misfits/lovebirds visiting mundane historical sites and leaving a trail of corpses in their wake. Written by its co-stars Alice Lowe, Steve Oram and Wheatley’s frequent collaborator (and wife) Amy Jump, “Sightseers also boasts an executive producer stamp from Edgar Wright. 

Wheatley was in New York doing last minute publicity on a movie that first debuted almost one year ago in Cannes. An edited transcript of that conversation is below. And in case you missed it, here’s our exclusive clip from movie.

Quite bluntly: I love this movie! I’ve seen it twice. That’s not that many times, but I never see a movie twice, so that’s a big deal.
[laughs] Well, thank you.

The reactions were big both times, and pretty much in the same spot. Does it play the same across all audiences?
Kind of. It’s a film designed around difficult laughs that prop the whole thing up, so if it isn’t working there then the whole film isn’t working. But then there are other laughs that either land or don’t depending on the audience. Same with all comedies, same with all movies, really. Then again, maybe I’m listening in on a much more micro way having lived with it a lot longer. 

Was there a screening you attended where one guy laughed at something unexpected – where you were thinking “That’s not funny, why’s he laughing at that?”
The Cannes screening, really, that was the one where they laughed all the way through. As soon as the mother started moaning right through the end credits they laughed all the way through – we thought, “Hey, this is a generous crowd.”

Is the best comedy, angry comedy?

I dunno, you’d be on dodgy ground to say anything is “the best” one way or another with comedy. It’s so subjective. My favorite comedy is like that, though. And I like comedy that is mixed with pathos and emotion, so you don’t get the third act problem you often get – where you have a third act that is just chasing about, running out of steam.

Many comedies in the third act almost become bland action movies.

It’s a boring story that sometimes surfaces, and you almost wish they’d just go back to the beginning to just have a laugh. This film, I hope, is different because it takes care to build characters and emotion so it’s not just jokes and gags.

Our sympathies change throughout the film. First we’re on her side, then on his side, then we root for both of them, then we’re on neither of their sides. Was playing with shifting sympathies something you set out to do or is that just how the movie ended up?

You don’t start with that intention. You don’t wake up and say “I want to make a film where they like the character and then don’t and then come back again.” But if you think about what normal human interaction is like, you have that, right? You do that with people, you see what their baggage is like. So by the end of the movie you have to decide whether you like these people. Or whether you like yourself, depending on what you laughed at. What decisions you made.

When people go on vacation are people more themselves or is it a fake version of themselves – the personas they want to be?

When you get out of the routine you live in a different time bubble, don’t you? Everything seems slower. You experience things more vividly than in normal life. So a holiday is more intense.

More intense, and so frequently in a strange setting. Much of my love of “Sightseers” is the setting. Especially in the US where days off are infrequent, we work and work and work and finally – yes! – we have time off, and so often we just end up at an old monastery, or a piece of history that isn’t all that interesting. Were you dragged to these places a lot as a kid?

Yeah, sure! I go there now with my family. I drag my kid around. But I like them! I’m not sneering at them. I’ve always enjoyed going to castles and museums. I mean, what else are you going to do, right? It’s either that or you go to the beach. Or go mountain biking. Or else you are stuck in your house with your relations. There’s not a hell of a lot to do.

To ask about the process, I envision the production on this road trip, and you happen upon things on location that make it into the film. Two specific examples, there’s the scene where Alice Lowe’s character has all this leftover food and she’s shoving it in the mouth of this. . . what was it a metal dog?

It was a bear.

Yes, a kiddie ride bear with an open mouth. And then the scene with the giant pencil. . .

Well, the pencil is scripted. We built that pencil. It would be hard to come across a giant pencil.

Well, I thought maybe it was actually there at that gift shop.

It would be fair to assume that, actually. That museum does have the world’s biggest pencil in it. And the world’s second biggest pencil as a matter of fact. They’ve got that down. But, yeah, that bear was on the location and we just used it. The examples of finding things to use were more in the mother’s house. In the original script we only used two rooms in the mother’s house, but we got the art department to dress every room and we wandered round and did little scenes all over. Most of them made it into the film – it was great to have that realism. If you move fast enough you can shoot that way. If you shoot in a traditional way it is hard to justify it in the budget, but if you shoot documentary style you you can make it happen. 

I see this production like a big road trip, shooting in sequence.

Yeah, it was all chronological order, real locations. There was a plan to stay in caravans with the crew, but the convoy would have been somewhat expensive. But it did have a family outing feeling to it.

Were there dark comedies you were shooting for, tonally? To have your movie sit alongside on the shelf, so to speak?

I try not to think that. I think Alice and Steve [Oram] may have watched certain things beforehand. Laurie Rose, the DP, and I watched “Grey Gardens” beforehand. Which we did before “Kill List,” too. That documentary feeling, plus the family tied to each other that don’t really like each other. The Maysles documentaries, I watch quite a lot. In terms of “couples on the run murdering people” movies, not sure there’s much that’s very helpful.

Can you talk a bit about using “Tainted Love” in the opening credits?

Edgar Wright is our executive producer, and he’d seen an early cut. We had all this German prog rock in there but not much else. I come from a low budget background so it scares me to think about music licensing. But Edgar said, “Don’t be afraid to use pop music.” So I just went back to my iPod asking what do I love? I didn’t want to use something too ironic. I’ve loved that song since I was a kid, so I was surprised we could get it.

Was that the most expensive thing in the movie?
[Laughs] Actually the original version of “Tainted Love” was more expensive in the end, not sure why. It was affordable in our budget, but it’s great because it has such cultural resonance.

There isn’t as much violence in this as in your other films, but there are one or two moments when it really goes all out. Did you ever consider trimming some of those images just a little, for a wider audience?

Yeah, but what are you saying if you do that? The whole message of the film is gone, and you go down a rocky road if you think like that. You wonder, “What if I just took those jokes out?” You start thinking about an audience of four old ladies who want something nice and quiet. You end up with a movie about caravaning and that’s it? Looking at hills and saying, “That’s lovely, innit it?”

If you soft-pedal on violence, then I think you advocate it. Which is counter-intuitive, I know. If you make a movie with violence in it, but you don’t show the violence being horrible, then you are kind’ve being disingenuous about the whole thing. No one can accuse me of advocating it or making bloody murder look anything other than horrible.

No, absolutely not, but it is weird because you love these characters. It makes you uneasy because these people are terrible.

Yes, it should make you uneasy because you are tacit in it, you are agreeing with it. You think they’re okay and all right. And it isn’t all right, murdering people.

Let’s talk about the future a bit because there’s a lot on your plate and, you know, for guys like me who get confused easily it can be confusing.You’ve got something called “A Field In England” which I hear is done, and, unless I’m mistaken, is a period piece about deserting soldiers during the British Civil War who end up in a poppy field and go on a giant acid trip for two hours. Have I got that correct at all?

[Laughs.] Um, elements of that are right. It’s about the English Civil War and soldiers that escape a battle and end up taking magic mushrooms. But, taking acid in a poppy field is [laughs] a bit of a defeat of logic for all involved.

And it’s low budget, black & white and experimental?

Yeah, and we’re very happy with it. Can’t wait to unleash it. I couldn’t say [which festivals if any], but we’ll show it at European festivals and a cinema release in the U.K. in July. 
Something else in the works without much info, something called “Two For Hell.” Can you talk about this?
It’s a crime film, British crime script. But that’s long lead. I’ve been writing that on and off for the past year. What we tend to do is write something for immediate production, then we have something of a spare – a throwdown script – then the one for next year, and year after, that’s why there’s so many floating around. The next big one is ”Freakshift” which has a bigger budget. We’re casting that one right now. We’re trying to lock the casting and then get greenlit and it will go, we’re confident about it. Imagine “Hill Street Blues versus monsters.

I would imagine that after “Kill List” you were invited to lunch by the Hollywood studios. Would you ever consider a director for hire gig?

Never say never. I shoot TV and I make ads, so I’m not some hardcore indie filmmaker.

With the superhero craze, is there one that if you were offered you’d say “That’s my guy!” They’ve all been done, haven’t they now?

Well, they’ve all been done, and now they are all being re-done.

Re-done, yeah, yeah, you’re right. My favorites were Frank Miller’s run on “Daredevil” and “The Dark Knight Returns” and then “Watchmen”, which has all been subsumed into popular culture. There’s stuff round the edges, though. I read comics still however, from all time periods. And I stay pretty current. One I’m reading now, it’s an older one, is “Abslom Daak: Dalek Killer

Oh, “Doctor Who!”

Yeah, it’s from late 1970s/early 1980s. It’s very good, but it’s all tied up with “Doctor Who” so that’ll never happen. Eh, who knows?

Summer movies are here – anything you are excited to see?
The new “Star Trek” to be sure. The first one was the best summer blockbuster I’ve seen in years. I’m very excited for it. And “Pacific Rim” although I can’t say the title without giggling. What were they thinking with that?

I mean, I know that they have the “Pacific Rim Games,” which is a big thing for the Navy.
I bet! I’m sure it is! [Laughs]

“Sightseers” opens in theaters on May 10 and is available on VOD May 13.

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