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Sightseers – Alice Lowe interview (exclusive)

Sightseers

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ALICE Lowe talks about bringing Sightseers to the big screen, going on a real-life road/camping trip with co-writer and co-star Steve Oram and working with Edgar Wright and Ben Wheatley.

She also talks about finding the right balance between the comedy and the violence and reflects on her own career to this point and what she’s learned along the way – as well as what she’s hoping to do next.

Q. Sightseers was co-written by yourself and Steve Oram. So, how did you first meet?
Alice Lowe: Well, we’re both comedians so we’ve both done the London circuit and we’ve done the Edinburgh Festival, or did when we were starting out. It’s a small world really. You end up meeting everyone and we started collaborating together. We then realised we were both from The Midlands and we grew up in The Midlands and we sort off started exchanging stories about our parents, about family holidays and we started improvising these characters – this couple who were, on the surface, very polite and nerdy but they’ve got seething rage and resentment just underneath the surface. That became a live stage act, a character comedy act, and then we developed it into a TV idea and then all the TV channels said ‘no, it’s too dark. We can’t make this. We love it, it’s really funny, but we can’t do it’. So, I sent the clip to Edgar Wright and he said: “I think there’s a feature in this.” And he’s now the executive producer, so it wouldn’t have happened without him.

Q. What made you choose Edgar Wright?
Alice Lowe: Or rather why would he choose a worm like me [laughs]? I’d worked with him on a couple of things, such as Hot Fuzz, so again it’s a small world. He also loved Gareth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a cult comedy that I did a few years ago, so I knew it would be right up his street really. I knew it was the right sort of hybrid of American genre road movie with a very British twist to it. Actually, I didn’t really know that he’d want to do anything with it. I just kind of thought he might like it, so on the off-chance I emailed it to him. And then it started to develop. Film Four came on board. So, we were just incredibly lucky that someone as prestigious as Edgar was interested in developing a relatively unknown comedian’s ideas… or rather a completely unknown couple of comedians [laughs]!

Q. And when did Ben Wheatley come on board to direct?
Alice Lowe: Relatively recently actually. We’ve developed this for five years and initially we did a short film, we did a research trip, we went camping in a caravan together, the two of us, which was very informative [laughs] for the characters and the tensions that you see between them. Initially, the short was directed by Paul King, who did The Mighty Boosh and Bunny & The Bull, and then he was unable to do the actual feature, so Ben was just about to do Kill List, had just completed Down Terrace, and it was obvious there was an overlap there with tastes and interests and we knew Ben from before because her was a TV comedy director. We’d both worked with him before, so he just seemed like the natural choice. And luckily for us, his career has taken off and we were, again, really lucky that he decided this was the project he wanted to do next rather than other offers I’m sure he had coming in.

But it really meant that the project was able to meet its real potential I think. We always wanted it to be visual and beautiful and to aspire to those things and he really took it in that direction. He’s a real filmmaker in the sense that he creates a pathos of emotions. It could end up being very verbal and the images don’t seem to be as important. But with Ben, he said there would be a three minute montage at certain points because the audience needs to get it emotionally in order to engage with the characters. I think that’s quite unique and daring but hopefully those mixture of genres of comedy, tragedy and everything work. That’s what we’ve tried to do.

Q. It is a film of extremes in that you have laugh out loud comedy one minute, wince-inducing violence the next and it’s all set against these really beautiful landscapes that do inform the look and character of the piece…
Alice Lowe: Well, that’s what we hoped. We always wanted to show the British countryside at its best, which is why we did the research trip. We were totally blown away by the places that we went to. We really did go: “We should shoot the film here.” It also made us think of books like Wuthering Heights and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which had these strong elements of violence and tragedy, which you don’t associate with the British temperament really – all these passions and Pagan links to the Druids and stuff like that. Tess has this big finale at the stone circle, so we definitely took from there. We do have a more wild connection to mysticism in our pasts but we have this reputation of having this very light, nerdy exterior as tourists and we wanted to bring those two worlds together.

Q. How far is too far in terms of mean-spirited comedy [such as your mother’s parting comment to you as you drive off on holiday] and the violence?
Alice Lowe: Ben is very much of the school of thought that if you don’t show the violence, then it’s a bit of a cop out. You kind of have to show what you’re expecting the audience to believe in, otherwise you’re not investing properly in what the film is about. It’s got to be unflinching in a way. We were very careful to research actual serial killer mentalities and psychologies, especially in couples, because we knew that it couldn’t be flippant. We had to look at them as a couple and in some ways they’re likeable because people recognise the idea of being in a couple and going off on holiday, so they’re loveable in that sense, but in another sense they’re deeply damaged and so you need to see there’s been a horrible relationship with the mother and there has been a level of abuse, which is created between then and contributes to who she is.

It’s not just a joke that she’s just… she’s not killing someone for the fun of it, she’s just a damaged person and that was something that we worked out really carefully to make sure that people can laugh with them but also ask why are they doing this. People may have the temptation to do it… the fantasy if I meet someone on holiday but I wouldn’t. So, that’s the separation. But I think you need to sympathise with the characters.

Sightseers

Q. How much more did you find out about Steve from your camping trip? And how much do you think he learned about you?
Alice Lowe: Oh, too much! More than any comedy duo should ever learn! We always knew that the key to the narrative was the relationship and people had to believe in it. They also had to like us and they had to almost want to stay with them. They couldn’t just be horrible. So, we knew in a way that the relationship was going to provide the arc of the story and, in a way, the killings were just a metaphor for the trials that their relationship goes through in a sense. The murders are almost secondary to what’s going on between them. So, we actually derived quite a lot of real stuff from the actual dynamic between me and Steve.

I think in most couples – and we’re not actually a couple by the way – but in most couples or partnerships, there’s a constant struggle for power and dominance and that was what was interesting to us… Tina starts out as a very sort of passive character but she gradually finds her feet and finds her wings in a way. But Chris also changes in the sense that you feel he’s a loner and is very much in control of his own world… he think he’s found a partner who is very valuable and passive. But actually she proves him wrong and by the end of it, he does love her. He’s actually found someone who wants to spend time with him doing his ‘hobby’, rather than being alone. So, I think it’s an interesting way to develop both characters. But in answer to your question, a lot of that was based on genuine arguments and stuff that would happen [laughs]. I can’t drive, so Steve had to drive the caravan round the countryside while sometimes improvising and being filmed. We filmed it all as well. So, I’d be there reading the map and being quite bossy about his driving and stuff like that. So, it’s just those funny little relationship tensions that come out that definitely informed the script.

Q. Will you continue to work with each other in the future? Are you working on something at the moment?
Alice Lowe: Yeah, I think both of us… I’m writing a feature script by myself at the moment, which I’m planning to direct. But I’m sure we will work together at some point. It’s tempting to do the idea of a sequel. People keep asking us about that. I don’t quite know how it would work. But I think if we did develop something it would be completely different. It would be possibly be a comedy. It’s also interesting whether we’d be in it as well because it’s quite unusual to have a sort of male-female double act. How do you do that without just playing a couple? I’m certainly going into doing more film now. I’m going to direct a short hopefully this year.

Ironically, there isn’t much comedy film in Britain, which is quite surprising seeing that we’re quite good at it. And I think that there is quite a leap of faith on behalf of the financiers with us as sort of newbies, but hopefully we’ve sort of proved that we can make comedy that also has merit as a film and is beautifully made and has attention to sound and the way it looks – that it’s been properly crafted. I hope that it’s opened the door to more comedians making stuff, especially improvisational comedy, which I just think is the best. You get the best stuff. Why not capture that gold dust on camera?

Q. Has the success of Sightseers to this point made you more confident?
Alice Lowe: Definitely. As I said, we developed it over a long period of time and really we expected nothing from it. We thought no one would see it. We knew once Ben was involved that he had a certain profile and that certain people would be interested to see what he would do next. But certainly from our perspective, we were just happy we made a film. We were relieved that we’d invested all this time and had something to show at the end of it. But yeah, I think it’s a culmination of a lot of different things I’ve done. I did a radio show recently, which I wrote, and I’ve also been making short films for years. So, it feels like a culmination of all the experience I’ve had over the years and I’ve needed that time to get to this point really. You can’t really rush the gaining of experience. Bu tit’s certainly been fantastic in terms of the people I’ve had the chance to work with over the years. I’ve worked with so many directors and picked up a lot of brilliant tips along the way. I’ve also been acting now for almost 15 years and I feel I’ve picked up some ideas about how to direct from that too. So, I’m hoping to be able to apply that experience now.

Sightseers

Q. So, what’s the biggest lesson you feel you’ve taken away from this?
Alice Lowe: I think to be more confident with your ideas and to be a bit more pushy sometimes and assertive. I think what’s difficult is proving to people that a script actually does work and sometimes the laughter might not be on the page, it might be between the lines. So, I always think it’s just best to just make stuff and to carry on making stuff, even if it’s not off your own back, because that’s the only way… especially as a comedy writer, I make short films and then show them to live audience, so if they’re laughing you know you’re doing something right. There will be plenty off people that will tell you ‘no, that joke doesn’t work’. But if you play it to a room full of people and they’re all laughing, then they can’t argue with you anymore.

So, I think I would say that I have more confidence really in the seed of an ideas and really pushing it through. If you can make someone believe that you believe in the idea then I think that’s worth a lot. I think 99% of the whole thing is to have passion about the idea yourself. I think part of your job as a filmmaker is to tell someone that might not think it’s going to work that, actually, it will work. If it doesn’t, then on your head be it. But I think it’s very easy to get discouraged early on.

Q. Would you ever consider taking Sightseers back to the stage?
Alice Lowe: As a musical? That would be amazing! As an opera! Why not! Definitely! I think there’s life in it yet. We’re waiting for the American remake as well. I always look forward, so I’m happy to put those characters to bed for now and move on to the next thing. But maybe… who knows. It’s a good idea.

Read our review of Sightseers

Read our interview with Ben Wheatley