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Sightseers - Ben Wheatley interview

Sightseers, Ben Wheatley

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BEN Wheatley talks about directing Sighsteers as his follow-up to Kill List and why he enjoyed working with co-writers Steve Oram and Alice Lowe and incorporating their improvisational style.

He also discusses his attitude to filmmaking, embracing the vagaries of the British weather and how he was able to get British screen legend John Hurt involved.

Q. Was part of the appeal of making Sightseers the fact that it had some humour to it after Kill List?
Ben Wheatley: I knew it [Kill List] was going to be really horrible and depressing so I wanted to do something that was going to be a comedy afterwards. So, it made total sense.

Q. What was it like working with someone else’s script?
Ben Wheatley: One of the main appeals of the project was working with Alice [Lowe] and Steve [Oram] knowing that they had a written the script, and had a long background in improvisation. I wanted to do something that was really loose, and it seemed an interesting concept working with the writer/performers with improvisation. Otherwise, to get to that level of improvisation you’d have to workshop forever.

Q. You seem to have been making your name with films that are a mix of low budget observational filmmaking and wigged out genre tropes. Where does that impulse come from?
Ben Wheatley: One of the things that attracted me to the script was that it fitted with the other movies. It felt like it was a progression from those kinds of characters. I don’t know where the need to do genre stuff comes from particularly, but it’s the kind of movies I like. I genuinely try to make movies I’d want to go and see, movies that are a bit more challenging. This is slightly less narratively challenging than Kill List but it’s quite a quirky movie for a comedy… It’s my kind of film.

Q. How did you find the right tone to balance violence and comedy?
Ben Wheatley: The tonal thing is to do with rooting the whole thing in some kind of reality rather than making it too arch either way. The audience will believe that they are real so moving from the violence back to the comedy doesn’t seem that out of sorts. If it had a really comic tone then was horribly violent you’d struggle to get back. It’s also not doing too much of it, not being too malicious.

Q. How did you get John Hurt?
Ben Wheatley: I wrote him a letter saying ‘please, please, you are the only person who can do it’ and he said ‘yes’. He was brilliant, we went down, did the recording with him. I was totally star-struck.

Q. When it came to filming some of the more violent stuff, I take it the locations didn’t mind the tourist spots being used to depict such acts? Or to have themselves shown in a sometimes comedic manner?
Ben Wheatley: They were given a breakdown of what the film was about. They agreed thankfully. We’ve not had any feedback that they’ve seen the film, but I’d like to think that we’ve really tried hard to treat all these places with respect. The Pencil Museum; it’s not a joke to me. I think it’s brilliant, a really fascinating place…. It was important not to take the piss out of the places. It’s more how the characters react to those places.

Q. After The Artist you’ve turned another dog into a star. Where did you get him and is he now in therapy?
Ben Wheatley: His name is Smurf … The pivotal scene with Smurf licking Steve’s arse was achieved through special effects. We didn’t really want to put either of them through it. I didn’t want to watch it. The dog wasn’t harmed in any way psychologically or physically. He was a great dog… cheerful, never complained. He had two lovely friends that came with him, helpers, who talked to him a lot. He won at Cannes, the Palme d’Og. We came away from Cannes with a prize which is what we all dreamed of. Hopefully, he’ll go on to get his own show or something. He’s writing something.

Q. Isn’t this film more unsettling than a lot of horror films?
Ben Wheatley: I don’t know. [It] depends what kind of horror films you watch or how susceptible you are to horror films… There are unsettling elements within it but I think of it primarily as a comedy. It’s designed to make to make you laugh but then it has moments that make you feel unsettled as opposed to Kill List, which is designed to make you unhappy and then there are moments when you laugh.

Q. What were the practicalities of doing a low budget road movie in Britain? Did you have locations to yourself?
Ben Wheatley: It was different in different places. It was shot in chronological order so we did travel to those places one after the other…. On one occasion, there was a woman on a bridge throwing some stones and we said: “We’re filming, can you just get out the back of the shot.” And she said: “I’m from LA, I don’t care about filming, I’m doing what I want and I’ve flown 3,000 miles to do this!” So, we just had to let her get on with it [laughs]. The main thing with location filming was the weather. It was pretty hard. It rained a lot… [there was] snow, sleet, every kind of weather. It just makes it more realistic.

Q. Did the weather mean you had to keep stopping and starting?
Ben Wheatley: I tend to shoot really quick so you don’t get the problems you might get on a traditional film where you shoot one way, then another, and it’s pissing down with rain and they won’t cut together. We shoot so fast we can incorporate the weather into it. The worst weather we had was when they were in the caravan up the mountain and there was no cover. One man’s weather is another man’s production value. To create the sleet would cost a fortune but we got it for free so we’ll just have to go with it. If you make a movie in the UK you’ve got to embrace the weather with open arms… We got some of the most amazing weather as well. It’s maybe why some of these places, like the Lake District, don’t get filmed in so much. If you were trying to make it look like some kind of chocolate box image of England you’d be there all year waiting for the sun to come out.

Read our review of Sightseers

Read our interview with Alice Lowe