Take Little Miss Sunshine, swap American landscapes for English ones, add a few drops of dark humor, and sprinkle in some homicides. Then, perhaps, you’ll have something like Sightseers — a comedy that induces a lot of laughs as well as the occasional squirm.
Ben Wheatley, the movie’s director, says it’s ” about a couple who are in love, and, we should mention, on the road…There’s a small dog in it, and there’s loads of [sex] as well.”
Sightseers follows the couple as they vacation through the countryside, visiting campgrounds and museums dedicated to feats of English ingenuity, like tram cars and pencils. That might sound kind of ho-hum, but once first-blood is spilled, the two turn from lower-middle-class lovebirds to something like Bonnie and Clyde.
And their killing spree isn’t just a cold-blooded, weirdly lighthearted romp. Each of the couple’s victims has it coming, in a way. One might have littered in a museum (a big no no) and another might have been a bit too condescending to our protagonists. Either way, passion is involved. What’s more: the circumstances almost make you cheer for the killers, even though their actions are in no way morally acceptable.
This cheering sensation is what made the movie interesting, to me. It’s like watching a feature-length daydream in which the every slight inflicted on the couple is punished by death — being run over or brutally clubbed or pushed off a cliff. And because Sightseers has the right comic dressing and solid direction, it feels right, almost delightful, funny. It also reveals, in relief, that acting on your Mount St. Helens temper will eventually make you into a villain, even if it’s just a cartoon of one.
The movie’s script was written, impressively, by its lead actors (Alice Lowe and Steve Oram). Both of their performances are dead-on. You can relate to their characters, laugh at them, marvel at them, and even be surprised by them. I spoke with Wheatley, the movie’s director, about working with Lowe and Oram (and making movies in general); check it out…
Jonathon Sharp: What was it like working with Alice Lowe and Steve Oram?
Ben Wheatley: It was great. I’d worked with them before, so I kind of new them…and in all the films I’ve done I’ve been lucky enough to personally know the people…before I did a movie with them. So, it’s been really helpful. Low budget, small films, I mean, not a lot of time to get to know people. And you don’t want to spend days when you’re filming trying to figure people out. You know? It’s good to hit the ground running.
Sharp: I suppose it’s a lot easier to hit the ground running when these people wrote their characters…Did they come to you with this story?
Wheatley: I got asked to a meeting at Big Talk…and they offered me this script. I knew what [the story] was because I’d seen the sort film version…so I kind of understood what the project was going to be. And when I read it, it fit…the kind of interests I’ve had and the other movies that I’ve made. So it all kind of made sense — I just wanted to make a comedy after making a horror film. You know? I wanted to make something that was lighter and different than the movies I made before, as much as possible.
Sharp: A lot of movies mesh horror and comedy together. Why do you think that works?
Wheatley: I think it’s…uh…that’s something that’s as old as the hills, isn’t it? Horror and comedy. I mean that’s like the Abbott and Costello and, you know, those kinds of movies. I think it’s because they come together, the two flavors, because of…the release. The audience enjoys feeling scared, but they don’t want to be horrified. They want to…be released from feeling scared as well. So it’s a bit like a roller coaster ride, you know. They don’t want to always be terrified. Sometimes they want to laugh. So it’s a jump between those two positions of scary and making them happy again.
Sharp: With this mix of comedy and horror, are these the kind of movies you like to make? Or is there a certain genre you want to step into next?
Wheatley: I basically take it on a movie-by-movie basis. I kind of try not to repeat myself as much as I can. I mean I’m interested in all sorts of kinds of cinema, so I don’t have a list per se that I’m crossing off, but I do look at the films I’ve made and try to work out if I’m repeating myself. There’s definitely parallels between all the films I’ve done. I’m conscious of that, and Amy and I are trying to change that. I mean we just finished a film that is kind of a historical drama. So that’s a change of pace from the other films.
Sharp: You mentioned Amy, your wife. You guys are a team, in a way?
Sharp: What’s that relationship like? Can you describe how you work together?
Wheatley: You know, it’s…we work well. (Laughs). It’s fine. We get to spend time together, which is nice. It can be quite a lonely thing, film making. You are far away from home for months on end, and then you come home and then you are in edit suites for six months, so working together means we can stop a lot of this from happening.
Sharp: I’m sure you guys are really honest with each other. You don’t have to hide too much.
Wheatley: Ya. I like working with her. It’s interesting. I find she gets better and better with every film we do.
Sharp: Have you been camping in England before?
Wheatley: Ya. I’ve definitely been camping. I go to all those museums and things that are in the film, and, you know, I like it. I love it. You have to approach these things with an open heart, you know. I don’t think it’s necessarily funny…like the pencil museum is also quite interesting.
Sharp: Camping isn’t that treacherous in England, I expect.
Wheatley: I’d say that Sightseers is not a balanced representation of what you can expect if you go caravaning.
Sharp: I thought [Sightseers] did a really good job of jumping from tone to tone. You feel weird, you know? These people are killing people, but you can see where they are coming from. You still like them and want to see where they are going…I’m curious how you juggled all that.
Wheatley: Well, you know, there’s no such thing as monsters necessarily. Very rare for someone to be an all-out monster. It’s that they are normal people doing terrible things — that’s what normally happens, you know. If the characters are realistic in someway, or that the audience can understand, then they become more engaged in the comedy or the drama. You know, if you have a murderer with a big black cape and he laughs with a deep voice every time he kills somebody, you make it into a cliche, and, you know, it’s bull… It’s stuff that’s come out of dreadful magazines and it’s all made up, you know. The reality of a murderer is, you know, it’s either someone you’re married to or a neighbor or something. There’s nothing sinister about it, it’s just someone close by.
Sharp: Could you describe, for an American, who these characters are, where they fit into society, socially?
Wheatley: They are kind of normal people, you know. People that have…they are like everybody else. They are just trying to find something. They’re not high-flying. Like a lot of people now, they’ve been dealt quite a bad hand. He (Steve Oram’s character) has done what everyone’s told him since school. You should get a job, keep your head down and do what you are told; and everything is going to be alright. And it’s just lies, you know. You hit 40, or whatever, and you’re looking around, going what the f— am I supposed to do now? And they are angry about it, and that’s kind of where Chris is coming from, I think.
Sharp: What do you like about film making?
Wheatley: I think it’s the collision of sound and picture. It’s being able to create an artificial dream world that you put people into a darkened room and you make them dream while they’re awake. And you can manipulate them and potentially make them cry, make them happy. That’s a great thing to be doing. It’s good fun. What am I trying to say in general? I don’t know. I’m just a human trying to reflect the world around me from my own point of view. I can’t speak for anyone else. That’s the way I approach it.