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[Cannes Interview] Ben Wheatley Talks His Dark Roadtrip Comedy ‘Sightseers’

Written by , on May 29, 2012 at 10:30 am 

One of the surprise films that played at this year Cannes Film Festival premiered in a special screening for the Director’s Fortnight. That film is Sightseers, Ben Wheatley‘s follow-up to the cult hit Kill List. With this Natural Born Killers-esque road trip, Wheatley explores dark comedy in a fascinating and visceral manner. I was fortunate enough to sit down one-on-one with the British filmmaker to discuss how the project came about, all the scenes that didn’t make it into the film and how he approaches directing actors. In addition, there are some juicy tidbits about his future projects and his cinematic inspirations.

The Film Stage: How did you become involved in the project, and did Steve and Alice approach you with the script?

Ben Wheatley: Yeah, it was after Down Terrace [Wheatley's first feature], I had a meeting with Big Talk [Productions], which is [founder] Nira Park, who produced Spaced and all of Edgar Wright’s stuff -

Love Spaced.

Yeah. And, they said, ‘could I read their script?’ And I said, ‘yeah, okay.’ I know Alice [Lowe] and Steve [Oram], I’ve known them for years, and basically, they just said ‘do you want to do it?’ and I said, ‘I don’t really need to read the script. I’ll do it.’

So that was cool, and I read the script obviously, and it was good. And then time went on, I think Kill List happened in between, and financing was being sold for Sightseers while we were in post in Kill List. And Kill List was already well-received, so it was basically [on from there].

And, Amy Jump, whose my wife and co-writer on Kill List and co-editor, did a pass in the script, so we just tied a few things up here and there, and it was basically applying the structure and stuff that was learned from doing the other movies, and had a couple of great characters…and that was it. That’s how it kind of came about.

Do you know if they took a trip similar to this that inspired the whole kind of concept?

They’re standup comedians, and they have been doing character studies, these two guys, and they have done that a few times, and they got some development money to do a short film with Paul King, the guy who did The Mighty Boosh. He’s doing Paddington Bear and Bunny and the Bull as well. And, they made this twenty-minute short film, and Edgar Wright saw that, so that was that. But there was also this thing which they had based it around their parents going on a trip, and they had been to these places as kids, I think, and they did another research trip and went around and visited it all again and videoed it.

Prior to writing the script, they took a trip?

Yeah, the script had been kicking around for years, for about five, six years. I think the main thing was you were shifting around, and their short film version, they had been a couple for ages, and then, that was the big decision of when they met, you know, and we thought it would be more interesting if we get it right in the genesis of their relationship rather than down the line, because it worked for twenty minutes. It was fine, but what happens in the second act? It’s like, well, they’ve murdered a lot of people in the beginning, and then, it’s just the one gang, so that’s when we restructured it like that.

And have you personally taken a trip like that either prior to or after making that film?

I have been on camping trips. I’m not a man who owns a caravan, but it was surprisingly roomy and big in size, so it was good.

What kind of direction did you give to Steve and Alice to give their characters that subtle neuroticism that’s kind of slowly unfurled, as the film goes deeper and deeper?

I’m one for not much direction. So I kind of do it more surreptitiously by breaking it down, by making them do it a lot, and we shot a lot of footage, and, in the same way that Down Terrace worked where it was like you were just filming all the time, and time, and time, so, in a way, it’s less like them coming on and going, ‘right! I’m acting, and now, I’m not acting. Now, I’m looking at Facebook. Now, I’m in my trailer.’ It’s like they’re all in character the whole time, so it becomes more and more real as you go on, basically, until you get to this weird dream state where…

What’s real and what’s not?

Yeah, so that’s the way of getting that kind of tension, but also, the other thing is that we shot so much that you can pull it all together. The editing is very powerful, and you can make sure that you’re using the absolute best object, and you can find those moments, rather it might be hard to kind of manufacture that the whole time.

Was it hypocritical that Chris got upset over the littering, but didn’t want to pick up the dog poop?

Yeah, man. He writes his own rules. He’s pretty hypocritical. He says that she’s not qualified to kill, but he’s a self-justifier. He’s pretty much living in the moment, and I wouldn’t take too much of what Chris says…

Were there any scenes that ended on the cutting room floor? Was there one scene in particular that you really wanted to have in the film, but it just didn’t make it in?

Yeah. I mean, sure, like, we shot 120 hours, so there was a lot.

Some of that might make its way to the Blu-Ray, perhaps?

I don’t know. I mean, I’ve always been really resistant to deleted scenes, because I actually don’t want people to go, ‘oh, I know why that was deleted. Because it was shit, or boring, or pointless.’ I don’t know. I mean, I think on this one, there will be stuff that’s from deleted scenes because we cut a lot of stuff that’s really, really funny, and the problem that it didn’t get in was because of pacing across the movie and no more than, it was a bit draggy and dull, you know. But yeah, there will never be any deleted scenes for Kill List. That’s awful. I’d destroy it, and it’s not fair to the actors either because sometimes, things don’t work, and sometimes, it doesn’t work because of the direction has gone wrong, and something doesn’t work because the acting has gone wrong, or it was misconstrued in the script. Why would you ever want to show anyone that stuff? Because it breaks the spell of the whole… I mean, I learned that from when they showed “Doctor Who” in the UK, and they have this thing called “Doctor Who Confidential” immediately after and it shows you how you do the effects. You watch the show, and you’re like, ‘ah, that was great!’ Then, you watch them all with their masks off, and going ‘errrgh!’ and you’re like, ‘oh yeah! And now, it’s ruined.’ So, yeah.

Similar to that, because I love the ending. I thought it was just a perfect button for the entire film, but did you guys shoot any alternative endings, or was it always going to be…?

No. That was it. There were thoughts of maybe doing something colder, but we never did. You know, like the Animal House style, what happened to people, kind of, or something like that. But, it felt that you need something you learn off of doing other movies is that movies have a natural end. They’re not necessarily evident in the script, but there will be an emotional peak, which you cannot survive from, as a viewer, and everything else after that moment is marking time to going home. So, you’ve got it, and the film will tell you that when you cut it, and that is the end point, and there is nothing else after.

Technically, what was the most challenging scene to approach and shoot?

Being on the mountain was quite odd.

In that rocky area?

Yeah. It was really funny because they found us these, the location manager Danny Gulliver, found us these… in the script, it was called the Desolate Place, he went, ‘I’ll find you the Desolate Place!’ And to get to it, you had to go up a ten-minute drive in a four-by-four up forty-five degrees, and it was absolutely treacherous. We got up, and said, ‘this is pretty desolate. Well done, Danny!’ And then, we took the whole crew up there, and it was just the most horrific weather I’ve ever experienced, and a lot of the crew work on[the television show] “Top Gear”, so they’re used to it… used to really harsh things, and all of them go, ‘this is worst shoot we’ve ever been involved in! It’s really bad.’ So, that was tough, but it was only a day.

It’s interesting because I’m a big dog person, so I love just having that dog play a central character in the film, but I couldn’t get a read on what’s your take on dogs. Are you a dog person? Do you like dogs? Were some of those photos – did you shoot those photos personally?

Yeah, I like dogs in the city. I like dogs out in the countryside. Yeah, I think it’s just that I like the idea of using a malevolent force and a comment on everything that was going on, and he’s his own little character, you know. And, I like the way he’s so mercenary as well. These two are much more interesting inside, and he doesn’t mind a bit of risk. I think you can’t go wrong with a dog.

I definitely noticed some similarities between this and Kill List where you have these normal scenes where you’re expecting things to play out in one way, but you push it to insane heights, and I’m wondering is this a pattern that you hope to continue to explore? Is this like a signature of Ben Wheatley?

No. It’s like the very fact that you expected it to go one way, and then if it had gone that way, it would’ve been a bit of a dull scene because you knew what was going to happen. I don’t think that’s what drama is about. It’s not what cinema should be about. That’s why you come out excited, as opposed to, ‘yeah, well, anyone could do that.’ So, I think every film should do that, shouldn’t it? The next film shouldn’t be just peoples’ heads just bobbing for no reason. It’s just the way the stories have panned out. I guess it’s also things that made me laugh, so I’ll always go to that.

You spoke briefly about how Edgar Wright got involved in the project. What was the best piece of advice he gave you when going to this film?

He saw an edit by the first kind of assembly that we did and he said it needed more music. It needed more pop music, and that made quite a major change to the film.

“Tainted Love” wasn’t in there?

No. I’ll tell you what was, it was much more of the German stuff [from composer Jim Williams]. Yeah, and after sit down, I was like, ‘yeah. You know what?’ Because we already had the track at the end, the big track at the end. And, then when he said, ‘that’s great! Do more of that’, I’m like, ‘alright. Fuck it.’ So then, we went back… because I’m a low-budget boy at heart, so I think about music thinking, ‘oh my God! Someone’s going to have to pay for it! Oh, God!’ So, that’s the word. Do that, and spend more money, so yeah.

What kind of films inspired you in the making of this? I definitely got a little bit of a Natural Born Killers vibe. It reminded me a little of Michael Douglas’ character in Falling Down to an extent.

You know, I didn’t really think about Natural Born Killers too much. Yeah, we did watch Badlands. There’s this thing about Badlands that’s really interesting is that they never justify anything. It’s just never said, and it doesn’t have to be said, and I like that a lot. Well, we’re into weirder stuff, like Grey Gardens. They’re much more slightly inquisitive camera and sound off-camera, like when you see something like Grey Gardens, it’s a really rich piece of filmmaking that’s really surprising all the time because they’re all forced into a situation because they only had one camera. So Laurie [Rose, Director of Photography] and I watched that quite a lot. We watched Primary, the Kennedy documentary and The Battle For Algiers.

Any projects you’re currently working on, and have you ever been approached to do a film in the US?

We’re going to do a film called Freak Shift.

 Freak Shift?

Yeah. First, we’re going to do a really small film, like an eight day kind of…

Like an omnibus style project?

No, no. It’s an English Civil War film. So, it’s shot really quick with our own money, which will be just really crazy. So, we’re going to do that first, and then, we’re going to go into pre-production for Freak Shift, which is a sci-fi film about cops set in America about cops and shooting monsters.

Sightseers has been picked up by IFC Films for US distribution.

Follow our complete Cannes 2012 Film Festival coverage.


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