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Sundance Interview: 'Sightseers' Director Ben Wheatley

Britain's busiest filmmaker not named Winterbottom spills his guts about horror, comedy and caravans

By William Goss Feb 3, 2013 3:51PM
Ever since debuting his first feature, "Down Terrace," to understandable acclaim at 2009's Fantastic Fest, Ben Wheatley has been keeping himself busy. Between horror-thriller follow-up "Kill List," his contribution to genre anthology "The ABCs of Death" (currently available on VOD), and third feature "Sightseers" -- which we reviewed at 2012's Fantastic Fest -- the man has been making a name for himself on the festival circuit, and he sat down with us after the Sundance premiere of his latest film to discuss lovers on the run, the nature of improv, the importance of soundtracks, working with his wife and the value of a particularly juicy kill.

Q: How long do you think it’ll be until you make a movie that isn’t centered around a body count?

BW: I don’t know, I don’t know. I want to make something where no one dies, but there’s plenty of filmmakers I like who managed to get through whole, very long careers without doing a film where no one got killed. I’ve thought about it. I think the problem is drama. It’s right there in the name, you inevitably end up at murder. I can’t think of anything that we’ve written coming up that isn’t full of death.

Q: It seems to suit your sensibilities. You've said going into “Sightseers” that you were hoping to make something lighter...

BW: I think I did!

Q: Certainly, when compared to “Down Terrace” and “Kill List.” But do you necessarily make a conscious effort to hop genres? Was this in response to romantic comedies as they are today, or did you just think, “I want to make a movie about those two characters”?

BW: No, it was more that I wanted to make something that was designed to be funny, that its end goal was laughter rather than... terrorizing the audience. That was it, really. There were dark elements to it, I knew that going into it. It wasn’t like a script about caravaning that had no murders in it that I put in when I came on the project. It was already in there. But it was definitely a conscious thing of wanting to make something that was just a bit lighter, just to clean the palate, really. It was that twinned with the opportunity to do something that was just loose, that had improvisation in it, and working with Alice and Steve, they’re very funny people and, obviously, they’d written the script, so the improv you get out of people who have developed a script is of a different quality than if you ask actors to improvise on top of what you’ve written. They can go away and do a ton of research, and the quality of improvisation is always great, but when you’re in that dog-eat-dog world of the edit, anything that’s slightly off-message can’t go in at all, because it confuses things. We had that with “Kill List,” there’s loads of really quality improvisation in it, but you can’t use it ‘cuz it’s drifted off, away from the central premise, and it’s indulgent for you to just put it in because you like it. That was kind of attractive here, that you could get more minutes out of their improv that you could use, and in the shoot itself, we did things we didn’t really do with “Kill List.” We’d look around the environment that we were in and find things that made us all kind of laugh and then we’d see if we could tie it into the moment... We had to slightly change the script to make that stuff fit, but I’m glad we did.

Q: How did [stars/co-writers] Steve [Oram] and Alice [Lowe] originate the characters?

BW: They developed them as caricatures of their parents, I think, or experiences they’d had as kids being dragged around to tourist places in the Midlands. So that was one element of it, and they just thought it’d be funny that they’d be these unassuming people who would then go around and kill people. The original characters were much older, but then they started playing them when they were quite young, and through the vagaries of the film business, that meant that, by the time we got started, they were quite closer to the ages that they should be in the movie.

Q: Is it more of a key to you that the violence lands with an audience or the comedy? You set out to make people laugh and still, there has to be a certain horror to what they’re doing...

BW: ...otherwise, it becomes glib. That’s the danger of it, the line you tread on with this stuff. I think we’ve done alright. I know some people see the film and go, “Oh, the middle-class characters are really caricature-y,” and I don’t really see it. I think it’s important that you dip backwards and forwards, and it’s that thing of reminding the audience of what’s going on so they’re having a variety of feelings... It’s that mixture of “here’s a bit of drama, and here’s a bit of pathos, and here’s a bit of comedy” to hopefully make it a bit more rounded, and also so you don’t end up with the gags themselves forming the narrative. Those moments are funny in and of themselves, but the story starts to drop away and not become interesting anymore.

Q: How did you go about finding the locations?

BW: Basically, Steve went to his dad, Eddie Oram, and said, “Can you do us an itinerary?” The two of them [Oram and Lowe] went on a fact-finding trip with a caravan when they were writing the script, and they travelled around to all those places... They’re all real places and we didn’t dress anything into any of them, so they weren’t exaggerated. The only thing we took to the pencil museum was the big pencil that she brought, although the big pencil that she looks at is real.

Q: Did [the proprietors] just think you were making a comedy about a couple on the road?

BW: You’ve got to be straight with people, because it’ll come back to bite you on the ass, and also the location managers specialize in those areas. They can’t afford to go around and gull people into doing stuff because they can never go back and it ruins their reputation. So they knew what it was, and the film, it could have gone one of two ways. It was really important for me not to mock the places too much. I go to those places, I’ve never had a problem with them. I think they’re good, so we tried to look at them straight on rather than going, “Look at these stupid places.”

Q: How do you feel about the scale of your projects so far? You go from “Down Terrace,” which is your friends and a real family in their real home, and now you’re doing stuff like this on the road. Where do you see things going from here?

BW: I mean, you learn with every film. Unless you fall down and have a brain injury, you’re moving forward all the time, so yeah, the kind of language of the filming is changing over time. There were small bits of slow-motion and montage and parallel action stuff in “Down Terrace,” there was a bit more in “Kill List,” there’s a lot more in “Sightseers,” which I really enjoy. We had money for the first time, so we could license music tracks, which we could never do before. That was great. It’s like being in a sweets shop and going, “Christ, there’s the whole of music here.” Obviously, you can’t load a bunch of Rolling Stones all over it... but once we found out what stuff cost, we went, “Wow, this is music I really love and it’s not gonna break the bank.” That was a benefit for us.

Q: When did you come to land on “Tainted Love”?

BW: It had come out of Edgar [Wright, who executive-produced the film], really. He had seen an early cut and said, “Don’t be afraid to use pop music.” And I thought about it, then I thought, “What would I use?” It’s a difficult one, because you could use music that was relevant to the scenes, but then I thought, “F**k it, I’m just gonna use the stuff that’s on my iPod.” Stuff that I listen to a lot myself, because if I put music on that I didn’t like, then you’d see the cynicism and you’d feel it. And all the ‘80s music is really interesting, because a lot of it is really charged. You listen to it, and you’ve heard it so much that it doesn’t hit, there’s nothing to it. But “Tainted Love” is like a modernist classic. It’s so stripped down and it’s so perfect that it transcends ‘80s music, I think, and becomes something else. But the Frankie track at the end [Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love”] just made me cry.

Q: Is part of the reason of going with covers of that and “Season of the Witch” to get away from the associations that people have with the way it sounds?

BW: No, they were really to do with... I love Vanilla Fudge. I didn’t go to the Donovan one at all. I know it, but I didn’t want it. Weirdly, Spotify’s to blame for all this, because I listen to a lot of stuff on Spotify, and I make playlists for the movies when I’m prepping them, and then afterwards when we’re cutting them. So it makes it easy to find cover versions. I’d gotten into Vanilla Fudge through “The Sopranos,” the last episode, they did “Keep Me Hanging On.” Then I’d listened to “Season of the Witch,” and I’d been listening to it a lot, and I thought, “God, is this too on-the-nose? No, it’s so good that you can’t go wrong.” Then I’d found the Judy Driscoll version through just doing searches, seeing what else was out there.

-- potential spoilers from this point on --
But then it started making sense to me that, because it’s about transference, how Tina copies Chris and takes his skills, that’s basically what cover songs are. And if you’ll notice, in the film, there are both male versions and female versions. Male “Tainted Love,” female “Tainted Love,” male “Season of the Witch,” female “Season of the Witch.” They’re about the slow copying and transference of Chris and the replacement of him.
-- end spoilers --

Q: With regards to your wife, Amy [Jump], getting credit on this film, what’s your working relationship like with her? What kind of collaboration do you have?

BW: I think we’ve worked differently on every project, really. It’s interesting for me to have a writer who’s an editor, because that doesn’t happen very often, and it’s a very natural thing since the edit’s the last draft of a film. So if an editorial person has written a lot of dialogue to start with, then they understand where these beats are supposed to work. It’s almost a bit weird that editors aren’t the writers of a film, but I suppose it’s because the skill has been so technical up until now. Basically, when we edit, I operate the machine, because I was an editor to start with, and she tells me to do. Occasionally, I’ll go, “I’m not f**king doing that,” and then I’ll edit on my own. I do the action stuff on my own and the montage stuff, and then we’ll argue over the dialogue stuff until we get it done. That seems to work quite well. Increasingly, I’d write a first draft, and she’d re-write it, and there wouldn’t be much left of what I’d written in it, but we’d still have co-writing credits. We’re starting not to do that anymore. I’ll write the first draft, she’ll re-write it totally, but it’s much more like her film then, so I’m not taking the credit on it. I’m involved in it, but there’s not a f**king comma left in that script I wrote, so it’s a bit disingenuous to take it. In the past, like with “Kill List,” I’d make up the character names and the plot, and that didn’t even get in at the end, but you look at the script and you’ve just got to be grown-up about these things. If you read it and go, “Yeah, it’s not what I wrote, but it’s f**king great,” you just gotta take it on the chin.

Q: What’s it been like making the festival rounds, going from “Down Terrace,” which premiered at Fantastic Fest, and then going to Cannes with your third film?

BW: The Cannes thing was just crazy. I think there’s this kind of self-protection thing where I feel like I don’t know I’m there and I don’t want to think about it, I just want to go through it, and then you enjoy it afterwards. It’s the thing where, if you build it up too much in your own mind and going, “This is gonna be great!” then you’re screwed. I’m not a “glass half-empty” kind of guy, I’m more of a “glass has fallen off the table and shattered and bits have got into your thigh and cut the vein and blood is sputtering out” kind of guy. I like to make sure that my own expectations are quite modest, but yeah, the actual Cannes itself was unbelievable. I’d been going to Cannes for years doing work stuff, and it was just amazing to get something in there.

Q: How do you feel about the American reception to your films? Do you feel that people pick up on the humor? Do the press try to read things into it that weren’t intended?

BW: I think that, with “Down Terrace” and “Kill List” (pictured), the American reception has defined those films in a lot of ways. They were the first critics to have seen them, and the reaction was what set the pace for the rest of their lives... It’s interesting culturally finding out that different countries have different ways of experiencing stuff. With “Sightseers,” it’s good. Obviously, it was the first film we hadn’t premiered in the States, and it had done the rounds already by the time we got here, so I’d had a lot of experience with audiences with it. It was good that everyone was laughing... But you never know. You could get it so wrong and you would just never know. You could make a terrible faux pas. You can never take audiences at festivals for granted, that it’ll replicate from place to place. When we did the “Kill List” screening at South by Southwest, we thought we were gonna get murdered. We had no idea what the reaction would be. If it had been a load of just one-star reviews, we would’ve been, “Okay, fine.” So I don’t try to get into the head of the audience too much, because that way lies madness.

Q: With regards to your shooting schedule, is “A Field in England” already in the can?

BW: Yeah, it’s almost finished.

Q: What’s next? I know that there are a lot of projects on the table.

BW: Yeah. We’ll finish off “Field,” see where we are with that, then we’re hoping to get “Freakshift” shot this year, which is the big sci-fi thing. But it’s so expensive that we’re entering into that world of contracts and dealing with actresses and casting, which is not like the other movies, where we’re going, “We’re making a movie! Who wants to be it? Oh, you do? Cool!” This is more like, “Do you like this script? Are you available? When are you going to be available?” That’s a totally different world, and we’re getting to the edge of that, proper big moviemaking.

Q: What about “I, Macrobane”?

BW: Dunno. It’s a tricky one, this year, because if “Freakshift” happens, it’ll probably knock me out for two years because of the post[-production] on it, it’s massive... I don’t think I can do “Macrobane” this year, but it’ll probably go after that. But we may be able to get something small in this year.

Q: Would that be “Two for Hell”?

BW: No, that’s way ahead. We are developing an animation thing as well, “Mega Evil Motherf**kers.” That can go underneath the other projects. We’re halfway through the script on that and going through various kind of financing mechanisms in place for it, and we’re talking to animation houses and guys about that... It’s like a whole pool of people in the U.K. who have done “Frankenweenie” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and stuff, so the talent’s all there to do it.

Q: It would be stop-motion?

BW: I’m not sure. Maybe claymation or stop-motion or whatever make sense. It’s gonna be really, really violent. But funny.

Q: Given how quickly you’ve been shooting things, is that necessarily vital to your creativity, or is it just the way things have worked out? Where you can shoot something and cut something at your own pace?

BW: I come from a TV background, so before I was making films, I was shooting at least eight or nine episodes a year of TV. In a way, I’ve slowed down rather than sped up. While you can finance stuff, then why wouldn’t you be making films? It’s what I love doing. It’s a privilege to be able to do it. I’ve been wanting to make films my whole adult life, and I’ve got a couple of decades in me that I can stand on set without being feeble, and I probably should be working during that time. The only reason I’ve been working so much is that we aren’t precious about what the budgets are... I think it’s kind of more important to making stuff than spending seven years hopefully putting together a massive, expensive project. You look at John Ford or Hitchcock, and those guys had hundreds of films under their belt before anything happened, and it’s no surprise, for me anyway, that they knew exactly what they were doing. Some people are born just f**king brilliant at filmmaking, and their first film is genius and they can go on and on, and for me, it’s much more that I have to work at it every day, and the more I get to make a film, I’m understanding it more.

"Sightseers" is tentatively scheduled for a May release in the U.S.
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