‘It’s designed to make you laugh’: Ben Wheatley on finding success

Director Ben Wheatley. Picture: Getty
Director Ben Wheatley. Picture: Getty
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THEIR new films couldn’t be more different, but director Ben Wheatley have both found success by making hit movies with a distinctly homegrown outlook, finds Alistair Harkness.

Ben Wheatley is pondering the problems of making a British road movie compared to an American one. “Basically the roundabout is the killer of all excitement in the UK,” chuckles the Kill List director drily.

The stars and co-writers of Sightseers, Alice Lowe and Steve Oram

The stars and co-writers of Sightseers, Alice Lowe and Steve Oram

“But on a dull technical point, there are only so many shots you can do in those American films. I mean, try watching Easy Rider with the sound off and see how much fun that is…”

Wheatley is chatting about these disparities because his new film, the darkly funny British road movie Sightseers, depends in part on the incongruity of watching genre tropes traditionally associated with American cinema applied to a distinctively British locale. The film revolves around oddball couple Chris and Tina (played by co-writers Steve Oram and Alice Lowe) as they discover a shared passion for serial killing while caravanning around rain-lashed middle England. It has been variously likened to Natural Born Killers, Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May, Badlands, The Honeymoon Killers, and even Carry on Camping since debuting in Cannes earlier this year.

If such an eclectic array of reference points doesn’t exactly give a full sense of what to expect from a film that features mass homicide and a trip to the Keswick Pencil Museum, it does speak well of Wheatley’s continued willingness to wrong-foot audiences. His debut film, the shot-for-£6000 Down Terrace, attracted attention for its ability to seamlessly blend kitchen-sink realism with a full-throttle gangland story – all within a respectable suburban Brighton setting.

Last year’s hugely acclaimed Kill List, meanwhile, cemented his reputation as one of the UK’s most distinctive new directors, thanks to its disturbing, genre-defying mix of recession-themed domestic drama, hardcore hitman thrills and wigged-out pagan horror.

Sightseers, to some extent, continues this trajectory. It may be more broadly comic in tone, but by having Oram and Lowe’s murderous Midlanders exercise extreme punitive measures in a banal countryside setting against an array of innocuous targets – litterbugs, busybodies, Daily Mail readers – it’s very much in keeping with the rooted-in-reality spirit of Wheatley’s previous films.

“Yeah, it’s not a million miles from the structure of Kill List,” says Wheatley. He had Amy Jump, his Kill List co-writer, Sightseers’ editor “and my missus” (the pair have been together since they were 16) do a pass on the script in order to bring it more into line with his sensibilities.

“It’s designed 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.”

Having worked with comedians Oram and Lowe on various television projects, Wheatley didn’t take much convincing to bring their script to the big screen. He already knew he wanted to do a comedy when it arrived – via Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright and producer Nira Park – shortly before going into production on Kill List. “I also knew they could improvise and because I wanted to do something that was really loose, I figured that getting people who had written the characters would make more sense if we were going to improvise a lot. Which we were.”

Indeed, Wheatley reckons about a third of the film was improvised – all necessary, he says, for shooting in the British countryside where you encounter “all weather all the time”. The upshot of this approach is that the film captures brilliantly the trials, tribulations and the lack of glamour that going on holiday in the UK frequently entails – albeit with surprising affection for the Pencil Museum, the Crich Tramway Village and the various other low-key tourist attractions that Steve and Tina visit. “There’s a version of Sightseers that could have been quite snide about those places, but I’ve got a genuine affection for them. The thing is, it just f***ing rains in this country the whole time, so if you’re going to do a film about going on holiday honestly, you’re going to have to confront that maybe that’s the thing that makes our holidays more of a struggle.”

For all this, Wheatley doesn’t view himself as a specifically British filmmaker. “I really don’t feel my nationality. I’m in an environment and making films about my environment, but if I was out in LA and made a film there, I don’t know if people would necessarily think it had a British sensibility.”

We might not have to wait too long to find out if that’s true. Having started making short films as a fine art student in Brighton in the 1990s, only to bypass traditional filmmaking channels by recognising early the value of the internet – “Without the internet I’d have given up,” he says – his savvy, pragmatic, DIY approach to filmmaking has freed him from the constraints that tend to keep so many in a funding bottleneck. “It’s the cap-in-hand thing that stops you doing stuff,” he says.

Indeed his prodigious work rate is starting to match the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Michael Winterbottom. Already finished is his segment of the forthcoming horror anthology The ABCs of Death and he’s currently editing his next feature, A Field in England, a psychedelic English Civil War movie in which the characters “drop a load of mushrooms half-way through and go insane”.

Come April, he’s also hoping to be in production on Freakshift, a cops v monsters sci-fi film that is set in America but will shoot in the UK. “It’s sort of like Hill Street Blues but with loads of creatures.” Sounds like a warm-up for a Hollywood film. “Yeah, I’d love to do a studio film, but I think it’s a slow step-by-step process. You need to have enough control over it and not just go out there and take the money and hope for the best.” What’s important, he says, is remembering what you enjoy about filmmaking. “Having more money doesn’t make it more fun; it makes it more scary and depressing.

Having control is what makes it fun. If you give that up, you’re just making a 90-minute ad.”

•  Sightseers is in cinemas from 30 November.