After a very successful run on the festival circuit, Ben Wheatley's dark and somewhat ghastly comedy “Sightseers” is finally making itself available to theater-goers in hip cities and VODers across the country. It is, in my opinion, the most assured work from the British director of “Kill List” and “Down Terrace,” a very funny vacation-comedy about pair of social misfits/lovebirds visiting mundane historical sites and leaving a trail of corpses in their wake. Written by its co-stars Alice Lowe, Steve Oram and Wheatley's frequent collaborator (and wife) Amy Jump, “Sightseers” also boasts an executive producer stamp from Edgar Wright.
Wheatley was in New York doing last minute publicity on a movie that first debuted almost one year ago in Cannes. An edited transcript of that conversation is below. And in case you missed it, here's our exclusive clip from movie.
Quite bluntly: I love this movie! I've seen it twice. That's not that many times, but I never see a movie twice, so that's a big deal.
[laughs] Well, thank you.
Kind of. It's a film designed around difficult laughs that prop the whole thing up, so if it isn't working there then the whole film isn't working. But then there are other laughs that either land or don't depending on the audience. Same with all comedies, same with all movies, really. Then again, maybe I'm listening in on a much more micro way having lived with it a lot longer.
Was there a screening you attended where one guy laughed at something unexpected – where you were thinking “That's not funny, why's he laughing at that?”
The Cannes screening, really, that was the one where they laughed all the way through. As soon as the mother started moaning right through the end credits they laughed all the way through – we thought, “Hey, this is a generous crowd.”
Is the best comedy, angry comedy?
I dunno, you'd be on dodgy ground to say anything is “the best” one way or another with comedy. It's so subjective. My favorite comedy is like that, though. And I like comedy that is mixed with pathos and emotion, so you don't get the third act problem you often get – where you have a third act that is just chasing about, running out of steam.
Many comedies in the third act almost become bland action movies.
It's a boring story that sometimes surfaces, and you almost wish they'd just go back to the beginning to just have a laugh. This film, I hope, is different because it takes care to build characters and emotion so it's not just jokes and gags.
Our sympathies change throughout the film. First we're on her side, then on his side, then we root for both of them, then we're on neither of their sides. Was playing with shifting sympathies something you set out to do or is that just how the movie ended up?
You don't start with that intention. You don't wake up and say “I want to make a film where they like the character and then don't and then come back again.” But if you think about what normal human interaction is like, you have that, right? You do that with people, you see what their baggage is like. So by the end of the movie you have to decide whether you like these people. Or whether you like yourself, depending on what you laughed at. What decisions you made.
When people go on vacation are people more themselves or is it a fake version of themselves – the personas they want to be?
When you get out of the routine you live in a different time bubble, don't you? Everything seems slower. You experience things more vividly than in normal life. So a holiday is more intense.
More intense, and so frequently in a strange setting. Much of my love of “Sightseers” is the setting. Especially in the US where days off are infrequent, we work and work and work and finally – yes! - we have time off, and so often we just end up at an old monastery, or a piece of history that isn't all that interesting. Were you dragged to these places a lot as a kid?
Yeah, sure! I go there now with my family. I drag my kid around. But I like them! I'm not sneering at them. I've always enjoyed going to castles and museums. I mean, what else are you going to do, right? It's either that or you go to the beach. Or go mountain biking. Or else you are stuck in your house with your relations. There's not a hell of a lot to do.
To ask about the process, I envision the production on this road trip, and you happen upon things on location that make it into the film. Two specific examples, there's the scene where Alice Lowe's character has all this leftover food and she's shoving it in the mouth of this. . . what was it a metal dog?
It was a bear.
Yes, a kiddie ride bear with an open mouth. And then the scene with the giant pencil. . .
Well, the pencil is scripted. We built that pencil. It would be hard to come across a giant pencil.
Well, I thought maybe it was actually there at that gift shop.
It would be fair to assume that, actually. That museum does have the world's biggest pencil in it. And the world's second biggest pencil as a matter of fact. They've got that down. But, yeah, that bear was on the location and we just used it. The examples of finding things to use were more in the mother's house. In the original script we only used two rooms in the mother's house, but we got the art department to dress every room and we wandered round and did little scenes all over. Most of them made it into the film – it was great to have that realism. If you move fast enough you can shoot that way. If you shoot in a traditional way it is hard to justify it in the budget, but if you shoot documentary style you you can make it happen.