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'Sightseers' Director Ben Wheatley Talks Improvisation & The Influences Of Documentaries On The Film

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist September 17, 2012 at 2:59PM

Camper van holidays in the north of England and murder do not, traditionally, go hand in hand. But trust Ben Wheatley, the mind behind pitch-black breakthrough films "Down Terrace" and "Kill List," to bring them together for his third feature film, "Sightseers." From a script by British comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (who workshopped the characters on the U.K. circuit for years), and executive produced by Edgar Wright, the film is a darkly funny, curiously moving film that drew rave reviews when it premiered at Cannes (including our own).
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Sightseers
The film's much funnier than "Kill List." Were there particular influences there, or was that just your own sense of humor?
Yeah, we didn't look at specific films, it has the same sort of thing that "Down Terrace" has, of up and down, going from laughter to crying, from violence to laughter, and back and forth. That kind of gearshifting, it happens in "Kill List" too. You break the audience down until they don't really know which way they're gonna go.

In terms of the locations for the film, were they scouted out in advance, or were you sort of shooting wherever you ended up?
The locations were all in the script. Basically, Steve's dad, Eddie Oram, had a strong knowledge of the area, so he planned a trip for them, years ago, and Steve and Alice went out and did that trip, in a camper van, but in character, improvising all the way round. They had this research trip tape, part of this package of stuff that I got when I came on the project. So the film was shot in chronological order, and that route was the real route they traveled.

Was that helpful? Having actors who've been living those characters for so long?
Yeah, that was one of the things that attracted me to it, that they could improvise, but improvise with a depth of knowledge of the character. These films are quite low-budget, so you don't get the luxury of that long rehearsal period, that other films get, where they can workshop their character. So to have it already built in is invaluable.

Sightseers
Does that cause issues with the schedule, improvising so much?
Well, we shoot very fast: available light, a lot of handheld, it's like shooting documentary, so you've got plenty of time. Once you get into three-point lighting and dollying track then you're fucked, but if you're already decided that your style's going to be looser, capturing life as it happens, then that improv style isn't going to be a problem. Like the house at the beginning, only the front room and the kitchen needed to be dressed, but we ended up dressing the whole house, because I knew I wanted to try other scenes when we were there.

You seem to work amazingly quick, jumping from one project to another. Is that a conscious plan?
It's my job. It's like if I said to you, "Would you like to write an article and wait four years to write another one?" The really great filmmakers of the past, made a fucking shitload of movies. There's a lot of pressure now that you've got to make the first film and it's got to be amazing, or you don't make the second one. But John Ford did a hundred movies. Hitchcock had a London period, then a French period, then a London period again, then he goes to Hollywood, he had hundreds of film under his belt. It's not a coincidence that these guys are really good from making loads and loads of films, that's how you learn.

Sightseers
With that in mind, do you go back and look at "Down Terrace" and "Kill List" now?
We think about the structure stuff, and the storytelling. I don't tend to watch them again. But we talk about how we put them together, and how not to make the same mistakes, or use too many of the same tricks, things like that. I like watching "Down Terrace"  because all my friends are in it, it was a particular frozen moment in time, that house is really [actor] Bob Hill's house. "Kill List" is still too raw to watch for me. But again, it's got [Michael] Smiley and [Neil] Maskell and MyAnna [Buring], and I love seeing them. We're just going through the "Sightseers"cycle now, so I quite enjoy watching it, but that'll probably stop soon (laughs).

With the films getting wider and wider exposure, have you had opportunities come from the major studios?  
Yeah, I get scripts and stuff, there's opportunities, but the lead time is massive, it's years. You can say you like a script, but it'll take ages to get together. And also I'm too busy at the moment anyway, til the end of 2014 we're busy, so you can't really look at scripts. Plus I'm gonna stop telling people what I'm doing, because it looks stupid. It looks like you're making it up.

Is that what you've learned from the press so far?
I think that's an ongoing process. I'm always acutely embarassed by anything I say in the press, I'm getting used to that. You don't want to give too much away. It's also that irony never works in print, so you end up looking like a conceited fucker.

"Sightseers" opens in the U.K. on November 30th, and will follow in the U.S. at a time TBA, most likely in early 2013.

This article is related to: Ben Wheatley, Interviews, Sightseers, Kill List


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