Interview: Ben Wheatley, director of ‘Sightseers’

Following on from the success of last year’s critically acclaimed occult horror Kill List (2011), rising filmmaker Ben Wheatley may not seem the most obvious choice for helming an off-beat British comedy set in the great outdoors. Yet, the world of comic drama was exactly where the Billericay-born director first cut his teeth, with a series of BBC Three sitcoms and his much-underrated debut feature, Down Terrace (2009) already under his belt. Paired with comedy duo Steve Oram and Alice Lowe for Sightseers (2012), Wheatley brings to life a pair of twisted caravanning tourists who rampage across the Midlands, knocking off fellow rubbernecks as they drink in the exquisite rural scenery.

Sightseers successfully manages to breathe fresh life into the British comedy landscape with a dark, at times gruesome tale of love in its infancy. Offered the chance to direct an original script from Lowe and Oram – featuring the pair’s warped stage personae Tina and Chris – by Big Talk Productions, things moved rapidly. In an interview recently held with the central triumvirate, Wheatley states that he was attracted by “the sweetness of the [script’s] rom-com elements”. Lowe went on to add: “It was so obvious he [Wheatley] was the right person for the job. We met a few people, and Ben had just made Down Terrace – which we loved. We knew the tone was really close to what we wanted to get.”

This was the first time Wheatley has directed a film he hasn’t written himself. The filmmaker revealed that “It’s always tricky working with writer-performers and making sure that you don’t ride roughshod over it, but at the end of the day, as a director you’ve got to be in control.” Thankfully, the creative trio seemed more than happy with their working relationship. Oram recalls: “Ben edited it [Sightseers] really quickly, in terms of the pace. If you get bored, it’s got to go.” Yet Wheatley was conscious throughout of only cutting precisely where necessary – “tuning all these moments so they all sing the same tune, or the right tune, across it” – as he himself put it.

Wheatley’s intentionally unnerving comedy might not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly taps into the idea of both stereotypical Britishness and tourist mentality – what Lowe herself refers to as “this polite veneer, very friendly ‘Oh I’m sorry you trod on my toe’ thing.” When writing their feature, the comic pair embarked on a caravan holiday in order to get “inspiration from the landscape”, which Oram believed to be the single most important writing tool for their creative process. The pair visited places featured in Sightseers such as Crich Tramway Museum and Cumberland Pencil Museum, as well as going further north to the Lake District. Their prognosis: that the holiday showed what “annoyed us about each other”, which was then transposed into the script via the oft-bickering Tina and Chris.

On their own non-erotic odyssey, in addition to simply seeing the sights, Lowe and Oram knew that they needed to hone and perfect characters that, whilst committing monstrous acts, remain sympathetic. Lowe clarifies: “We knew that they had to have realistic psychologies for you to even go half way to understanding them, or you wouldn’t empathise with them.” Together with the skill and experience of a director such as Wheatley, the comic duo certainly succeeded in creating believable human beings you want to spend time with – even if you would spend half of your time looking over your shoulder for wielded sharp implements.

Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 25 March, 2013. Read our DVD review here.

Joe Walsh