Interview: Ben Wheatley & Alice Lowe on Sightseers


We really don’t see movies like Sightseers in the United States very often, movies so distinctly British they only could have been made by creative individuals who have spent their lives over in that system.

In this case, it’s the collaboration of comedians Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, playing a couple on a caravan trip across England who encounter unpleasant people that happen to start dropping off like flies around them, and they have a great partner in the equally Brit director Ben Wheatley of Kill List and Down Terrace fame, who helped create the proper tone of travelling fun and brutal violence.

We first meet Alice Lowe’s Tina, a dowdy quiet 34-year-old woman, as she’s being repressed from living with her ailing mother, but she has a new boyfriend named Chris (Oram) and he’s going to take her on caravan trip across the English countryside. Early in the trip, they accidentally run someone over which then starts them on a dark journey as they start to kill anyone who crosses their path the wrong way. That doesn’t make them “Natural Born Killers”…they’re just doing what needs to get done so they can enjoy their vacation without people bringing them down.

It’s a very dark and funny and often surreal movie that should appeal to fans of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz–the movie’s even exec. produced by Edgar Wright–and a lot of what makes it so special is by what Wheatley brings to the table in terms of his own background as a filmmaker despite this being a very different movie than Kill List. Lowe and Oram have also created a very different type of love story, and Lowe is particularly fantastic as she goes through an amazing transformation over the course of the movie

Back in September, sat down with Wheatley and Lowe at the Toronto Film Festival shortly after watching the premiere to talk about how the movie came together, and they’re quite a pair as Lowe was absolutely delightful and very little like her character Tina.

When we first sat down we somehow transitioned into the interview with Wheatley telling us a story about being a runner at a post-production facility where Prince came in and no one was allowed to look at him. It has nothing to do with the movie but that’s the type of tangents you should expect.

NOTE: Lots of people die in this movie, so talking about that aspect of the movie isn’t necessarily a SPOILER. So Ben, I’m a big fan of your other movies and this seems a little different because you didn’t write it yourself and you came on board just to direct, so I guess this project started with you and Steve, Alice. Did you create these characters for the stage or TV first and then it transitioned into a movie?
Alice Lowe:
We created them for stage, yes, first of all, and then we started developing it for TV but the TV channels thought that they didn’t want to be putting murder on telly every week (laughs), so we sort of thought maybe there was a movie in it and we sent it to some film producers and one of the few people I sent it to was Edgar Wright and he said he’d like to exec. produce it as a feature so we gave it to Big Talk and Nira Park and started developing it and started hammering out the dynamic between the characters and the backgrounds and the story and the genesis of those murderers.

CS: So the fact they were murderers was always a part of the story.
Alice Lowe:
Yeah, they were always murderers (laughs). That was always part of the thrill of it, the fun was the bittersweet juxtaposition of having these kind of sweet characters that have this sinister secret, so yeah, that was always the joke really that once we started developing it as a film that the characters became real, became much more human and with a reason why they were doing this. As soon as you started investigating that, they suddenly take on much more of a life. We wanted people to have some sort of in to the characters so they could understand why they were doing what they were doing even if it’s wrong. We did a lot of research on psychopathic serial killers and serial killer couples as well, especially, sort of to see how they create they own little worlds and their own little sets of rules and things escalate because they’re exacerbating each other’s condition essentially.

CS: Ben, how did you get involved with this because “Kill List” was obviously here last year so you didn’t have a ton of time to turn around another movie.
I think I was here for “The Kill List” and then I went back and we shot “Sightseers.” I had to make space in our prep schedule for Toronto and we shot about this time last year?
Lowe: It was October.
Wheatley: It was October. I had been on board since before “Kill List” because I had a meeting with Nira Park and they said, “Oh, we got a script we really want to do and it’s called “Sightseers,” and I said, “I know this because I’ve seen the short a few years before which is very different from what we ended up with, but I’d seen it and I knew Alice and Steve as well, so I kind of went “Oh this is perfect I’ll do this” and also I was looking for something that was lighter after “Kill List” because I knew that I was about to do “Kill List” and it was going to be really horrible. I’ve been, since “Down Terrace,” I’ve been trying to think ahead to the next couple movies so that we know what’s going on so I don’t come off the end of a movie and don’t know what I’m doing and ending up in that pattern of three or four years between films, which would be very easy to fall into, so with this it was like “I’ll do that, it’s great. That fits all the things I want to do and also it’s a chance to do a lot of improv stuff.” But basically, we only got greenlit after “Kill List” did well. As soon as the “Kill List” reviews were in, it was like, “Oh, yeah. Sightseers is on.” Which is great because it means we have that turnaround, so it was pretty unusual. We did three films in three years.

CS: Woody Allen does it all that time so it’s not that impressive and he’s older than you. (This gets a big laugh.) You mentioned improv before, so I assume even though you spent time writing the script, you still left space open to improv?
Yeah, well that’s the joy of being a writer/performer is that you can use improvisation as a tool for writing obviously but a lot of the character dynamics came out of the improvisations around the camping research trip that we went on together for a week in a caravan. We actually took that route, but yeah as a comedian I think you use improvisation a lot just to get yourself out of a tricky situation when you’re onstage and people aren’t laughing but it’s just a method that’s used a lot.
Wheatley: That’s what improv’s for then, is it? (laughs)
Lowe: Yeah, it is for saving your bacon on stage.

CS: People still do a lot of improv in movies but usually you work so hard on a script and the characters…
I think comedy, so much of it comes out of the strange sort of golden instant ’cause you don’t know why it’s funny but you captured it. I often think, “Why wouldn’t you do that with a comedy film? You’ve got a camera, why wouldn’t you try to capture those moments?” I don’t understand why people don’t use improvisation, especially in comedy films, but also for me you get more naturalism and that’s why I like the naturalistic performances and strange rhythms and the way that people genuinely interact captured rather than sort of very mannered performances. I think everybody has a rhythm, the way they speak, and sometimes if you’re an amazing actor, you can make someone else’s script natural to you, but if I write something, I always prefer that the actors who are performing it, I just say, “Make it comfortable to you, make it sound like you would say it” because you just get more naturalism that way. Ben will talk about the improvisational process.

CS: I would think since you and Steve wrote the script, you knew exactly what you’d want to say at any given time.
Yeah, but then we’d just go off on a tangent and the example that we’d dress the mother’s house–it was an empty shell and we dressed every room in it–but a lot of the rooms weren’t in the script, stuff you normally wouldn’t do if you want to save, you’d never build extra sets that aren’t mentioned in the script, but we did it and then we could rove around the house and make up scenes hither and dither and that freedom was great. So you do the scenes that were scheduled for that day and then other things would occur to you and you’d follow the characters around and see what happened to them and that informed quite a lot of the movie.

CS: You mentioned that you did a location scout and found a lot of the places where the couple would end up but when you get to these places when filming, you don’t know how many people are going to be there at any given time.
It wasn’t as crazy as that. You’d go there and the budget wasn’t big enough to close down those places but most of them would be live, but you’d bring in your own extras and kind of try not to get in the way too much.

CS: There couldn’t be that many other people around.
Well, it was October, so it was out of season, so that weren’t that many and we didn’t choose places that were hugely, hugely popular. We sort of went to quite unusual locations, the places were all quite brilliant.

CS: There really is a Pencil Museum?
Yeah, yeah, exactly the Pencil Museum is very popular. That was quite busy. That we really had to fight for a bit of time to be allowed to shoot but they were great with it.

CS: How do you go about shooting a movie like this once you’ve figured out their route? Just take the same route?
Yeah, I mean we shot it in chronological order. I mean, its great to shoot in chronological order but most movies that’s a major deal and it’s going to be a big old cost to shoot in chronological order but with this one it made sense anyway because it was a real trip. They are in that order so you’d just travel up one after another. We didn’t have any availability. I think we only had three unit buses so we’d just go around those areas. You’d go to one place and shoot one leg of the trip and then the next leg of the trip.

CS: Is that how you did “Kill List” also because that also had a lot of locations.
“Kill List” was different. That was a cheat because it was all shot in Sheffield. “Kill List” is a film that plays gangbusters everywhere except in Sheffield because they go “Hang on then, they’re not going anywhere. That’s right around the corner.”

CS: Yeah I hate that with New York movies where they get all the geography wrong. Have you ever heard about this movie “16 Blocks”?
Yeah, yeah. That was shot here wasn’t it?

CS: No, I thought it was shot in New York but the location scout didn’t exactly bother to make sure their locations were actually far enough from the courthouse they needed to get to for it to make sense, so they’d be on one side of the courthouse one minute and the other the next and they literally were winding around the courthouse the entire movie.
That’s pretty funny because I had a meeting this morning with the art director of “16 Blocks” and he said that all the sets and half of it was shot here.

CS: Well, there you go. I know they must have shot some of it in New York because they were filming in my neighborhood but you could tell the locations/sets were not established by someone who spends any amount of time in that area. The strange thing is I didn’t know too much about “Sightseers” when I saw the premiere. I knew you directed it Ben and I knew it was dark comedy but I didn’t know about all the killings, so that kind of took me by surprise.
Oh, really? (laughs)

CS: I wonder how many people went into the movie knowing that they were going to be killers because it was shocking at times. I think you mentioned that you wanted to do this on TV but it was too dark but after screening it here in Toronto, do you find people are going in ready for something like this?
Well, I think things like “Kill List” give people a bit of a tip-off if they know about…
Wheatley: The sad fact is that any movie is going to have a logline, isn’t it? And if you’re going to see it in a cinema, this thing, there’s nothing you need to stop people writing “A couple go on a holiday and murder people.” That’s going to be the thing so everyone will know going in what it is. I mean, it is brilliant at film festivals where people can go in… and it’s the only place they can go in… as you make a concerted effort not to read anything about movies, which I’m increasingly having to do when I go and see stuff.
Lowe: I think there are plenty of movies that are just as dark but they kind of transform us during the movie (laughs), where there’s as much of a head count but there isn’t…
Wheatley: Ours is about the darkest film going isn’t it? I have a theory that our thing is all basically just a diseased fantasy as his brain is asphyxiating after he has a heart attack, but I don’t buy all that balloon stuff.

CS: The you should have done the “Brazil” ending where it all was happening in his head the whole time.
(laughs) Exactly, yeah, yeah. Oh, this place smells. It’s the old guy at the back!

CS: I think maybe you need to direct a live action version of “Up.”
Called “Down.” (We’re all laughing so much at this point that it’s hard to get things back on track.)

CS: You used a lot of the same crew from “Kill List” as well?
Yeah, yeah.

CS: Did you have to try to approach it differently because it was a comedy, trying to make it look different? Because it looked amazing, but it had a very different aesthetic from your other movies.
I think the aesthetic changes because we’re outside a bit more and not to be facetious, but we had a lot more opportunities to shoot beautiful light and we shot for longer as well.
Lowe: And beautiful locations.
Wheatley: Yeah, but like the scene where he kills him on the top of the crag and hits him with the rock, the light up there honestly I was sitting on top of that place going, “This is the most beautiful morning I’ve ever seen in my life. Oh my God, I have so much f*cking light here, I can’t believe this.” And then we were like, “Oh God, get the crew here, we’re going to shoot,” so the first few shots of the sun coming up and all that was just me and Laurie Rose who is the DoP (director of photography) sitting on our own waiting for the rest of the crew to come back up there and we were like, “F*cking hell, this is incredible!”

CS: Did you have any moments where you had to capture something in a certain light or the moment would be gone.
Well, we would just shoot through all weather. Shooting in the UK in October, it’s tough, because it’s always going to rain and you’re going to get all sorts of weather so we knew going in that it wasn’t going to be an idealized version of Britain. It is exactly what it is. It’s not like you’re going to run in a load of massive lights and some stuff. It was mostly done with natural lights.

CS: I also want to ask about the music because some of the songs you picked and the versions of the songs, stuff like that, is that something that you and Steve also contributed to, Alice?
We played around with listening to a lot of Neu while we were filming and a lot of Kraut Rock stuff so that was in the air, isn’t it? And then actually it had come out of something that Edgar had said was that we did a screening and he said, “Just throw more pop music into it.” Being a low-budget boy, I liken licensing tracks to be like, “Whoa, I’m not spending that money!” but as soon as I got the nod I’m like, “Right, let’s have it, you know.”
Lowe: I think in the script we vaguely had things like… because of there’s sort of a journey that happens in the film where it starts off small and scale and then opens up in terms of we maybe tried to hint at that in the script I suppose where you start with maybe more pop music and then it becomes more epic, but who’s the guy who composed it?
Wheatley: Jim Williams. The idea behind it, for me anyways was that I’d listened to a lot of Kraut Rock, I’ve listened to a lot of that German stuff and it was really interesting. I had watched this documentary about it and I’d always thought that that the English new wave music was always sold to me that the UK is the home of… we created punk, we created all this music, this is all ours, so I was like, “Yeah, yeah,” But then you find out about f*cking Kraut Rock and it’s like “Hang on, a lot of this groundwork for all this music was all done in Germany in the early ‘70s,” so you’re like “Oh f*ck” and then you start listening to all this stuff and it’s also the birth of techno and all that stuff. It kind of fit into the themes of the movie that there was like secret histories and stuff. So you have this big brassy ‘80s pop tunes at either end of the movie but underlying underneath the movie there’s a load of Kraut Rock so it’s like “This is what we’re being sold as the story, this is the real story underneath” which is kind of… I’m heavy over-intellectualizing.

CS: Well I like when thought is put into the music and it’s not just a last minute thing.
Well, I always say you have to have a strategy. “Down Terrace” and “Kill List” I had strategies for the music and I think it’s the only way because otherwise you end up with music that’s got lyrics for the lines of the film or happy music or sad music and it’s not enough, there’s got to be that interplay. And then the other thing was the use of cover versions and that weirdly came out of using Spotify and I use Spotify a lot for soundtracks and I build big soundtracks for the movies while I’m working on them which means I might use it but I keep listening to Spotify, I’ve found loads of cover versions of stuff and then I started thinking about, “Hey, their relationship is a bit like that where there’s one version of the song and then there’s another version of the same song but it’s a different interpretation.”

CS: Like “Season of the Witch” I thought that was great, where everyone has heard the other version.
Yeah, yeah and then there’s “Tainted Love” as well, like you’ve got the big electronic version and then you’ve got the original version and it’s like a man’s voice and a woman’s voice and that’s the kind of thing we did with “Season of the Witch,” the Fudge version with the man’s voice and Judy Driscoll with the woman’s voice and those two sets of scenes, it’s Chris’ version of what a murder is, his kind of crazy cross-cut psychedelic murder and then it’s Tina’s version of what she imagines it is as well, so they’re the same scenes but they’re different, one step removed and that was the thinking behind it.

CS: It’s interesting you were going to do these characters at a TV show, but you ended up with a very epic ending that made it so you can’t really do another movie with the characters but maybe you can… Did you guys decide you were going to do one story, all in one and that’s it?
(laughs) Well I was just relieved to break away from the tyranny of the TV format in a way. I think it’s a joy to be able to tell one story and try and get it right and then not to have to keep telling it again and again. The characters are not allowed to change if you write a sitcom, they’re not allowed to learn anything. There’s all these sorts of rules and you go, “I just want to be able to write one character and then leave that behind.” Also as a performer, and I may regret saying this, but it would be my own personal hell to be trapped in the sitcom. I would not really want to do that.

CS: In 20 years, you can do a reunion and bring them back.
Well, everything I’m in gets cancelled. (laughs) I was in something called “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace” which was a real cult comedy, it’s sort of a spoof horror sort of thing and it only ever had one series but I liked the fact that it only had one series because it’s kind of got this little gemlike quality to it that there were only ever six episodes. I think it’s much more natural as a writer to want to tell one story rather than lots of small stories that are half an hour long. For me anyway.

CS: Are you and Steve doing something else now and are you going to keep working together?
We’re actually working on separate projects. I don’t know we might write something again in the future but I don’t know quite what that would be because if you’re writing it for yourselves, what else are we going to play other than a couple and then we start playing all sorts of couples or something (laughs).
Wheatley: Detectives.
Lowe: Yeah, we actually thought about that, but yeah, I’m writing something at the moment.

CS: And are you writing something else as well?
Yeah, we’re shooting in two weeks.

CS: Really, wow. What is it?
It’s called “A Field in England,” it’s an English Civil War film.

CS: Like a serious Civil War film
Very serious. No, it’s funny as well. It’s not a comedy but it’s got funny bits in it but it’s also very psychedelic and about mushroom fields, mushroom circles.

CS: This is a contemporary thing?
English Civil War.

CS: When was that?
Good God, man! (laughter) You know, the proper one, before the French Revolution, that one? 1615?

CS: I hadn’t heard about that one.
Wow. Wow is all I can say to you, sir.

CS: Well, here in the States our British history begins and ends with the Revolutionary War.
It’s before the Revolutionary War and that’s why there’s people in America because they had to flee from the English Civil War and become settlers.

CS: I’ll try to read up on this before seeing your movie then.
It’s one thing to not know there are murderers in “Sightseers” going in blind but going into an English Civil War movie not knowing that there was a English Civil War. Wow. “Why are they doing this? I’m confused.” Maybe we’ll have to do a really long crawl at the beginning like “Star Wars.”

CS: It’s probably ’cause they didn’t mention it at the Olympics opening ceremony which is probably why Americans don’t know about it.
I didn’t see it.
Lowe: They picked all the sort of least popular bits of history (laughs) just to be difficult.
Wheatley: Oliver Cromwell, they did a film about him, “Witchfinder General” that’s set during the Civil War. It’s when they killed the king, they cut his head off. Beginning of the first world.
Lowe: Everything went mental.

CS: You using the same crew from your other movies?
Yeah, yeah, it’s the return of Michael Smiley as well so he’s in it.

Sightseers opens in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and in L.A. TODAY, Friday, May 10.

Coincidentally, the news just broke that Drafthouse Films have picked up the distribution rights to Wheatley’s A Field in England discussed above, so he literally can be going for a fourth movie in a fourth year.