Ben Wheatley: Let England quake
The bloody-minded British auteur talks to Jonathan Romney about his latest grisly offering 'Sightseers'
Sunday 25 November 2012
Popular wisdom states that it's impossible to make a road movie in Britain. The landscape's too small and the roads are too short, not to mention lacking in glamour. Imagine trying to make a film like Natural Born Killers in which the murderous lovers keep stopping off at Little Chefs or the tearooms of National Trust properties.
Well, now there is such a film, which more than rivals any US-made roadkill operas in grisliness – and outdoes them in mischief and wit. Directed by up-and-coming British auteur Ben Wheatley, and scripted by its stars, Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, Sightseers is English Grand Guignol with knitwear and knapsacks, telling the story of two holidaying misfits who are anything but happy campers – as anyone who's reckless enough to pitch a tent close to them quickly learns.
Sightseers is the first out-and-out comedy by Brighton-based Wheatley, although his previous films were streaked with black humour – even his last, the nightmarish and unrepentantly violent Kill List, about two hitmen on an ill-fated mission. Sightseers, too, is haunted by sudden, brutal death, but the film is both sweeter and more startling, by virtue of its anti-heroes – disgruntled dorks in love Chris and Tina.
In his time, Wheatley has been as shaggily bearded as the film's Chris – and similarly prone to wearing a woolly hat. When I meet him, he's shaved it off, although he's now sporting heavy bristle, making him resemble a large, slightly diffident hedgehog. "I'm a lazy-beard kind of a man," he confesses. "I grow a beard. I shave it off and I grow another one. It's just part of the cycle." Talking about his films, Wheatley is no-nonsense and forthcoming about the technical nuts and bolts: he's currently preoccupied with different types of lenses and his aspiration to move towards Citizen Kane-style deep focus. What he doesn't like discussing is their thematic content, partly because he feels he may already have over-discussed them and explained too much away.
"It's like in museums, when there's a little block that explains everything about a painting – you read that before you look at the picture and it colours exactly what you see. I've done press on three films now, and I'm trying to work out what you should ever say about something – whether you should say anything." Wheatley wishes he could be as taciturn about his work as Amy Jump, his writing partner, co-editor and wife, whom he's been with since they were 16. "Amy won't ever talk to anyone. Doesn't take meetings or anything. She keeps herself away from all of it. Unfortunately," he says ruefully, "I'm the public face."
And Wheatley is becoming a public face now, having very quickly established himself, in three low-budget features, as one of the few new UK directors with a genuine cult following. His no-frills approach and rough-and-ready industriousness have given him something of the auteur-from-the-local status last associated with Shane Meadows.
His first film, the crime drama Down Terrace, is being re-released in cinemas on Friday, the same day as Sightseers, to capitalise on his growing standing. When the film made its modest debut in 2009, Wheatley seemed to have come out of nowhere, but he already had a track record. After studying fine arts in Brighton, he turned his hand to editing and video installation. He found his way into internet marketing as a prolific creator of virals, and built a reputation posting fanciful, elaborate clips such as the ad for the apocryphal "must have" toy the Mechanical Death Spider, and a "destruction-of-London" scenario for Atari.
He also worked in TV comedy, notably directing and co-writing the BBC3 sketch show The Wrong Door. What proved hard was moving into features. "I said to my agent, 'I'd like to do drama.' He said, 'It doesn't work like that, you need to do a short film, and then they might let you do one.' I thought, 'Sod that, I'll make a feature film.' That's where Down Terrace came from."
Wheatley and collaborators, including his friend Robin Hill – who edited and played a lead role – paid for Down Terrace themselves, for an initial outlay of only £6,000. The budget was kept low partly by shooting in Hill's parents' house, and the film ingeniously made a virtue out of parsimonious necessity: Down Terrace's successful crime family likes to point out that it behoves it to live in a modest setting, so as not to attract attention.
The even more successful follow-up was the brazenly distinctive Kill List, a bloody crime drama with a genuinely disturbing undertow of supernatural menace and mystery. Now Wheatley's have-a-go ethic has resulted in Sightseers, a genuinely collaborative film from a script developed over five years by Lowe and Oram, who had originally planned a sitcom for the Chris and Tina characters. Having worked on The Wrong Door, they knew Wheatley matched their sensibilities and taste for "combining the mundane with the horrible", Oram tells me over the phone. What defines Wheatley's outlook, he says, is that "he doesn't shy away from the horrible, violent nature of life". "All his characters are barbarians, really," Oram adds. "They're like big monkeys, aren't they?"
Inescapably, Sightseers carries strong echoes of Nuts in May, Mike Leigh's 1976 TV comedy about a pair of equally woolly but somewhat less lethal holidaymakers. Wheatley actually hadn't seen Leigh's film until shortly before shooting, and was eager to strip down some of the parallels in the last draft. But Nuts was certainly part of Lowe and Oram's repertoire, and Oram admits the similarity: Sightseers, he says, "takes some elements of Mike Leigh and adds people getting their heads smashed in". But it's not the only influence; Oram and Lowe thoroughly researched serial-killer lore and cinema, particularly taking inspiration from the extremely black Belgian satire Man Bites Dog ("The only comic serial-killer film we could find").
As for Wheatley, he's now broadening his scope. He recently finished shooting A Field in England with Julian Barratt and Reece Shearsmith, about English Civil War soldiers, mushrooms and magic; something, he says, between heritage drama and "a Roger Corman drugs movie". Then there's a cops-vs-aliens film, Freakshift, made on a significantly bigger budget, and the long-cherished I, Macrobane, which Wheatley explains as "an alternate history of Britain … with armoured vehicles and misery and police control", inspired by 2000 AD and starring Nick Frost as "a fat Peter Pan". Wheatley's online cartoons of the Macrobane character depict a rotund, prickly figure, so there may be some element of an alter ego.
Running through all these diverse projects is a dark, cynical humour, which defines this film-maker's touch – and his take on England. "Where are we now?" Wheatley asks, sitting in his distributor's Soho office. "We're right by the John Snow [pub], which is on the spot where they found out about cholera and typhoid. The general history of London is just caked in blood, and the countryside is the same. You're always close to battlefields. We, in our little modern world, don't really see that.
"And also," he adds glumly – or perhaps with relish – "we're going to die. And no one wants to talk about that or think about that." Some, however, are only too happy to make films about it, thereby adding to the darker pleasures of English cinema – knitwear and camping gear optional.
'Sightseers' is released, and 'Down Terrace' re-released, on Friday
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