“Someone Who’s Arrogant Who’s Being Killed:” Ben Wheatley on Sightseers
Ben Wheatley first gained attention with a nine-second video clip that went viral in the pre-YouTube era. In “Cunning Stunt,” a man successfully jumps over a moving car, celebrates, and is instantly wiped out by an unseen oncoming vehicle. It’s a funny, jolting gag restaged in Wheatley’s 2009 feature debut Down Terrace (a sick-funny look at a homicidal low-tier-criminal family bumping off everyone in their immediate circle). Death by vehicular homicide again makes for the first death in his latest film Sightseers. Chris (Steve Oram) just wants to take his girlfriend Tina (Alice Lowe) on a relaxing rural trip through the British countryside to museums with charmingly archaic subjects (the Keswick Pencil Museum is one of the attractions) but is enraged by a rude tourist tossing a wrapper on an old tramway. In the parking lot, he goes into reverse without looking and kills the offender, a seemingly accidental homicide leading to Chris and Tina going on a competitive killing spree across the countryside, increasingly triggered by the slightest of offenses.
Sightseers uneasily splices together the recognizably rhythms of British black comedy precisely deployed in Down Terrace with the psychedelic frenzies of Wheatley’s 2011 sophomore feature Kill List, in which ex-soldiers commit to a series of contract killings leading them into occult weirdness. Wheatley’s been doing press for the film for a year now, having in the meantime wrapped production on his fourth feature, A Field In England, which on July 5 will become the first British title to be released in that country theatrically, on VOD and DVD on the same day.
Filmmaker: People in your movies seem to kill each other because they can’t express what’s wrong with them in any other way. It’s a common homicidal fantasy that you’ve given really full expression to.
Wheatley: I think it’s different in each of the films. The guys in Kill List have restraint. They don’t kill people in the restaurant [where irritating diners cause a confrontation], which in the world of Sightseers would have ended in some kind of appalling thing. They kill people professionally, pretty much. The people in Down Terrace are more at war. They’ve declared themselves as a sovereign state and if they’re other countries. In Sightseers he’s kind of fickle, he pretends he’s got some kind of covert motive, but he hasn’t as the film shows. He’s pretty consistent with who he murders and then gets upset with Tina when she starts killing people, but really he’s upset because she’s better at it than him.
Filmmaker: Someone getting hit with a car is one of your signature moves. It’s a very particular type of violent gag that has to be slightly different every time you do it.
Wheatley: That is a slapstick gag. I’m a big fan of that. It becomes a signature thing. It was in the script for Sightseers, so I couldn’t avoid it in that one. I figured I could get away with doing it in Down Terrace, because I think the leap between “Cunning Stunt” and Down Terrace — you get one for free. That clip was on the net before YouTube and stuff like that. On my website alone, we had about 15 million views of that thing. It started me thinking about silent cinema and how to cut across all barriers and what is funny about that. And it’s basically someone who’s arrogant who’s being killed. It’s something that appeals to everybody.
Filmmaker: Sightseers opens with “Tainted Love,” used in the most literal way possible. How did you choose that song?
Wheatley: The first music in the film was the German stuff, Cluster, Neu!, Harmonia and all those bands. I showed it to Edgar Wright, who’s the executive producer, and he was like, “Well, don’t be afraid of using pop music.” And I kind of resist using pop music because coming from low-budget, I didn’t want to pay for that. The stuff’s too expensive, but once they said, “You can do it,” then fuck it. I was interested in it. So we looked at it, and I thought, “Well, there’s a way of going with this movie where you put on ironic tracks that you don’t really like from the ’80s and it’ll be funny,” but then I thought “Fuck that.” I was trying to be true to the film, and there’s a balance in the movie where we’re trying to not poke fun as much as possible at the characters and not poke fun at the environments they’re in, even though they’re funny in themselves.
So I thought, “What I’ll do is I’ll use music that I like, that I listen to.” So I listen to “Tainted Love” a lot. I’ve got it on my iPod for walking about. It’s a weird track for an ’80s track because it’s not dated, I don’t think, and it’s kind of pure in itself. The electronic side is really beautifully produced in a way that a lot of ’80s stuff isn’t. And then it also fit thematically.
The other thing we used with it is that the film is about using cover versions, so it’s that and “Season of the Witch” being played twice. Each was like it’s Tina taking over Chris’s life and copying it and reproducing it, but in a different way.
Filmmaker: Is there ever a character or environment so bad that you’re tempted to toss aside restraint?
Wheatley: No. I think that you have to live with them and you shouldn’t judge them too much. You’re more presenting the evidence of what they’ve done. It’s slightly disingenuous to pretend you don’t have judgment over these things, but if you go in thinking people are stupid, then it’s a two-way street, because you end up as the maker looking stupid or ungenerous. And I don’t agree, that’s one of the things that drew me to the film, is I thought they were good. Even though what they do is abhorrent — on one level, murder is bad, we all agree on that obviously — but what they’re also doing is anarchic and they’re breaking out of social structures and they’re trying to find something and they’re seeking them.
Filmmaker: There doesn’t seem to be much socially redeeming about the bachelorette party [one of the loud, drunken party makes out with Chris while Tina is in the restroom]. Maybe that’s just me.
Wheatley: That’s just it. It’s your own prejudices. It’s like if you’ve got a kid, if you’re on a plane and there’s a crying baby, you can look around and you can see who has children and who doesn’t have children. Men and women who don’t have children are going out of their fucking minds, and anyone who does have children doesn’t give a fuck, because they don’t hear it.
I dunno, the bachelorettes, I like them. I think they were funny and full of energy and having a good time and that’s a good thing. It’s like laughing at people who have extreme fashion sense, isn’t it, or people who dress up as punks and goths. If you take the piss out of them, what you’re saying about yourself is, “Well, these guys, they’re easy targets, but they’re also expressing themselves fully and going for it and living life.”
Filmmaker: There’s a lot of background news reports throughout.
Wheatley: We always end up having to record an audio track for each of the films. If you look on the credits, Sara Dee is the voice of the radio in each of the film’s we’ve done, and I have to write fucking news reports and they’re all recorded out and played in every scene. Usually it’s a burble of radio at the background of all the interior stuff, at least in Down Terrace and usually it’s germane to the plot as well, but it’s mixed down so much you can hardly make it out. Usually stuff about the recession, war stuff. The one in Kill List is a phone-in about a dream that someone had about being attacked in a tunnel by naked people, and it goes on and on and on, and it basically gives away the whole film, but it’s all underneath the beginning of the movie.
Filmmaker: In interviews, you’ve said that Down Terrace was about the Blair administration, with the family’s disregard for other’s lives, and Kill List was about the difficulties of maintaining a small business during this recession. Do you have an equally neat reading for Sightseer?
Wheatley: When I read the script, the way I first saw it was that they travel backwards in time through England. They see England as part of the recession. Everything they go to, all the attractions about either stuff that we were good at or technologies that have gone or industries that have closed down, ending at the stone circle, so we keep going back and back and back. It’s not as neat as the other movies.
Filmmaker: Tina’s mother warns her about people in Yorkshire being mean. Are statements like that common received truths?
Wheatley: Yeah, that’s the sort of thing people say about Yorkshire, that they’re a bit dour. England’s so small. When you’re talking about Birmingham to Yorkshire, that’s literally 40 or 50 miles, it’s not even that far, and the accents are completely different, unbelievably different between those two places. But then you have Manchester to Liverpool, which is like 20 miles, but again totally different places. Everywhere you go in the UK, every 10 to 15 miles, you get a different accent that’s a very odd thing that you don’t really realize until you get out of the UK, how specific it is.
Filmmaker: I’ve read a lot of UK writers saying the film could really only be appreciated as an informed English person familiar with the landscapes and rural journey narratives you’re kind of making a burlesque of.
Wheatley: Yeah, Sight & Sound said that. No, I don’t see it like that. We tried to strip the film out of too much cultural specificness, so they don’t talk about celebrity people from the UK or television or what their childhoods were like that would be so specific. You get an easy laugh from talking about a television show that everyone saw when they were kids, and we tried to strip that out so that you wouldn’t get, going from country to country, “What the fuck is that?”
I’ve had so many questions about this English thing, yada yada yada. I don’t think it is. It plays fine in Europe. It played pretty well in France, it played pretty well in Denmark and that, and it’s because what it’s dealing is, in a heartbeat, with a relationship and a couple trying to negotiate whether they like each other or not, which is a universal thing as much as anything. And going on holiday, which everyone kind of does. From my point of view, I made the film where I don’t think I’m particularly English or I’m in England. It’s only people from outside who see that. And Sight & Sound. “Bucolic” — fucking hell.
Filmmaker: I assume the scene with hail is real.
Wheatley: We shot in all weather because it’s England. There’s a reason people shoot in Hollywood, because it’s bright all the time, it doesn’t rain very often. But in England, it rains every five minutes, so very early on we decided to shoot it like a documentary. If we shot it and treated like a documentary rather than a traditional film, then we would capture these natural elements and we were really lucky. That scene where he hits the guy with the rock: that was the most beautiful morning I’d ever seen in my life. I couldn’t believe we got it in film, it was brilliant, and then other days it was just pissing rain all over and horrible.
Filmmaker: You have a way of framing shots, especially indoors, that’s very distinctive. Can you speak about your shot choices a bit?
Wheatley: Laurie Rose, who’s the d.p., I treat as another actor, so he gives another performance in the film, and his performance is as a witness. So we talk a lot about that. He needs as much direction as the actors in a way, because the way his eye is looking at this thing is not trying to make it look like a cameraman and not to feel too authored like you can see when cameraman are trying to do handheld and it can be really awful.
Also the rooms are really small. In New York, I suppose, the rooms are quite small, aren’t they? But in the rest of America the houses are fucking ginormous in comparison to UK houses. Our houses are small. I had a lot of this with Down Terrace, where people were going “Oh, they live in a hovel.” It was always horrible to read that in American reviews. The house is pretty big for a UK house. It’s just what England looks like.