Director's Cut: Ben Wheatley ('Sightseers')

Sightseers (5)

I will never forget the first time I saw Ben Wheatley's "Kill List." It was the film's midnight premiere at SXSW 2011. Halfway into the grueling fest, I wanted nothing more than to be deeply, profoundly unconscious. But my friend (Matt Patches, of Hollywood.com) insisted that I see this movie, which he had caught at a press screening earlier that same morning, and was now obliterating his intricately planned festival schedule in order to see again.

Needless to say, I wasn't disappointed. Well, I guess it isn't needless to say, as most of you reading this probably have absolutely zero idea about my thoughts regarding Ben Wheatley's work, but if you've had the opportunity to see "Kill List" for yourself (it's now streaming on Netflix Instant), you probably understand the film's seductive spell, and how its final act nests a ludicrous series of events inside a palpable feeling of immediacy, the terrors on screen ultimately less observed than they are experienced first-hand. As I stood outside the theater, horrified and ecstatic, I knew then and there that I'd see everything this Ben Wheatley fellow would ever make. What I didn't realize at the time was how difficult it would prove to keep up (the suddenly prolific filmmaker has another film, "A Field in England," coming out later this year).

"Sightseers," the rising British horror master's deliriously dark and altogether brilliant new film, is both a departure for Wheatley and yet also unmistakably his. Built around compatibly demented pre-existing characters that co-stars Steve Oram and Alice Lowe had developed on the local comedy circuit, "Sightseers" is, as described by Calum Marsh in an article we published yesterday about Wheatley's ascendance, "A kind of kitchen-sink dramedy in which a young couple take their RV for a summer trip across the Yorkshire moors, the film gradually transforming from its unassuming Mike Leigh-lite roots into a bizarre cavalcade of hillside carnage, the couple flipping the switch from laid-back and bickering to crazed and murderous so quickly one hardly notices the change." In other, shamefully reductive words, imagine "Sightseers" as a cross between "Badlands" and "Hot Fuzz," and you'll be on the right track. Of course, I suppose that you might glean a slightly more satisfying (and accurate) understanding of what Wheatley's latest is all about by seeing it for yourself (it hits theaters in NY and LA today, and arrives on VOD Monday).

Earlier this week, I had the chance to sit down with Mr. Wheatley and chat with him about why he's so great, and how exactly he came to be that way. Also he talked about kraut-rock and I quoted "Titanic." Good times.

FILM.COM: Reflecting back on “Down Terrace” and “Kill List,” it strikes me that there’s something implicitly universal about the horror genre, and yet “Sightseers” felt to me like your most British film yet.

BEN WHEATLEY: Oh, I don’t know about that. When you’re inside a culture and you make something you don’t think of it... I haven’t been away and come back and felt like I wanted to make a British film because I’ve felt un-British. So maybe it feels that way from the outside looking in, but I think it’s very difficult to put your finger on it. Because otherwise you’re making weird heritage movies.

Does the speed at which you work not allow you to really bother yourself with such frivolous concerns? 

Well, it’s like why would you start there? You start with the stories and the characters and the environment. You get a lot of questions about storytelling and audiences and such, and to be honest I don’t really think about it. It’s how you personally deal with the experience. When I’m making a film I’m looking into the monitor and I’m watching it and I’m trying to be the audience, thinking “is this good? Am I enjoying what I’m watching?” And that seems to be the main focus, not these grander plans.

Well, so much is made about the speed at which you work, you read reports about how you shot “A Field in England” in like 12 minutes or whatever. Does your style inform the speed at which you work, or does the speed at which you like to work come to inform your style? 

It’s more things. It’s budget level informs the script, which then informs the speed, it’s kind of like a triangle. “A Field in England” was sort of designed to be shot fast, and it’s the same thing with “Kill List” a little bit, and “Sightseers” not so much. And if you attempt to shoot a film in 12 days that isn’t designed to be shot in 12 days, then you come horribly unstuck and things go wrong. But with “Field” we never felt for a minute that were under pressure or needed more time, because it was made that way. It’s pragmatism, but at the same time it’s like Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat,” he’s going “I’m going to make something that’s this controlled.” And then you work from that point out, which I think is something really interesting as well. Or like “Dogville” as well, a definite plan going in rather than this weird world of “I have a dream going on in, and how am I going to film it?” And the answer is... you don’t.

[We both laugh.]

It’s just not going to happen.

And with “Sightseers,” you have these characters who existed before you created them. How well formed were the characters when Alice Lowe and Steve Oram brought them to you?

There was a script, and I liked the script. And then Amy Jump re-wrote the script. We brought to it things we learned from the other movies, there was a lot of structural stuff and Amy wrote a lot of dialogue and character stuff. And then it was basically trying to bring it from where it started, which was a lot of stand-up stuff and comedy routines, and they made a short film which was quite broad as well, and then it was about taking that and moving it more into the world of “Down Terrace” and “Kill List,” which is a much more grounded and realistic world. So we did a lot of rehearsal stuff and massaged the performances down to make them a bit more real. And then we did a lot of improvisation, trying to make an atmosphere where they could play and not feel embarrassed about what they were doing, so they could feel like everything they did was right. And we had a lot of rushes and Amy and I would cut it back down to what you see now.

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Perhaps to Amy’s credit, I was really impressed by the structure of the film, how it moves. This is something I find true of all your films, but in the context of “Sightseers” the escalation, and how it never becomes stale or repetitive... which for any movie set in or around a vehicle is something of an inherent danger. Can you talk about how you mapped that out?

There was stuff cut out of the film, there were other subplots and bits and bobs... I mean, we love editing, so a lot of the structure was sort of found in the cut. From the very first script there was this rhythm that they would murder and murder and then bicker and fall out, so that was always a given. But it was the things that we found within it were how things were mirrored, how his and her murders have the same music under them, and the same structure under them ... and the idea that she was slowly taking him over. So that’s what we focused on. In the same way that “Kill List” is a symmetrical film that kind of folds together, this repeats but through the eyes... he shows her how to do it, and then she does it, and then she takes over.

Yeah, I think of her tasting the blood on her hand and you feel a werewolf-like transformation. Talking about the music a little bit, the film has several different covers of the same songs, “Season of the Witch.” Music is such a part of the texture of your films, even the mother screaming to open the film... can you talk about at what point in the process you start building the soundscape?

I listened to a lot of neu! and Cluster and Harmonia and German prog-rock stuff while we were filming ... and in the van when we were going to the location ... and we had them on at the wrap parties. And then I was thinking in terms of hidden history stuff, like in the UK there was this idea that new wave was something we invented, but when I started to understand it a bit more I realized that a lot of that stuff had been knicked from Germany in the 1970s, krautrock as it’s called by the English press. And I liked the idea of that, that you could have two histories sort of running at the same time, so “Tainted Love,” the Soft Cell version, is an English track that has been heavily influenced by German music. And it was stuff that these characters would have listened to as kids.

I try to have an idea for each of the movies that would make sense of the music, because then it’s much easier to find music to fit, thematically. In terms of sound effects, I tend to edit with all of the sound in, so there’ll be like 100 layers of sound and I track layers as I cut, so I can hear exactly what it is that I’m dealing with, rather than the traditional way where you put down a couple of sound effects and then when you’ve locked the cut you go back to the mix, and I just find it rather weird that you would have the film in such a poor state right up to the end when you lock it, and you don’t know what it’s going to be like.

Yeah, it feels like such a part of the DNA of your film. I think of the harpsichord music that accompanies Steve’s murders... and his red parka that he wears, which becomes something of a costume for him, like a superhero outfit for murders.

Yeah, he looks like a giant dwarf.

[laughs] Yeah, it’s very frightening to see him in that, when you can see increasingly how comforted he is by having that on. It all seems like an act for him, like he’s finding excuses to commit these murders, but for her it seems a bit more intrinsic. It comes more naturally to her, even though they joke about her being his muse, it seems quite the opposite. 

Yeah, she could have done anything, she’s capable. And he kind of takes her, Svengali-like and molds her, but what he molds her into is somewhat appalling. And she’s just better at it than he is. And he’s a bit of a wannabe and nervous about it and not a natural, and she just takes to it really well. And he gets frustrated by that. I think any couple can understand how that works.

I think of the scene where she’s looking at the photos on the camera and goes through such a wild range of emotions. That scene rolls from broad comedy, to dark comedy, to horror in the span of an instant. I feel like her character enabled you to play with genre, and really have that flexibility that a lot of films don’t. Can you talk a little bit about using character as a way in to playing with genre, rather than going the opposite way and saying “Oh, I’m going to make a horror-comedy, let’s just plug some characters into that?”

I dunno. I mean, I think that a lot of it is just following how the characters feel and where the story takes them. The genre stuff isn’t worn on my sleeve so much. It’s not like we’re desperate to make a murders on the run type movie. The thing that hopefully makes the audience like it is that it’s just about two humans... they’re hopefully quite realistic characters existing in a genre world. And hopefully you get the benefits of genre, like an exotic setting and sparky plotting, but then you get the advantages of character-based drama so you feel for the characters, and you have to buy into it.

Speaking to that, the scariest thing about your movies is that they are relatable. You can recognize yourself. 

You have to have empathy for the characters. And you have to have that as a filmmaker as well, to make sure you’re not sabotaging them. You have to like them, you have to respect them. As an audience member, if you spend enough time with a character on screen you bond with them anyway, and then when they do appalling things you question why you like them.

And there’s a wrinkle to that in your films, because there’s an egocentrism to these characters. The horrors don’t really affect these people because they’re happening to other people, and “Kill List” for me was ultimately about how that perspective is twisted on its head by the third act. In “Sightseers,” to me they’re all locked in their own experience, even from each other, so in their own heads. And everyone they meet is squeezed into their narrative.

I think it’s universal. That’s what we’re all like. We all feel like we’re the center of the universe, when we die everything dies with us. It’s a tricky one, because I get questions saying they’re such horrible bastards, no one could relate to them. It happened a lot with the couple in “Kill List” during Q&As and stuff. I think you can have a relationship like that where it’s all shouty and it can still be loving, they’re just different types of relationships, but people don’t necessarily have that experience, and so they can see it as a negative thing.

It’s funny because you watch “Sightseers,” and I think – at least for the first hour – there will be a lot of healthy couples watching it and wishing they had that kind of relationship, that kind of passion and connection. Thinking their romance is kind of mundane in comparison.

I don’t know, you see kids Twittering “The movie is so weird,” and I think it’s because culture has become very smooth and kind of easy, very 3-act structure-y and everything is always explained all the time. Life isn’t explained, life is a car wreck most of the time and will suddenly bite you in the ass. And that’s kind of what we try to do with the films, that’s our strategy, to make it feel real. It’s why I use socio-realist stuff and mix it with genre, is that you’re buying the story stuff because it feels real. I find that trope-y kind of genre with a big G movies do deliver the goods now and again with the action, but the characters are just so tired that you’ve seen them before a thousand times.

And I think you feel that vitality late in the film, at that last moment... anyone who has ever been in a relationship can understand that whole “you jump I jump” feeling. There’s something about the endings of your films where they’re wonderfully open, but they also speak so much to the characters... it’s never that feeling of the storyteller running out of ideas, but the ambiguity actually clarifies the characters. 

Yeah, you don’t have the last 3 minutes of everyone highfiving everyone and the police turn up. Which is not to say that I won’t make a film like that...

Well that was my question, is that something that’s intrinsic to your storytelling or...?

Well, you just can’t do it again and again. I don’t want to make the same film, where they all end with a cut-to-black ending where it’s like “Daaah!!!”

I was hoping you would make another film with a logo, though, like “Kill List.” Speaking of not repeating yourself, are you the type of director who sits down and watches films for reference while you’re in pre-production? 

I really like the idea of it, but I don’t. I don’t find it helpful to look at other people’s work. When stuff gets in there anyway, you can’t avoid that, but you don’t want to seek it out. Everything is very different, if you watch “Badlands” or something like that it’s made at a very different time, and the whole situation with that film is very different. And a lot is about being there on the day and feeling it rather than thinking about other movies that were made and how they did them. And also, if you have a chance to make a film, then why the f**k do you want to do a film like someone else?

And your style, perhaps just the way it’s edited, but it seems like it allows for a certain flexibility on the day.

Totally. And, you know, I read about like Nic Roeg’s stuff and how he wouldn’t storyboard or do anything and then just shoot on the day and find what he could, but his films are so intricate and structured, so that was very encouraging to me. What I tend to do is I storyboard, shot list, and then do camera plans and all these things again and again and again and then I never look at them. So I’ve got them in my head and I’ve thought about them and planned it, but then on the day I can do a pseudo-spontaneous thing but I know where I am. Also, you don’t know what actors are going to do. There’s a whole world of directing which I think is fine where you push them around like automatons, but I don’t think you get the best out of them like that.

And my last question is probably my most important one: The dog. Poppy. My sense is that you cast the dog based on how well he could cock his head on command.

The reality of a dog is that you get a shot every 20 minutes, so it’s 20 minutes of s**t and then he goes [cocks his head] and then you go “great, moving on!”

Be honest, is the dog why “Sightseers” took such a comparatively long time for you to film?

No no, that was the locations. Driving around to all of them. The dog was good, and the dog handlers were all good guys. You just have to have patience. With a normal performance, from you know, a human, is that you’ll take 20 minutes to get the best stuff out of them but you’ll get really good stuff out of them along the way, but with a dog you just get nothing.