Alice Lowe interview: Sightseers, Michael Elphick and the Daily Mail

The co-star and co-writer of Sightseers chats to us about the film, as well as the Midlands, women and Michael Elphick in cinema...

Sightseers arrives on disc in the UK today, off the back of well-deserved awards and acclaim. It was quite a journey for its co-star and co-writer, Alice Lowe, to get the film made. And she spared us a bit of time to talk about it all…

It almost seems folly to say congratulations on the film now, given that it’s been quite the journey it has. I’m a Midlander first and foremost, so to see a movie open with a map of Halesowen gave me real glee. It did get me thinking that the cinema of the West Midlands has been sadly lacking on the big screen. The best I could do was Michael Elphick in I Bought A Vampire Motorcycle. Surely that’s the film that inspired you?

[Laughs] No, but I must see that! I love Michael Elphick’s earlier stuff, as he had a whole other career as an Oliver Reed-style heartthrob. I might have seen a clip of it, but I’m definitely going to track that down now!

Oliver Reed never ended up with Peggy in the Queen Vic though, to be fair.

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Maybe if he’d survived longer he might have done though! You never know!

You think if he hadn’t died while making Gladiator, he’d have paved the way to EastEnders?

Yeah.

In all seriousness, you grew up in the Midlands, and I say this from a personal point of view, there wasn’t much for real cinema-lovers to get into. Does geography play a part, do you think, in the state of a film industry, in that it tends to get centred somewhere?

Yeah. I’m always really careful about this, but I think the reason we wanted this based in the Midlands was that the characters were shaped by the identity of – as you say – there not being much going on. I have to be careful, as I don’t want to offend Midlanders, but growing up, it wasn’t like growing up in London. Anything you were interested in you’d be able to find someone also interested in it. In the Midlands, nobody came out as gay at my school at all. Maybe times have changed. I think it was really difficult to be different, or have different interests, and find a home for that.

I felt at certain points there were pressures from people asking if they had to be set in Birmingham, and if they had to be Brummies. Can we not film it just outside London? And me and Steve [Oram] were like no, it has to be people who, their hopes and dreams are based around the fact that they didn’t have opportunities that they could have had. They have got aspirations that are unfulfilled because of the environment that they’re in. But also Brummies are really, really funny. They’ve got a really warm, self deprecating sense of humour… 

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You know this isn’t going to work, don’t you? That I’m just going to write this up as you slagging Brummies off, and then leaving out what you just said?

[Laughs] We based it a lot on our family backgrounds, and family holidays. I think we felt strongly that, also, the Midlands doesn’t get shown on screen. There’s Shane Meadows, and also you get the same locations used again and again in films, because people want to shoot just outside London. Psychologically, for us, we went on a research trip, and we went to all these places. We went to Redditch, and then we did the actual trip you see on screen.

It does change your approach, the way you think and the way you respond to your environment. It really shapes the film in that sense. We saw this amazing house in Redditch that had all these gnomes in the garden, and a big sign saying ‘Graceland’ over the top. We were like, that’s Tina’s mum’s house. She’s built her own little castle in this very ordinary street.

There’s also a man in Redditch who works in the lay-bys, who has a load of logs, a blowtorch and a chainsaw, and he makes log animals for you. You’ve missed a trick there.

Really?!

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Yep. I’ve gone off track though, because you’ve also covered something else in Sightseers that I think cinemas has struggled with of late. And that’s mother-daughter stories.

Yeah.

That for me, even though you don’t see the mother for very long, that’s the crux of the film for me.

It’s really interesting you said that, because one of the first things we really wanted to do when writing the character of Tina’s mom, we were thinking this is such a funny character. And we were only including here at the beginning. Also, Eileen Davies, the actress, is so incredible. We couldn’t believe we found her, and thought we’d struck gold. Who is this woman, and why isn’t she hugely famous? Where has she been?

She’s so funny as an improviser, and her sense of humour just utterly fitted in with what we wanted to do.

I think it’s true though. That idea of an overbearing mother, and that claustrophobia. For me there are people who didn’t leave my home town, who are maybe still living with their parents. It feels like an unspoken-about thing. Again, we’d have people questioning it asking why she would still be living with her mother. But it does happen. There are people who don’t grow up for whatever reason, and they’re not allowed to.

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Particularly so now, with the financial state of the country as it is? More and more people don’t even have the option of moving out. 

I thought, to be fair, Pixar had a go at a mother and daughter story with Brave, albeit it’s a wildly different film to Sightseers.

I also think there’s not very many scenes that are just two women talking. You get a lot of one woman in a scene with one or more men, and it’s very rare that it’s just women in a scene. And I think there’s this dynamic between a mother and a daughter about, and sometimes you tell people about it, and some men can be really surprised. It’s a very psychological, intense relationship. It’s different to the relationship you might have with a father, it’s much more critical. Grey Gardens is one of my favourite documentaries really, and we thought if we could capture that on screen…

It’s kind of a Rapunzel metaphor as well. You want Tina to get away from her mum, and it just gives you the extra sympathy for her. Which is important, because when you see where she gets to finally, you really need to have a strong reason for her being there.

It justifies everything she does, doesn’t it?

Yeah, I think so.

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But then you read one or two reviews, and I think it was the Daily Mail who dismissed it as the West Midlands take on Natural Born Killers. Which felt like it missed the point to me.

I think you have to let it stand the test of time. My thing is if people are still watching it in ten years time… we’ve already had people contacting us saying they’re writing a paper about it, or looking at it for their screenwriting course. And it’s funny, because we do get people going there’s no plot is there? And I think oh my God, if you only knew the agony we went through to fit all the pieces of the jigsaw together. The plot comes from their psychologies and dynamic. These two time bombs being put together, and seeing what the outcome is. That was a really difficult thing to unpack, choosing when to reveal parts of their personalities and psyches.

It would not have been satisfying if the Daily Mail had given us three stars! Either give us a brilliant review or a terrible review. We were just laughing our heads off.

My mum and dad, they’ll never forgive me for the Daily Mail joke, because they read it. But they love the film! And I know they’re kind of biased, but I really thought it’d be too dark for them. I wasn’t sure if they’d like it, or find it too shocking. And they absolutely loved it. And plenty of older people are loving it. And to be fair to them, and not being patronising, they’ve grown up with Dennis Potter and David Lynch and all of these things that are really dark. Channels like the BBC slightly patronise by saying we can’t deal with slightly darker stuff. The Daily Mail as well.

There seems to be an inherent assumption on the part of the entertainment industry that people over 35 have never had sex, they’ve never heard the word ‘fuck’, they’ve never seen anything violent, never tried drugs and don’t drink, and thus they disapprove of everyone. It’s just nonsense.

Yeah, and I think that television becomes very boring for that age group. They’re desperate to see something that’s actually treating us like we’re adults.

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British television is crying out for a HBO.

Yeah, that’s what I was about to say. We pitched Sightseers as a TV idea originally, and it was rejected because it was too dark. But then things like Dexter came out, Breaking Bad… There are so many sophisticated dramas now with comic elements to them. But I think that’s to do with the structuring of our channels, with different departments for comedy and drama and such like.

The world needs more Venn diagrams! Two last things. How are you getting on with your film Lily, and what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie? Any order you like.

Well I can answer the Jason Statham one really quickly: I’ve never seen any of his films.

No!

Oh I did! I saw a bit of a weird one where there were loads of strippers in it. I don’t know what it was. I think people think it’s good, and some people think it’s an intelligent film! But I just thought this is awful [Laughs]! I saw ten minutes of it and thought ‘kill me now!’

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I’m developing Lily with Warp who did the likes of Four Lions and Tyrannosaur. And I’ve been trying to get my grubby foot in the door with them for years, and I’m so happy. Paddy Considine and Shane Meadows are absolutely my heroes, and I’ve always wanted to be doing what they’re doing. So it is a comedy, quite dark, and with lots of realism mixed with surrealism. Which are two different things that I’m really interested in across my career. It’s bringing those two worlds together. I’m really excited about it.

I think Sightseers was a bit of an epiphany, a massive learning curve, and it gave me loads of confidence to go out there, and also to create a female character which is completely unexpected and defies convention. Which is what I’m trying to do with my next film!

Sightseers is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.