Ben Wheatley interview: Sightseers, Freakshift, A Field In England

As Sightseers finally arrives in UK cinemas, director Ben Wheatley tells us about it, and his upcoming slate…

It’s been several months now since the first, hugely positive reviews of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers came out of the Cannes Film Festival. Half a year later, and on the eve of the film finally arriving in UK cinemas, he took the time to chat with us about the movie, and his upcoming films A Field In England, and Freakshift

When we talked to you around the release of Kill List, you told us that your intro to screenings of it was basically to just say ‘Good luck’ and then walk out. How would you introduce Sightseers?

I’ve had a few that I’ve had to do, and the one with Cannes was just “Enjoy!”. I got in trouble for that, though, because you’re supposed to thank the producers at that screening! I’ve been saying “it’s got everything you need from a film: sex, violence, small dogs, caravans and minor tourist attractions”.

It’s the minor tourist attractions that give you so much gold in the film. You feature the kind of attractions that you used to enjoy as kids, but tend to be cynical towards through adult eyes. I was curious as to how co-operative the tourist attractions were, and did any turn you down when they found out the tone of what you were looking to do?

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No, they were all fine. None of them turned us down, and they were all super-helpful. But it’s a tricky one, isn’t it? I think we were pretty open with them about what we were going to do, and what the film was about. But you can’t really put across tone. And I don’t think anyone knew what the film was going to be like until it was done, because you just don’t. You know what you’re going for, but you might not get that, or you might get something else. I hope they like the film. We tried to make sure that it was open and fair to places, and that they weren’t the butt of jokes. The jokes were about the characters, and not the locations. That was really important.

The Crich Tram Museum is just brilliant. I live down in Brighton, so I go to Bluebell Railway and places like that. Crich is like a world in itself then. 

You mentioned that you don’t get the full feel of what the film is until it’s done. How did this one vary from what you set out to make?

I don’t know, because we didn’t know what we had. With any piece of work you do, you’ve got a script that gives you a good idea of where you’re going, but films are about performance and lucky accidents, and in the edit, you find other texts and subtexts when you’re putting it together. It’s disingenuous to say you didn’t know at all, but a script is not a blueprint that you can absolutely predict what will come out of it.

Especially here, with two such improvisational leads?

And comedy as well. You sometimes have a lot of scripts and some of it won’t work, and some of it will work better than you thought. And then you’ve got allow for that and how that works within the structure of that edit. That’s really funny, that didn’t work, that bit’s okay, so how can we pull that bit so it’s more prominent?

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The old adage of editing comedy is half a second can make all the difference.

It’s not. It’s a frame. I’ve learned that from working with Henry Normal. The first thing I did with him was Ideal. He’d come into the edit suite, and what we’d do in Ideal is edit for a week, and then Henry comes in on the last day, looks at everything, and goes through it all. He’d be going “cut that frame out, add a frame on that”. And we’d be looking at each other going “fucking hell, what’s all this?” Then we’d watch it and it’d be better. It does hinge on it: the timings are absolutely critical. 

In Steve and Alice in this film, they’re bringing to you in this film a pair of characters who have been workshopped, developed and worked on for many years before you started shooting. Is there a little bit of a double edge to that, when you look to shape it into a film?

We rehearsed, did a week or so of rehearsal, and that was mainly to take those characters and put them to bed, really. Those characters were the stage characters, the characters you had for your TV thing. But the ones we’re now going to use are the film characters, and they’re different. That was basically a toning down of performance, and trying to find the reality within them. We did a lot of improv and interview stuff. I interviewed them about their lives in character, and we’d do that with each of the actors in the film. We started to built up a fake memory of them.

The short that had been done was good, but very broad. You have to tone down the comedy Brummie accents.

Don’t knock Brummie accents!

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Well, Steve’s from Coventry, and they’re proper Midlands accents! But they’d turned into a kind of Kevin Turvey-style. That had to be rubbed away.

The shorter the running time, presumably, the greater the need to exaggerate things slightly?

Well it made total sense in the short.

You have to really care for them, and really root for them for Sightseers to work.

Yeah. You do with any character, otherwise what’s it about? That was my main concern when I looked at the script originally. There were two versions of the film. The one we made, and the one where the filmmakers are against the characters, and think they’re idiots. That would be really bad.

Tonally, I think that’s the toughest job you had on this one, and I was wary a bit at first. But you can’t laugh at them. It would be very easy for an audience to come to a differently-interpreted version of Sightseers and look down on them. I would imagine that’s been one of the key challenges, to make sure that didn’t happen.

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Absolutely. It’s about them being real people, making real decisions. They’ll be contradictory, and sometimes they’d do stupid things, but sometimes they’d do clever things. And they’d be selfish, but also be caring and loving, petty and generous. That’s what’s in Kill List and Down Terrace as well, otherwise they become targets, and it becomes mean-spirited.

You punctuate Sightseers with moments of quite pronounced violence, and you seem to be from the school of if you’re going to show it, do it properly. Don’t go for cartoon violence, show the impact of it. How important is that to you?

I think in Sightseers it was important. If you don’t show the violence against a character, then you’re kind of saying that they’re not really a person, they’re really a cartoon. And as an audience member, you get the thrill of the kill with no consequences in that case. I really fought to get the gore in, though. So that you know it’s real. Then you go back into the comedy.

It was something we started doing in Kill List, where it’s lots of emotions on top of each other, quickly. You feel as an audience member you’re going through it. Your heartbeat is going up and down, you’re laughing, then you’re tense… All those things to make you feel something. 

It adds guilt and darkness to the laugh.

Totally, and you start to think about what you’re laughing at. You sit through Fast & Furious and a thousand people get shot in that, and it’s as violent as a Bourne film. And it’s 12.

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If I’ve got my chronology right, between you premiering Sightseers at Cannes and sitting here doing this interview, you’ve completely shot and are now in post-production on your next film, A Field In England. I understand that one’s a more contracted shoot, and a bit more experimental?

It’s an English civil war period movie, in black and white, featuring Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley… Richard Glover from Sightseers is in it. Ryan Pope from Ideal. It’s a very weird film, but it’s kind of like a period film mixed with a Roger Corman acid trip, psychedelic 60s film. Lots of mushrooms and magic, and it’s a bit like a cowboy film too. With big hats.

That was a two week shoot?


I remember when Tarantino was breaking through, and his argument was that he’ll throw lots of different genres into each film, because he’s never going to get to all the stuff that he wants to make in his life. Is yours a slightly similar ethos?

No, it’s just the way the story’s come out. We don’t start and say we’re going to do this and this and this, you write the story and go it’s a bit like that. We didn’t even think of the cowboy thing until we were shooting it, and realised that they had pistols, and they had big hats. I started thinking these are the guys who go to America through religious persecution, and end up in the States. They would have turned into cowboys from that point.

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Is it Freakshift next? That scales the other way in terms of the size of the production?

Yeah, that’s in April. It’s done, it’s all ready to go, but it’s financing and casting at the moment. The storyboards are all done, the final versions of the scripts are there, so we’re just putting the final bits of the deal together.

Are you shooting in America?

No, UK. It’s set in America.

Was there never any temptation to take the shoot overseas?

No. I don’t want to go away from home. The money’s better spent here, too. Shooting in the States is expensive. I know the crews, I know how I work here. I’ll shoot Freakshift here, because it’s a lot of work to take on. The technical side of it is massive, so to have everyone here who I know, it makes more sense to me. I know I’ll be talking to you in a year’s time going ‘the shoot in South Africa went really well!’. But the UK is the plan. 

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You’ll end up shooting it in 3D as well, then?

[He pulls a face that leaves us in little doubt that this will not be the case]

I’ll take that as a no! One last thing. After you did Down Terrace, you talked about how you had three or four scripts ready to go at different levels of budget escalation. Kill List was the cheapest of those, but you suggested you still wanted to go back to the other films. Is that still the plan?

We’re working on lots of different things. There’s some stuff that’s a much higher level, which we’re developing. We’re looking at developing books as well, and adapting stuff. We’re looking at real, ultra-low budget stuff. There’s lots of little ideas kicking about, maybe doing something in a day. And then maybe another film like Field, that’s done in two weeks. It depends what my energy levels are like after doing Freakshift! Whether I’ll be totally rinsed after Freakshift. I might need to take a year off after that and have a cry. It’s ten years worth of work in a year on that way.

It’s that level?

Yeah. It’s six months post, it’s massively complicated, pyrotechnics, animatronics, CG, explosions…!

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Ben Wheatley, thank you very much.

Sightseers is out in UK cinemas on Friday 30th November.

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