Ben Wheatley follows the acclaimed Kill List with a ‘lighter’ story about serial killers on a caravan holiday. Ian Sandwell visited the set.
How do you follow a film like Kill List, the low-budget hit that was one of the best reviewed UK films in recent memory? If you are Ben Wheatley, you try not to think about it.
“There was a bit of pressure after [debut feature] Down Terrace. I thought that would be the high-water mark and then we’d get slaughtered on the second film. Then we didn’t expect anything from Kill List at all. We thought, ‘Well this could go either way, people could really like it or they could just hate it.’
“You just have to push it right to the edge and make the best film you can that you’re doing at the moment. But if you start thinking in terms of what critics think, you’re fucked basically.”
Wheatley uses that mindset to approach his third feature Sightseers — in keeping with his previous films, it defies categorisation. There are eye-catching stills of a chicken sacrifice and a blood-spattered wheel, but then there is also a snap of an adorable dog who could give Uggie a run for his money.
Sightseers is a palette cleanser for Wheatley, as he jokes Kill List was “just so heavy and evil and we felt really bad after we’d made it”.
Rook Films’ Andy Starke and Claire Jones (who produced Kill List and are producing Sightseers) describe it as “not as horrible” and “lighter”. Not all lightness, of course. The story is about a couple, Chris and Tina, on a caravanning holiday around the Lake District in the north of England. Chris turns out to be a serial killer, a hobby that also attracts Tina.
Co-writers and co-stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, who developed the feature from an original short they produced, conducted research into the world of serial killers (Wheatley’s wife and frequent collaborator Amy Jump provided additional material for the script).
“[We] tried to work out the psychology of people who kill together… you see the creation of them as a partnership,” says Lowe.
‘As a tribute to Werner Herzog, we did drag a caravan up a mountain. We literally did.’
Andy Starke, Rook Films
And while Kill List was not on Wheatley’s mind when it came to Sightseers, it certainly had a positive impact on the project, from both a sales and a production viewpoint. Big Talk’s Nira Park, who produces the film alongside Starke and Jones, notes: “We attached Ben after Down Terrace and at one point we were thinking about it being his second film, then Kill List happened. So Ben’s been on board for a year and a half, two years, but yes, if we’d tried to get it off the ground before Kill List, it would have been harder to get the money we’ve been able to get.” The low-budget film is financed by StudioCanal, Film4 and the BFI Film Fund.
Protagonist Pictures has pre-sold to France (Wild Side, which will open via Le Pacte) while StudioCanal will release in the UK in the autumn.
Steeped in the story
The day Screen visited the Sightseers set in October 2011 in Cumbria, north-west England, there was a dinner scene playing out, with Chris and Tina’s mealtime interrupted by a raucous hen party. In keeping with the distinctive style of both Down Terrace and Kill List, the scene shows off the improvisational approach to Sightseers; Wheatley even describes the film as his most “improv-y” yet with a strong mix of on and off-script elements.
“What improv gives you is very realistic performances but you lose the pointedness of the script, the detail basically. You use the best bits of the improv, but when you need a line that has to be said precisely then you go back to the original script version,” he explains.
The naturalistic approach is also part of the reason Oram and Lowe play the main characters in the film — Wheatley believes their extensive knowledge of the characters helps immensely.
“It is hard to do improvisation with people who aren’t steeped in the story. Alice and Steve understand it totally so they can make stuff up without it being totally off-beat.”
Oram agrees: “It all comes from that looseness and often we’ll improv loads of stuff that wouldn’t get used. It’s just background, just chatting and some of it is a bit boring, but [sometimes] there are little nuggets and gems living in it that we put into the script.”
It is not just the improvisational approach that made Wheatley such a strong match with the pair — Lowe believes his naturalistic style was crucial as well. “That is what’s really good about Ben. He’s not interested in a massive RADA performance, he just wants something that’s real.”
Oram adds: “Comedy doesn’t work unless there’s a truth to it and there has to be truth to these characters.”
On the road
What is perhaps surprising about Sightseers is that despite the loose, improvisational nature of the scenes, the shoot saw the cast and crew visit more than 40 locations in just four weeks of shooting. The stress of a constantly moving production was worth it. Lowe says: “You can’t dwell on anything, you just do it and it’s brilliant.”
By working in naturalistic light, Wheatley could shoot numerous angles and takes within a relatively short time — footage averaged around four to five minutes a day. He also edited as the shoot progressed.
“There are very rough cuts, like assemblies, but they’re not really edits until I’ve had a look at them. Traditionally you’d have people saying, ‘Oh, take five is the preferred take,’ but it doesn’t happen with this because there’s so much footage, so the editor is working blind at the moment until I get in there, [then] I’ll know what’s going on a bit more.”
From a production standpoint, Jones believes the shorthand that has developed from working with the same crew, including Kill List and Down Terrace cinematographer Laurie Rose, helped the hectic schedule to succeed.
“We are really lucky that we have such a tight unit. Ben made the decision very early on that we’d shoot no matter what the weather was. Almost like being on a normal holiday in England, you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
The challenging locations were akin to a Lake District Fitzcarraldo. Starke says: “As a tribute to Werner Herzog, we did drag a caravan up a mountain. We literally did.”
- Wheatley co-founded Mr & Mrs Wheatley, which works in cinema, television and advertising, with his wife Amy Jump. Wheatley has won multiple awards for his commercial and viral work including Gold, Silver and Bronze Lions at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
- He has directed several television shows including the BBC’s Ideal and the Bafta-nominated Wrong Door.
- Directed debut feature Down Terrace in 2009, which won awards including Next Wave best film prize at Austin’s Fantastic Fest and best UK feature at the Raindance Film Festival.
- Wheatley’s second feature, Kill List, was released last year to strong critical acclaim, receiving six nominations at the British Independent Film Awards, and landed a US deal with IFC.
- He reteamed with Kill List stars Michael Smiley and Neil Maskell on his segment of upcoming horror anthology The ABCs Of Death.
- Wheatley’s next feature will be sci-fi I, Macrobane, starring Nick Frost, which could start filming later this year.