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Ben Wheatley Interview
Conducted by Simon Bland
In 2009, Ben Wheatley's first feature film, Down Terrace won the Next Wave prize at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, and Best UK Feature at London's Raindance.
His sophomore film, Kill List, received six nominations in the 2011 British Independent Film Awards, where it took home the Best Supporting Actor for Michael Smiley.
Sightseers, his third movie, is due to be released in the UK November 30th, 2012, and HorrorTalk's Simon Bland was able to catch up with Wheatley and ask him a few questions about the film.
Simon Bland: So, how would you describe Sightseers?
Ben Wheatley: It's a kind of twisted love story about a couple who go on a camping holiday and then one of them finds out the other one has a rather unusual hobby, which is murdering people…
SB: That's kind of an unusual hobby…
BW: Yeah and then the hijinks and adventures that then follow.
SB: Where did the idea for the movie stem from, is this something you've been wanting to do for a while?
BW: No, I'd been chatting to Big Talk, who are Nira Park and Edgar Wright's company, and they offered me a script, I think it was after Down Terrace, which was Sightseers. It was written by Alice Lowe and Steve Oram and I'd worked with them in the past and I just really fancied doing it so I didn't really even read it before I agreed to it because I knew they were primarily very funny actors and also they would be very good at improvising as well. So that really appealed, to do something that would be very light and funny and loose after doing Kill List.
SB: Obviously you wrote Kill List and Down Terrace, how was it working from somebody else's script?
BW: Well, Amy Jump — who's my wife and also co-writer and co-editor on Kill List — did a pass on the script, so we kind of tailored it a bit back to what we'd learnt from doing Kill List and Down Terrace, so it was kind of half and half really. And then there's just so much improvisation in it as well. It was never that far away from the things I like as well, so it wasn't a massive stretch.
SB: How much was improvised and how strictly did you stick to the script?
BW: What I tend to do is do a version that's on the script and do a version that's paraphrased around the script so we don't just rock up and make it up. It's just a looser version of what the script is because if you go too far from the script it just falls to pieces. It might be funny in itself, but parts of it wont ever fit back together again into anything that makes any sense, so something like that scene that's online is pretty much scripted. That's not an improvised sequence, but maybe the scene before or after it might have been. We'd go to a place and go, 'Oh it'd be nice if they had a moment doing this,' and then we'd go and have a go at it. I was trying to think the other day how much of it was made up on the day and, I dunno, it's like every third or fourth scene or something. But it's usually a smaller thing, like a moment when they're sitting somewhere thinking about something. It's not like a major bit of plot or story and I think some of the funny lines were improvised, but a lot of them were in the script. It's a tougher call…I mean people can improvise and be funny, but when you have to shrink it down in the edit it becomes quite difficult to retain the rhythm of those things.
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SB: How would you describe your two leads Alice and Steve? What type of characters are they? You mentioned one has quite a violent outlook…
BW: I've always approached it as a filmmaker you had to be behind them really and support them in their madness and whatever they get up to. I agree in some ways with what they do. I don't want to judge them too much, what they do is reprehensible but there's also a logic within it and I think if you judge characters as a creator it's quite bad. If you say these people are evil, it makes for very judgemental filmmaking, so I kind of had to sympathize with them before I could make the film and I think that shows through.
SB: What can you say about Tina's character?
BW: She's kind of an innocent character…quite a natural character who understands, she learns very quickly, that's basically her main arc in it. She's kind of naïve but learns fast and the Chris character is similar really, he's just a bit more angry and put upon and you see him opening up to her in the film and I think the whole film is a kind of negotiation between these two characters and they're two people who don't know each other very well trying to work out what makes the other one happy.
SB: There's an underlying dark humour — how does that balance out?
BW: Yeah it's funny, it's a funny film. It's not as dark as Kill List. I think it would be pretty hard to be darker than Kill List. So yeah, it's pretty light mainly.
SB: The English countryside receives quite favourable framing — was this a conscious decision to show a contrast between the land and the people who inhabit it?
BW: Well I wanted to see Britain and show Britain, you never see it. I've never been to the Lake District before and I was astounded by it and also the whole thing about the films I've made have been…Down Terrace was all very interior and Kill List got outside a little bit. But this is trying to find the bigger vista, a bigger canvas and how figures react in environments rather than big massive faces shouting at each other.
SB: How much personal experience do you have with caravan holidays? Was it something you did growing up?
BW: Yeah, I think everybody has. I did more camping than caravanning but it's all of a similar ilk isn't it? And going to strange tourist destinations in the UK is something that I remember from being a kid.
SB: What do you think the appeal is of a volatile leading man?
BW: I dunno, I think it's just reality isn't it? That we are just a mixture of boiling anger and frustration and also being caring and nice and moral and immoral at the same time and I think that's why I end up making and directing these characters because they feel like real to me and I think as long as your portraying both sides and the yin and the yang of the thing, then it makes sense. I think it's harder to make stuff that's very black and white and binary.
SB: What is it you like about British movies and what did you want to bring to the genre?
BW: I just wanted to make films and I think we've all got our own stories and things to tell and these were mine, so it would be hard to start from the starting point of positioning yourself within it, it's not as calculated as that to go 'I will slip in here in this niche! A kind of social realist genre, that's what I'll do!' I never thought like that, I just wanted to make movies, but the types of movies that I liked were a mixture. I liked genre films and I like Alan Clarke so I was thinking what would those Alan Clarke genre films look like or what would a Cassavetes sci-fi film look like or that kind of thing. So I think that's more where I've come from. British film in general — I love it, but it's a tricky one because there's been reporting that Kill List is like this or like that, like Wickerman and stuff, but we never kind of set out initially to make films that are influenced directly by other films. I feel it's just something that kind of happens, you've soaked it up as part of the culture, you don't sit there with the Time Out film guide and decide you're going to cross this film with that film necessarily.
SB: Sightseers recently debuted at Cannes, are you excited to get it in front of audiences?
BW: Yeah, it's good. I'm just feeling a massive weight off my shoulders at the moment. I'm really chuffed that it's done because the actual proper big creative stuff, all the editing's done months before, but it's just the grind of finishing off the little bits of technical stuff. So the last week or so has been a bit more fiddly, but now it's done so hurrah, so now we can start hopefully prepping for the next one.
SB: Kill List got great reviews; do you feel any pressure to live up to it?
BW: Nah, you can't do anything about that, doesn't make any difference does it? I mean the thing is we thought we were going to get murdered after Down Terrace because that got really good reviews and then Kill List got really, gravy reviews. I can't imagine there's a position above that really without winning an Oscar or something! So there's no point worrying about it because it just is what it is and we all consume enough culture to understand that these things go in ebbs and flows anyway, so as long as your happy in yourself and what you made then reviews shouldn't matter. Of course they're great and they're good, but it's all a great leveler — you get a load of really good press reviews, but you can spend a year reading all the really shit ones online, so it doesn't really matter. Or you get really good reviews and someone in your family tells you it's rubbish and that's that. So yeah, I don't worry about that because there's nothing I can do about it anyway.
HorrorTalk would like to than Ben Wheatley for the time he took to sit down with us, and wish him luck with Sightseers!
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