Director’s latest is a darkly comic British road movie

Ben Wheatley took a road-trip with a murderous couple for his latest movie. Film critic Tony Earnshaw spoke to the director.

There is a moment in Sightseers when someone plunges to their doom from Ribblehead Viaduct.

The collective twinge that rippled through the watching audience was a combination of “Did that just happen?” and “I shouldn’t be laughing” – precisely what director Ben (Kill List) Wheatley anticipated when he shot it.

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What’s more, he plays coy when asked if the good people at the Settle-Carlisle Railway – owner/operators of the iconic landmark – knew what they were letting themselves in for when they sanctioned the filming.

“They were given a breakdown of what the film was about,” smiles Wheatley.

“They were given the script pages for the places where the scenes were shot and they agreed. We’ve not had any feedback that they’ve seen the film.”

The Ribblehead Viaduct is just one of several sites on a carefully planned route across the north of England that leads lovers and psychopaths Chris and Tina (Steve Oram and Alice Lowe) on a comic killing spree.

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Others include the Cumberland Pencil Museum, the Tram Museum at Crich and Mother Shipton’s Cave at Knaresborough. Wheatley denies the various venues are mocked. Indeed he champions them.

In that narrow genre, the British road movie, Wheatley, Oram and Lowe claim to have been influenced by a baffling array of films from Ealing’s Kind Hearts and Coronets to Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May via Terrence Malick’s Badlands.

Wheatley, working from Oram and Lowe’s semi-improvisational script, knew he was walking a fine line between horror and comedy yet claims that the film falls into the latter category. Yes, it’s about psychos on the run. With gags.

“One of the things that attracted me to the script was that it fitted the other movies that I had done,” he says, referring to naturalistic comic thriller Down Terrace and the roving assassins in Kill List.

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“The moving between the violence and the comedy doesn’t feel too out of sorts. If it has a really comic tone and it goes horribly violent, you struggle to get back.”

When faced with a suggestion that Sightseers is actually closer to a horror film than a comedy, Wheatley’s forehead crinkles in rumination before answering the charge.

“It’s a film where the main characters go and murder people, so there are unsettling elements within it, but I think of it primarily as a comedy. It’s designed to make you laugh but then there are moments that unsettle you, as opposed to Kill List, which is designed to make you unhappy then there are moments that make you laugh. I wouldn’t say that was a comedy.”

Unlike Kill List, another northern drama, Sightseers was made without assistance from Sheffield-based Warp Films. Instead, there are 11 listed producers attached to the picture including Nira Park who made Shaun of the Dead. Fleet-footed Wheatley is onto his next project. A Field in England is a “psychedelic” horror movie for Film4 set during the English Civil War. Like Neil (Dog Soldiers) Marshall a decade ago, Wheatley is ploughing his own peculiar furrow.

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“I don’t know where the genre stuff comes from, but I tend to make movies that I’d want to go and see – movies that are a bit more challenging. Sightseers is a bit less narratively challenging than Kill List but it’s still quite a quirky movie for a comedy. It’s my kind of film.”

Ben’s road to feature film success

Ben Wheatley’s roots lie in comedy with television series such as Modern Toss and the TV movie Steve Coogan: The Inside Story. 

He has been lauded as being in the vanguard of British horror renaissance thanks to Kill List and Sightseers.

He made his feature film debut with the crime comedy Down Terrace, which was shot in just eight days.

His next project A Field in England combines Civil War with alchemy. Cast includes Kill List’s Michael Smiley and Reece Shearsmith.

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