Horror director Ben Wheatley eases off a little on the terror for his new film, and instead explores that fine line between caravanning, knitting and mass murder. He talks to TARA BRADY
Over the past few years, Ben Wheatley has emerged as the most original, most unnerving chronicler of the English experience. In 2009, Down Terrace, a violent crime thriller set in Brighton, madesomenoise in bloodier corners of the art-house. Last year, Wheatley’s Kill List – a blend of neo-realism and pagan horror – made more than a few critics’ annual top tens.
Now, we get the bizarre, troubling, hilarious Sightseers, a delightful gallimaufry of hand-knit, crotchless underwear and campsite ettiquette. In the broadest possible sense, it’s a very British body pile up.
“I am a Protestant Catholic Jew,” he ponders, during a recent visit to Dublin. “So we are Scottish Irish Welsh and Dutch. Anyone who can row across a small stretch of water, basically. Har, har!”
So, nobody could accuse Wheatley of being a Little Englander. His films are, however, as unmistakably English as the fey warbles of Nick Drake or warm beer made from beaks and twigs. Just look at Sightseers. (No really, do. You can’t miss it.)
Steve Oram and Alice Lowe – who also devised the script – play a pair of oddballs who, while caravanning in various drab English locations, take to murdering anybody who offends their touchy sensibilities. We are not the first people to describe it as Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May crossed with . . . Well, something more horrible.
“Nuts in Mayis a tricky one to compare,” he says. “It’s quite broad in its way. ‘Kitchen sink’ is also hard to define. I have been talking to people and they’ve been saying ‘it’s kitchen sink’ and I have to ask: what are those movies? Is it The L-Shaped Room? Look Back in Anger? Is it Leigh’s work? Is it more like neo-realism? It’s about shooting in the real world and showing all the crap -- not tarting it up. It’s a very broad definition.”
Featuring two characters who, for all their psychoses, are very hard to hate – they abhor all the right things – the film does have the organic roughness of Mike Leigh’s work. The jokes are perfectlyformed. Butthe film stillhasanimprovised feel.
“This started before Kill List. I knew that was coming and I wanted something that I could shoot the next year,” he says. “I wanted something that wasn’t horror. The stuff I was going to do after that was very complex. And I wanted to do something that was less complex and had more improv. It was my last hurrah to all that. I pitched it that the script was a jumping off point and we’d work from that.”
The results, in keeping with Wheatley’s previous features, are hardto nail down in neat generic terms. The film’s juxtapositions are mostly comic: the twin horrors of mass murder and the countryside litterbug play out against an array of twee transport museums and imposing landscapes. There is, nonetheless, something very discombobulating about the director’s latest expose of the thin line between knitting and barbarism.
“There’s a journey back in time to Sightseers,” says the director. “The violence is in the earth. We’re lucky that there’s this patina of globalisation. But the class thing is there. The dark forests are there. When I was a kid, no film scared me like the woods near our house at night did.”
Wheatley seems impressively relaxed for a man so recently pitched into cult success. Now 40, he was born in Essex and went on to attend the weirdly star heavy Haverstock comprehensive in north London at the same time as Ed Milliband (though some years before
Tulisa offTheX-Factor). At that school, he hooked up with his future wife Amy Jump – co-writer of Kill List – and the two have remained romantically and professionally entwined ever since. Their adventures in film-making are chronicled at Mr and Mrs Wheatley and they continue to live, with their son, in bohemian Brighton.
“I like it because it’s by the sea and you can walk right across it. I only ended up there because I was at school in London doing a
foundation art course and the guys from Goldsmiths came round and said ‘Do you want to go there?’ I looked at the grant situation and realised I wouldn’t get a maintenance grant if you stayed in London. Took a day trip to Brighton. Fuck it, we’ll stay there. It’s the nearest to London we could get.”
Wheatley had already scored success as an animator and internet film-maker when, in 2009, his debut feature Down Terrace received rave notices and prizes from Raindance and Fantastic Fest. It was Kill List, however, that secured Wheatley a spot on Greatest British Director polls. Fans and critics duly traced a line between The Wicker Man and Ken Loach to explain the significance of their latest Bright New Thing. Wheatley, for his part, insists that most of his inspiration comes from somewhere darker and more ancient than Robin Hardy’s 1973 psychedelia.
“The thing is that film culture feels like its the dominant culture. But the reality is that, in Ireland and the UK, you are never more than a few miles away from some stone circle or druidic history. Sometimes things really are about that and not about something from the 1960s or 1970s. That was my feeling. It was to do with nightmares I had had living near the woods. Yes, there are people with wicker masks in Kill List. But that is as close as you get, apart from the idea of the film as a trap. But it’s also closer to conspiracy films like The Parallax View or, in another way, Planet of the Apes. I never thought ‘I love those movies so much I want to make them again’. The politics and the ideas of it are nothing to do with The Wicker Man.”
Wheatley is cine-literate but he’s not what you’d expect. Where others see post-Hammer and post- Ealing, Wheatley is just as likely to cite Buñuel or Godard: “Weekend was a big thing for me. Just that sense that you can go anywhere with this. It's probably nor fashionable. But nothing I do is fashionable.” Wheatley, an out-and-proud fan of folk culture with a neat collection of mummer photographs on his iPhone, is keen on the idea of reconnecting with the trapper trappings of British heritage.Thedirector has alreadycompleted shooting on the psychedelic civil war drama A Field in England. Wheatley and cowriter Amy Jump were inspired by historical recreation societies and the project promises to give Oliver Cromwell a much-needed Roger Corman-style makeover.
“I’ve wanted to do something with recreation societies for a long time,” says Wheatley. “It’s like folk music. I remember going to a thing with Morris dancing and peoples laughing at them. Come on. This is part of what we are.Andyou haveto admire the people for taking time to do it. The fact that it’s been passed from generation to generation matters. There was culture before the birth of YouTube.”
We know better than to suggest that it’s Wheatley’s Blood on Satan’s Claw. “I'm not sure why there’s so little about Cromwell on film,” says Wheatley. “The civil war was the birth of the modern age. It was madness but it’s the biggest thing that ever happened on these islands.”
He pauses, almost apologetically: “Even if the Cromwell era definitely wasn't so great for you guys.”