Interview: Director Ben Wheatley Talks "Sightseers," Working With Edgar Wright, and Ignoring Critics

The exciting new filmmaker discusses his latest horror-comedy, working with big names, and discovering his style.

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Complex Original

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Ask any horror fan which new filmmaker they're most excited for, and you're guaranteed to hear the name Ben Wheatley. Since 2009, the British director has released some of the most buzzed about genre films of late, including Down TerraceKill List, and is prepping to drop his newest project, A Field in England. But for now, he's promoting what's arguably his biggest film to date, the 2012 official Cannes Film Festival selection, Sightseers, a dark comedy-thriller, in theaters today, about a vacationing couple (played by Steve Oram and Alice Lowe) whose method of working out their relationship issues involves pushing people over cliffs and bashing them with rocks. 

Given what he's released, it's easy to classify him as a genre director and send him every mildly promising slasher script there is. But don't be quick to judge. He's got some other tricks, too. Complex got a chance to speak to Wheatley about his latest film, being recognized by some of the most established names in the movie business, and the importance of ignoring critics. 

Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino

I have to be honest, I'm not a huge fan of any kind of horror films, but I really liked Sightseers.  
[Laughs.] Why don't you like them?

Because I can't stomach them.
What, the tension?

It's definitely the tension, that's why I need the comedy, like in Sightseers, to relieve me of the tension.
I wouldn't even say Sightseers was a horror film really. I think it's more of a romantic comedy with kind of violent elements to it.

Horror is funny. I mean, Taxi Driver is a horror film actually, as is Saving Private Ryan. Horror spans across all genres. It's hidden in stuff—anything that makes you tense and feel awkward is horror, you know?

So how did you get involved with Sightseers?
It was something that came out of Alice Lowe and Steve Oram willing to make something out of their experiences of being kids, and how their parents would argue a lot when they were going around minor tourist attractions. It makes fun of that and makes a great development of the comedy characters they used to perform live; they would be Chris and Tina, a couple who would murder people but be very, very normal, so that's where it started from.

What they were going to do was make a sitcom out of it, but the British TV didn't want it because it was too dark. Then Edgar [Wright] saw the short film version, and he thought, 'Oh this could make a movie,' so then it went onto development to become a film.

A long time passed, and then I made Down Terrace, which was my first film, and Big Talk, the production company who made Shaun of the Dead, saw it and thought that we would be a fit for this script. I had seen the short film as well, and I knew Alice and Steve from working on TV, so I was on board.

How did Edgar Wright's involvement, besides the fact that he got it green-lit, shape the film at all?
He wrote some of the best notes I've ever had as a filmmaker. Usually executives will watch the film and give you a load of notes, usually telling you to completely change it to their taste. Then all the notes don't make any sense because they're all contradictory to each other, which causes a big fight. But Edgar's notes were really sensitive, I think, because he's a filmmaker, so he understands how depressing it is to get stupid notes. [Laughs.] He wrote some really clever, sharp notes, but also took time to say what he liked as opposed to what he didn't like, so that was great. To me, his main thing was telling me not to be afraid of using pop music, and that made a big difference to the film.

Comparing this to Down Terrace, you have a darkly comedic sensibility. What is it about black comedy that you love?
I guess I'm kind of a glass half-empty kind of guy, so that's the kind of thing that makes me laugh, and always has. I'm not given to being spectacularly optimistic. 

Your career has been really picking up the past three years, but before that, how were things going? 
It took a long time. I've always wanted to make films. As a kid, I didn't know how, and it sounds like a terrible old man thing to say, but before the Internet, things were harder just because it's easy to underestimate how fundamental the idea of being able to look up anything is. Back in the day, you would have to look it up in a book, and find the book in library, and there were no good books about filmmaking, and the various specialties that go into it, particularly. I didn't know what editing was or anything, so by the time I got hold of a camera and shot something, I had to cut it afterwards. It sure seems ridiculously naive now, because you can just look it up on YouTube.

Initially you hear all these stories about, like, Spielberg going, "Oh my dad had a Super 8 camera and we shot with that and blah, blah, blah." And it's like, how rich were his parents? [Laughs.] There were no cameras around our house. I think that if you don't readily have that stuff, it can take a long time to get anywhere with it.

When did you first pick up a camera?
Well, I got into film stuff when I was in high school, but I used video cameras, and there wasn't even a way to watch it back. Those cameras didn't even have viewfinders. It was just a hole in the camera. There wasn't a screen that you could watch stuff out of because cameras would only record. To actually play those tapes back cost loads of money. All that filmmaking—Super 8 filmmaking, or 60mm filmmaking—it was totally beyond anybody who didn't have loads of money, and I didn't have any money. I drew comic strips of everything mainly, because that's the poor man's film.

How did you discover your style?
By doing it. I didn't go to film school. I think it was Tarantino that was saying, "Making a film is your film school." It's true, those lessons that you learn doing that is worth more than hanging around, and not coming out with a film, and having spent loads of money on school. You might as well make your own thing, and that's what I did. 

I shot a lot of comedy on TV, and I wanted to do a drama, and my agent said, "You can't. You're not allowed to do that. No one would let you do it unless you do a short film." I just couldn't understand that, I thought it was mad. It takes as much effort to make a feature film than it does to make a short, which is kind of nuts, but turns out to be true.


What's on your bucket list in terms of the kinds of movies you'd like to make?
Um, I would like to do everything except for musicals. [Laughs.] Fucking hate them, with a passion.

You're working on Freakshift and that's your first American film. Did you have any resistance to doing American films beforehand? 
Did I resist it? No, I mean it's just circumstance, you know? I love American films, I like French films, and I like German films, Russian films, English films. It make sense to make an American film because I speak the language, which is useful. Also, you get to talk directly to a much larger audience, whereas a British film in America, you've always got the barrier of the accents, which the general audience seems particularly resistant to. [Laughs.] So I thought I'd just do something in American.

Besides the language, what's on your mind when it comes to preparing to shoot an American film?
I don't really think about it differently at all, but I think if it was American film about a specific cultural moment that I had no understanding of, then I would be worried. To make a genre film, say in America, is more of a universal thing. I think that each country, down to really simple stuff like how the schooling systems work, a collective kind of memory of how childhoods were like—there's no resemblance. I've got nothing to call on. Just the food you ate, or the TV that you watched was totally different stuff, so you immediately start to flounder if you're trying to put that stuff in it.

As a filmmaker, you have to disconnect yourself from the way the critics talk 'cause it's a different thing. The critics' end of stuff is categorization, and understanding, and archive, and filmmaking isn't that. Filmmaking is art and trying to understand what life is.

However, having grown up on a diet of American television and cinema, I think within the safe confines of genre, these things are not too bad. They're pretty similar.

Do you feel any pressure at all being touted as one of the most promising directors right now? 
I think you have to be very careful with praise, and not really take it seriously, because if you take the praise seriously, then you have to take the criticism seriously as well. [Laughs.] At the heels of people saying you're good is people saying you're shit, so I try not to think about it and try to focus on the filmmaking.

You collaborate with your wife, Amy Jump, who wrote Freakshift, on all of your work. How's that partnership?
It's great! The problem is, with the work in this industry, if it goes all right, you end up never seeing your partner again, and I wouldn't want that to happen. Amy is really brilliant at writing and a really good editor, so we just started to work more and more together, and it's worked out really well. We get to spend a lot of time together and have a normal routine. Any other relationship, we probably wouldn't spend any time together because I would be off filming or so. 

For someone who wants to tap into Ben Wheatley the filmmaker's mind, what would you say inspired your work?
The first movies that opened my eyes to cinema were Taxi Driver2001: A Space Odyssey, and Godard's Weekend. I watched tons of stuff after that, anything I could get my hands on. I can say I like The Terminator to anything by Tarkovsky, so it's like a broad spread of commercial cinema and art house as well. I'd be as happy watching Fast & Furious as I am watching Amelie. I think that's important. There's all sorts of stuff you can understand from cinema and all these types of movies, as long as you're broad in what you look at, rather than just sticking to one particular corner of it.

So you don't like to classify yourself as a genre director at all.
No, I just make films, I've been lucky enough to make all different kinds of films in the last few years, and hopefully that will go on, but I don't even know what a genre filmmaker is particularly. What is genre? [Laughs.] It's very broad, it doesn't mean everything. Art films are genre films. Then there's the sub-genres. People in rooms—that seems to be quite a big secret genre, you know? Which is everything from Woody Allen to soap operas. It's just stories in films.

As a filmmaker, you have to disconnect yourself from the way the critics talk 'cause it's a different thing. The critics' end of stuff is categorization, and understanding, and archive, and filmmaking isn't that. Filmmaking is art and trying to understand what life is.

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