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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

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, made some noise 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 May is 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 per­fectly formed. But the film still has an im­pro­vised 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 hard to 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 starheavy Haver­stock com­pre­hen­sive in north Lon­don at the same time as Ed Mil­liband (though some years be­fore Tulisa off The X-Fac-

“There’s a jour­ney back in time to Sight­seers. The vi­o­lence is in the earth . . . The dark forests are there. When I was a kid, no film scared me like the woods near our house did”

tor). 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. The di­rec­tor has al­ready com­pleted 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. And you have to 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.”

Sight­seers opens Novem­ber 30th

Steve Oram and Alice Lowe in Sight­seers. Be­low: di­rec­tor Ben Wheat­ley

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