To celebrate the release of Sightseers into UK cinemas, TVO has been catching up with the creative forces behind the critical sensation, ahead of its release on November 30th.
Last week, our editor in chief caught up with one of its stars and writers, Alice Lowe. Already a regular presence on our pages, and a staunch supporter of all things Onion, the results are candid and insightful.
Here then, is the exclusive result of our catch-up…
“It’s just mental.”
That’s how Alice Lowe describes her life right now: a heady concoction of filming multiple projects, attending film screenings, and cramming writing into the gaps in-between. Ever the workaholic, it seems Alice is in more demand than ever before. TVO has been trying to arrange our latest catch-up with the lady we affectionately dub our ‘Fairy Godmother’ for quite some time, but Ms Lowe is suddenly one of the busiest people in the business.
Currently in the midst of shooting a second series of This Is Jinsy – Sky Atlantic’s crazed sitcom about an island populated by eccentrics – alongside further appearances in CBBC sensation Horrible Histories, and a part in a hugely anticipated film which we dare not reveal to you just yet, Alice is also attempting to write for radio (following her beloved Wunderland series earlier this year), and a motion picture of her own. Around all of this, she’s also making appearances in support of the reason we have arranged our telephonic catch-up today: her first feature film in her own right, Sightseers.
“You do sort of wonder how many more good dresses you can pull out of your wardrobe,” she deadpans, only half joking. “I might just turn up to the next one looking like Tina and go: ‘Hi, everyone. I’m not actually a film star. I don’t have the wardrobe for this.’”
Despite her modesty, which returns on a regular basis throughout our conversation, Alice is now a movie star – and a top billing one at that. Completely unfazed by my claims, she retorts: “Well, yeah, technically. I suppose. But I don’t feel like it.”
Alice and I first began talking to one another around the time she made Lifespam – a BBC3 pilot also featuring Steve Oram and Richard Glover amongst others. A spoof of the channel’s documentary output with predictably silly results, it featured characters who wanted to surgery to become dinosaurs, got trapped in their flats by their own hair, or were catastrophically afraid of Boy George. Fun stuff, though it was sadly denied a revisit.
She and her Sightseers co-star had just finished touring as Steve Coogan‘s support act – a role which was dramatically cut down from the eventual dvd release, yet which had previously been occupied by the likes of Simon Pegg and Julia Davis. Really, the duo deserved better, giving the headline act a good run for his money where the laughs were concerned. As plans for what became The Velvet Onion developed, Alice was ever present; a constant source of encouragement which has continued through to our first ever live show earlier this year – which she and Oram were a vital part of.
As such, the very least I can do is pay her a compliment. Lowe is now a movie star – with posters on the tube, cardboard standees in cinema foyers, and best of all, the trailer for Sightseers being shown before the latest James Bond epic Skyfall, which is at present the second biggest UK box office hit of all time.
“When you texted me about that,” she tells me, “I was really surprised. I thought we’d only get shown in front of art-house kind of stuff. This is all really, really mad. I guess we’re just trying to enjoy every bit of it. You hope if you’re ever going to get lots of attention for something, it would be nice to be something you’ve spent five years working on. But it’s so hard to take it in. You just think: ‘Well, this good thing’s just happened. Oh, okay…’”
She trails off, evidently astonished by the reaction the film has been receiving. “I still get really nervous with interviews,” she confides. “I haven’t really done that much press for stuff. It’s usually with people like you. I know you understand what I’ve done and have an interest in it, and you‘re not going to be scary and try to catch me out. Though so far, people have been pretty nice to us.” And the modesty returns, Alice forgetting her cult following worldwide that leaves her second only to Noel Fielding in terms of google searches that pull people towards The Velvet Onion. “I suppose we’re unknowns,” she insists, “so there’s nothing to be gained from dragging us down.”
It probably helps, I suggest, that people have genuinely enjoyed the film. “We knew that people who saw the press screenings had enjoyed it,” Lowe explains, “but you never know how a real audience is going to react to it until it’s happening in front of you. It really surprised us how much people laughed at Cannes.”
Indeed, there was a massive atmospheric difference between the small press screening TVO attended in the summer and the sell out Q&A in Manchester last month. “You need that antidote of group laughter,” Alice opines. “People say they enjoyed it much more the second time around. I think being surrounded by people who are laughing really sells it as a group experience. And people seem to be really enjoying it, which comes across. They‘re not just sat there shocked by it.”
I ask if the fear of a backlash worried Lowe at all. After all, there are some fairly brutal moments in the film – but then, a comedy about serial killers would be a pretty poor show without them. “I expected more of a backlash,” she reveals. “My mum and dad saw it, and I thought they’d be really horrified by the violence, but there was no offence caused at all. I think you can be shocked without being offended, provided you can justify why you’ve made those decisions on screen. It helps that Ben has made the tone of the film really work. It’s not entirely flippant about the subject matter, which is quite challenging to the audience. People are laughing at the killings, but they’re feeling uncomfortable about their laughter, and asking themselves why they find violence so enjoyable on screen.”
“It’s quite a moral story, in a way,” she continues. “Without saying too much, it’s not like they just get away with it. Chris and Tina are not deliriously happy at the end of it all. You do get to see why it’s a bad idea to go and kill people, in a really cathartic way.”
Undeniably, the team’s approach to this aspect of the film suggests a very British standpoint. It’s almost the antithesis of films like Natural Born Killers or True Romance, in which our antiheroes abandon morality yet ultimately win out. “The difference with Chris & Tina,” notes Alice, “is that they are so uncool. We’re not particularly attractive, either, and I think that’s the trick. We’re not glamourising violence… quite the opposite!”
Whilst the violent moments are never gratuitous, they’re certainly stronger fair than the project would feature had the initial plan to make it for television come to fruition. A low-budget pilot was made by Alice & Steve along with their old friend Paul King (The Mighty Boosh) several years ago, but was rejected by every major outlet for being too dark to air. Alice recalls that the highly visual director was keen to try something a little different had the series been made.
“He’s got a really distinctive style, but he was keen to shoot it in that naturalistic way that we wanted,” she explains. “It was key that we made it very stark, even though we had no money. Maybe if the show had been made he would have taken it in a sort of Royal Tennenbaums direction.”
“But there’s no way television would have allowed us to film in so many different locations,” she adds. “Commissioners always want it to be more glossy than you originally intended, and make it look like as expensive as possible on a budget far too small. We’d probably have had to send Chris & Tina back home every week, basing it all around places you can reach quickly from London. I guess we‘ll never know.”
Enter Ben Wheatley. After Edgar Wright and Nira Park persuaded Film4 and StudioCanal to make the project a theatrical endeavour, Paul King proved unavailable. As a result, Lowe & Oram met with numerous directors, but none quite fit the bill until Ben came along, with a surprisingly relaxed attitude. “He’d just made two films,” Alice stresses, “so he knew how to do this. He just seemed so utterly assured.”
The film also gave Alice her first real chance of working in-depth with Steve Oram as equals, having spent the best part of a decade dipping in and out of each other’s projects. Lowe maintains that their relationship was paramount to the film’s success. “So much of this was made possible by the fact that we have this genuine history between us, which almost creates real memories for the characters,” she explains, adding with a chuckle: “A lot of people think we’re in a relationship!”
This sounds like a perfect opportunity to reveal that when I spoke to Steve in Manchester, he said their working relationship was like writing with his wife, and Alice bursts out laughing, before adding further insight into their world. “I joke about it, and say the reason people think we’re in a relationship is because we ignore each other. You know how when people are really comfortable with one another they’re just silent?” I agree. “It’s just like that,” she states. “When you know from people’s body language that they’re just so comfortable around each other. I think that really helps the dynamic and it’s quite unusual for a film to have that. More writers and performers who know each other should be brought in to do films, because they’re going to bring an ease to the characters that two new actors who’ve never met might not be able to develop in the same way.”
Their relationship was put to the test by an in-character road-trip, following the exact route seen in the film, taking in Crich Tramway Museum, Keswick Pencil Museum, the Ribblehead Viaduct and my own personal favourite from a childhood up north – Blue John Cavern. As we share memories of our various childhood jaunts, and I make Alice guffaw at stories of the largest pear drop in the world up in the brilliantly named town of Oswaldtwistle, it becomes increasingly clear that the typically British nature of these attractions is something Lowe is keen to celebrate. In a slightly avant-garde way, Sightseers is surprisingly patriotic.
“They’re so evocative,” she declares. “All of those places we went to as children. We felt you couldn’t write a film about Britain and British holidays, and not include genuine places. And I really enjoyed every single place we went to. I was never bored. There was so much to inspire you.” Of course, it’s quite likely that the film’s most ardent supporters will, in the years to come, recreate the duo’s journey – bringing in visitors to the places they visit, helping to keep them alive. After all, caravan publications are already going nuts for the film.
“We really wanted to be on campsites and in caravans,” Lowe explains. “We had to work out what that was like, and find the dynamic between the two of us. You find out so much more about people be being on holiday with them. I remember at one point on our last day we were really tired and hungover, walking to a location with our cameraman thinking: ‘You’re not going to get anything out of us, today!’ Then we did this improvisational argument that went on for about half an hour, all in one take, and it was hilarious. It seems like all the best stuff came when we actually let go of the acting, and just became Chris & Tina.”
“I think from now on I’m always going to try and visit anywhere I’m writing about.” I joke that there’s no chance of Alice penning a sci-fi any time soon, then, and her voice lights up: “I’d love to write a sci-fi! I think you’d have to go and sit in a pod somewhere with some actors, and pretend you’re in space,” she suggests. “I did write a short film once about a couple who were living in this hut in the woods. It was all sort of mysterious and Icelandic, then you find out they live in a shed at the bottom of someone’s garden!” Suddenly, you can hear the creative cogs turning… “It might be worth writing something now about people in a pod who think they’re in space,” she ponders. “That’d be a mindfuck. I quite like that idea…”
Whilst it remains to be seen if these ideas will become anything more, it seems the highly prolific writer has nevertheless gained a new found confidence in her abilities thanks to a final pass on the script for Sightseers by director Ben Wheatley and his long-term collaborator and partner Amy Jump. “We wanted Ben to have his visual stamp on the script,” Alice explains. “He and Amy reworked it, and added in a lot of visual touches. Me and Steve had made a less surreal take on it, which is odd considering our usual work – but because Ben & Amy had made films already, they helped us loosen up a bit and put in things that were a bit sillier.”
Such as? “Well, the carapod was one thing they brought in,” Alice reveals. “We had Richard Glover’s character, Martin, arriving, but he didn’t really have anything that distinguished him as a peculiar character. He was just another camper. The carapod was their idea, and it’s a really memorable, cinematic idea. After we’d been working on this for such a long time, their fresh perspective really helped us to trust our first ideas. There was no doubt from them – they just came in and did it. We’d had so many drafts, and discarded so much, and Ben went through them and stuck lots of things back in. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot from him, especially about shooting everything you can, because if it doesn’t work you can just lose it in the edit, but if you never film it, you’ll never find out if it would have worked.”
This learning will be hopefully put to the test next year, when Alice tackles her biggest project to date: a full length feature film of her own, entitled simply Lily. Lowe has written her first draft and looks set to direct the feature as well as possibly starring in it. It’s early days for the project, and naturally we don’t want to reveal too much of what she confides in us – after all, in film, it’s never actually happening until it’s a wrap, so we’ll be keeping tight lipped on the concepts behind Lily for now. Another time, another place…
Right now it’s all about Sightseers, and how Alice, Steve and Ben battled the odds to get this film made, and never let it go. “I have these kernels of ideas,” Alice tells me, “like some kind of Dragons Den sweating weirdo. I’m somewhat evangelical about this, and may be completely wrong, but I think this film is the sort of thing a lot of people want to see. Even though all the tv people said it was too dark and too weird, I kept thinking there was never any actual proof that people don’t want to see something like this. And now it seems like they actually do.”
“Lots of different things were halted because of the recession, and we were right in the midst of all of that. At one stage, I really thought it was going to be dropped, and I think if that had happened, we would have found a way to make it ourselves for absolutely no money, because we all believed in it and had to keep marching on. Now people are coming up to me, amazed that we’ve made a film, and I can’t help but think how often I told them we were going to do it. We weren’t crying wolf… we managed to pull it off.”
And they really have. Sightseers is an absolute treat – a tour de force for its director and it’s writers and stars. The world is going to be taking note of Ben Wheatley, Steve Oram and Alice Lowe over the next few weeks and months, and as we wrap up our conversation with some personal chatter, and Alice continues her role as fairy godmother by dishing out some sound and caring advice once again, one can’t help but feel it couldn’t happen to a more deserving woman.
Thanks to Alice Lowe for talking to us. Sightseers is out in UK cinemas on November 30th.