Sightseers: The Success Story
Five years in the making, Alice Lowe and Steve Oram’s grisly black comedy Sightseers has wowed the critics, won awards aplenty and is set to launch them and director Ben Wheatley towards international acclaim.
Now released in US cinemas, the love for the film is continuing across the pond, too!
TVO spoke to most of the cast and some key crew members late last year upon the film’s UK release, and to celebrate it’s American unveiling, we’ve collected up some of the juiciest quotes from those talks to tell the story of Britain’s Best Film (according to Empire, 2012)…
Several years ago, a couple of seasoned comedians pitched up in the swanky offices of just about every television production company and broadcaster in the land, armed with a short film they’d made with an old friend. It told the tale of two nerdy caravanners, enjoying the English countryside, whilst simultaneously murdering innocent hitchhikers. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t what the executives were looking for.
Cut to 2013, and the motion picture that pilot spun off into has since faced standing ovations at Cannes, graced the cover of Sight And Sound, and trumped Skyfall and Les Miserables to the title of Best British Film at the Empire Film Awards. Now, American film critics and savvy audiences are frothing at the mouth in anticipation of the film’s forthcoming release across the pond.
For stars Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, who play the venomous Chris and put-upon Tina, it has been one hell of a ride.
“This is all really, really mad,” Alice tells TVO. “I guess we’re just trying to enjoy every bit of it. Though, you do sort of wonder how many more good dresses you can find to attend all these screenings and awards ceremonies.”
“Maybe we should turn up at the next one looking like Chris & Tina and go: ‘Hi everyone. I’m not actually a film star. I don’t have the wardrobe for this.’”
Such an idea appeals to Steve Oram, who deadpans the suggestion that the pair would potentially look quite glamorous in their character’s thick cagoules. “We’d look so beautiful…”, he notes, “…like Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.”
The duo first came up with the characters for a live show six years ago, and soon developed the concept into a television pilot, directed by their frequent collaborator Paul King. Best known for his whimsical flights of visual fancy with The Mighty Boosh and Bunny And The Bull, King’s take on the material was surprisingly naturalistic, and caught the attention of Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright. Seeing the potential in the project, Wright set up meetings with Big Talk and Film4, both of whom agreed to finance the picture.
Enter Ben Wheatley: the up & coming filmmaker who had taken years of experience in television comedy (the likes of The Wrong Door and Ideal were helmed by Ben), and side-stepped into cinema. His first two films, Down Terrace and Kill List, received almost unanimous praise, and as Paul King quickly proved unavailable, it was clear Ben’s dark and dangerous vision would blend perfectly with that of Oram & Lowe.
“I’d seen the pilot,” Wheatley explains, “and said yes to adapting it almost immediately. Though, I was wary about following two dramas with an out and out comedy, even though I came from comedy originally. It’s quite a bold thing to make a comedy film in the UK at the moment.”
“You’re stating something,” Steve Oram agrees, “Like: I’m the funniest man out of all of you lot.” Ben quickly retorts with a hearty laugh: “I didn’t say that. But you’re making something and showing it to all your comedy mates going: ‘This is funny, isn’t it? At least when you’re making a horror film, you can show it to them and they just see a horror movie.”
Wheatley’s rational thinking and his critical kudos lent gravitas to the project, which the writers empathised with. “It’s not about knob gags and pissing around,” states Oram. “This is comedy with something serious behind it, and I think that’s true for all the good stuff.”
However, it took the touch of Wheatley and his publicity shy writing partner and wife Amy Jump to get the writers to let loose, as Alice Lowe notes. “Our take before Ben and Amy came on board was less surreal,” she reveals, “which is odd considering our usual work. I think because they had made films already, they had confidence to put in things that were sillier. That fresh perspective really helped us to trust our first ideas.”
Lowe and Oram’s partnership has been forged over more than a decade of working together. Both actors were part of seminal Ealing Live comedy troupe which acted like a who’s who of ten years of British comedy.
They each appeared in episodes of The Mighty Boosh, toured together with Steve Coogan, and regularly appear together on stage as well as in each other’s filmed projects, perhaps most notably Lowe’s BBC3 mockumentary Lifespam in 2009. Surprisingly, Sightseers is the first time they’ve ever made something they’ve written together.
“Writing with Alice is like writing with your wife,” confesses Steve. Indeed, many people assume they are a real-life couple. “We joke about that,” Alice says, “and say the reason people think we’re in a relationship is because we ignore each other.”
Their comfortable dynamic comes across on screen, but it’s not to say the process was entirely plain-sailing. “The whole thing is a battle,” Steve reveals out of earshot of Lowe, grinning the whole time. “In a really amazingly creative way, yes, but we just sort of spark off each other. It’s been intense.”
Such intensity was heightened when the pair went on a real caravanning research trip to the sites seen in the film. Alice continues: “You find out so much more about people on holiday with them. I remember when we were at our most tired and hungover, we did this improvisational argument that went on ages, all in one take, and it was hilarious. All the best stuff came from when we let go of the acting, and just became Chris and Tina.”
Steve concurs. “We argued a lot,” he adds, “writing and improvising. We went to tourist sights and asked the staff questions, never breaking character.”
“Did you murder them?”, chips in Ben. Steve smirks, and adds wryly: “I’m not willing to disclose that information, but the bird sanctuary is still a peregrine falcon missing.”
Almost all of the destinations from their research trip ended up in the movie, and act as a celebration of the English countryside, and how quaint our attractions can be.
Whilst some may scoff at Keswick Pencil Museum or Blue John Cavern, the film takes them entirely seriously, never mocking sites which the stars have great affinity for. “They’re so evocative of our childhoods,” explains Alice. “I really enjoyed every single place we went to. You can’t write a film about British holidays and not include genuine places.”
That’s not to say every location was a joy to film in. The penultimate sequences were set in what the script called ‘A Desolate Place’, and Hoister Slate Mine fulfilled that specification adequately, particularly when combined what producer Claire Jones cites as: “really shitty weather.”
“The hailstorm at the top of the mountain was hideous. We were shooting outside, with no shelter whatsoever, but it really adds to the ambience and anxiety of the film. Plus, we shot as much as we could chronologically, so by that point we were all a bit exhausted!”
Everyone, that is, except Richard Glover. The film contains a number of big name guest stars, from Sherlock star Jonathan Aris to Game Of Thrones actor (and comedy regular) Tony Way. But it’s the cult comedian – cast independently by Wheatley despite his history with Lowe & Oram – who left the biggest impact on the shoot as hapless inventor and rambler Martin.
“I arrived on set,” Glover explains, “when it was lashing down, and everyone was wrapped up tight in winter gear. They were all cold and bedraggled, but I was so excited that I felt like the sub coming on at half time, trying to pep everyone up with fresh legs.”
“We’d done it all before with Richard,” reveals Steve, dryly. “There are no limits with him. You can punch him in the face, rape him, and he’ll still come back for more. He’s a lovely, gentle man and his performance is pitch perfect.”
In spite of the weather, the jovial atmosphere on set prevailed, and extended out to everyone involved. Actress Rachel Austin has a small role as bride-to-be Chailey Morris, and Ben, Steve and Alice all sang her praises despite being on set for only a short time.
“We rehearsed my scenes a good few weeks before, and just went for it. I was a little scared, but once we were on set, I relaxed. I trusted Ben, Alice and Steve, and knew they’d steer the scene. We ad-libbed a lot, and Alice made me corpse!”
Long standing Wheatley cinematographer, Laurie Rose, puts the family feel on set down to his friend, Ben Wheatley. “Ben is a huge inspiration,” he tells us. “His determination and drive. His ideas. Shooting is a collaboration, and we’ve been lucky enough to build a small crew of like-minded people who are all very much friends now, and it’s growing with every project. I think you need people around you who are great at what they do, and then you need to hang on to them. It’s a trusting relationship which makes working a pleasure.”
Ben’s stature as a film maker defies his laid back approach. There’s no ego with Wheatley, who has every right to be puffing out his feathers and strutting like a peacock given the critical reaction to his movies. “You have to earn your success all of the time,” he explains. “If you expect a film to play well, I think you’d be incredibly conceited. We knew we’d had a good shoot, and we really enjoyed it, but sometimes that can mean it’s shit.”
Producer Claire Jones is full of praise for her director. “Ben shoots really fast,” she states, “then he moves on. Actors love it, because they don’t have to hang around for ages waiting for lights to be repositioned. They’re not just sitting in their trailer doing the Guardian crossword. They’re out there acting, being part of the crew, part of the family. It’s a complete joy to work like that.”
This happy families approach complemented that which Lowe, Oram & Glover share with cameo stars Tony Way, Tom Meeten and Antony Elvin, plus the huge number of regular collaborators we feature on the pages of TVO. Steve explains: “I think there’s this big bunch of us who are all of a certain age, and want to keep working with each other.”
“So much of this film was made possible because of this genuine history between us,” adds Alice. “It almost creates real memories for the characters.”
“This big gang of us,” reveals Glover with fondness, “are all in it together really. They’re like family now. It’s lovely to see Alice & Steve doing so well. Fingers crossed in a year’s time they’ll be doing so well that I’ll be dating Scarlet Johanssen. Well be getting helicopters to each other’s yatchs, even though they’re moored next to each other.”
Fortunately for the team, the end result was indeed a smash hit, winning countless awards and appearing on many critics end of year lists. Wheatley, Jones and Glover immediately moved on to forthcoming period piece A Field In England, alongside Reece Shearsmith and Julian Barratt, whilst Lowe & Oram are working on further film projects to be developed this year.
“I’m somewhat evangelical about this,” opines Alice Lowe. “I may be completely wrong, but it feels like this is the sort of thing people actually want to see. We kept being told it was too dark and weird, but were never shown any actual proof of that. All of this has happened because we believed in it, and managed to pull this off.”
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