Director Ben Wheatley explains how he transformed a mundane caravan trip around the British countryside into a hilarious, gruesome black comedy.
Rodney Appleyard

11 Dec 2012 - 2:07 PM  UPDATED 11 Dec 2012 - 2:07 PM

Sightseers follows an ordinary couple from the Midlands as they escape their dreary lives to embark on a romantic trip of a lifetime through some of the most stunning sights in the UK.

Not long into their journey, they discover a mutually empowering passion for murder, which turns them into the Bonnie and Clyde of the UK countryside. Woe betide anybody who stands in the way of their journey of self-discovery. Their victims include a litterbug, a nosey National Trust busybody and an unsuspecting bride-to-be on her hen's night.

Wheatley says that he jumped at the chance to direct this movie, partly because he wanted to challenge the morals of the audience by making the central characters likeable, despite them being cold-hearted serial killers.

"My intention was to make it clear that the concerns of Tina [Alice Lowe] and Chris [Steve Oram] are just the same as ours," he explains. "They have normal human worries, despite being killers, which makes them easy to relate to. Typically in movies, bad characters tend to be very black and white, such as vampires, serial killers and villains. They are designed for you to hate them."

Of course Wheatley would never condone their actions but he reminds us that some serial killers are not consistently bad and also have families.

"They are not always very creepy looking people who sneak around graveyards wearing capes. Real people are more balanced than that," he reflects. "They strive to be good, but pragmatically, they occasionally make selfish and bad decisions. That's what the main characters are like in the film, initially led by Chris. Of course, it is slightly more heightened in this case."

Part of Sightseers' charm is its unpredictability. Wheatley explains that achieved this by mixing up the comedy with the violence.

"I did this deliberately to tear people out of the comfort zone of thinking they're watching a comedy. Just as they're settling down into this mindset, I suddenly use violence to jolt them into realising they are actually watching an untypical film. By creating anxiety about what's going on, their experience becomes unbalanced and they end up wondering which way it's going to go," says Wheatley.

"There's a moment in the film when the audience is invited to laugh along at a murder, which instantly implicates them in the killing. I wanted to make them think: 'I kind of like that stuff but I don't like it at the same time, so what does that say about me as a person?

"If I hadn't done this, the movie would have become very glib and the victims of the crimes would have just been gags rather than real people," adds Wheatley.

Character comedians Oram and Lowe, who play the central leads, are also the originators of the script. They spent several years refining the roles, first on stage and then as a TV pilot. They met at a comedy night called 'Ealing Live', where they first talked about their similar backgrounds (from the Midlands) and family holidays around the UK.

"We just found it funny that they would talk about mundane things and then dispose of body parts in the same breath," says Oram. "The idea of having them going on holiday and knocking people off, whilst visiting tram museums, was something that made us laugh."

They put the idea together as a double act and tried to sell it as a TV show, but none of the channels in the UK were interested because they thought it was too dark. However, Oram and Lowe were determined to see it work and made a video taster for the Internet, which they sent to Edgar Wright, who Lowe worked with on Hot Fuzz.

Wright saw the film's potential straight away and sent it to Nira Park from Big Talk, who produced Shaun Of The Dead. Wheatley was then invited to come on board as the director. At the time, he was already a rising star after making Down Terrace and Kill List, which both received critical acclaim.

"I really wanted to work with them because I knew they came from an improv background and I fancied doing something that was quite free and easy," says Wheatley. "You know you can bend their work out of a shape because they always know the backgrounds of the characters."

This was true of their research. Oram and Lowe sent themselves borderline insane by immersing themselves into the minds of serial killers. This involved reading and watching everything they could get their hands on about the criminal mind of a murderer. They also spent everyday together in a caravan for a week, performing in character, which cemented their interaction as a fictional couple. After a while, Lowe even started to dream in character.

Equipped with a strong cast and a solid script, Wheatley sprinkled his visual magic over the film by making their surroundings deliberately colourless and muted to mirror the mood of Chris and Tina's world. Throughout the movie, Wheatley has also cleverly planted a number of subliminal messages inside the sets, to tell us something extra about the characters.

"If you freeze frame the scenes in Tina's house at the start, you will notice all sorts of weird materials, likes owls and hidden triangles, which relate to witch-craft. The look of the caravan also changes over time and the items begin to reflect Tina's taste more than Chris'. This symbolises her taking over, doing things better than him and slowly becoming Chris by consuming everything around him."

As well as providing a thoroughly entertaining experience, Wheatley hopes people will walk away from the film feeling philosophical about their own lives.

"This road trip is about finding a way out of being trapped by acting on instinct and letting go of your frustrations, which are universal themes. They end up being free characters, even though they are anal and suppressed," says Wheatley.

"At the same time, they believe in what they are doing and go for it. Tina embraces it all from a standing start. She goes really quickly from not knowing anything about how Chris truthfully leads his life to being good at what he does. I like this idea because it means they are free, albeit at the expense of innocent people. Murder is of course wrong, but this film essentially is about two people letting loose."

Sightseers will be released in cinemas on December 26th. Read our review of the film here.