We expect film directors to be mysterious or difficult – the auteur myth – but the British director Ben Wheatley is direct and self-effacing, occasionally avuncular. His third movie, Sightseers, is about to be released in the UK, but only four years ago he was a cinematic unknown. It’s a testament both to cinema’s capriciousness and Wheatley’s work ethic that his rise has been so rapid.
Born in 1972, Wheatley studied fine art at university and spent a long time in the 1990s “writing loads” before making his name in the febrile world of video virals in the early 2000s. He says the ability to “put stuff online” made a “massive difference” to his career and he soon found work directing commercials and TV programmes. He made his feature debut, Down Terrace, in 2009 for a minuscule £6,000. A lo-fi, housebound gangster film set in Brighton (where Wheatley has lived on and off for 20 years), it was marked out by the quality of its writing.
His 2011 follow-up, Kill List, brought him a larger audience. With Kill List Wheatley cleverly elided the hit man and horror genres in high visual style to create an unnerving, sui generis horror. Yet the film was also partly a British suburban drama in the vein of Mike Leigh and a comment on English society after the Iraq war: the two leads were former soldiers. This ability to fuse genres became Wheatley’s calling card. His status as one of the most exciting new figures in British cinema was cemented when Sightseers was the only British film to screen in this year’s Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.
All three of Wheatley’s films are set in a contemporary England riven by class and wealth. In Kill List the recession creates the backdrop for its suburban scenes; in Sightseers the characters seethe with murderous class resentment. Is Wheatley trying to create a portrait of modern England? “I only see things from my own perspective,” he cautions. “It’s difficult to say that the films have a grand national view, and dangerous. I think you end up making films in that way from the perspective of being English or British in the middle of it, rather than from actively going out to try and make a film that’s ‘British’. That’s more the Four Weddings and a Funeral end of the street.”
Kill List – with its depiction of troubled Iraq veterans turned mercenaries – was viewed by some as an explicitly political film, in the British leftwing cinematic tradition of Alan Clarke, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Wheatley has said that he finds it incredible that Britain has been involved in “two major wars ... that nobody seemed to be bothered about” over the past decade but his politics, he claims, are more contextual than didactic. “The times filter through you into the films and when you’re making genre films you have certain things that have to go on in them, but also it’s important for the characters to have the perspective of now.”
He’s also dismissive of the idea that he’s consciously echoing an older British “kitchen sink” aesthetic. “The whole Loach, Leigh, Clarke thing is really tricky because really ‘kitchen sink’ film is not just that. It’s also neo-realism and Mean Streets and Cassavetes, so there’s a big chunk of cinema that uses those techniques. Loach, Clarke and Leigh’s politics are all pretty divergent. They are all different people saying different things but sometimes using handheld cameras and so do I, but beyond that the connection becomes quite tenuous.”
Perhaps it’s not entirely coincidental therefore that Sightseers moves away from suburban interiors to the great outdoors and is littered with sumptuous northern English landscapes. He admits that the chance to shoot in “bigger environments” was one of the project’s main attractions. Made for a comparatively modest £1.2m, the film is a morbidly comical English travelogue that again demonstrates Wheatley’s talent for splicing genres: something in between Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.
The script was written by Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, known for their acting in British TV comedies, who also co-star as caravanning couple Chris and Tina. Their holiday is blighted by officious ramblers and snobbish writers and Chris’s idiosyncratic method of dealing with them: brutal murder. When Tina joins in, an occasionally hilarious, always bloody bucolic romp ensues.
While the rural setting is a new departure for Wheatley, the explicit use of violence is not. In a review of Kill List, one critic labelled a murder scene involving a hammer “repulsive”. For Wheatley such criticisms misconstrue the role that violence plays in film. “There are types of cinema where you can represent violence as choreography and it’s part of a style, which is fine, or there’s a way of representing it that plays with the audience, going, ‘Well you like this stuff don’t you? Oh no, it’s horrible!’ For me that stuff comes out of Scorsese as much as anything, you see that in Casino, in Goodfellas.”
In all Wheatley’s films his characters – the hit men, the provincial gangsters, the bloodthirsty holidaymakers – come across as witty, intelligent individuals, yet they also commit shockingly callous murders. Are we supposed to see his characters as sympathetic or evil? He laughs and says offhandedly, “I think evil is a tricky one,” grinning at the bathos of the statement. “I like to think that these people come across as quite balanced; they do selfless things and selfish things. It’s only conventional movie characters that are so binary that they don’t have these contradictory elements ... murder and death are at the extreme end of what we are capable of – but I think it’s in all of us.”
Wheatley’s cinematic credo is to manipulate this moral dualism to make his films’ twists more disconcerting. “The morality treads that dangerous line with the audience where they agree with the characters and then they’re proved to be wrong, then they agree with them [again] and they’re proved to be wrong.”
Similarly, Wheatley plays with the audience’s historical associations. Kill List is filled with sinister allusions to Arthurian legend and in Sightseers some shamans take over a campsite in a disjointed, psychedelic sequence. “The historical thing is something I think about a lot,” he enthuses. “The modernity of everything is a really thin crust and we try within all three films to say everything has a context and that we’re part of a bigger story.”
Given these preoccupations it’s not surprising that his next film, A Field In England, will be set in the 17th century, during the English civil war. Not that it is going to be a conventional historical drama. He describes it as “like a 60s Corman trip film which actually turned out quite like a cowboy film. It’s a much crazier film than the previous ones.”
Meanwhile Wheatley’s first American movie, Freakshift, is in pre-production. True to his refusal to be constrained by genre boundaries, it is going to be “a big, John Carpenter B-movie, with action, monsters” inspired by video games – “playing Doom quite a lot” – in the 1990s.
Can he sustain this extraordinary work rate? The question elicits a droll smile. “Depends how exhausted we get. But we’ll try and keep it up.”
‘Sightseers’ is released in the UK on November 30