"We didn’t want Sightseers to be a light-hearted comedy like Dumb & Dumber – we were inspired by epic things like Badlands."
The idea for Sightseers percolated in the minds of Alice Lowe and Steve Oram for many years. Initially, the pair saw it as a TV sketch show or a live tour starring two comically ineffectual Midlands holidaymakers. Instead, they’ve taken centre stage in a film by Kill List director Ben Wheatley.
They came to LWLies HQ to talk about their whirlwind tour of the world festival circuit, how they shot enough footage for three separate films and how they took inspiration from the great Mike Leigh.
LWLies: When was the first time you saw the completed film? Was it at the Cannes premiere?
Alice Lowe: No, we saw various edits of it beforehand. We’d been in to do bits of voiceover and stuff like that, but we hadn’t seen the final version with other people. We deliberately held back from watching it until there was a proper audience there.
Steve Oram: It was an unknown quantity really.
AL: And after you’ve seen them so many times, you start to question just how funny the jokes really are.
You were integral to the writing and performing of the film. Did you help at all with the production?
AL: No, no. I think that would’ve been a little too much. We left that to Ben. We are the writers so we got to see some of the edit. There were three edits where the film changed substantially. There were so many hours of footage because of the way in which Ben films. You never sit down, you’re just acting all day from dusk until dawn.
Were you guys in full method-mode during the shoot?
SO: During filming, yes. But when the cameras were off we were just back to normal. I’ve heard that Poirot does that.
AL: Yes. He solves crime over the weekends.
SO: He’s on set and he greets all the people in the crew as Poirot. But we didn’t do that.
AL: That would’ve been annoying. David Suchet is an old-school thesp.
SO: And we’re just some comedians.
AL: We didn’t know what we were doing.
SO: We had no formal training. But we were willing to try anything.
AL: I think Ben likes to use people who aren’t particularly trained. When you’re a comedian, you learn your acting skills in the ring, as it were. It’s just survival instincts kicking in when you’re in front of an audience. I knew two emotions, and by the end of this, I’d maybe learned a third.
SO: Anger’s easy, isn’t it? You just shout.
AL: You’re like a naive child who has no idea what they’re doing. I’ve heard about Lars von Trier taking Nicole Kidman into the woods and screaming at her, because she had so many inbuilt acting mannerisms. He was trying to get to the real her. We were already like that without any layers of professionalism. Or skill.
Was there a long time spent working with Ben trying to find your characters?
AL: We had about two weeks of rehearsal, but before that we had five years of improvisation. We’d been on research trips. Went on a little camping holiday in character. This was to find out the plot.
SO: It was pretty fully formed by the time the film was greenlit. We knew what we were doing and who the characters were. We had workshops with the other actors. That was great fun. You shot a lot of footage for the film, and a lot of it was cut.
Could you make another film from the off-cuts?
SO: We could probably make a short film.
AL: On the DVD there will be a lot of deleted scenes.
SO: The first segment where we’re at the mother’s house, we did three days of improvisation at that location. It had been decked out beautifully by the art department so we could have gone anywhere.
AL: Every room was decorated 360 degrees and you can improvise your way around the house. You open a drawer, and there will be stuff in there. It’s this amazing designer called Jane Levick. She makes it like a real house. So you’ll have a dirty toothbrush with toothpaste encrusted on it. We shot the film chronologically, and it’s amazing to be able to do that. It helps you as an actor. We really embedded the characters and the relationship in this very real world. We could probably make a whole film about Carol [Eileen Davies], the mother. She was so amazing.
SO: That whole section was amazing. There’s some great stuff there that didn’t make the film. So it could have been an hour of that, and then we just go on holiday and have a really nice time. Just some shots of us laughing on trams.
AL: Sending a nice postcard back. The plot of the film takes the characters to many famous tourist locations in the Yorkshire Dales.
Was it easy to get permission to film in all these places?
AL: I think they didn’t really tell them what it was going to be about.
SO: We asked to use it and they gave us a price.
AL: We just said, 'Well, it’s improvised so we don’t have a script to show you'.
SO: We’ll see what they make of the film when – if – they see it. It’s good advertising for them, I think.
AL: They might get a lot of copycat tourists. We loved the Pencil Museum particularly. We wouldn’t let that one go. It’s just such a funny place.
SO: It’s essentially just a load of pencils.
AL: It’s just a big shop. We used to have a line in it where I said, 'Look Chris, here’s another pencil'. I sound like I’m mocking it, but it was great. I loved it. Though you might call the film a horror-comedy, it’s also a really moving portrait of a couple. The final scene is actually quite heartbreaking.
AL: We knew that we didn’t want it to be a lighthearted comedy like Dumb & Dumber. We wanted to do something a bit more interesting, and the key to the audience identifying with the characters even though they’re horrific murderers is that they are genuinely in a relationship. It did make people think. We were inspired by epic things like Badlands, 'Tess of the D’Urbervilles' and even 'Wuthering Heights'. When you’re in that landscape you are inspired by those epic things. We deliberately started the film off in a way that would make people thing it was a very twee British comedy-drama, and once you enter into this epic landscape it opens up into something that you weren’t really expecting. We wanted people to say, 'Wow, Britain can look epic'.
SO: It was obvious from the start, but it’s the progression of the relationship that is the key to what the murders are. We knew that they were going to be episodic marking points along the path of their strange, fucked-up relationship.
AL: All the killings are supposed to be read metaphorically. They're meant to be the trials of their relationship. Those scenes actually reminded us of John Christie, the murderer played by Richard Attenborough in 10 Rillington Place.
AL: Yeah, they’re like the British antithesis of the Tarantino-style antihero who would be really cool.
SO: Yeah, they’d be killing people and smoking cigarettes.
AL: With an eye-patch on.
SO: We get shitty cagoules.
AL: But it’s also a film about going on holiday. And that’s another way we wanted people to identify with the material.
SO: Yeah, this could happen to everyone. It’s also been compared to Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May.
SO: Yeah. Well, there aren’t that many films about camping.
AL: We’ve had a lot of people asking about Leigh because we use improvisational techniques as well. For a comedian, I think his TV stuff was the earliest time I could remember seeing funny characters that looked and sounded real – like someone who could be friends with your mum and dad.
SO: The way that they speak in Nuts in May is amazing. It’s this really relaxed style.
AL: And really specific cultural observations about how people act and how they dress. He really knew. We did pitch the idea as Nuts in May meets Badlands, but when we started making the film we shifted away from that. Though I watched it quite recently, and it’s funny that the relationship does have similarities. I think what it does show is that there is a strange inevitability to what can happen when two people go on holiday together.