Monday 3rd December 2012
Erotic odyssey... Killing spree... Caravanning holiday... The trip taken by Tina (Alice Lowe) and Chris (Steve Oram) in Sightseers is all these things and more.
Brummie Tina is an introverted dog walker who lives with her suffocating mother in semi-detached misery. But things change when she meets charming joker Chris at a capoeira class. Soon Tina and Chris are waving goodbye to Mum and setting off for the camping trip of a lifetime where they'll become the Bonnie and Clyde of the English countryside and Chris can unleash Tina's hidden passions.
Sat at the wheel of a Volvo estate furnished with dashboard gonks and ordnance survey maps, Chris looks every inch the harmless rambler. But beneath the goretex exterior, Chris is a man with one fierce desire: "I just want to be feared and respected. It's not too much to ask from life, is it?"
The first stop on Chris and Tina's road trip is a seemingly sedate tram museum. During the tour, Chris sees another visitor carelessly drop his ice-cream wrapper on the floor of a vintage tram. Chris is left seething by the litterbug's open contempt for his protestations and, as they prepare to leave the museum, reverses the caravan over the man and kills him. The horror of this apparent accident provokes an emotional response in Tina and Chris and they can barely wait to tear each other's clothes off and have sex in the caravan in a busy truck stop surrounded by curious lorry drivers.
With adrenalin still running high, Chris throws caution to the wind and speeds past some fellow caravaners in pursuit of the best pitch on that night's campsite, Dingley Dell. His satisfaction at getting the pitch soon dissipates when he notices his neighbours, a group of chicken sacrificing Shamans from Portsmouth. Chris is further riled when he and Tina meet Ian and Janice and he discovers that Ian is a published writer - something Chris aspires to but cannot accomplish. The murderous look returns to Chris's eyes and he follows Ian the next morning to a remote bluff where he bludgeons him to death with a rock, stealing his camera and dog, Banjo, for good measure.
Chris feels justified in the murders, assuring himself that it was "smug complacency that killed Ian", but his new found swagger and confidence spells danger for whoever gets in his way. Tina uncovers Chris's murder of Ian after first misreading the pictures on the stolen camera as evidence of an affair. Soon enough she gets to witness Chris commit another murder - a National Trust toff who takes issue with the couple over their dog fouling an historic site. The inscrutable Tina does not seem put off by her partner's bloodlust, only intrigued: "I never thought about murdering an innocent person like that before".
Tina might not have considered murder in the past, but seeing Chris club a man to death brings something out in her and, in a fit of jealousy; she kills a woman from a rowdy hen party whom she suspects of trying to seduce Chris and also of mocking her.
With both Tina and Chris now seemingly out of control and the relationship between the two steadily deteriorating, Tina commits yet another killing even more random than those before - running down a jogger on the side of the motorway. Chris is panicked by Tina's recklessness and the frequency with which they are now wracking up deaths: "I've done more murders in three days with you than I did in the six months since I got made redundant!" he says.
Having accidentally left their dog with Martin, an earth loving eco-traveller they met at a previous campsite, Chris and Tina arrange a meeting on a remote cliff top. Martin and Banjo arrive in his pedal-powered cara-pod (a one-man caravan on wheels) and Martin is subjected to a cringe-makingly awful evening with Tina and Chris before excusing himself for an early night. Following a vicious argument with Chris, Tina pushes Martin and his cara-pod over the side of the cliff towards a certain death. Chris is turned on by this, but also realises the fatal conclusion his relationship with Tina must reach.
Chris and Tina, having agreed on a tragic-romantic suicide pact, stand atop a precipitous aqueduct and hold hands ready to jump...
Before writer-performers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram hit the road as Tina and Chris in Sightseers they spent several years refining the characters, first on stage and then as leads in a TV pilot.
Alice Lowe begins the story, "Steve and I perform live character comedy and we met doing a regular comedy night called 'Ealing Live'. We were chatting about our Midlands backgrounds and family holidays that we used to go on and we started talking as these characters".
Steve says, "We had the characters before the idea, I think; these suburban caravan lovers from Redditch. We just found it funny them talking about mundane things and then disposing of body parts in the same breath. The idea to have them going on holiday and knocking people off whilst visiting tram museums was something that made us laugh".
Alice continues, "We then performed the characters as a double act and got interest in the idea as a TV proposal. A lot of the character traits are based on ourselves - except for the murderous notions of course - although I can get tetchy if I don't get a regular supply of hot tea. We made a TV taster (with director Paul King), which was promptly rejected by all channels for being 'too dark'!"
Undaunted, Alice and Steve refused to give up on the idea. With a bit of initiative and enterprise, Sightseers was back on the road and destined for bigger and better things than TV could offer, "We really believed that we'd made something of a decent quality that was an interesting idea worth taking further, so we put the taster on the internet". says Alice.
"I sent the link to Edgar (Wright), who I had worked with on Hot Fuzz and he immediately spotted its film potential. He told us to send it to (Shaun of the Dead) producer Nira Park and Big Talk optioned the script. We were extremely lucky to have had that break and their support. It seemed like our dream partnership to be working with people who had made what many consider the definitive British comedy horror! Edgar has now executive produced Sightseers and his involvement has been invaluable".
Sightseers director Ben Wheatley and his long time producers Claire Jones & Andy Starke (Rook Films) are similarly positive about joining forces with a company that has such a brilliant track record, Wheatley says "With Big Talk, you know that there's a wealth of knowledge there from their other movies so you've always got that back stop and it's really good working with Nira and Edgar".
With a film deal on the table, it was time to develop the script and find the right director to realise Alice and Steve's vision. First came an arduous period of research into the minds of serial killing couples.
Alice says, "We sent ourselves borderline insane by watching, reading and absorbing everything about serial killers. I like to think of myself a bit like a police psychologist such as Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls, nearly driven to the edge by the burden of too much knowledge. This is possibly an exaggeration, but it is quite weird reading a book about Dennis Nilsen on the tube.
We also went on two research trips around the UK, in character, with a cameraman filming the whole thing. That nearly sent us nuts as well. On one of them, Steve and I actually shared a caravan for the whole trip. This really cemented our interaction as a fictional 'couple' as I now know exactly how annoying he can be".
Steve says, "Film4 gave us some money to go away on a research trip; actually caravanning and visiting tourist sites in the Lake District. My dad planned us a fantastic route taking in lots of the places you see in the finished film - The Tram Museum, Pencil museum, Ribblehead Viaduct etc - and Alice and I spent the whole week in character as Tina and Chris. From that we developed a feel for what the major scenes might be and where they could happen. We improvised so much stuff I even started dreaming in character. After the research trip we wrote three drafts over about three years, with Katherine Butler and Sam Lavender at Film4 giving us notes after each one".
Having lived the characters for several years, it was time for Alice and Steve to join up with a director who could make the most of their idea on the big screen. Step forward Ben Wheatley, a talented rising star with two highly original and eye catching British features - Down Terrace and Kill List - already under his belt.
Ben says, "I had a meeting with Big Talk and they said they had a script and the script was Sightseers. I knew it had come from Alice and Steve and I pretty much agreed to do it without reading it because I knew them and wanted to work with them. I had worked with Alice and Steve on a pilot for a TV show called 'Wrong Door' and knew them from the comedy scene".
Ben says, "I knew they'd come from an improv background and I really fancied doing something that was quite free and easy. You know you can bend their work out of shape because they always know the backgrounds of the characters. Amy Jump - who is my writing partner and co-editor - gets an additional material credit as she wrote additional scenes and characters and helped with the order of events".
Alice says, "Amy and Ben have a flair for visual touches. The script we initially wrote was quite linear, but Ben encouraged more flashbacks, imagined events and dream sequences. He is the master of psychological bamboozlement, after all! I really like those additions, as I think it's too easy to make weird rules for yourself when you're writing, which you stop challenging after a time. That's when you need a new perspective".
Steve says, "I love Ben's almost poetic way of putting a film together. You're swept along and engaged on an almost subconscious level in places. Plus, in our original script I think the murders were treated in quite a cursory way, but Ben has taken them to a whole different gruesome level. He has made the whole thing even more uncomfortable and amoral, which I love. There is no shying away from what is actually going on, Ben makes sure you're gonna see it!"
Ben Wheatley's films have a unique naturalism and immediacy. Alice explains Ben's way of working, "Ben's DoP Laurie Rose is absolutely brilliant to work with. There's minimal lighting and set-up and Ben encourages us to walk or move wherever we want and Laurie follows the action. It's a very immediate way of working and I guess it's a bit more like theatre. You rarely snap out of a scene. You work really hard on a Ben Wheatley film, but I love it. It's really invigorating and intense. At the end of the day, we were very lucky he agreed to do it, because then Kill List came out and everything went mental for him".
It's rare for a film to capture the great British countryside in the way that Sightseers does. Beyond the chocolate box visuals of coy costume dramas, the epic wildness of Britain's great outdoors is underused in movies. As Chris and Tina make their murderous journey through the north of England, the increasingly immense and desolate landscapes are analogous to their moods.
For Steve Oram, the film's stunning locations revived memories of childhood holidays, "Sightseeing and British holidays are great and a big part of mine and Alice's childhood. There are very few films that celebrate these tourist locations and we hoped they'd be quite evocative. Some of the places we went were insanely dramatic and beautiful too, such as the Ribblehead Viaduct and Honister Pass. Why go abroad when you've got the whole of the UK at your fingertips, I say!
Sightseers has an almost mystical, magical realist aspect that chimes with the truly ancient history of some of its locations. For Ben, it was a chance to imbue an ostensibly modern comedy with larger ideas of nationhood: "Chris and Tina are looking at Britain. On one level it's almost like they are travelling back across time. They go into caves and stone circles, they visit all these places and they're encountering this collapse of Britain. It's a very naturalistic film in many ways but then it has these magical elements, psychedelic moments".
Chris and Tina join a boy/girl lineage of runaway murderers that includes characters from memorable movies such as Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde, Breathless and Natural Born Killers. There's something uncomfortably funny and pleasingly amoral about the way they hastily dispatch anyone who crosses them. Sightseers doesn't glamorise murder, but it does harvest a lot of uneasy laughs. So what reactions did the filmmakers want to provoke with Sightseers' cagoule clad kill spree?
Alice says, "I think you could take out the murders and the film would still make sense. The story is really about a couple going on holiday, fighting, nearly splitting up, then getting back together. This is a universal story and was the story that their characters were destined to fulfil. All the people they meet on the way are almost fairytale-like 'trials' for their relationship. And the ways they dispense with them are metaphors for how they deal with the outside world and its challenges".
So should we care about Chris and Tina? Are we with them on their journey or just watching them? Are they anti-heroes or figures of fun to be laughed at?
Alice says, "In some ways the film is a fantasy about what it would be like to have no moral boundaries. And in this way, I guess it's time off from feeling guilty about how much you can despise annoying people that you meet sometimes. Chris and Tina give the audience the passport to that. I like to think there is an interesting tension in Sightseers where you laugh, but you do feel something. For me it's a tragi-comedy, because there are huge things at stake for all the characters. I don't think anyone gets off scot-free or pops up unscathed at the end".
Steve says, "We definitely wanted the audience to laugh with them. It was essential that they were likeable and sympathetic for the film to work, I think. And it was just as important to make them truthful and believable, both as individuals and as a couple".
Of course, films can often be our escape from the real world. Steve Oram sums things up: "Dare I say it, but we all fantasise now and then about knocking someone off who we don't like. That Chris and Tina actually do it is quite anarchistic and there is fun to be had in that. Good sick fun".
Ben Wheatley - Director / Co-editor - Ben Wheatley's debut film Down Terrace won numerous awards, including Best Feature at Fantastic Fest, Raindance and Boston and played major film festivals throughout the world (Moma NYC, Rotterdam, PIFAN, Melbourne, LA). On its release in the US and UK it garnered fantastic reviews across the board.
His second feature Kill List was released in 2011 to global critical acclaim and won several awards including the BIFA for Best Supporting Actor (Michael Smiley) and the Empire Award for Best Horror Film.
Sightseers premiered in Cannes earlier this year, not only did Smurf win the Palm Dog but the film received a positive reception from critics, Screen International said "A blissful bit of dark, funny and at times very bloody entertainment" and The Times described it as "A cult hit waiting to happen".
Wheatley has a short film in The ABC's of Death (in post production) and is currently working on feature projects including A Field in England and Freakshift.
Steve Oram - Co-writer / 'Chris - Steve Oram is a regular on the Brit comedy scene with TV shows including 'The Mighty Boosh', 'Tittybangbang' as well as the film It's All Gone Pete Tong with Paul Kaye. A comic actor/writer who started out doing character comedy on the live circuit with Edinburgh shows such as solo show Denim and gigging all over the country. In 2008 he appeared in the live UK tour with Steve Coogan playing supporting roles and covering Coogan's changes (with Alice Lowe). He was Henry VIII to Alan Partridge's 'Sir Thomas Moore'!
His writing credits for TV include C4's Matthew & Tone. He moved into film writing with Sightseers with long time collaborator Alice Lowe, partly inspired by characters originally performed live together.
Steve has starred in and directed his own film Connections which was selected for the Cannes film festival in 2008 and has continued to make shorts under the banner of Lincoln Films. He currently performs a monthly live show called Oram & Meeten's Club Fantastico with Tom Meeten.
Alice Lowe - Co-writer / 'Tina' - Sightseers is Alice's debut as a screenwriter and screen (anti)heroine, although she has long been writing and appearing in television comedy. Originally from the Midlands, Alice began in devised theatre, collaborating with award-winning director Paul King (The Mighty Boosh, Bunny and the Bull), creating plays and characters for fringe theatre. Then she collaborated with comedians Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade on a stage show centered around spoof horror writer 'Garth Marenghi'. This show went on to win the Perrier Award and eventually became cult hit Channel 4 comedy series Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, in which Alice starred as psychic doctor 'Liz Asher'. Alice was thrust into the world of comedy.
Since then, Alice has become a familiar face in TV comedies including Come Fly With Me, Little Britain, The Mighty Boosh, Star Stories, Black Books, The I.T. Crowd, to name but a few. She has written for Bafta-winning sketch show Harry and Paul, toured nationwide with Steve Coogan, starred and co-written her own sketch show for E4, 'Beehive and starred in the multi-award winning Horrible Histories. She also appeared in Edgar Wright's hugely successful Hot Fuzz as Timothy Dalton's slatternly side-kick. However, her love of film led her into developing Sightseers with BigTalk, with Edgar Wright offering to Executive Produce.
Alice has previously written and starred in several award winning short films, creating an internet project, Jackal Films. The films have screened worldwide and Sticks and Balls and Stiffy both won the Straight 8 competition two years running and premiered at Cannes. She is now developing her second feature script and making her first foray into film directing.
Alice is due to star in the second series of new Comedy Award nominated Sky Atlantic series, This is Jinsy, directed by Psychoville's Matt Lipsey. Her self-penned radio series, surreal sketch show Alice's Wunderland has just broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Alice also remains true to her character comedy roots and still performs regularly live on the London circuit. She is one half of spoof psychedelic folk duo Hot Brew who have an album coming out in 2013.