Interview: Ben Wheatley & Steve Oram
THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN IN NOVEMBER 2012 FOR THE VELVET ONION
There’s an old adage about Manchester. It’s been passed down the ages, and has often been reiterated by London types – chiefly, that it’s always raining here. Whilst it’s far from true, it does appear that whenever a TVO star or two makes a rare appearance in the city, it’s going to chuck it down.
Such is the case on Halloween, when a wet and windy night puts paid to trick or treaters and makes for a subdued number of fancy dress drinking bingers, already feeling the strain of the date falling on a Wednesday. Not that it matters a jot to the sell out crowd at Cornerhouse – the premiere arts cinema and gallery in town. A packed main house is geared up and ready to see a film that has defied expectations in the middle of a recession-fuelled dry spell for alternative comedy. Not only has Sightseers managed to be funded, filmed and released – but it looks set to be a critical, and hopefully commercial, smash into the bargain.
As the house doors are about to close, a ginger faced man (sans angry woman) arrives alongside a gruff-looking but charming grizzly bear of a gent, to be papped by the BFI photographer. As TVO chats idly with one of the film’s promoters and a Cornerhouse rep, it becomes clear that Sightseers is a big deal: Ben Wheatley is one of Britain’s shining directorial lights, and perhaps most intriguingly of all, Steve Oram is now a movie star.
A far cry, then, from the days of its lo-fi pilot, directed by Paul King with his typical flair, and fuelled by great performances from Oram and Alice Lowe, the latter of whom is sadly unable to be here tonight due to a heavy workload. Whilst the characters it contained had been honed after several years of stage work, and the pilot itself had a bleak, blackly comic style, it was nevertheless rejected by just about everyone for being a little too dark.
Yet once championed by Edgar Wright, and pushed onto the desk of his regular collaborator Nira Park, the film the pilot inspired is now on the cover of seminal cinema periodical Sight & Sound. As the movie begins, and TVO is shepherded into a side-room with Ben and Steve, we can’t help but remark how gloriously surprising it all is.
“It was quite late in the day we found out about Sight & Sound,” Ben explains. “I’ve read it for donkey’s years, so it’s quite a big deal to get on the front of it.” Steve points at the cover of a handful of copies strewn on the desk, awaiting signatures for the venue staff, and adds: “Especially that picture, where we look so glamorous in our cagoules. We look so beautiful… like Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.”
Naturally, we’re a little biased, but this is arguably the first full-blooded TVO themed picture which stands a chance of being a genuine hit, as opposed to a cult novelty. Almost every review has been positively glowing, and audience reception at previews has made standing ovations a regular occurrence. Keen to downplay the initial success, Ben insists he never expects a film to play well.
“I think if you did, you’d be incredibly conceited,” he notes, humbly. “You have to earn it all of the time. We knew we’d had a good shoot, and we really enjoyed it, but sometimes, that can mean it’s shit.”
The pair met four years ago via the cgi-enhanced BBC3 sketch show The Wrong Door – which Ben directed and co-wrote. Alice Lowe, Tom Meeten, Matt Berry and Adam Buxton were also involved at the pilot stage: as Oram recounts, it involved, “Everyone of that moment who wasn’t doing something that afternoon.” Only Berry survived to the broadcast show, though future Wheatley collaborators, MyAnna Buring, Michael Smiley, Neil Maskell and our very own Gareth Tunley joined him.
It wasn’t long before Wheatley continued his links to TVO by helming mockumentary Steve Coogan: The Inside Story featuring Julia Davis, in-between his first feature Down Terrace (starring Tunley & Tony Way), and his work on the Johnny Vegas sitcom Ideal. Mentioning these ties to Ben, he confesses: “You keep expanding The Velvet Onion out, and now you’ve let me in!” Erupting with a volcanic laugh he says with joking regret: “I was never in it before! I finally got in round the back door.”
In our defence, TVO explains that we had a dawning realisation how ingrained into our world Ben had become, and ask the pair if they feel part of a collective. “Definitely,” opines Oram. “I think there’s this big bunch of comedic actors, directors and writers who are all of a certain age, and who’ll want to keep working with each other.”
It was this sense of camaraderie which saw Ben take on Sightseers without even reading the script. “I’d seen the Paul King pilot,” he reveals, “and said yes to adapting it almost immediately. I knew them both, and wanted to work with them properly, plus it also meant working with Edgar & Nira, which was a big draw.”
Following his previous dramatic features with an out-and-out comedy was not without its challenges, however. “Even though I came from comedy originally,” Ben reveals, “It’s quite a bold thing to make a comedy film, especially in the UK at the moment. I feel it’s like you’re standing up and saying, ‘This is a comedy’. That’s quite scary.”
Steve agrees. “You’re stating something,” he suggests, “Like – I’m the funniest man out of all you lot.” Ben retorts, quickly: “I didn’t say that.” The pair burst into giggles, banter firing rapidly between one other, trying to lay the blame for that statement. “And it is making a statement,” Ben adds as the laughter fades, “You’re making something and showing it to all your mates, going: This is funny, isn’t it? But when you’re making a horror film, you can show it to all your comedy mates and they just see a horror film.”
“But then all the horror people are going, nah…” adds, Steve. “Yeah,” Ben replies, “But I don’t know any of them!” And suddenly, they’re off again, and Oram’s found an intriguing angle to approach this revelation. “So you’re talking about personal angst from people you know?” he asks of his friend. “Absolutely,” Wheatley reveals. “I’ve got to deal with Henry Normal and Graham Duff, and all of these people. That’s a much tougher gig.”
Oram straightens himself up and ruminates for a moment, before suggesting that there’s nothing worse than comedy falling flat, and that the trick on this project was to find the line between the laughs and the drama. “This is comedy with something serious behind it,” he states. “We always wanted to do that with these characters. It’s not just knob gags and pissing around, and I think that’s true for all the good stuff.”
“I think that makes it stronger,” says Ben, “If you believe in the characters, and you worry about them, you feel real fear and jeopardy which makes it all funnier.”
One of the main challenges facing the team was taking the sketched outlines from the pilot, originally aimed at a television format, and presenting it with the alternate freedoms and limitations of cinema. Initial conversations concerned crafting a world which was emotionally real, whilst retaining its comedic elements – a fine line to tread, which Oram, Lowe, Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump were all too aware of. As Ben explains: “With comedy, there’s a metre that goes up and down. Sometimes you lose all logic – especially in sitcoms, which tend to reset every week. Chris & Tina were meant to be real people, so the comedy had to be embedded within them.”
To this end, it is perhaps in the film’s favour that Alice Lowe and Steve Oram have been great friends and frequent collaborators for many, many years. Both were members of comedy troop Ealing Live, which also helped launch the careers of Lucy Montgomery, Simon Farnaby, Tom Meeten, Richard Glover and more. Their short-film, Stiffy, made with director Jaqueline Wright, won awards back in 2005 and saw the duo make their first trip to Cannes. A few years later, they made a television pilot together, Lifespam, which was critically acclaimed but buried in a graveyard slot by BBC3, never to get the attention it deserved. All of this is just the tip of the iceberg, of course – as the pages of The Velvet Onion can attest to what Tom Meeten once described as “incestuous Booshdom”, the pair are part of this cult movement TVO promotes and celebrates on a daily basis.
That’s not to say that writing together is always easy. “Writing with Alice is like writing with your wife,” Steve confesses. “The whole thing is a battle, but in a really amazingly creative way. We spark off each other, and that really informs our characters. It’s always been very relaxed writing with Tom [Meeten, Oram’s regular double-act partner]. We just jam stuff, because we’ve been working together since we started. We grew up together in that way, whereas with Alice it’s been much more intense in a really interesting way. It really is just like being with your wife, and arguing on holiday, whilst sightseeing, then writing it down.”
A working holiday was in order as the film was pieced together – with Oram & Lowe really visiting the places on Chris & Tina’s agenda. “We went out for real, in a caravan and everything,” Steve grins. “We argued a lot, stayed in character for two weeks, writing stuff down and improvising for the camera. 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.”
Once completed, the first draft was then polished by Wheatley’s long-term collaborator – and partner – Amy Jump, with some assistance from Ben himself. TVO asks if their working relationship is similar to Alice & Steve, given that they actually are married. Ben thinks for a moment, stroking his beard in deep thought, before replying: “I tend to write the first draft of stuff, then Amy totally rewrites it!”
More volcanic laughter errupts from Ben & Steve, before Wheatley continues: “She changes everything, and I’ve learnt over our twenty-odd year relationship to understand how that works for the greater good. I guess I wrote more of Kill List, but that’s definitely a rarity. Freakshift and A Field In England [Ben’s current projects] have been much more like our usual set-up.”
“But if you look at it, and you know you didn’t write it, but it’s somehow better…” he contemplates. “Well, you just have to fucking throw your hands up! As long as the stuff’s underneath it somewhere, then it’s fine. There’s never a big shit-fight to get your name in it, as long as it’s good.”
Good is certainly an understatement, both for Wheatley’s previous films, and for Sightseers itself. Yet as much as the writing bristles with energy, it could be lost without a great cast to support it – and fortunately, the film once again hits a home run. Steve admits to being star-struck by the acting talent they recruited – amongst them Eileen Davis, a veteran of Mike Leigh dramas; Monica Dolan, who recently won a BAFTA for her portrayal of Rose West in television drama Appropriate Adult; Rachel Austin, an up and coming actress most recently wowing theatregoers in Black Roses: The Killing Of Sophie Lancaster; and Jonathan Aris, perhaps now best known as the ever-annoying Anderson in BBC smash Sherlock.
“We kind of thought – God, they’ve done loads more than we have,” Oram admits. “We’re the leads, and they’re doing these modest little parts before we kill ‘em, and we’re just swanning around, having never been to drama school.” Ben is also full of praise for his cast, especially Aris, whom he also worked with on Ideal. “Jonathan did this weird thing,” he remembers. “When you start blocking a shoot, and an actor does something really complicated, they’re going to have to do it ten times or more. He went into this kitchen scene, picked up this pepper grinder, and took it to pieces. We were watching it on the monitor going: ‘You fuckin’ idiot! There’s no way you’re gonna do that in the same way twice!’ But he did. He’s a genius, technically. And he’s funny as fuck, too.”
The whole cast were encouraged to play to their strengths, and ad-lib throughout the film, in order to make it feel more natural. The end result on screen is a combination of the written words, off-the-cuff reactions, and a combination of the two. “We shot it sort of on the script, off the script, improving into and out of written scenes” Ben explains. “We’d go to a location, find something interesting and go and see if we could find anything in it to film. That sequence with Alice on the climbing frame was all made up because we spotted it out of the corner of our eyes, and that happened a lot.”
“When we were at the stone circle,” adds Steve, “We started hugging the stones, which wasn’t in the script, but it got into the film.” TVO suggests that’s just Alice & Steve being themselves, surely, and sheepishly, Oram adds, “Well, it is, yeah. Thanks very much for that.”
One major addition to the cast is Oram & Lowe’s regular collaborator Richard Glover as gentle cyclist Martin, who gets to underplay naturally whilst the duo become increasingly insane on screen. Glover was also in the pilot episode, but the decision to include him was actually made by Ben, who completely forgot he had been involved. “You said after you cast him, didn’t you?” asks Oram of Wheatley, “Have you seen this guy called Richard Glover? He’d be great for Martin, and we just went: ‘WHAT?!?!?!?!’”
An instant hit with the production team, Steve admits that having such a familiar face play such a pivotal role was great for morale as well as improvisation. “We’d done it all before with him,” he affirms, “so you can really mess it up. There’s no limits with him, whereas when you meet an actor for the first time it can be a bit awkward to pull their trousers down or something. With Richard, you can punch him in the face, rape him, and he’ll still come back for more. It’s a lovely, gentle, perfectly pitched peformance.”
Glover has proven such a runaway smash, that Ben cast him in his next feature – the period piece A Field In England, which wrapped shooting a few weeks ago. We’re keen to help Wheatley and the team keep up the mystery surrounding this shoot, which also features Michael Smiley, Reece Shearsmith and Julian Barratt, so we’re afraid our little chat about it will have to remain a secret for now, not least of which because we’ve run out of time with the in-demand duo, who must meet other journalists ahead of their laughter-packed Q&A after the film.
Later, the pair pair depart for a well-earned Chinese and a train back to London, their hearts and minds set on getting Sightseers seen and heard, and preparing for the next big step for both of them. Alongside finishing off A Field In England, Ben is working on prep for his America-set, England-filmed horror film Freakshift, whilst Steve Oram is looking at making a feature film as part of his surreal Lincoln Studios project. Whilst alternative comedy’s fortunes on television seem to be on the increase, it seems these two tv graduates are now focused almost entirely on the film world, and with good reason – as Oram explains, “With film, you just go and make one, with less interference, and you live and die by your own merits.” On the basis of Sightseers alone, they’re going to need a new merit card.