Alice Lowe co-wrote and co-stars in Ben Wheatley's Sightseers.
The writers and stars of director Ben Wheatley's British genre-bending road trip romp Sightseers tossed out the rule book when it comes to horror and laugh out loud fun. Veterans of television and the comedy circuit, in particular, in Great Britain, Alice Lowe and Steve Oram wrote their own script for the Sundance debut film, in which they play a seemingly quiet couple who embark on a journey through the British countryside in their Abbey Oxford Caravan. Lowe plays Tina, a sheltered woman who looks to Chris (Oram) to show her life outside of her prism. The rolling countryside and visits to kitschy roadside distractions mask a brewing underbelly of violence and class warfare as the couple merrily moves from camp to camp, wreaking havoc along the way.
Lowe and Oram tailored their unconventional road show out of the comedy circuit they know so well. Initially envisioned as a television project, the pair turned to the big screen when TV powers-that-be at home balked at their script and short film version of the story. Lowe spoke with FilmLinc Daily about her journey to the big screen and why she found the medium liberating, why script writing is helpful for acting, and taking on the director's chair down the road.
FilmLinc Daily: Sightseers crosses genre in that it's both laugh-out-loud funny at times and yet throws some unexpected turns when this seemingly unassuming couple take a dark turn on their road trip through the Lake District and other areas of England. Did you want to bend the genre rules or how did all this come together?
Alice Lowe: Steve and I met on the comedy circuit in London, which is quite a small world. We started doing a character set, in which we're a couple. We realized that we're both from the Midlands. The south here has a strong identity; if you're from Manchester, it has a strong identity, but in Birmingham there isn't this [sense] of being a cultural center or whatever. So we were talking about growing up and identity and having a lack of direction in a way. We wanted to capture that in film.
FD: Did you consider the idea of de-emphasizing the comedy aspect and just going for the full jugular thriller story?
AL: I don't think that either of us could really carry that as actors. And what really amused us is that the road movie genre is really an American one and the killings are American as well. We're not 21 and we're not action heroes. The joke for us is that we're not glamorous. That's the initial joke really. It's a road movie with a pair on a killing spree, but with some [trappings] that are very typically British. For us, I think, we have a background in comedy, but both of us have always wanted to do film, which is a Holy Grail that you're never sure if it's something you'll get to do.
We wanted to do a comedy that has a commercial element, but then we'd just sneak in tragic aspects and classical aspects to the story. We wanted aspects of melodrama. Mike Leigh is someone who is always ingrained in your influences when you're British. We figured, though, if we could get away with there being a serious element to the film we'd be very happy. And the film makes you think as well. And we thought: "Why can't a comedy be beautiful and cinematic?"
FD: You come from a heavy television background. Had you considered doing Sighteers for television?
AL: Initially it was a television idea. When you're a comedian, it's your natural call to do television, and we made this short film and we were sending it out to channels. They were all saying it's really funny, but it's so dark and they were not going there. One thing about television in Britain is that they're so scared about complaints. It curbs a lot of drama. It's really weird how safe TV is in Britain at the moment. We were looking at all these American dramas like Dexter and others which have elements of dark comedy and we were thinking: "Well why can't we make something like this? What's the problem?" But then Edgar [Wright] saw the short film and he said that he'd executive produce it. So suddenly we felt liberated.
Sightseers writers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram in a scene from the film, directed by Ben Wheatley.
FD: It's interesting that there are shows like Dexter created on this side of the Atlantic and there are a lot of indie filmmakers who have segued to television—or at least "premium television"—and it seems to be the en vogue space to be in at the moment. And the big screen is seen by some filmmakers as being limiting. Steven Soderbergh is the prime example of that at the moment, having announced his retirement and pursuing projects for HBO including his next feature, Behind the Candelabra.
AL: I think independent film is about the individual voice and the independent vision and that's really what you're selling. The rules of "having to have [a certain] kind of ending" or worrying about whether it tests badly, etc., is really an alien world to me. In Britain, it just seems that we have realized that we have the talent here and the equipment has now become so cheap. I'm surprised that it's taken this long to make the leap, but now people realize: "Let's just do it." TV here has narrowed lately. But American and Danish TV have been much more exciting… It's weird that we generate so much successful television comedy here in the U.K., but we don't trust comedians to generate successful films, but maybe that will change.
FD: Had you both considered directing the film yourselves or at least one of you?
AL: No, I think you need someone outside yourself to tell you about your performances, while at the same time you can experiment and act like kids really. That's part of the brilliant platform Ben [Wheatley] gives you really. He wants to see something very naturalistic and we had great fun doing it.
FD: Do you think about directing?
AL: Well, I'm actually directing my next film. The reason I feel like I am able to do that is because it's one main character. I think it's harder when there are two main characters. Sightseers is a bit of interplay and a power struggle, but if one [inherently] has more power, then it wouldn't have worked. Just think if someone [directing] turned around and said: "I think I'm really going to focus on me in this scene…" It wouldn't have worked. But I think directing is something I'm interested in.
FD: Writing is something you've done extensively, especially for television but also shorts. Is that something you're going to continue to do?
AL: Definitely. It gives me a lot of confidence in having been involved with the creation of the film because it does have a lot to do with the script and that helps in the rehearsal room. I have confidence in how visual it needs to be. But in TV, it's very much more concentrated on dialog. In film, you're painting a canvas. I got really excited about that.
FD: Are you also starring in the film you're directing now and is it a comedy?
AL: It is a comedy, yes, but it's very dark. In that sense it's a continuation of those themes [in Sightseers].
FD: Do you want to exclusively stick with comedy going down the road?
AL: I would like to explore other genres really. I love doing comedy and that's the thing I will always go back to really, but I'd love to have the freedom to do sort of "meaty" roles, but also have the freedom to do the sort of films I want to make, like what Woody Allen does. You forget he's funny because you're so gripped by the story, but they still make you laugh.
Sightseers screened at Film Society in February as part of Film Comment Selects 2013. It opens Friday, May 10 in New York and Los Angeles.