Nick Murphy was at the London Film Festival in October to promote his upcoming film The Awakening. It is the feature debut for Murphy, who has hitherto written and directed for television. I met Nick in the last week of the festival, where he took part in round table interviews.
The Awakening was co-written by Stephen Volk, who wrote Ghostwatch; a different type of ghost story. What was it like working with him?
I haven’t actually seen it [Ghostwatch]. I know! It’s terrible, there are other films I haven’t seen – I haven’t seen The Wicker Man! No, Stephen has got such an understanding of horror, and he wrote the backbone of the film. We never sat down together and wrote. He wrote the bones of the film – the scare story – and I came in and brought in and brought more of an emotional attachment. The sense of loss, grief; the back to the story. I put in a reference in the film where a red ball bounces down the stairs, and was thinking of using the colour red as a signature colour in the film. And Stephen said “Yeah, but that’s The Changeling”! So having him as our resident person who had actually seen this stuff was helpful. Once I started the project, I’d stopped watching anything frightening in order to not have too many references, and yet we’ve all been to the cinema and those things boggle down to the tadpoles in your mind. For example when I wrote the doll house sequence, and I don’t know; there’s something freaky about dolls’ houses and there’s something freaky about dolls.
Following on from that, I found the doll’s house sequence one of the most chilling scenes I have seen for a long time. How did you come up with that idea?
I was writing that sequence – and I’ve got am office in my garden, and it was quite late – and there wasn’t any music playing, it was quite quiet. I didn’t know the sequence before I wrote it really. I thought it would be interesting to re-enact scenes of her recent past in the house and for that to catch up with her. What I didn’t have is the end of the sequence where she sees the doll looking at the doll’s house in the attic, and then I thought, to the left there is a child doll standing behind her and it freaked me out! I had to stand up and walk around my tiny little office at the end of the garden! I know writers always charm themselves and talk about the effect of their work, but you do get like that. When you write an emotional scene, and you check back an emotional scene, you find it emotional. As you check back on a scene to see whether you feel it is going to be scary or not, you need to be scared. And it’s always a good sign when you’re frightened to be in your office on your own!
Where do you think we are with British horror at the moment? Do you think there is a bit of a revival going on?
I don’t know about a revival. Certainly, people have been a bit fed up with the blood end of horror. And that’s not going to kill the genre, but they’ve seen quite a lot of it. The “two guys, caught in a room, one’s got an axe, what are you going to do” sort of horror, which I really, really don’t like. I know I don’t profess to be an expert in the supernatural genre or the horror genre – and they are different of course – but I genuinely don’t like that sort of stuff. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been made, but the idea of Hostel or something just simply isn’t my bag. But I think people, far from being fed up with it, the reaction has been refreshing: “Oh God this is just a traditional ghost story”. So when we’ve been talking to people saying that this is actually a traditional ghost story, it’s a classic ghost story, there’s been a sort of “oh nice! I like that”. I think it has almost reminded people of that, whether it causes a revival; in a sense, I hope that nothing ever causes a revival because it means that one trend becomes another trend. I’d much rather see the waters always stirred up, and never quite settling.
It’s quite interesting to have a film of the horror genre coming out that is more ghost-based…
I think the ghost mystery, the mystery of ghost stories helps, that’s what is important. I have been shouting this from the rooftops: we are going to take 9, 10, 12 quid off people at the cinemas these days – we as in us directors – we cannot just end the experience when the lights come up. I think the problem with the Hostel-end of it is that there is less to discuss. What was important is that [The Awakening] had plenty of lobby chat potential. I want people to get back into the lobby and say “but hang on, she was… oh my god! Of course…”. We are taking money off people, and it’s got to be a longer experience, it can’t just be “lights up, scared you, haha off you go”. While the jumps are important in the film, I’m much more gratified when I hear of people realising the following day, or I hear people in the lobby, as I did in the festival, saying “No, but he could see ghosts anyway”. So they are talking about it and that’s great, and then I think you really are into giving people an experience of going out that cinema can offer – a collective experience – in a way that television and home movies can’t quite give.
How is The Awakening marketed, in terms of genre?
That’s an interesting question. You know what, I was never told before where they wanted to place it. So I wrote the script, or I handed it in after my spell of writing, and they made notes about the script and notes about what needed changing, and they advised but they never said “look, we want it to be this sort of film”. I think at the very early stages when I was presented with the project, I voiced an interest in setting it in Feltham, in the modern day, so it would have been in a young offenders’ institute in the modern day. And they said “no, no. no, we are looking at the market and we would like it to be period”, for better overseas sales potential or whatever. But other than that, they were never prescriptive, and the Feltham idea was a rubbish one anyway so that’s fine. As they were never really prescriptive, I didn’t realise what it was going to be.
But bear in mind, when you are a director, there is a big difference between that and a producer, and that and an executive producer. When you are directing, you’re just trying to give the person at home the experience you had as a kid. For me it was the classic cinema on holiday in Merseyside. But we all have that cinema in our minds, don’t we? The one that we went to when we were a kid, where we had that experience in the dark. And you are just trying to give that. In a sense, I was happy and they were happy to work out what it was afterwards. And I think where they worked it out was when they watched it, and one of studio execs said “you know what, it’s a supernatural mystery, that’s what it is – it’s not a horror”. They didn’t really want to decide what it was until they’d seen it, and now I think they are saying that it is a classic supernatural mystery, in the oldest tradition. I don’t want people to call it a horror film. It’s beyond my power to stop them, and I keep seeing people writing “Nick Murphy’s horror film” – no! But I would prefer to keep the horror word out of it. It puts people off, it puts me off, quite honestly. Let’s be clear, The Blair Witch Project was a horror film, and that’s a brilliant film, that scared the pants off of me. But when you close your eyes, the word horror means to most people cutting people up and the possessed children and so forth. So it does have negative connotations to a lot of people; I am much more pleased to keep [The Awakening] into a more popular description really. There is a potential for journey for the characters within a ghost story than there is in a horror film.
Can you tell us a bit about the lead character Florence and the choice of Rebecca Hall in this role?
I was very keen that Florence would be for her day a modern woman. Rebecca and I were shoulder to shoulder on this, we wanted Florence to be what women would turn into ten years after our story. That’s why we very overtly dress her in trouser suits, and Rebecca was completely on board with all of that. I’ve seen actresses in the past saying “I like playing strong women”. And I think, “is it a strong woman? You’ve got a bow and arrow, that doesn’t quite make you a strong woman”. It was very important that Florence firstly suffered, and had an arc of change, and was a bit screwed up in the begining. She is clearly injured, and carrying these psychological injuries. But her rescue is of her own making, and it is not, ultimately, of any male character. All the male characters are the most f**ked up in the whole film. They all carry injuries from which they haven’t yet recovered, or don’t recover. Dominic [West] is a very bright guy (although he pretends not to be, interestingly) and he liked the fact that when Mallory is asked to fly off to the rescue, he doesn’t rescue Florence. He’s impotent in that regard, and Florence rescues Florence.
I’m not an ardent feminist, and I don’t pretend for a second that this is going to readdress the gender bias in cinema. But what I do think is that it allows having an interesting female character suffering psychological injuries that are consistent with the way a lot of women regards their responsibilities to themselves and to their partners and to their hearts. I think this is one of the reasons women have responded so well to the film. It did matter that we had a woman who was smart but likeable. With certain actresses, they can be beautiful in a way that’s annoying. Rebecca’s gift, apart from all the many others, is that her beauty isn’t irritating to women. With the best will in the world to Megan Fox, she couldn’t have played this part. I’m not having a pop at Megan, but while men find her attractive, my suspicion is women aren’t enamoured by her in the way they are by Rebecca. Rebecca’s charm and wit carry the character nicely.
What attracted you to setting the film in the post-war period?
If you are going to write or direct a film, you have got to have a clear one line about what the film is about. If you don’t you never really know what you are building. As soon as we chanced on the idea that we see ghost figures because we need to, I know it would create a period. The sickness, the loss in people’s faces, everything feeds into that central one idea. It was imperative it couldn’t be gothic. I didn’t want lightning, I banned all that. I didn’t want the terrifying to come from the cinematic tradition, I want viewers to discover it’s terrifying. You look at the outside of our school, it’s not terrifying. At the end of it you look at it and think “that’s a terrifying building”.
Too many of this genre become studies in the genre, and they are not actually telling their own story. If you think of a fabric like taffeta that has two threads in it. One of those needs to be novel, fresh, clean ideas. The other thread needs to be traditions, and cliché if necessary. It is a case of how you wed those together. If you take one out and only have novelty, that’s not in the genre. If you leave only your traditions, that’s boring and no one will forgive you for it. So it is a case of marrying those two.
The Awakening is out on Friday 11th November 2011.