The Woman In Black opened in UK cinemas on February 10th (a week earlier in the US) and the week before previews have been touring the country, accompanied by the director, James Watkins. I sat in on the question and answer session that took place in Manchester to find out more.
What was it about the original story that got you into the project?
It was really Jane Goldman’s screenplay that I read, I thought it was a very good screenplay, I thought it would be a very scary film, but also it had something about it, it had some heart. It was about loss, about this character’s journey. Also I thought it was interesting to try and make this film that could really scare people but didn’t have any gore or violence – not that I have a problem with any of that – but there’s a lot of horror films now that purport to be scary but are actually just nasty. Again, I don’t mind nasty but it’s not necessarily scary. I thought maybe we could make a film here that was actually scary by sort of playing on the imagination more, going into a sort of old school way. It’s a ghost story; it’s what you can’t see, it’s what’s in the shadows and what’s in the edges of the frame. What’s in your imagination. I thought that was an interesting challenge I suppose.
This idea of less is more, and of what you don’t see is more frightening, when you’re making the film, is that difficult to know if it’s working?
Yeah, it’s really difficult to know. You have to put it in front of an audience again and again and again, and that’s not a nice thing to do when you’re in the process of making a film. It’s a sort of necessary pain in the process of editing, you’re showing the film before it’s finished. You can take a few hits in doing that and sometimes you’ve got to do it on the quiet because you don’t want all the producers and all the money guys hearing all the bad things that people have to say. So, you’re just working it through. The film was actually interesting because however less is more we thought it should be, the film was always saying to us “just take it back a bit more”. Lower the music, make it more in the sound design, in his breathing, in his footsteps. Be with him. It’s quite held back in terms of sound, if you went from this film to say, Transformers it would blow your head off in terms of the sound design. It’s quite stripped back and spare.
You say that, but you don’t deny the audience some good old jumps.
Well, you’ve bought a ticket for a scary film, you want to have some jumps, right? So hopefully there’s a few of those that blow you back in your seat a little bit.
What was your relationship with Jane Goldman, she’s a big genre fan, she’s really into horror so was it important to be working with someone who really understands where you’re coming from?
Yeah, Jane’s very smart and we had a really good collaboration and it was great to have someone that had the same reference movies, and we love the genre. So it was good, it was a real exploration, together. It was great, I had Jane in the edit, she watched the film so many times. Constantly having someone so smart, who you can say “What do you think of this? What do you think of that?” It’s a great sounding board, a real pleasure.
It’s impossible not to talk about the film and mention Daniel Radcliffe, he gives a really impressive performance, how did he come on board and what was it like working with him?
He read the script and liked it, then we met and he saw the film the same way as I saw the film, we quite bonded, because around that time I met Dan, there was all these kind of people saying we should make it in 3D. I was like, “Look, you can make it in 3D, but you won’t be making it with me”. Dan was pretty much of the same mind. I’m not a big fan of 3D and I don’t think it’s appropriate for a film like this. He understood what I was trying to achieve and he was very smart and talked about the character in very smart ways. Dan in person is not at all what you imagine. He’s not Harry Potter, either! He’s a very considered guy and very committed and wanted to challenge himself and wanted to try new things, and I said “Great – I’m going to challenge you” and he was up for that and he embraces that. He went and met with grief counsellors and read lots of books on grief and really threw himself into his prep and research for the role and I think he really carries the movie.
How did you approach the source after it had been a successful play and TV drama?
I think Jane wanted to give Arthur a real kind of journey as a character and that sense of loss. The sense that he’s searching for something. He’s really not functioning properly, he’s not really there for his son. He’s just drown in grief and he’s kind of chasing shadows. We didn’t pursue any of it in the context of this is like the play, or whatever. We went back to the source book and sort of wanted to do it in the spirit of the book and do justice to it, but make it film shaped. I think the most gratifying thing for Jane and I was the fact that Susan Hill saw the film and really gave us a good thumbs up. So that was a big moment of relief for us.
When you say you wanted to make the story ‘film shaped’, do you mean giving people what they expect from a horror film with respect of the creepy kids, and hostile villagers, etc..
Not really. I think film shaped means that the character has to have a particular journey, and you have to go in a particular direction. It’s very interesting when people talk about what you expect from a particular horror film or talk about tropes or anything; when you try and name a British haunted house film, when was the last one made? Before The Awakening, made at about the same time as this film, you’ve got to go back to The Innocents and films like that. It hasn’t been done in this country. The Spanish have done it, but we haven’t really made those sorts of films in this country for a long time and I don’t see why we shouldn’t. There’s a certain grammar within a horror film, I suppose in terms of how you create effects, and there’s room for originality in that certainly.
Where was the film shot?
It was all over really, we shot the main set inside the house was in Pinewood Studios. Then the village was up in Yorkshire at Halton Gill. The causeway was in Essex, the house was in Peterborough, another house was in Cambridgeshire. The railway was in Sussex, so we travelled all around.
How did you feel about coming under the iconic brand of Hammer Films?
It’s a funny thing with Hammer, because they’ve got some great films from the 50s and 60s, and they made some pretty crappy films in the 70s. So you want to try and aspire to the good ones and not be one of the bad ones I suppose. I didn’t really worry about it too much, I was just trying to tell the story in its own way.
Do you believe in the paranormal or spirits?
(laughs) No, nor does Jane!
What have you planned next?
The truth is I don’t really know. I’ve got about three or four potential projects that might happen but there’s never any guarantees because you’ve got to persuade someone to give you a lot of money to make the film and they don’t do that very easily. Hopefully I’ll get another film under way towards the end of this year, but I can’t guarantee anything really.
Thank you very much James Watkins.