James Watkins is the writer/director of British horror film Eden Lake, which has just hit DVD and Blu-ray (reviewed here). Previously, he wrote Gone and My Little Eye, and his next screenplay is for the small matter of The Descent 2. We caught up with him for a chat…
There’s a whole feel and movement of a British horror revival going on. What’s your take on that? Is it the real thing, and are there any British horror movies that have taken you personally?
Well I guess the big one has got to be Neil Marshall’s The Descent of a few years back, in terms of making an all-out genre film, that didn’t necessarily feel like it had been made in Britain. And I liked its sense of claustrophobia, the little primal fears that were exploited. And there’s Dog Soldiers, and I’ve been involved a bit in The Descent 2 …
… which we’ll be coming to later!
There’s lots of different things. There’s Mum & Dad, there’s some of the comedy horror. So yeah, there’s a whole spectrum of horror stuff. I think there’s definitely a sense that British filmmakers are slowly feeling less shy about making genre films. There’s always been a bit of a snobbery about it. And I think finally we’re getting over that.
Is that a snobbery from the people who fund the films?
Actually, probably not! It’s funny, you get a lot of people who say we love horror, we love horror, and in a sense people think they can make a quick, cheap buck out of it. But actually sometimes people who are saying they love horror would much rather go and see an art house film at The Screen On The Green. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think the snobbery in many ways comes in a media sense or in a cultural sense. I’ve got lots of friends who would just think “horror movies, they’re crap aren’t they?” I think there’s a cultural snobbery more than an institutional one.
It’s inevitable talking about horror that, more than any other genre, it seems to become embroiled in different generational controversies. And this current generation’s is banded together under the phrase ‘torture porn’. You’ve got some quite grizzly moments in Eden Lake. Do you find when you’re just sitting down and writing, do you find the arguments about such things in the back of your head when you’re penning your film?
Not really. For me it’s just trying to tell the story and tell the story true to the characters. So for example, in Eden Lake, the big torture scene as it were when they’ve all got Steve, it’s about Brett imposing his will on the gang and peer pressure in terms of the other kids not wanting to be there. So I think it’s very far removed from the sort of gleeful celebration of violence you get in a film like Saw. And actually, quite a lot of the pain in Eden Lake, the violence is really rather grim, I don’t think you can watch any of the violence in Eden Lake with a smile, or with titillation. The violence has consequences, and the consequences are bad. It’s queasy and it’s sick-inducing, and that’s as it should be in my mind. I don’t think it is torture porn in terms of Eden Lake, but when I was writing it, I wasn’t really thinking about that, I was trying to get immersed in the story and see where that takes me.
That scene in particularly, you deliberately chose Jenny to witness the torture of Steve. You reflected the horror very much on her face, with quite long cuts. She’s there in that scene to get over the impact of it all, presumably?
Absolutely. At to be honest, you see a lot less than you think you see. You see people’s responses.
I rewatched that scene a couple of times before doing this interview, and there’s not that much gore in there. That’s very much in keeping with traditional horror?
Yeah, I think so. I think there’s a lot of stuff in the film that you don’t actually see very much. The scene where the boy gets burnt, it’s horrific, but it’s glimpsed for maybe eight frames, ten frames in the background of the shot, and you hear it on the soundtrack. For me it’s not necessarily what you see, it’s often what you don’t see, what you think you see and what you feel.
Directing the film inevitably gives you a lot more control over sound, and sound – even in the silences…
Very much so, and there’s a very interesting example of that when Brett kicks and stabs someone to death pretty much. In the mix on that you don’t actually see the punches connecting, and the kicks connecting. But we had it in the mix where they’d laid down the foley where you could hear every crack, and every breaking of bones. And it was appalling. And it was very unwatchable, and too nasty actually, so at that point I retreated on the soundtrack into the music. I had the music swell, and you sort of go away from the scene.
It happens at the end when she’s in the house. Sort of almost in an editorial sense of this is a tragic situation rather than it saying we are in any way getting off on the nastiness of this violence.
It must be refreshing as a director to have that element of control over it?
Oh yeah! It’s great! At the same time you can’t blame anyone if you screw it up. As a screenwriter, you are so used to things going in directions that you wouldn’t have taken, so to be able to say this is how I intended it, this is how I want to shoot it, and these are the decisions that I’ll live by. I think directing is a logical conclusion of mine.
Was there any frustration in the way that My Little Eye and Gone were made that drove your desire to direct?
As a screenwriter you always have frustrations. It’s just the nature of the job and you have to live with it. Your vision is not going to be the same as the director’s vision. It doesn’t mean one is better or worse, it means they’re different. Directing is an act of interpretation. But yeah, sure, you’re always looking at things and thinking I wouldn’t have done it that way! But that’s the nature of it. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I thought I’ve always wanted to direct my own material. So I have more control.
Part of that control, and one thing that comes across in Eden Lake, is there’s almost a push for audience complicity, and we’ve seen this in films like Funny Games in the past. Without wanting to sound pretentious, it’s as if you want the audience to be a character in it?
Very much. There was a screening at Frightfest, and the scene where Thommo gets stabbed in the neck, you’ve built up the tension over a long period of time in the film, and the audience is looking for a release of tension in a sense. And when she stabs him in the neck, there were some members of the audience that cheered, and some went “payback”.
But I deliberately wanted to linger on that shot afterwards, the slow tracking shot that comes out of that. You linger on her pain and anguish, and the tragedy of what’s happened. You realise that it’s in no way triumphalist, and so those kinds of cries of vengeance die in people’s throats. And absolutely what I want people to think – was I just cheering for the death of this little child? I think those sorts of games are quite interesting.
Would you say that consequence is something that’s been missing from a lot of modern horror?
Yeah, definitely. I wanted to make a film that was a horror film that was home grown, in that it was not about vampires or monsters or werewolves, something that was relatable, and you couldn’t really leave it behind and dismiss it. Obviously it presents a heightened paranoid version of reality, but I thought that’s quite an interesting jumping off point, to give people something to chew on when they leave the theatre. It’s something that’s interesting. If you can’t provoke people in a horror movie, where can you provoke them?
The other argument is, you mentioned the Saw movies before, and there’s a debate that it’s made it harder to shock audiences because they show you everything.
Do you think the consequence angle is the new way – or the old way – to shock an audience now?
Yeah, well, it’s tricky. I think the first Saw is a very clever film with a very strong twist. But the notion of just shocking people by the extremity of your violence really bores me. I’m just not interested in that. I don’t particularly celebrate violence or enjoy it, and to me if you’re going to see violence, I want to reconnect it with consequences.
Violence is shocking. And actually what it often is is incredibly thrown away in the mainstream. In mainstream American cinema you have cars that chase through cities, people get knocked over, people get shot and you never see any of that. They have these strange rules in terms of the ratings where blood should be turned from red to black, and you should never not have violence, but you’ll never see the consequences of that violence so you can get a better rating. But to me it seems a bit more responsible, the Wes Craven argument, to show the graphic extremity of the violence. And show the horrific consequences of that violence. Obviously if you have an 18, you don’t want to show that to young children. But from an adult point of view, I think those two things should be connected.
The other thing that seems to interest you is the application of modern trends such as the demonisation of hoodies, in My Little Eye it was the Internet. You’re using modern technologies and circumstances set up against quite classical horror set ups. Is that your intention?
Yeah, very much so. On this one particularly I though you take the old backwards horror, horror in the worlds. It’s quite a clichéd notion, and in horror terms I was thinking that maybe by an intersection of that with contemporary fears of youth, I thought that could freshen it up in some way and make it interesting. It’s in the context of taking two different things and putting them together that it sort of becomes interesting.
For me, the best horror films are the films that speak to people at a primal level of their fears. That doesn’t mean necessarily that those fears are valid, they’re just fears that exist. Look at Jaws! You have a fear of going in the water. Realistically, you’re not going to get eaten by a shark. They’re not valid fears, but they’re engrained fears. And it’s the same with fear of youth. With Eden Lake, there have been a lot of very extreme criticism and debate about what are you doing, the demonisation and this and that, and what’s the political agenda of this film? For me, if the fear exists, it’s valid to explore the fear. It’s not necessarily saying that the fear is right or wrong. Steve and Jenny are by no means perfect people. But the fear definitely exists in society, so that’s fair game as far as I’m concerned.
I have to ask you about The Descent 2. It’s in post-production now?
Yeah, I think they’re pretty nearly done. I was in just before Christmas with Jon [Harris, director], and he’s got it tight and taut and tense, and it’s a pretty lean and mean film. I think it’ll be in good shape. It’s coming out later this year. It’s been fun. Jon cut Eden Lake, and has cut some great films. So we had this great quid pro quo where he shot second unit on Eden Lake, I shot second unit on Descent 2. So it’s been a very enjoyable experience.
There seems to be two new things for you there. Firstly, it’s the first sequel you’ve written. And secondly, it’s a continuation of someone’s else’s characters and creation. How do you find that? Is it straitjacketing?
It’s good to have a straitjacket I think. It forces you. Infinite possibility is the scariest thing. Actually, if you have quite a rigorous framework within which you can work, it’s actually a good and interesting challenge. I thought it was an interesting set up and a good starting point.
Have you seen a cut of the film yet?
And in your unbiased opinion, what’s you view on it?!
[Laughs] I think it’s great! I think it’s done exactly what it should do. It’s a scary, enjoyable ride. What was great about The Descent was sure, it’s a monster movie, but it really tapped into what I was saying before, really primal fears. Fear of the dark, fear of isolation. Fear of being trapped under this weight of rock. Fear of claustrophobia. And we wanted to take all those elements and really max those out. There’s a couple of sequences in Descent 2 that are genuinely unbearably tense and scary.
And has Neil Marshall been involved much?
Yeah, yeah! Neil’s been kind of the Godfather, he’s always been there throughout the process and talking with Jon, commenting on drafts and commenting cuts. He’s been part of it.
Finally, what are you up to next?
Well I’ve got various projects that I’m flirting with an pursuing. I’ve got a ghost story that has possibilities to go this year, and a psychological thriller. Within the genre! I won’t be doing a romantic comedy next!
James Watkins, thank you very much!
Eden Lake is out now on DVD and Blu-ray
23 January 2009