James Watkins, Jane Goldman & Susan Hill interview: The Woman In Black, Hammer and more

With The Woman In Black out in the UK today, we spoke to director James Watkins, screenwriter Jane Goldman and novelist Susan Hill about ghosts, horror, Hammer and more…

The opportunity to speak to a director, a screenwriter and the author of the novel they’ve adapted is a rare treat, so we relished sitting down with novelist Susan Hill, screenwriter Jane Goldman (Kick Ass, X-Men: First Class) and director James Watkins (Eden Lake) to discuss The Woman In Black, putting Harry Potter in your film, how to unsettle an audience, and why really scary horror films are hard to find. Oh, and there just might be a teeny mention of Kick Ass 2, the X-Men: First Class sequel, and Doctor Who too…

Jane, what was your first introduction to The Woman In Black?

Jane Goldman: I first saw it on the stage when I was quite young, and then immediately afterwards was very keen to read the book and then had seen the stage play subsequently with my children.

As soon as Hammer approached me and offered the opportunity to adapt it I didn’t need more than a couple of seconds to think about it. What was exciting about it was staying true to the spirit of Susan’s book but telling the story with the language of cinema in the way that the theatre adaptation uses the stage to technical advantage.

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Were you a Hammer fan growing up?

JG: Sure, I think it’s part of everybody’s childhood isn’t it? There are some wonderful Hammer movies and there are some dreadful ones…

James Watkins: We enjoy talking about the dreadful ones

JG: Weirdly, Dr Jekyll And Sister Hyde was on the Horror Channel last night. It’s an extraordinary piece of work (laughs).

What are the ingredients of a scare would you say? How do you craft one?

Susan Hill: I read a lot of ghost stories, because I was writing a ghost story. I didn’t think at all that I was writing a horror or a thriller or whatever, because the novel is about a ghost, whereas a horror book can be about aliens or things that rise out of the marsh and have no human shape.

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It’s easy to write a short story and frighten people for five pages but to work at length, when you do it as in The Turn Of The Screw or A Christmas Carol it’s different, you have to build it and build it.

I think it’s two things: it’s building tension in the reader so they’re thinking ‘Hello, what was that?’, and then relaxing it as in The Turn Of The Screw, and then building it a little bit tighter. That’s probably true of all the medium but I was very conscious that to sustain the length you had to do that.

Certainly with a book, people are going to be able to read it and give themselves permission to have that delicious feeling of being terrified because they’re in a safe place while they’re reading. That’s what you can rely on as a writer, that people can let themselves be really frightened because they’re really all right. Being frightened when you’re not sure you’re all right is a big difference.

JG: I think the rhythm of film is slightly different but it’s exactly what Susan says, it’s about pacing and building intensity. In terms of when there were additional embellishments to be added I tried to draw on things that had genuinely scared me rather than being too technical about it.

I’m really quite hard to scare so it was about mining times when I have jumped, and what creeps me out. I collect Victorian automata and coming across them in the dark does give you a little shudder, so it was a case of finding those things that are a little unsettling from that period.

JW: To pick up on what Susan said in terms of it being a ghost story, I think that’s a very important thing. Rather than a horror film, a ghost story is different because a ghost is what you can’t quite see. If you go back to the literary source of this, the sense we try to achieve in the film is one that can play on people’s imagination, because that’s what books do brilliantly, and far better than films. What people can imagine is always going to be scarier than what you can film and what you can show, so through indirection, through staging, through all the grammar of film, if you can somehow achieve that then it can get under people’s skin.

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With a lot of horror films now they are nasty and gory, and I’m not using those terms pejoratively at all but those things so not necessarily mean the same as scary and what we’ve tried to achieve is how we can make this film scary.

Even if you go back to cave men and history, ghosts are so hard-wired into our culture, it’s a real primal fear, like fear of water or fear of the dark, which is obviously a big factor in our film. We really worked very hard to tap into that in terms of the ghost, it’s just caught in the very corner of your eye, blinking on the edge of the frame, peering out of the black, and if you can really start to work that arena of dread then you’re approximating something that the great ghost stories do.

What about in terms of the audio on the film?

JW: We wanted to have a less-is-more aesthetic, you want to pull the audience in, you want to be there in the present moment with him [Arthur Kipps, Daniel Radcliffe’s character] in the space, you want to hear his breathing, hear his footsteps and what we didn’t want to do was to go into the Hollywood-ised American way of drowning it in sound.

The film is very pared back in terms of its atmosphere so there’s an immediacy there. You want it to be like you’re leaning in and looking into the darkness and the sound design is only half heard so you’re going like that (leans forward) and like that (leans in further) and then occasionally (jumps backwards) like that. It’s analogous to what Susan was saying about building and building, then hitting, then letting it off, similar to comedy in a way, you build towards a joke and a pitch and you then come back, but the trajectory is always moving upwards.

When he brought The Awakening out, James Murphy suggested there was a kind of fatigue about splatter and gore horror amongst some audiences who were after something a bit more cerebral. What’s your take on that?

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JG: I don’t have a fatigue for it, I love splatter gore horror!

JW: I think there’s a broad church and room for lots of different things. We’ve shown the film to teenagers and it’s very gratifying to be able to say, look there is no real violence or gore or anything like that but to see them…

JG: …an absolute wreck afterwards, it’s very gratifying.

JW: To have a more classical, elevated old-fashioned approach and for that to really work and scare people and get into their imaginations is great.

JG: I know what I miss as a cinemagoer is that balance of films that actually scare me, they’re so few and far between. I loved ghost stories, I love horror stories, I love all of that stuff, but I really yearn for something to actually frighten me. It’s more of a yearning for that than something that has to necessarily be cerebral or sophisticated. Good storytelling and something that actually frightens you.

What has frightened you in the past?

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JG: Which films? They’re all quite random and few and far between. Jacob’s Ladder I thought was frightening, The Shining, The Vanishing, The Exorcist III oddly, there’s one very specific shot, the long shot down the corridor in the hospital is incredible. I’m quite fussy.

Talking about other films, Susan’s novel quotes Keats and Dickens and references other gothic literature, James, did you ever feel you were quoting from other films making The Woman In Black?

JW: It’s a funny one isn’t it, in that you are what you eat so it all goes in. Consciously I wasn’t quoting but I know there are areas where there are probably films referenced. There are notions. I know the genre very well and if I look back at films like The Innocents there are definitely techniques.

The techniques are different, though, because we’re in a much more modern idiom. You could not make a film quite at that pace now, it would bore people. Our film is made at a particular pace different to that most films are made at now, but not as slow as those made forty years ago. 

There are little things, if you look at the saturation of the colour we’ve got sort of bruised, dark colours, purples and blacks and deep crimsons, colours of decay and death in the production design, and I really wanted it to have a rich, saturated palette in the house. Often the default setting for some of these films is to go really monochromatic and bleach the colour out.

If you look for example at the recent BBC Great Expectations, they just sucked all the colour out and that’s not a particularly interesting choice for me. That is probably informed in some way by those early Terence Fisher, the rich, saturated technicolour there, but it could easily have been Dario Argento and those movies. It’s very hard to pinpoint exactly what your influences are.

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Did you have any hesitation about working with Daniel Radcliffe seeing as everyone’s going to see this as his first post-Harry Potter movie? Did that put any pressure on things?

JW: It would be disingenuous to say you don’t consider those things. I mean, absolutely, you know that there’s this huge industry, 10 years of Dan and associations and issues that people have with him. Some are very good and people respond to Dan and they have views on Potter, whatever they are. But ultimately when you’re casting a part you’ve got to look at the part and the actor and you’ve got to see if there’s a good fit. And I met with Dan and I thought, put all that baggage aside for a second and I met with him and he’s a very, very bright guy, he’s a very, very committed actor, he’s very smart, he’s very focused and determined. If you look at the choices he’s making he wants to and he will have a long and varied career.

So, we talked about the part, we saw the part in the same way. He really understood this character, the grief, the weight of loss on his shoulders and we worked very hard to achieve that. One of the things that we worked hard at, and from the response that we’ve been getting is very reassuring is the sense that Dan looks different, he’s got a different air about him. I think he really carries the film. I think it’s a real proper grown-up performance. And we’re proud of what he’s done. So, the Potter thing is what it is and it’s always going to be there but if you start worrying about actors in terms of what they’ve done, the pool of talent you can cast just becomes negligible.

Jane, can you tell us what you have coming up next?

JG: I’m working on two different American studio projects now which haven’t been really officially announced yet, one of which has been sort of announced and the other hasn’t so unfortunately I haven’t really anything to…

Is that the Tim Burton one? (Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children)

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JG: That is one of them yes.

Are you going to be writing for Johnny Depp then?

JG: Actually I’m not sure, I don’t know if there’s an ideal role in there for him, surely there should be!

Are you working on any sequels by any chance?

I’ve spoken recently about Kick Ass 2 and all my quotes are online on that but with X-Men I probably can’t say anything about that either, but there will definitely be one.

That sounds like you’re involved…

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JG: (laughs) No, I’m honestly not. Simon Kinberg’s writing a draft right now, so… 

Would you consider taking a cue from Neil Gaiman and guest writing an episode of Doctor Who?

JG: I would be terrified to do it because I’m such a huge fan. Neil Gaiman’s more confident than I am. When it’s something you really adore, I think you don’t want to be the one who accidentally writes a crap episode. 

Neil, quite rightly so, has great self-confidence but I’m one of those writers who’s plagued by self-doubt. I think when you really adore something and you’ve grown up with it you almost don’t want to be part of it. I want to enjoy it as a fan and don’t want to ruin the magic.

James Watkins, Jane Goldman, Susan Hill, thank you very much!

Read our interview with Daniel Radcliffe on The Woman In Black here.

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