Nick Murphy interview: directing The Awakening, ghost stories and more

With the stylish British chiller The Awakening out in cinemas on Friday, we caught up with director Nick Murphy to discuss the film’s making...

Haunting cinemas across the country this week is The Awakening, a chilling ghost story starring Rebecca Hall as Florence Cathcart, a stylish super-skeptic who debunks spooks in a Britain transfixed by a post-Great War gloom.

But don’t call it a horror film. Amidst the bustle of the London Film Festival, we had the chance to talk with director Nick Murphy about how the film slots in with horror tradition, as well as his own opinions on genre, ‘strong’ female characters, and the central tenets that every film – and filmmaker – must satisfy.

However, with his insight comes the terrible taint of mild spoilers – so, please do tread carefully.

The Awakening is co-written by Stephen Volk, who is primarily known as the writer of Ghost Watch, which is a very different kind of ghost story. What was it like working with him?

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Shamefully, I haven’t seen it. I know! Terrible! And I haven’t seen other films. People say, “You haven’t seen The Wicker Man!?” So I can’t speak for Ghost Watch. Stephen has got such an intuitive understanding about horror, about the scares, that element of it. And he wrote the initial backbone of the film that endured throughout all my writing process. We never sat down writing next to each other, but he wrote the bones of the scare story, and then I came in and was more keen to bring it more into an emotional territory, and attach a sense of loss and grief, and thread that through the story.

Stephen has seen it all come and go. I put in a reference in the film, where a red ball bounces down the stairs, and I thought it would be nice because we use the colour red as a key signature colour in the film, but then he says, “Yeah, but that’s The Changeling”, and I thought “What?! I haven’t seen that either!” So having him on board as our resident person-who’s-actually-seen-this-stuff was helpful. It’s weird, references are a funny one. I can’t say specifically “I’ve made this like another film”.

Once I started this project, I stopped watching anything frightening in order to not have too much specific references, and yet we’ve all been to the cinema, and those things bubble down through the charcoals in your mind, and the stuff comes up. And the sequences like the doll’s house, why I wrote that, I don’t know. But there’s something freaky about dolls, and there’s something freaky about doll’s houses and I couldn’t codify it. It’s important not to be too academic about it.

The doll’s house sequences are quite chilling. How did you come up with that idea?

Funnily enough, I was writing that sequence, and I’ve got an office at the end of my garden. I work quite late, and there wasn’t any music playing, it was very quiet. And I didn’t know the sequence before I wrote it. I thought it would be interesting for Florence to re-enact the scenes of her recent past in the house, and then for that to catch up with her, not giving too much away. So I knew I’d written the end of the sequence that she goes up to the attic of the doll’s house and sees the doll of her looking through the attic of the doll’s house, and then I thought, “…and to the left there’s a child doll, standing behind her”, and it freaked me out! Oh, my god!

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And I had to stand up, and walk around in my tiny little office in the garden, suddenly feeling vulnerable. And that is very, very weird. Writers always charm themselves, and talk about the effect of their work, but you do get a bit like that. When you’re writing an emotional scene, you find it emotional. When you check back a scene to see whether it’ll 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.

We’ve got The Woman In Black coming out next year, which is not only another period ghost story, but also another British horror film. Where do you think we are with British horror at the moment? Is there a revival going on?

In a sense, I hope nothing ever causes revivals, because it means one trend becomes another trend. I’d much rather see the waters always stirred up and never settling.

You can tell from the reaction people have had to our film, that people have been a bit fed up with the blood end of horror. That’s not going to kill the genre, but they’ve seen 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. And I know I don’t profess to be an expert in the supernatural genre or the horror genre. I genuinely don’t like that sort of stuff. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been made, it’s just the idea of Hostel or something just simply isn’t my bag.

But the reaction’s been refreshing. When we’ve been talking to people, saying it’s a traditional ghost story, a classic ghost story, I think it’s almost reminded people of it. I think the mystery of the ghost story helps. That’s what’s important, and I’ve been shouting this from the rooftops. We’re going to take nine, ten, 12 quid off people at cinemas these days – we as in us directors – we cannot just end the experience when the lights come up. And I think one of the problems with the Hostel end of it, is there is less to discuss. And what is very important is this has plenty of lobby chat potential, I want people to get back to the lobby and say “Hang on, she was… oh my God! Of course!”

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Because we’re 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!” And 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, “But no no no, he could see ghosts anyway!”, and they’re talking about that. That’s great. 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 your home cinema can’t quite give.

So is this a horror film? How have the producers marketed this?

That’s a good question, really. You know, funnily enough, I was never told before where they wanted to place it. I wrote the script, or I had my spell of writing, and they had notes about the script, and notes about what to change or what they advised, but they never said they wanted it to be this sort of film. I think at a very early stage, when I was presented with the project, I voiced an interest in setting it in Feltham, in the modern day, setting it in a young offenders’ Institute. And I think they said “No, no, no, looking at the market, we would like it to be period”, because it seems to have better sales potential overseas or whatever. But other than that, they were never prescriptive, and the Feltham idea was a rubbish one anyway, so that’s fine.

And as such, I never really analysed what it was going to be. Bear in mind, when you’re a director, there’s a big difference between that and a producer and an exec. producer. When you’re 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 in Hoylake in Merseyside. We all have that cinema in our minds, the one we went to when we were kids, where we had that experience in the dark. And you’re just trying to give that.

And 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 that when they watched it, one of the studio execs said ‘you know what, it’s a supernatural mystery, that’s what it is, it’s not a horror’. And they didn’t want to decide what it was until they’d seen it, and now they’re saying it’s a classic supernatural mystery, in the oldest tradition.

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I don’t want people to call it a horror film. It’s beyond my power to stop them – I keep seeing people writing “Nick Murphy’s horror film” – no! It’s not that! I can’t stop them. No, I would much rather keep the horror word out of it. It does put people off. It puts me off, honestly. I mean, let’s be clear. The Blair Witch Project is a horror film, and that’s a brilliant film. That scared the pants off me. But when you close your eyes, the word horror for most people means cutting people up and possessed children. So it probably has negative connotations to a lot of people.

And I’m much more pleased to keep it in a much more popular description. Then you can think there’s actually a lot of potential for emotion, there’s a potential for a journey for characters, within a ghost story.

Speaking of characters, Florence Cathcart is such a great lead character, and Rebecca Hall does such a good job in the role, playing a female heroine who is very much ahead of her time. Was it important that you have a strong, female protagonist?

I was very keen that Florence would be, for her day, a modern woman, and Rebecca and I were shoulder to shoulder on this. We wanted Florence to be what women would turn into ten years after our story. And that’s why we very overtly dress her in trouser suits and this sort of thing. Rebecca was completely on board with all of that. I’ve seen in the past actresses say “I like to play strong women”, and you think, well, is it a strong woman? You’ve got a bow and arrow. That doesn’t quite make you a strong woman.

So it was very important that Florence firstly suffered, and had an arc of change, and was a bit screwed up at the beginning of the film, and is clearly injured, and is carrying these psychological injuries – but her rescue is of her own making. And it’s not, ultimately, of any male character. And all the male characters of the film are the most fucked up in the whole film. They all carry injuries from which they haven’t yet recovered – or don’t recover. Dominic [West] was completely on board with this as well, one of the reasons we clicked so quickly is he liked the fact – he’s a very bright guy, Dominic, although he pretends not to be, interestingly – that Mallory, when asked to fly off to the rescue, doesn’t rescue Florence. He’s impotent in that regard.

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So Florence rescues Florence. And that mattered. I’m not an ardent feminist, and I don’t pretend for a second that this is going to redress the gender bias in cinema. What I do think is having an interesting female character suffering psychological injuries that are consistent with the way a lot of women regard their responsibilities to themselves and their partners and their hearts, I think that’s one of the reasons that women have responded so well to the film. That suits me, because I’m the honorary woman in my family anyway, I’m always saying I love you, and my wife never says it!

So no, it did matter, and it did matter that we had a woman who was smart, but likable. You’ve got to be very careful with certain actresses, they can be beautiful in a way that is annoying, and Rebecca’s gift – well, she has many, many gifts – but one of them is that her beauty isn’t irritating to women. And with the best will in the world to Megan Fox, but she couldn’t have played this part. And I’m not having a pop at Megan – Megan knows exactly what she is and what she isn’t. But she couldn’t have played this part, because while men find Megan very attractive, my suspicion is that women aren’t enamoured by her. They’re not threatened by Rebecca. This is a story where you need everybody on board. She’s bright, but she’s not a pain-in-the-arse head girl. It’s a tough balance, and Rebecca’s charm and wit carry that nicely.

The period aspect of the film is very interesting, in that it’s not just window dressing. You use the aftermath of WWI as a jumping-off point for the film’s themes and atmosphere – where the whole of British society is marked by grief.

If you’re going to make any film… If you’re going to just direct it, say, you’re going to have to have a clear one-liner about what the film’s about. If you don’t, I think you’re jiggered, really. You never really know what you’re building, and if it takes two sentences at a dinner party to say what your film’s about, then go back and work out a way of saying it in one. Not for the sake of the dinner party guests, but for the sake of you.

And as soon as we’d chanced on the idea that we see ghosts because we need to, you then say, okay, now I’ve worked out that this could be a film about why we see them as much as that we see them. Once that was in place, I knew I had to create a period that furnished that, and everything else in the film feeds that. The look of the sickness in the greenery of Britain at that time, the loss in people’s faces. Everything feeds into that central, one idea.

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And in the process, you take what is quite a Victorian form, the ghost story, and mix it with that early 20th century setting.

Absolutely. It was imperative that it couldn’t be Gothic. I didn’t want Gothic. I didn’t want lightning, I banned all that. And when we were finding locations, I was being sent houses that looked absolutely terrifying to look at. And I said no, no, I don’t want the terrifying to come from a cinematic tradition, I want you to discover that it’s terrifying. If 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”. So I think we need to earn that right, rather than leaning too much… Too many films of this genre become studies in the genre, and are not actually telling their own story. And that’s not to say you don’t engage with tradition. If you think of a shot fabric, like taffeta, it’s got two threads in it. For our film, one of those threads needs to be fresh, clean ideas, but the other thread needs to be tradition and cliché, if necessary. And it’s a case of how you wed those together. But if you take one of them out completely, and only have novelty, that’s not a genre. If you leave only your traditions, that’s boring and no one will forgive you for it.

Mr Murphy, thank you for your time!

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