The Limehouse Golem: Screenwriter Jane Goldman Tracks a Serial Killer

We spoke with the acclaimed Kingsman screenwriter about her new thriller, Game of Thrones and more.

The Limehouse Golem is a gruesome new British horror/mystery thriller that taps into our continued fascination with serial killers. In this case, the fictional title murderer is a predecessor of sorts to the real-life Jack the Ripper as the killer slaughters inhabitants of the gritty London district known as Limehouse. Bill Nighy (Underworld) stars as a Scotland Yard inspector tasked with solving the murders, while also getting tangled in the case of a music hall performer (Olivia Cooke) accused of killing her husband. Based on the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd, the film weaves actual historical figures into its twisting, atmospheric narrative.

The movie is directed by Juan Carlos Medina (Painless) and written for the screen by Jane Goldman, the acclaimed screenwriter or co-writer of movies like X-Men: First Class, Kingsman: The Secret Service and The Woman in Black. Reached by phone, Goldman told us she’d been interested in adapting the book since it came out 23 years ago. “I read the book years, years, years before I was screenwriting,” she recalled. “And of course I thought, ‘God, I hope someone makes a movie of this. I wonder if someone’s making a movie about it.’ At the time I even looked up whether that was happening, and it was kind of in the works with Terry Gilliam directing. I thought at the time, ‘Oh good, I can’t wait to see that.’”

But that particular iteration of the story never made it to the screen, although Goldman remembered the name of the producer behind it. “He and I were on a film festival jury together,” she said. “And I said to him, ‘Gosh, whatever happened? I loved that book so much. Whatever happened to it?’ He said, ‘Well, luckily I still have the rights to develop it.’ And that was how it happened. We took a chance, went for it, and it all came together.”

Although the title of the book is Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, the main character is Elizabeth Cree, the performer accused of murdering her spouse. But while Cree remains front and center in the movie as well, Goldman beefed up the character of Inspector Kildare (Nighy), who suspects he’s been set up by his own employer as a scapegoat for the failure to solve the killings. “Kildare is almost not really a character in the book,” Goldman explained. “His name is mentioned, and it’s almost told in three strands. It’s told in the strands of the murderer’s diary, Lizzie talking about her life, and then the strand of the investigation going on into the Limehouse Golem murders. The name of the inspector is mentioned as the investigation goes on, but you don’t get to find out much about him as a character.

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“There’s a bit of misdirection in the story, which is one of the things I loved about it, and one of the challenges for me was how to make that work,” she continued. “For me it was about expanding Kildare and his relationship with Lizzie. Lizzie is very prominent in the book, and she’s a fascinating character. The relationship between the two of them felt like a really useful way to tell the story of the Limehouse Golem and to be with Kildare while he’s solving the murders, rather than detached from him.”

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While Kildare and Elizabeth are wholly fictional characters, Dan Leno was an actual music hall star at the time in Victorian London. Other real-life figures like English novelist George Gissing and even revolutionary socialist Karl Marx, who spent a considerable portion of his adult life in London, are woven into the story as well. Goldman told us that the original novel was so well-researched that she did not have to go much further on her own while writing the script: “There was a lot in the book because Peter Ackroyd is a brilliant author who’s also written books that just focus on history and social history as well. His research is phenomenal. But it’s always useful to do additional research about the time and the district, and I’m very fortunate to be a Londoner. The beauty of it is that there are still remnants of all of that around, and the history of the music halls was important (as well).”

The Limehouse Golem is the first of two films that bear Goldman’s name which are coming out this month. September 22 will see the release of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, which she co-wrote — like 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service — with her frequent collaborator, director Matthew Vaughn (see more on that here). She’s also one of four writers recruited by HBO and George R.R. Martin to develop potential pilots for a Game of Thrones spin-off, about which she said, “It’s early days, but I went to visit George in Santa Fe where he lives. He’s such a charming and brilliant man, an incredible writer, and as a creative process goes it was deeply enjoyable, so I’m really grateful to have that experience.”

Did Martin tell her how he’s going to end the A Song of Ice and Fire saga? “Someone else asked me this today, and I can’t answer that question,” she joked. “Because if I were to say yes, someone might capture and torture me for the answer!”

Another project that Goldman has been working on is a new version of Rebecca, the classic Daphne du Maurier thriller that was so memorably brought to the screen once before in 1940 by Alfred Hitchcock. She revealed that the script has been completed, admitting that working in the shadow of Hitchcock’s masterpiece was somewhat daunting.

“(The 1940 film) is a perfect movie, and it’s incredible,” she said. “But there was some pressure put on by the studio at the time to make changes from the book. In fact, it’s been said that Hitchcock had actually wanted to do certain things differently, and actually adhere more closely to the book, but hadn’t been allowed to. So, in some sense I feel that that gives license to go back and tell the story again in the way that Hitchcock wanted to tell it originally.”

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The Limehouse Golem is out in limited release today (Friday, September 8).