Paul Cornell interview: the making of Pulse

Writer Paul Cornell tells us all about his involvement in the BBC pilot of the bloody medical horror, Pulse...

Novelist and script writer Paul Cornell’s portfolio is spectacularly diverse, and includes episodes for television shows such as Doctor Who and Primeval, as well as comic books like Fantastic Four and Young Avengers.

Cornell’s latest work, the BBC medical horror Pulse, is influenced by a diverse array of genre classics, from Michael Crichton’s Coma to David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. We caught up with the writer to talk to him about blood, hospitals and the possibility of a future series…

Farir warning, this interview contains spoilers for the pilot, if you haven’t seen it yet.

You must be particularly pleased with how Pulse came out. Can you talk about where the concept came from and how it got to here?

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I’m the third creator named on the project, and when I joined it was this extraordinary, innovative, very science-led script. And we’ve kept that all the way through. Basically, it’s been about making it incredibly characterful, finding big beats and big moments, and [assembling] that wonderful cast.

It is in many ways a relationship drama as well as a horror story – these things are the same thing, as any genre fan knows – but you’re sucked into this world, and you basically end up – I hope – not wanting anything bad to happen to these people. And, of course, it does!

I think our touchstones are movies like Coma and Dead Ringers.

I think we got a fair idea of your DVD collection by watching Pulse. There’s a little bit of David Cronenberg’s Shivers in there, too.

[Laughs] Absolutely. And I think you can tell that [director] James Hawes has been watching some Italian horror movies. James’ direction is one of the best things about this. He makes this beautifully cold, echo-y space, most of which is a real location. We used a working university and turned it into this wonderful dilapidated hospital.

Did it need a bit of paint on the walls once you’d finished?

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I believe there was a decorating bill afterwards! That surgery scene: our aim was to get a beautiful, young, talented cast, and cover them in blood. And they weren’t quite prepared for all the blood that was going to leap out of that corpse, so I’ve seen many outtakes of leaping up and down and screaming!

But they were so into it, and I think the dedication of everyone involved, the commitment – you need commitment when you’re going to have a bucket of blood thrown over you – it’s an extraordinary thing to be a part of, and I’m so pleased to have been the lead writer on this. I just hope it goes to series.

If it does, do you think it will be a six episode series?

It’s hard to tell at the moment. I’d certainly hope for at least six. We know where [the story] is going, I think that’s the most important thing you can say about a mystery/conspiracy show. We’ve been talking about The X-Files a lot, and we know what the centre of this conspiracy is, so we have an ending in mind.

As you’ve all seen, the end of episode one is a bit of a surprise and a cliffhanger, and we’re certainly aiming to build on that.

Did you structure that specifically with a pilot in mind? Would you have written it slightly differently if you had known it was going to be episode one of six, or not?

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No, that’s very much one of six. We have a script for episode two in, which I’ve written, and we know where we’re going. We’ve got the feeling that there are these forces being held back, that we’d really like to be unleashed to get a series, because everybody wants it. And I think in many ways it’s strangely obvious, this show. You wonder why nobody’s ever done it before, the medical horror show.

When I was on Casualty we always talked about the plots we’d like to be able to do but couldn’t because it was Casualty. This is the show that says, “This is a hospital. What’s the worst that could happen?”

I can’t think of anything we’re close to that’s been on television, except maybe Kingdom Hospital, but that was supernatural.

Did you have any trouble convincing the BBC to let you make it that gory?

Actually, no. Post-watershed on BBC3, actually the word from the top has always been “up with the blood”. So, actually, we never had any problems with the blood level or the horror level.

I think Pulse is possibly the goriest thing I’ve seen on a television production, though.

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There’s something about Stephen Campbell Moore’s face in that operation, that I think we’ve got one of those horror images there. Something like Jack Nicholson bursting through a door for us. And this is all down to Stephen and James.

The way the emotion works through that cast is tremendous. Claire Foy, who appears in almost every frame, did such an amazing job, and it’s wonderful to see.

You said in your introduction, that if you care about genre television, these are the kind of shows you have to back.

Well, name another horror show on television – this is it. I’m very proud of that, and I was pleased to find that World Productions has been very proud of it, that as well as looking for a mainstream audience, they’re keen to find a genre audience. I think you’ve seen that there’s nothing watered down about this. We recognise that there’s a big female audience for horror. That’s always been the horror audience.

It’s also not supernatural horror. It takes that really human fear of what’s going to happen to me? Fear of the body, fear of hospitals, and just underlines it and pumps it up. That’s what horror stories are for, as a kind of exorcism of the worst things we fear.

That’s my dad, that guy who sends his wife off to buy the paper when he thinks the doctor’s about to tell him something scary. He’s done that so many times when he’s been in and out of hospital. I’m actually a little afraid of him seeing it!

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There’s a touch of zombie movies as well…

We would shy away from the term ‘zombie’, because the character’s a chap, you know, he’s a character we’ve come to like.

He’s technically dead and walking –

Yes, he’s actually dead and walking [laughs], but zombies come with all kinds of supernatural baggage – voodoo, all that stuff.

It’s more of a science fiction zombie, isn’t it? Certainly, the visuals appear to be influenced by 28 Days Later.

That’s exactly the kind of modern horror we’re aiming for. There have been medical supernatural thrillers before, and we’re not that.

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I tell you one thing, though. I think the sound mix came out really well. The way James plays with sound. If you see that scene where Rafee is having a drink and failing to help Hannah, the last word you hear on the television while he’s sitting there thinking about it is “brother,” and it just closes on that. And I love the bleakness and blandness of the weather forecast mixed in. I think James Hawes is a bit of a genius, and I hope he wins a Bafta, and I was very keen that we had him on this.

So what projects are you working on next?

I’m writing for DC Comics, I’ve just sold a novel, there are various television things I can’t talk about.

But at the moment we’re very much focusing on the run up to Pulse, and when Being Human came out, it wasn’t the mainstream press that got it taken to series. There was, I think, only one review in the mainstream press. It was the online reaction, the fact that it peaked so hugely.

I think that the BBC is doing a tremendous thing putting this on its website in its entirety a week before broadcast. I think this is a very modern thing to do.

Do you think that genre television is under threat, or has it simply become the mainstream?

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I think the horror genre is kind of small at the moment. But yes, the fantasy and SF genre is the big thing right now, but we’re hoping to stick a little flag up for horror with Pulse.

How quickly could you turn a series of Pulse round if they gave you a go ahead?

You’d have to ask [producer] Simon Heath about that, but we have a second script ready, and the forces of World Productions are ready to ride in like a cavalry!

Paul Cornell, thank you very much!

The Pulse pilot will air on 3 June at 9.00pm on BBC3.