How many of you have ever felt haunted? Director/ Co-writer Nick Murphy explores this phenomena cinematically in a brilliant way in his psychological chiller, THE AWAKENING. Set in a post-World War I England, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is a professional ghost buster of sorts. When called upon by schoolmaster Robert Mallory (Dominic West) to investigate a haunting at an all boys boarding school, memories of both her past and the school’s come flooding back.
In an exclusive interview with us, Murphy discusses the poignancy in the deep rooted core of this story, the key building blocks to creating a successful thriller, and if he himself actually believes in ghosts.
VeryAware: First of all, I really enjoyed the film. It has a timeless elegance and ethereal feel to it – reminding me of THE OTHERS and THE INNOCENTS. How did this story come about?
It was an existing script that was sent to me with the same sort of framework of story but wary, very different characters. What appealed to me was what it could become. If we could move the period from the Victorian gothic, which is always a bit over familiar for the genre, and into something more interesting to do with loss into this period post-first world war in Britain when so many people were missing and dead. As soon as I settled on the notion the film could be, as well as being a scary romp, it could be about why we see ghosts as much as we do. I thought by then I had something I could get my teeth into and began to write. Now I can create a world that I can honestly say is not seen on film before. Having said that, you’re right. When you’re making a genre piece, it’s not like a drama piece when there’s no real rules you’re following. You can’t just abandon the tropes and provisions of the genre. You need to blend that traditional thread with a new thread as well of novelty. But you can’t abandon while making that cloth – you can’t throw one out completely. Put it this way, if you’re going to make a cowboy film (a Western), you can’t have no guns, no horses, no saloons, no cussing, and no tobacco. What are you doing? What’s the point? Or rather the audience, you’ll have to go some way to keep the audience with you. There’s an expectation that is the framework within which you deliver a fresh and novel story. That I saw in the idea of the central female protagonist being the sort of woman that she was. Of it being in this sort of world I could set it to create a Britain in the way we’re used to seeing in beautiful ways – rolling hills. And create a center of Britain suffering a sickness, so the colors aren’t proper, life isn’t proper. There’s this howling grief echoing in people’s ears. That was all part and parcel of the novelty I could bring to what otherwise had to be, by necessity, in reasonably familiar territory: big house, ghost history, what’s going to happen?
VeryAware: Playing off that, there were building blocks, obviously that you wanted to make sure they were there- playing off threads and tropes. Is that the secrets to building a good, successful psychological thriller?
It is! You need to give people a route they can chart. Particularly when you’re dealing with things where anything can happen – a supernatural element. Once you do that, you can’t just do that suddenly say, “because we’ve made this leap with the potential for ghosts, that people are also going to be able to have ray guns and be able to see through walls.” You need to occupy a familiar space in which to allow the audience to properly investigate. It’s an investigation for the audience. They’re the ones on the journey. It’s easier for them to be more diligent in that investigation if they are not in a completely disorientating world. If they’re in an area where they feel connected in some way, then they can conduct their investigation appropriately. If you’re confounding them, they’re never going to be able to build a case, which ultimately the film becomes rewarding.
VeryAware: This is quite a psychologically terrifying film, however, it’s also so much more than that. There’s facets of romance, drama, and poignancy there too. Was that hard during the script writing process to find that balance so one side of the scale doesn’t tip further than the other?
It’s a very tricky balance actually. It was less in the script – there was less poignancy in the script. The characters talked less about it. In fact, I omitted the actual discussion about loss to very, very few dialogue scenes. Most noticeably between the boy and Rebecca’s character, Florence, as she reveals to the child what she seems to be unable to reveal to anybody else. The secret is trying to bring all that poignancy to the space and to the world, where you don’t have characters marching around talking to themselves. I always get very weary of films, talk about their own feelings and their own conditions. I much rather people feel it as an audience and absorb that. The poignancy, I said at the read through, I wanted this grief to feel like a tenitus in everyone’s ear – this constant presence of loss. But actually, knowing that’s there, to get on and tell your story. You can get too carried away in trying to act the theme of a film. And actually the theme of the film is down to the director of the film not the characters of the film. One of the things I’m very careful to say to the actors is that it’s not their job to make things dramatic. It’s their job to make things believable. It’s the director’s job and the writer’s job to make it dramatic. With such a wonderful cast, that’s where the magic lay. They were able to explore the genuine processes of their character knowing the drama, the tension, was being taken care of by me, the filmmaker.
VeryAware: There were moments in there where I was tearing up. And this is a thriller?! That’s pretty amazing.
I said to my wife before, when I was doing the writing of it, “I think I can make a ghost story where people cry in. I think I can do it.” I don’t much like crying in the cinema even though I seem to cry at absolutely everything. I almost cried at a Levi advert. I cry all the bloody time. I thought there was the potential to do that here. I do want people to be moved as much as they’re scared. To not simply have “bird in the woods” moments. Frequently in films like this when someone’s walking in a potentially scary environment and a bird suddenly flies out. I always feel a bit cheated, you know? Like you got me and didn’t earn it. I wanted to be very honest with the audience – to earn the right to make them leap in the air.
VeryAware: Let’s talk about this phenomenal cast. Everyone’s fantastic – Hall, West, Staunton, and Isaac Hempstead Wright in the pivotal role of Tom. What were the qualities you saw in each that made you cast them in their respective roles?
When I wrote my Florence, I only had Rebecca in mind actually. I had no idea what I’d do if she’d turn me down other than stalk her. I wanted Florence to possess the following: to have a modernity to her, to be a woman that women would turn into ten years after our story. I wanted her to be bright and self-sufficient, but fragile. There’s a sort of equine quality in the way horses are intelligent, strong, alert, and beautiful. They’re also skittish and easily scared, spooked, and vulnerable. That was a quality I’d always admired about Rebecca – a genuine intelligence. That’s not something very easy to perform. She’s astonishing, never mind her talent. Having said that, the real Rebecca Hall is actually this sort of terribly sweet, clumsy, deer hearted, with a laugh like a braying donkey. Same with Imelda who’s very well known to us in the UK. She’s a phenomenal and incredibly experienced actress. And Dominic West is Dominic West. Dominic, I wanted his character to be a man – a good strong male worthy of Florence. While there’s no shortage of British actors with no disrespect to them look good in tennis whites but they’re not men. A wanted him to be a man’s man and Dominic is that. He’s similarly a tremendous guy. Isaac took a long time. We auditioned a lot of children. I had come up to stay with my parents and was looking through the QuickTimes [files] and none of them were doing it for me. He was the last one! After 50-100 kids, he was the last one. My wife and my mum, two people I must realize I’m always to do what I’m told, they were looking over my shoulder. They said, “That’s him! That’s your boy.” He possess this childishness, but also a maturity which is very needed in the part. An insight that couldn’t just be childlike. He had to be more than that. I’d seen him in GAME OF THRONES but I didn’t know his work very well. He’s a great talent.
VeryAware: It’s great when a child actor is not precocious.
Yeah a lot of child actors are encouraged by their parents of their drama schools or their directors to behave like adults. That’s dreadful. I saw plenty of them. It’s the precocious ness that wouldn’t fit in a film like this.
VeryAware: When you were writing your version of this story, did you have to go back in and conduct a lot of research into the paranormal?
No, I didn’t. I did a little bit of research into the nature and feeling of loss and accounts of loss in that time period. I didn’t want to treat that as just a plot point. I wanted to know about it. The people who suffered that loss deserved better than me just using it as a plot device. I came up in the ranks making documentaries and I have to tell the truth doing that. It was a wonderful being able to make shit up. I invented all the machinery that she uses to hunt down these specters and spooks and I enjoyed all that. Like Q from 007 – the gadgets. I don’t know, I’m not a huge fan of the genre. There was a lot I didn’t know about the genre and I had to sit and say, “If I was watching a film, what would make me scared?” I came up with the dollhouse thing only because that gets to the very center of things – dolls being manipulated by unseen hands. And Florence being manipulated in that situation. When the world is scary and doesn’t mean what we think it means. In the SIXTH SENSE, when the kitchen cupboard doors are suddenly opened and Toni Collette returns to the kitchen. That’s the classic example of when the world is not working the way you think it should. Once I settled on the central idea of Florence as the doll, then I could build the constructs of the dollhouse – that scary sequence I’m delighted with. And compose a lot of the shots in the house as if she herself is the doll in that rooms. Playing with scale throughout the piece, that allowed me to explore.
VeryAware: Let’s talk about the film’s stunning locations. Did it take awhile to find them or did you know this was where you wanted to shoot?
It was very hard. Over here, we have a number of these vast house which were once occupied by terribly wealthy people. It’s no secret those wealthy people don’t exist anymore. Invariably, these houses have been turned into golf courses and hotels and it’s very difficult to find ones that haven’t. Similarly, they don’t let you do much when you do get inside them. You can’t put up a drawing pen without signing 15 form. What we had come up with was the exterior of the school is in Cheshire in the Northwest in England. Cheshire is an utterly beautiful county and if you close your eyes, imagine this rolling countryside – that’s Cheshire! The interiors were all in the Scottish borders. We used three different houses. The scale of the school inside is not technically possible in the building we contracted in the exterior, but that again is part of the uncanny feeling I wanted to generate in the house. This is a never-ending school and never-ending series of spaces that is beyond our knowing. To go to these gorgeous locations and to get a camera out of a box is an absolute gift. I would just love for people to go and see some of these houses. They are extraordinary. There’s this one scene in the ancient kitchen that we did nothing to. That kitchen is standing there in a house in Scotland.
VeryAware: There’s a lot of open space filled in with this tangible feeling of dread.
A lot of the color palette was very important. To draw this almost black and white, this desaturated world than the England we know about, the England we know we’ve seen, it just feels a bit ill. So we didn’t just desaturate – we mis-recorded the colors. The greens are a little bit blue. The whites are a little bit yellow. Things are not right. That was always very central to the idea.
VeryAware: The film has a cold, crisp feel to it that complements the story. How did you work with DP Eduard Grau to create this beautiful vision?
We looked at a lot of Andre Tarkovsky Polaroid’s he took in Ukraine. They have these sort of mis-recorded colors which was always a very beautiful touchstone for us.
VeryAware: And the costume design as well really works for the film.
Yeah, the change in her color palette is very important. In a movie, thing shave got to click together and all contribute to the story.
VeryAware: Both Cathcart and Mallory view ghosts entirely different; Mallory embraces them and Cathcart is out to deny their existence. Where do you fall on this spectrum?
I absolutely fall on the spectrum of Florence. I absolutely don’t believe in them, fairies, God, or the Loch Ness monster – only obviously Santa Claus.
VeryAware: It’s more like in real life where memories are the real ghosts anyway….
I do believe in that actually. My father died recently before I made THE AWAKENING. When I conjure him in my memory his presence is so visceral, his voice is so real and I think this is where the supernatural lives.
VeryAware: And now onto a lighter subject, what’s next for you?
I have just finished another movie called BLOOD which isn’t in the same genre at all. It’s a thriller with Paul Bettany, Mark Strong, Brian Cox, and Stephen Graham about a police family who collapse under the weight of their wrong doings. They do something dreadful for very good reasons and this moral collapse happens. It’s absolutely nail biting juicy stuff but it’s very different. I can not wait for people to see it because I’m really proud of it.
VeryAware: Is there a UK release date before the US?
It’s got distribution here. IM Global are handling the foreign sales so I don’t know what will happen for you guys. I feel like maybe early next year. We’re still just coming out of the cutting room.
THE AWAKENING opens in theaters on August 17.