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The Woman in Black - Susan Hill interview

Susan Hill

Interview by Rob Carnevale

SUSAN Hill, author of The Woman in Black, talks about finally getting her novel to the big screen and what she thought about the casting of Daniel Radcliffe as the central character.

She also talks about the challenge of scaring people in print form and the repeated joys of seeing her work on the stage.

Q. A million people must have suggested to you that this [a film version] was something waiting to happen. So, what was it about this one?
Susan Hill: Oh yes, an author – especially when they’re relatively young and poor – survives on film options. They never get made! But having them optioned around for a couple of years is a help. So, The Woman in Black was in and out of options for donkey’s years actually. And then the option was taken up 15 years ago and then nothing happened. They just paid a bit more money but nothing happened again. And then suddenly… well not suddenly, but I became aware that it was actually going to happen. But I didn’t really believe it. There’s just no good believing these things. The best way is to be totally pessimistic because 99 of them don’t happen. It was therefore jolly nice when it did. I didn’t actually believe it until I got on the set and there it was.

Q. Why do you think it didn’t work out on those other occasions?
Susan Hill: Oh God, the film industry! I don’t know much about films but the little bit I have discovered is that it’s so convoluted with people having to talk to other people and lawyers and then suddenly… the best thing is when they spend a year, when they pay you £5,000 or whatever and they all talk and it’s all biking everything round ‘now, now… yesterday’ and you’ve got to be involved and you’ve got to have your phone free all day. But then 90% of the time nothing happens, so then you stop taking your phone off, and you say ‘no, I’ll put it in the post actually… that’s fine’. So, for all those reasons and because it is such an expensive medium to actually make a film, people have to be sure they’re spending their millions right. So, there are endless things that happen halfway and then somebody says: “Is this really worth £25 million of our money? No!”

Q. Did you see the other screenplays that existed?
Susan Hill: Well, what they seem to do some screenwriters is come along with the book and think: “OK, right, read this… tear that up and start again.” And you tend to think: “Why do you bother? Why don’t you go and write your own screenplay?” And a lot of them were just so bad because you knew they wanted to write their film but they couldn’t get to write their film, so they bought your book. But then James [Watkins] and Jane [Goldman] came along. I knew that it would be in good hands then.

Q. What were your initial thoughts about Daniel Radcliffe being cast as Arthur Kipps given his Harry Potter background?
Susan Hill: I thought: “Hmm, OK… yeah, well he’s much older now.” I had that… not exactly a doubt but just a little question mark in the back of my head. First of all, what I was impressed by was that he was totally committed to the part and understood and wanted to understand more. This wasn’t just about spooks and horror; it is actually about somebody who suffers huge losses and then suffers terrible, terrible things happening to them. He totally got the character. He got that this was a man who was grieving for the loss of his little child and then encountered all sorts of other dreadfulness. It shows on his face. And you realise also that Harry Potter was when he was a kid. He grew up with it and it’s gone.

It’s still there but it’s not him anymore and it wouldn’t be fair to talk about him in that regard anymore than it would to always refer to Helen Mirren as The Queen. Actors move on. A lot of people don’t want them to… they want them to always be the same. But look at Helen Mirren and look at Meryl Streep; every time you turn around they’re something different and they’re them. Dan has done that as well and it’s hard. The other thing I thought was, I know what he’s going to be like… he’s going to be an uppity little kid, like I was… but he’s just utterly not like that. For anybody to have what he’s had thrown at him and to not be spoilt is just amazing. He’s lovely and it was just such a lesson in not pre-judging things or people by their reputations.

The Woman in Black

Q. How did you go about constructing the scares in the book?
Susan Hill: I read a lot of ghost stories because I was writing a ghost story. I didn’t think at all I was writing a horror or a thriller or whatever because it is about a ghost, whereas a horror film can be about aliens or things that rise out of the marsh that have no human shape. I’d read a lot of ghost stories and classic ones and I also knew that to work length… it’s easy to write a short story and frighten people for five pages. But when you can do it as in The Turn of the Screw or A Christmas Carol, when you can go on doing it, it’s different – you have to build it and build it. So, I think it’s two things: it’s tension in the reader; it’s building the tension so that you’re thinking: “Hello, what’s up?” And then relaxing it as in The Turn of the Screw… and then building it a little bit tighter. And I think that’s probably true of all the reading that I did. I was very conscious to sustain the length you had to do that. And certainly with a book, the chances are that people are going to read it and let themselves be frightened because they are in a safe place while they’re doing it.

So, if you’re by the fire at home with the curtains drawn, it doesn’t matter if the wind’s howling outside… you’ve locked the doors and got a nice big fire and you give yourself permission to have that delicious feeling of being terrified. And I think that’s what you can rely on as a writer – that people can just let themselves be really frightened because they’re alright. Being frightened when you’re not sure that you’re alright is different and therefore you’ve also got to build tension in. I think that’s what happens with the book. The key word is unsettling… because you’re not terrified all of the time or even frightened, but you’re unsettled and once you’re unsettled, then the door’s open.

Q. How do you view horror films in general?
Susan Hill: Well, it’s just occurred to me that some horror films everybody laughs because they’re so ridiculous and they’re so frightening in a way, the filmmakers’ are trying everything, that they just end up being funny. You know all those wonderful early ones where mummies came out came out of graves and a hand would come out of a coffin, and it was a slimy one, at which point everyone in the cinema cracked up… the one thing I felt with this was that it must never be funny at any point. Nobody must ever think [gestures laughing]. And I don’t think it does. I also think that less is more… a bit of subtlety and a bit of not quite showing everything can be much more effective than piling the lot in.

The Woman in Black

Q. Do you go and see the theatre production ever?
Susan Hill: Yes I do, on and off. It’s been going on for something like 23 years but I try and see each new cast because they want a bit of encouragement. I also quite like going into a school matinee. But then I like to be behind the stage because there’s a spy-hole and what you see is the best moment in all theatre. The schools are quite often from inner London areas, with 15-year-old boys, who come in with indifferent expressions like: “You’re not going to frighten me!” They have this kind of walk as they come in as if they’re pretending they’re not really there. But it’s wonderful because they sit down, they slouch back and chat with their mates in the way that you pose when you’re 15…

And at first, yes, they’re kind of impassive [whistles] but very gradually they start to actually watch and listen but then there is a moment when you see either the blood drain from their face or they clutch their mate next door and you see that whole transformation. It’s not only ‘oh my God, I am frightened’, but also the moment they realise what theatre could do. They’d previously been jesting about all the horror films they’d seen, and then suddenly just people in the theatre with some sound effects changes them. They come out very different boys [laughs]. But also what’s lovely is that those are always the kids who stand up and cheer the actors.

And the actors love it because they know it’s a difficult audience; probably the hardest of all to bring round… 400 17-year-old boys. So, when they’ve done it and they know they’ve done it they get such a reward. It’s like watching another play really. It’s great.

Read our interview with James Watkins