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The Woman in Black - James Watkins interview

The Woman in Black

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JAMES Watkins talks about some of the challenges of bringing The Woman in Black to the big screen and why he wanted it to unsettle people and scare them more than continually shock them.

He also talks about working with Daniel Radcliffe and why he is proud of the actor’s performance, as well as some of his own horror cinema inspirations.

Q. You actively pursued this, right?
James Watkins: No, they sent me the script [laughs]. But it was coincidental because I had read that this project was going on and I said to my agent: “Oh, that sounds interesting…” It was purely coincidental that at the same time they sent me Jane [Goldman]’s script.

Q. Why do you think it’s taken so long to bring to the screen?
James Watkins: I tell you what the real game-changer was: when there was a script from Jane that worked. That really changed everything. Before that, everything was kind of a punt but then they got Jane on board and she really knew what she was doing.

Q. How did you go about constructing the scares in the film?
James Watkins: Well, to pick up on something that Susan [Hill, author] said in terms of it being a ghost story, I think that’s a very important thing because rather than necessary a horror film, a ghost story is different because a ghost is what you can’t quite see. If you go back to the literary source of this, the sense of what we try to achieve in the film is a film that can play on people’s imagination because that’s what books do brilliantly… and do far better than films. But if you can try and approximate that in a film… really what people can imagine is always going to be scarier than what you can film and what you can show. So, though indirection, through staging and all the grammar of film, if you can somehow achieve that then you can get under people’s skin.

The Woman in Black

And going back to the notion of the ghost story, what’s very interesting is – and we talked about this quite a lot – with a lot of horror films now, they are nasty, they are gory, and I’m not using those terms pejoratively at all… but those things do not necessarily mean the same as scary. So, what we’ve tried to do is say: “Well, how can we make this film scary?” And that, I think, is by trying to use all these devices. If you go back into cavemen or all through history, ghosts are so hard-wired into our culture that it’s a real primal fear. It’s like a fear of water or a fear of the dark, which is also a big factor in our film. So, if you can tap into that, and we really worked very hard to do that in terms of the ghost… so, if something can be caught on the edge of your eye, blinking on the edge of the frame, something just peeking out of the black, so if you can really start to work that arena of dread, then you’re approximating something that the great ghost stories do in novels.

Q. What about audio? Neither Susan nor Jane had to think about that, per se, when writing. But how did you approach sound effects?
James Watkins: Well, it’s interesting. I’m not sure that’s totally true. In novels, the novelist is doing the audio, the sound design, everything because they’re controlling the costume and the make-up. Or the reader is doing it because the author is giving them the means. But what’s very true is that we wanted to have a less is more aesthetic. You know, you want to pull the audience in. You want to be there, at the present moment, with him; you want to hear him breathing, hear his footsteps and what we didn’t want to do is go in the Hollywood/American-ised way of drowning it in sound.

So, the film is very pared back in terms of its atmosphere. So, it has an immediacy there and it’s breathing; you go into the house and you’re feeling the house and you’re feeling the room. What we talked about all the way through is creating the sense that it’s slowly pulling you in… it’s almost like you’re leaning in and looking into the darkness and the sounds and the sound design is just kind of half heard. So, it’s just kind of like that… and you’re trying to hear more until, occasionally, it suddenly does something loud. So, it’s a bit like Susan has said about building, building, building… and then you’re hitting and then you’re letting it [the tension] off. It’s similar to comedy in a way and building towards a joke or a pitch and then let it come back before building it again. But the trajectory is always moving upwards.

Q. Do you think there’s a fatigue with gore? Do people want something more cerebral from their horror now?
James Watkins: I don’t know. I think it’s a broad church and there’s room for lots of different things. I think there’s definitely room for… we’ve shown this film to teenagers and it’s very, very gratifying when you say: “OK, look, there is no real gore or violence or any of that…” But to actually be there and to see it play in that regard is… gratifying. So, to have a more classical, elevated, old fashioned approach and for that to really work and scare people and get into their imaginations is great.

Q. You obviously had Susan’s book and Jane’s screenplay but did you quote from any other horror films as well?
James Watkins: It’s a funny one, isn’t it? You are what you eat, so it all goes in. It’s all there. Consciously, I wasn’t probably quoting but I know there are areas and there are films that are referenced. I know this genre very well and if I look back on films like The Innocents there are definitely techniques. Well, the techniques are slightly different because we’re using a much more modern medium. You couldn’t make a film quite at that pace now because it would bore people. So, the film now is made at a particular pace comparative to what most films are made at now. But there’s little things. Even if you look at the saturation of the colouration… we’ve got lots of bruised, dark colours – purples and blacks and deep crimsons and colours of decay and death in the production design. I really wanted it to be a rich, saturated palette in the house, rather than often the default setting for some of these films, which is really monochromatic and bleaching the colour out.

They did it, for example, in the recent BBC version of Great Expectations. They just sucked all the colour out. That’s not particularly an interesting choice for me. So, that was probably informed by the early Terence Fisher and the early Technicolours there; but it could easily be Dario Argento and those movies. So, it’s very hard to pinpoint exactly what your influences are.

The Woman in Black

Q. How was working with Daniel Radcliffe? I mean, did his casting bring any pressures because obviously the first headlines are going to be ‘what Harry Potter did next’?
James Watkins: Look, it would be disingenuous to say you don’t consider those things. I mean, absolutely, you know that there’s this huge, 10 years’ worth… this huge industry of Dan and associations and issues that people have with him. Some are very good… people respond to Dan and they have views on Potter, whatever they are… But ultimately when you’re casting a pat you’ve got to look at the part and the actor and you’ve got to see if there’s a good fit. And I met with Dan and I thought, put all that baggage aside for a second, and he’s a very, very bright guy, he’s a very committed actor, and he’s very smart and focused and determined. If you look at the choices he’s making he wants to… and he will have a long and varied career.

So, we talked about the part, we saw the part in the same way. He really understood this character: the grief, the weight of knots on his shoulders and we worked very hard to achieve that. One of the things that we worked hard at, and from the response we’ve been getting is very reassuring, is the sense that Dan looks different, he has a different air about him… I think he really carries the film. I think it’s a real proper grown-up performance. And I’m very proud of what he’s done. So, the Potter thing is what it is and it’s always going to be there but if you start worrying about actors in terms of what they’ve done, the pool of talent you can cast becomes negligible.

Read our interview with Susan Hill