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Exclusive Interview: The Awakening Director Nick Murphy

There have been many decent movies about ghosts and the paranormal this year (a couple bad ones, too) but one of the big things that sets Nick Murphy’s The Awakening apart is that being set in the time period of post-WWI England allows it to examine ghosts on a different level than we’ve seen before.

It’s the theatrical film debut of director Nick Murphy whose BAFTA-winning work on British television was more likely to be seen by the PBS “Masterpiece Theater” crowd than those who like horror movies.

In the film, Rebecca Hall plays Florence Cathcart, an expert on ghosts who is called upon to investigate the mysterious occurrences at a boarding school where one boy has died and the rest are being haunted by ghosts. As Florence tries to solve the mystery, she learns there’s more to this place than she originally thought.

By now you may have already seen the 10-minute opening scene preview or our exclusive clip, but a few weeks back, Shock Till You Drop got on the phone with the British filmmaker and was surprised to learn that for the director of such a serious movie, he really has a wicked sense of humor.


ShockTillYouDrop.com: This is a ghost movie set up as a period piece which is not something we see that often with a lot of twists we can’t talk about, but I’m curious how you got involved with this? I believe a lot of what you did before was documentary work.
Nick Murphy:
I’d love to pretend that I had some sort of master plan how to get into movies. I sort of didn’t really and I woke up suddenly and went, “Hang on a second. F*ck, I’m making a movie. How the hell did that happen?” I got involved because I had worked my way into drama from documentaries and I did pretty well it seems, won a lot of BAFTAs (awards), and then David Thompson, a producer over here gave me a script which was pretty interesting but wasn’t quite my sort of thing. He offered to turn it into my sort of thing and that’s when it all began. I only ever really had Rebecca Hall in mind for the central character, who job 1 in the boiler room style of writing was to make her more interesting and more screwed up. I liked the idea at the heart of it by moving the period from Victorian horror to post-first World War, what appealed to me was making it less about, “Okay, ghosts exist, now we’re going to frighten you with them,” but as much about why we see ghosts and for that to play a role in the dramatic tension. Once I’d settled on this idea that we see ghosts because we need to, it was a natural place to go to bring it to that period and to imbue the whole film with a sense of loss that period had.

Shock: In the opening scroll it concludes that due to the influenza and the war and the amount of people who died, there’s more ghosts around. Rebecca plays a paranormal investigator and I had to imagine there were a lot of people around that time who were trying to capitalize on people believing and needing to communicate with these ghosts.
Murphy:
This is true. This is pretty well documented. There was a great deal of people that claimed to have access to the supernatural and these sorts of hoaxes began to really increase in this period, because people did need. Far from whatever else one believes about faith, a lot of it has to do with need, and into the gaps of need stepped a lot of charlatans, a lot of hoaxes. It was fun to immediately have a character in the heart of that trying to protect people from that, however, in the very beginning it becomes clear that not always do people want to know it’s not true and she is confronted in the street in the early part of the film by a woman that doesn’t feel as though she saved her from a hoaxer. She didn’t want to be saved and that’s a great deal of what the film’s to do with obviously.

Shock: Your earliest experience was directing documentaries and you’ve done a number of historical dramas so how much research did you have to do into the world of paranormal investigators from around this time period?
Murphy:
You know what? Having done a lot of documentaries, Ed, you have to tell the truth when you do documentaries. It’s actually bloody nice when you get a chance to just make sh*t up. If nothing else, I enjoyed that sense of “Hey, why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that?” and the methodology of her work, the machinery and the technology she uses is all just stuff I made up, and that was great fun. In those Bond films of the 1970s, my favorite scenes were always the scenes of Q as they were going through the gadgets and picking up the gadgets that we’d see get used during the rest of the film. It struck me that this was a nice chance for us to do the same thing in this late Victorian, early Edwardian way, and have fun with that. So you research, yes, a little bit. I had to be very careful about being decently straight with the statistics and the idea of loss and grief. I didn’t want to turn that into a punchline–one and a quarter million people in four years should not just be a plot device, it should be honored and respected–but similarly, everything else was open season really. As soon as you’re into the idea that ghosts are rattling around somewhere, you can be pretty fast and loose, as long as you stick to your rules. As soon as you say, “Okay, we’re going to have a supernatural element in a film,” I don’t think you can then say, “Okay, they also have ray guns and people can see through walls.” You’ve got to be very careful that the construct you deliver to the audience feels within the confines of the genre. You can’t just suddenly go off the reservations.

Shock: You play with a lot of archetypes we see in horror movies, you have a large seemingly abandoned place and the idea of a haunted orphanage, plus you have the creepy kid and other things, but you don’t really use them in the same way we’ve seen.
Murphy:
I think you have to a little bit. If you’re making a genre piece, you gotta deliver certain tropes and traditions to the audience. It’s like if you’re doing a cowboy film and no one gets shot or there are no horses or saloon, then you just cheated the audience. There needs to be things you deliver and similarly, there needs to be those familiar tropes within a supernatural film, within a ghost story. I think the trick is—it’s like making cloth out of more than one thread—is that you have to get the balance right and deliver enough that’s novel and new and not too overfamiliar and not just, “Okay, everything’s going to creak and it’s going to be always in the dark and people are going to behave in silly ways and walk into darkened rooms saying, ‘Who’s in there?’” These are the things that I wanted to stay away from and I wanted to be honest with the audience and not to cheat with the scares. When we were shooting, I recall there was a “bird in the woods” moment. Frequently, in films they just build a bit of tension and then out flies a bird and the audience jumps but it has no consequence. I wanted to make sure we avoided any of that and then everything else on top, like the doll’s house and these elemental ideas of the supernatural were fresh and interesting, yet delivered within the familiar territory of a damn good ghost story.

Shock: Some of the scariest scenes are the quieter ones like when Rebecca is in the bathtub. It’s really unnerving since you have no idea what might happen and you have expect something to jump out of the water, but that doesn’t happen making it more unnerving.
Murphy:
This is where you rely on the genre helping you. That’s exactly right. There’s an awareness in the audience. They know what they’re watching. If you put that in the middle of a comedy, then that’s a boring scene because they’re not expecting anything and therefore the scene stops meaning anything. The great thing on your side is that people sit down knowing what it is and knowing what world they’re occupying. An empty room in the context of that film means something and brings a dramatic tension of its own in a way that it wouldn’t in the middle of “There’s Something About Mary.”

Shock: Rebecca’s quite amazing in this and she’s really
Murphy:
Yeah, she’s amazing, wonderful girl. I’d be the first to say if she’s a b*tch, but she’s an absolute diamond, a rare diamond, beautiful girl.

Shock: Have you seen the movie she did with Stephen Frears by any chance? Because you would not recognize her…
Murphy:
I haven’t seen it. When we were working together, she impersonated how she was going to play the part when we were having a drink together and it blew my mind. I’ll have to check it out.

Shock: The film has really great production values and part of that is the great space of the boarding school, so how did you go about finding that and how long did you shoot there?
Murphy:
The school is four buildings, four private houses. Here in Britain we have a lot of big-ass places and they used to be owned by frightful people who bashed poor people on the head, but they don’t exist anymore but the houses they left behind, they were largely in the borders of Scotland where they haven’t been turned into hotels and golf courses yet. The exterior was in Chesire, and it’s a beautiful estate called Lyme Park, it’s owned by the National Trust and an Arcadian lake that stands before the building, so all the exteriors were in one place and three different houses in Scotland for the interiors. Part of the designer’s job, John Henson, was to tie them all together. In actual fact, the interior of our school was impossible. The building is nothing like large enough to house the scale of the rooms in which the drama takes place but of course, once your into that world, you don’t add these sorts of things up in your mind as an audience. I wanted the scale to be very large because of course I wanted the characters themselves to appear like dolls in the doll’s house.

Shock: That doll house was another whole level of creep when you recreated scenes of the movie inside the doll’s house.
Murphy:
Yeah, while I was writing that scene, it was quite late at night, and I hadn’t written it with the intention of taking it all the way to her seeing her own past, but I was just exploring something. It was dark outside and my office is at the end of my garden in London and I wrote it and it came off the page when I thought of the detail of doing this scene with the model of a child standing behind the ghost of herself and I actually scared myself. It was a bit freaky. I don’t know where that came from or what I was paying reference to, but it frightened me on the page so I thought it stood a chance to frighten people in the audience.

Shock: I’m interested in seeing this again because I was fairly jetlagged when I saw it the first time and there’s a lot going on, especially at the end.
Murphy:
I’d always rather side in giving people too much to process than not enough. I think it’s shameful if we don’t give audiences a reason for a good evening out to go to the cinema, it’s shameful. I know that there’s a visceral experience to be had in popcorn movies but there is no excuse whatever the film you are—and Christopher Nolan proves this, that you can make a popcorn film and still give people plenty to think about on the way home. We have to do that, and it’s evident to me that not enough films are trying to do that, to give people a people broader and bigger experience than your average British horror flick.

Shock: I know you’re working on a new movie called “Blood” so is that also a genre movie or is it just a coincidence that sounds like it would be a genre movie?
Murphy:
No, it’s just a coincidence. I think the natural assumption is that it’s somehow a vampire film but it’s not. It’s a thriller set around the moral collapse of a police family, a psychological thriller. It’s Paul Bettany and Mark Strong and Brian Cox and they’re just outstanding. Of course, I would say this, wouldn’t I? But they’re in for a rare treat because it’s a blinding piece of drama, absolutely gripping to watch their lives collapse, because of a dreadful thing they do for a very good reason. It’s a cracking film.

Shock: Is that already finished?
Murphy:
I picture-locked it last week. I started doing a pass for dialogue and I’m grading when I get back from my holiday. I was attached to that movie before “The Awakening” but Rebecca Hall came on board so quickly with “The Awakening,” we went off to do that and we put “Blood” on hold. As soon as I finished on “The Awakening” and done all that business on that, I could move on. We finished “The Awakening” late last year so I went to straight into production on “Blood.” I mean, if you’re allowed to make movies, you don’t wait around, you crack on, because it’s the best job in the world.

Shock: Any idea what you want to do next? Do you have any desire to do more horror?
Murphy:
I’m a huge admirer of Sidney Lumet’s who I think is one of your country’s greatest ever and I love his body of work. There’s no one particular genre he stuck in. I want to make 20 movies in 20 genres–I don’t want to stay in any one. I can guarantee my next film probably won’t turn out to be a horror film, but I don’t know. There’s a couple… A romance novel that I can’t talk about and an action-thriller I similarly can’t talk about, but these things appeal to me on their own merit. It’s not that I sit here and think, “It’s time for me to do comedy!” I just wait until whatever pops up in front of me pops up and then I assess it on that. I certainly don’t want to get locked down. There’s also this brilliant tradition and you’re in a Golden era now of American television drama. There’s some astonishing work coming out of the States and I’m up for the chance to do any and all of these things and the world’s the oyster at the moment.

The Awakening opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, August 17 and we just had to ask Murphy about the film’s ending and where it leaves Hall’s character off since it raised a lot of questions in our mind and those we spoke to about the movie afterwards. With that in mind….

SPOILER WARNING

SPOILER WARNING

SPOILER WARNING

Shock: One thing I’m not sure if you can talk about on the record is the movie’s ending. A lot of people walked out of the movie wondering if Rebecca Hall’s character was dead or not.
Murphy:
It’s not intentional. This film is about people seeing what they need to and seeing what they need to is carrying forth of the film and as such, I wanted to give audiences that chance at the end. Yeah, I know what she is. Rebecca and I decided she’s alive and then she smokes and she gets a car. Yes, we accept that, but I wanted to toy with the audience and let them be subjected to the same psychological effect as the characters do in the film that if they want her to be dead, she’s dead, and if they want her to be alive, she’s alive. Interestingly, and the audiences that I’ve spoken to, it’s split generally down gender lines that women think she’s dead and men think she’s alive and I don’t know why that is and smarter men or women than me can work that out, but that tends to be how it goes. But no, I had to make my mind up, and I think it’s cheating to say, “Oh, I don’t know. You decide.” If anybody cares to know the truth, I’ll tell them but what’s imperative to me and coming from television, which is a very immediate medium, I wanted to give people plenty to talk about in the lobby afterwards. So that’s a very, very important part of the cinema-going experience. If we’re taking 10 bucks off these people, we’ve got to give them something more than an experience that ends when the credits roll and the subway chat, that matters, it just matters and this is absolutely a film that you will talk about and reanalyze on the way home in your mind. I want people to be lying in bed having watched this film, tossing over scenes in their mind and realizing how different the meaning was when viewed and reviewed knowing what you know at the end.


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