Ghost Stories – Interview with co-writer and co-director Jeremy Dyson
Many congratulations on the film. It’s been running for such a long time and yet there are no spoilers. How have you kept it secret?
The remarkable thing with the stage show was that it was seen by upwards of half a million people not just here but around the world and you still can’t find anything out online which is extraordinary in this day and age at our request. And it was really important to me and Andy, as so much of it was about just wanting to tell a story and keep that experience for an audience…
The stage show has been a huge success, so tell us about the process of bringing a theatrical success to the big screen…
Well it was a very long process because even when we were first working on the theatre show, we sort of felt there was something cinematic about it, but we were disciplined and said that we were doing a play so let’s not talk about that. And then when it took off, which took us by surprise, and it transferred to the West End and there was some heat on it, we got offers and American interest from studios and we ended up turning it down because we thought if we were going to do it, we wanted to do it our way. It took a while to reach that decision but once we’d decided it, we thought we’d go the whole hog and make it as well because if it’s going to go wrong, we’d rather we were responsible for it going wrong rather than somebody else. So once we took that decision, and that was mid 2013, we started work on the script and we worked on the script for about a year and it was a very long process of gradually letting go of the stage show because it had worn deep grooves in our brain and even when we were still editing the film, we were still letting go of bits of the stage show. In fact there’s a whole strand in Andy’s through line that we shot a pick up day for before we finally let go of everything in the stage show.
In the stage show, you are effectively taking horror tropes from the big screen to the stage, so how do you reverse engineer it and in doing so, avoid the horror clichés?
Well that was out biggest fear. Essentially the biggest thrill of the stage show for us was we were effectively taking horror film clichés and putting them on stage but because you’d put them on stage, that hopefully stopped them feeling like clichés. We were acutely aware that going the other way, the danger was that everyone would shrug their shoulders and think I’ve seen this a million times before. So we just kept talking about it and kept putting ourselves in the position of the audience and tried to imagine it that way and it was about keeping it fun. The thing for us was it had to be as much fun as possible, and that had been the same with the stage show and we just carried the experience across.
With the stage show you were very proud of the fact that it was all very practical effects, and also with the film there was also no CGI.
There are no things generated by CG. As some of you probably know, Andy has another life besides being an actor, he works very closely with Derren Brown and has done since Derren started life in TV, so he is quite high up in the world of international magic and I have a lifelong interest in conjuring as well, so that fed into the stage show, and we absolutely wanted to take that spirit into the film. But we are not Luddites by any means so we kept everything in camera as far as we could, but the one thing that CG is brilliant for, or digital effects are brilliant for, is taking stuff away and that can be so remarkable when you take one element away and you can be left with something quite unsettling. So there is digital chicanery but all our creatures, all our monsters that was all old school, that was all prosthetics.
On stage you are restricted by the space you have, but did being on film give you a bit more freedom?
Completely. On the one hand, there is a weird paradox because on stage theatre is not literal so the audience completes it in their heads and so you have a lot of freedom in that sense because you can just sketch stuff in. So although the three stories at the heart of the film were the same stories on stage, obviously you are restricted in what you can show, so for instance whe woods, I used to love the woods on stage because it was six trees, six huge trees in false perspective so we had a real car that we sliced in half diagonally that was on hydraulics and it would come on and it would slowly rotate and a bit of dry ice, and together with the lighting, you were in those woods. It was a very magical thing. And again when we came to put it on film, the minute you put a camera on something, you are absolutely fixing it. So you lose that escape valve of the audience’s imagination so then your locations become paramount, the design becomes paramount and your cinematography. So that was a thrill in itself as well, going that way and then being able to look at everything in that much detail.
We grew up with things like Hammer Horror and Tales Of The Unexpected on TV, but what were your touchstones?
Definitely those things, but the crucial thing is me and Andy met when we were 15. We bonded over horror films and it was the dawn of the video age so it was the first time you could get to see stuff that you’d read about because up until then we just had those books that you used to get every Christmas like Alan Frank’s Golden Book Of Horror Films, and you’d paw over the pages and you’d never get to see the films, Then you suddenly had video recorders and you could tape stuff off the telly, so the key things for us in terms of Ghost Stories, there was The Dead Of Night, which was the original anthology horror film from 1945 – that was massive for us and we both adored that as a kid. And then the later Amicus films, which were also anthology films, from the 60s and 70s so that would be Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors, Tales From the Crypt, and From Beyond The Grave which is my personal favourite, so they were obviously part of it. But the other film I think was American Werewolf in London, which came out that summer that me and Andy first met each other, and that blend of comedy and horror which isn’t a parody, because American Werewolf is a proper horror film, it’s properly frightening and yet it is genuinely funny, and I think we were intoxicated with that as well. So I think that was another key touchstone, along with those British films.
There are parallels with horror and comedy with your other work such as League Of Gentlemen. How important is it to fuse those two genres, and how difficult is it?
It’s not something that Andy and I thought about. It wasn’t an intellectual process, it was just a very instinctive process and I think that in The League we would instinctively slide back and forth between the horror and the comedy, and this wasn’t really any different...So much of it is about trying to sustain the tension and then you find that throwing in a joke or a laugh is incredibly useful for being able to let out a bit of tension. So in Paul’s story when he is in the cabin at the start, you’ve got him listening to that radio show so you can do that lovely thing where you are simultaneously winding it up but there’s laughs within that, that you know you can get from the parody of the radio show he is listening to plus his reactions that allow you to tighten it up even more because you are letting a little bit of air out but not all the air out – so it is a sort of felt dance between the two things.
You’ve been friends with Andy since you were 15, but tell me about the co-directing dynamic. How does that work especially with Andy in lots of the scenes?
We are genuinely a two-headed monster for most of the time, so we are pretty much of the same mind, however, not always of the same mind and we were acutely aware – remember we’d been through the journey of the stage show which we had also co-directed – so you’re acutely aware of the minefield of a disagreement in front of your crew so we knew that we wanted to avoid that so we basically did a lot of prep. We storyboarded the whole film together in private and so we talked through as many decisions as possible before we were on set and we were used to negotiating over casting and on the rare occasions where we might have had a difference of opinion so that was ok. The other crucial thing was actually while we were shooting was at the end of every shoot day, having a proper debrief behind closed doors and there was only really one day I think where there was a disagreement because of miscommunication and it’s just like a marriage. You can sense it. You can feel the mood and you just know, like my grandma said, ‘you don’t go to sleep on an argument’.
Tell me about working with your fantastic cast of Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse and young Alex Lauther…
That was really interesting how we got to Paul. We had a terrific casting director in Shaheen Baig but still most of our process was Shaheen would send lists and we would talk it over and we’d cast those parts several times for the stage production so you knew what mix of skillsets you needed from the actor but particularly with that part, he needed to be able to do the comedy and have proper funny bones and he needed to be able to do the drama. It’s the same with the others but particularly with the nightwatchman. And then we went through lots of names and ideas and we were not satisfied and we were playing the game of ‘if this was an Amicus film in the mid 70s, who would they have cast’, because the great thing about the Amicus films it’s such a fantastic model and Milton Subotsky who was the genius producer who did them, and each of those stories took around four days to shoot, so they could just see who was in the West End and bus them in four days and they would get terrific casts and really this was the same model but we were playing that game if it was 1975, who would it be in that part and immediately we said Ronnie Barker because he was a brilliant actor and fantastic comedian and you could just see him doing it. And very quickly we went well alright who’s Ronnie Barker now, well Paul Whitehouse and the minute that came out of our lips, we were so excited and immediately terrified because we thought well he won’t do it as he only does his own stuff. He doesn’t generally perform other people’s scripts, but we sent the script off and chanced our arm and thankfully he absolutely was up for meeting and doing it.
Alex was the first part we cast actually, which was a year before we started shooting and there was no question. He just leapt out. He was brilliant. And this wonderful thing has happened now – he’s a huge star. We just got back from SXSW and the first thing that the Americans said was oh you’ve got Alex Lauther in it, because The End OF The F***ing World had had this second bite on Netflix and because of Black Mirror, so he’s huge but he’s fantastic.
And Martin was key to getting it financed. Getting Martin signed up and attached unlocked everything. It was fantastic when he agreed to do it and we were over the moon.
Do you or Andy believe?
Do you mean in supernatural phenomena? Well because Andy with his Derren Brown head on knows so much about the failings of the human mind and how easily perception is manipulated, that rules out really believing in a lot of supernatural phenomena so yeah we’re both pretty sceptical but we’re not arch materialists however. There is an element of there are more things than heaven and earth, but we’re don’t go for it literally. But [that said] yes, we did get a rabbi to bless the set because it was a silly joke because in the rash of devil films in the 70s from The Exorcist onwards, the studio publicity departments would always get a priest out to bless the set because it was an instant news story, so they did it on The Exorcist and when they shot The Omen over here, they got a priest out to bless the set as well. So we just thought well wouldn’t it be funny to get a rabbi out to bless the set and of course Andy being Andy, knows a rabbi who he can just ring up so he rang his rabbi in Leicester who said he couldn’t do it that day, but his brother is a rabbi in Leeds, so he rang him…It could have gone horribly wrong as it was our first week of shooting and luckily it was a lovely thing as he really judged it right and it was a really lovely ceremony and the whole crew bought into it and from thereon in we had a lot of luck with the weather…so it is to be recommended!
How much is the film about men not being able to discuss things or open up about things?
…We knew that the best ghost stories, well they are a very moral form. Ghost stories are about sin and guilt and the errors of the past, so we thought it we are going to do this, we need to dig into our own stuff and it was very therapeutic. We had a week of therapy really, of confessing some of our sins and it came very naturally out of that because we came of age in the early 80s, and there was a lot of suppressed violence around if you were a young man. Where I was growing up in Leeds, there was that wave of football hooliganism, skinheads, and it was quite frightening being a young man and I think it sort of chimes today because again it’s hard for young men. There’s rising suicide among young men and a lot of confusion and a lot of struggle. I know from lots of my friends who’ve got kids. Kids of that age who find it difficult. So yes we did talk about it but it grew naturally out of us digging into our own stuff.
What scares you?
Other human beings – not other supernatural phenomena. That’s the scariest thing and we are living in quite scary times at the moment and just seeing people at each other’s throats. It’s like Twitter is a little portal to hell. You sort of wake up and just see people screaming at each other in 280 characters and it is very unsettling…
Ghost Stories is in cinemas now, courtesy of Lionsgate UK