Matthew Holness Interview: Possum, Horror and A Bit of Dark Place.

How did Possum come about?

I was asked back in 2008 to write a story for an anthology called The New Uncanny, that was being published by Comma Press who are a short story publisher based in Manchester. They wanted to basically bring out an anthology with stories that drew upon Freud’s theory of the uncanny. They asked all the writers to read Freud’s theory of the uncanny, pick a fear that appealed and write a story for a modern audience.

I picked two. I like the idea of combining the fear of doubles and the fear of dummies. To avoid the slight horrid cliché of the creepy ventriloquist dummy, what if you had someone who made one and it was literally a double, that was a version of themselves, and then what kind of person would do that? That’s what the story was about.

Then I’d been watching a lot of silent horror films from the ’20s and ’30. ’20s mainly. I found them so brilliantly creepy in ways that lots of other films these days aren’t, simply because they had to express everything visually and you had all these tortured psyches and tortured characters that were all being haunted by stuff that they couldn’t really express. I’d watch them and then I thought, “Could you do a modern sign horror a film? How could you do that?”

Then I had this story Possum where the character is someone who’s had something so awful happened to them that they can’t express it. They’re not going to express it, they’re going to express it in odd ways like making a terrifying puppet. I thought that’s the character that maybe you could tell a silent story through because the silence is part of them. That’s how it came about really, to try and make a modern silent horror film and that was the story that fit it.

I thought I may have caught a hint of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyre, exploring these of desolate places.

Yes. That’s such a strange nightmare of a film in that it does capture that reality of a nightmare and it doesn’t really make sense. There’s a vague narrative going through it but it’s more about the experience of it and the imagery. So, yes that was a big influence on this.

They’re just on the cusp of sound I think? It’s a strange thing where there’s dialogue but there’s no diegetic sound.

Yes. It’s very odd, it’s just a very strange film and it creates a real mood and atmosphere.

I love the claustrophobia of the film, even when it’s set against sprawling Norfolk vistas, did you have this sort of geography in mind when developing the project?

It was never a specific place, but it was certainly- that was the geography that I had in my head. It needed to look like it does in the film. When I wrote the story, it was based on a stretch of the coast in Kent near Whitstable. There was an area of ground there that I had the idea for the story walking along. I thought I’d set it here but oddly enough, the Norfolk coast is very similar. I’m sure a lot of coast in Great Britain is very similar. Yes, there is a real atmosphere to that area of Norfolk and Suffolk, all along the coast though is just perfect, particularly where we filmed the marshes and Stiffkey marshes. I only recently found out that that’s apparently where Black Shuck, The Devil of Norfolk folklore is supposed to roam Stiffkey marshes.

Any sightings of Shuck?

Not one I can recall.

Whereas the natives will have similar folklores now, stories of Sean Harris.

Yes, you never know.

The monster Possum is terrifying, how did you take shape?

I worked with Dominic Hailstone who was the designer. We took the script and he came up with some visual design for the puppet which was really horrible, really unpleasant. We sent it off to Odd Studios and they sent back a prototype but unfortunately, the head wasn’t working, the head was just not- it was trying too hard to scare, it was too emotive. We had a last-minute rethink and Dominic went away and I think in four hours sculpted a version of Sean Harris’ head. Basically, the only note was let’s forget any expression, just make it completely blank and suddenly it was just absolutely terrifying. It’s that thing that they would say about making Halloween, just get a straight mask and then the audience project their fears onto it rather than trying to make them be frightened, try to scare them in any sense. It just worked and that was how it came about.

Excellent. I love the way you tease this monster at various points throughout the film before there’s a full-on reveal.

It’s a gamble that because in the script he reveals the puppet earlier on and actually it just became something when we pieced it together, there was just so much more tension in keeping it hidden. It’d been filmed that way to not ever show too much of it but it really took shape in the edit, we went much more down that line to create that tension of only seeing a bit and then revealing a bit more, piece by piece.

Now that it’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen it, all I can see in my head of it is the white ghostly face and its long spidery limbs, it has an archetypal shape.

There’s a lot of creepy stuff in those silent horror films that are like that, they all have that- you say, these strange white faces coming out of dark backgrounds and there’s Der Golem. There’s almost a reference to a shot in that actually, with this horrific mask and just smoke coming out and that kind of stuff. There were so many moments in those films where you just had these sort of faces looming out of the shadows. That was definitely something I wanted to put in this.

A couple of later references just occurred, firstly Carnival of Souls, also did you ever see the BBC ghost stories?

Yes, absolutely. I think he was a genius Lawrence Gordon Clark, just amazing.

Sean Harris and Alun Armstrong are both incredibly powerful in the film, how did they get involved with it?

Sean was on an early stage and he just really responded to the script and really wanted to play Philip, and Alun came on later in the process. Sean’s a method actor, so when we were filming, we were working with Philip, it was quite an intense experience in that sense but really pays off on camera. He and Alun didn’t interact off screen, what you’re seeing when you see the film is very much their characters meeting each other in that space, in that psychological space. Yes, it’s pretty tense.

It was and there’s a nervous laughter between their interactions especially with Alum Armstrong. This grotesque character, was it dark comedy?

I think so. It is very similar to the setup of Steptoe and Son. I think that is an archetypal British family unit, there’s a lot of that. I think we all know those strange relationships. Families anyway are full of things that are unsaid as much as said. It was important that there’s so much between these characters but they know exactly how each other reacts to things, they know what buttons to press, both of them and you’re just seeing a psychodrama play out in the way it’s played out. It’s coming, it’s progressing, it’s coming to a head but you’re getting a sense of so much being buried beneath the surface there.

You build a lot of horror around the house. It becomes this idea that he’s going out walking all the time just so he doesn’t have to stay in the house.

That’s right, yes. I wanted to make the house almost like Dracula’s castle, the Gothic kingdom that he has to go back to and it was to Charlotte Pearson’s great skill that she was able to design something within a normal urban street house but inside it feels so much stranger and darker, and order and more frightening than you would ever give a building like that credit for. It’s weird, it does exist almost like a fairytale place, you buy the reality once you’re inside it even though it’s an odd geography.

Definitely. If it’s Dracula’s castle, it’s like Herzog’s castle, it’s all dilapidated and that’s really great. Now, I have met directors who worry about working in genre because of the perceived expectations of that genre. Horror, obviously, you have the insidious crowd, you want jump scares and quiet bang. Was this a concern of yours at all, working on this?

Not really. In all honesty, I hadn’t watched too many modern horror films. I’m still watching the ones that I’ve got on my shelf to watch but I’ve always loved older horror films, it’s only recently that I’ve felt I really ought to get to grips with modern horror films. To be honest, I really was so impressed by films like The Conjuring, I think James Wan is a really brilliant director actually. I think there’s a place for those sorts of films which are jump scares or technical frights, I think they can very easily become pale imitations of the real thing. I think there’s a lot of dross to be honest but I think the really good ones are fantastic. My feeling is that with this it was much more about being truthful to the character and being true to the story. Dealing with the subject matter in a way that wasn’t exploitative and wasn’t just being done because it was unpleasant or anything like that. I never really worried about that with this because it was always about making a realistic horror film about a real modern-day monster. There was probably an expectation that you have to somehow make that more appealing.

My feeling was that you see stories about child abduction that in crime dramas so often. It’s almost become cliché and you don’t respond to it. You also know that there’s always going to be the forces of good that are aligned against the forces of evil. You’re always got a policeman or policewoman or whatever inspector or anything that are out to get the baddie but in a horror film, you don’t have that there isn’t anyone who is coming to help Phillip out. It was important to do that in a way that was truthful to that reality because that is the reality. There isn’t always someone looking out for victims of this kind of thing.

I didn’t want to make a crowd pleaser in some sense because it shouldn’t be a crowd pleaser and it shouldn’t be a popcorn film. Next time round if I want to make something more commercial then you have to decide what kind of film you’re making. But certainly, for this, it was very much, “No it has to be told this way.” because you can’t tell the story any other way I suppose.

I think the nervous laughter of the Frightfest crowd demonstrates how effective it is as a sort of crowd movie as well.

This is an interesting thing because there are so many people will have had awful experiences in their life that they won’t talk about. You just can’t tell who in that audience is responding in a way that might be far more profound than you expect. It was important always to make it as sensitively as we could and in a way that is giving voice to someone who […] has not been able to express that particular thing.

What’s interesting is that as you say it’s been really nice the way that the audiences have interacted with it. Afterward, it’s been great because everyone’s was surprised at how many people were genuinely interested in Philip and the story and those sorts of things. Yes, that’s been really gratifying to get that response from an audience. Absolutely.

I believe Possum was your first cinematic feature film after shorts and television?


What were the differences for you in writing and shaping of feature compared to those films?

Well, oddly enough it wasn’t the first feature script I’d written. There was a feature film script that was going to be a longer version to of Gun for George but sadly that didn’t go anywhere because I didn’t get the script right to be perfectly honest. Possum was an odd one because it was a much shorter script than a conventional 90 minute or two-hour film. That was a bit of a hard sell so it was always something that I knew I’d have to prove myself in the making of it because there was a lot stacked up because it didn’t read like a conventional script because it only ran to about 45 pages of the first draft.

I consoled myself by looking up some of the silent film scripts like the artists and some of the old ones Nosferatu. They all worked out at about the 50 page or less marks. I thought well I will be making a silent horror film hopefully this is the right kind of length.

You gave yourself the space to work it out once you’re there?

Yes. To an extent, it was always important that he didn’t speak much. There’s only so many ways you can pad the script out to 90 pages if he’s not talking.

It had to be a short script but yes that was a challenge. At the same time, I didn’t have anything to compare it to. It was probably a pass point in many ways.

In terms of it being cinematic as well as opposed to on television were there a different concern there?

Not really. It was a different discipline in terms of filming. I only used to– Most of my film has been done with comic actors and comedians and they are far less disciplined than proper actors. In many ways, those sides of things were better because you suddenly go, “This is looking like something bigger than TV.” It’s generally the actors that do that I think and the skills of your director of photography. Kip Fraser and all the people of your whole team are just really skilled at doing that kind of stuff and suddenly you go, “This when it all comes together it does look- looks like a proper thing.”

Fantastic. Now I am perfectly willing to take no for an answer in this case. [laughs] Would you provide to me a couple of dark place questions?

Go for it.

Thank you very much. How do you feel about the Garth Marenghi’s dark place legacy?

Well interestingly I have no idea because I don’t really– It’s hard for me to know. I’m really pleased people love it. I Really am. It’s such a long time for me that I haven’t really thought about it much in the intervening period. If you see what I mean. It’s great. I’m very proud of it and I’m really glad that people like it. What I most like about that is that I was such a huge fan of shows like The Young Ones and that growing up and if I’ve managed to do a show that people feel as affectionately about as I did those shows well then yes that’s absolutely wonderful. That is just great. That makes me very happy.

Just one other question about that is I was wondering if you could be a little specific about some of the influences on dark place.

There’s so many to be perfectly honest. We watched a lot of TV of all manner of genres, not just horror stuff. We just would get up in the morning watch some things. Thing is I grew up with all this stuff as well. Grew up with TJ Hooker, The A team and all those things. The ways they told those programs which are so naive and silly now when you look at them. I was looking at… what did I watch the other night? I watched the Michael Caine and Louis Collins Jack the Ripper. Which I hadn’t seen before oddly enough and it is so funny. It is The Sweeney in Victorian England

– It’s funny how crude the narrative devices were then. Scenes that literally end in a burst of anger and then- Really quite ’80s clichés but I liked– All sorts of things fed in. That was the TV I grew up on.

Did you ever see the Irwin Allen from The Swarm?

Yes, go, “Oh, my God bees, bees, millions of bees. Yes. I liked that one.

Michael Caine screaming exposition at the general. It’s wonderful.

Yes, it’s great. Its brilliant yes.

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