It’s immediately clear that co-directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson have put their heart and soul into the adaptation of their critically acclaimed stage play Ghost Stories and in so doing, pulled off the impressive task of delivering a horror film which flips from funny to frightening and back again at a moment’s notice. As well as being a horror movie, Ghost Stories is a gripping adventure, interwoven with portrayals of society’s issues with the non-binary nature of sexuality and the overwhelming pressure placed on men today.
Featuring standout performances from Andy Nyman himself, Martin Freeman, Alex Lawther and Paul Whitehouse, the film was rightly an Official Selection at the BFI London Film Festival. I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with the charming, and impeccably dressed, Andy at the festival to delve deeper into how the film was pieced together and the inspiration behind Andy and Jeremy’s love of horror.
Talk us through your experience transforming your award-winning stage play for the screen.
Well it was a lot of work because you are having to take something which you know has worked very well and now you realise that that version is not going to work. You have to try to unpick all the threads and try to keep what you like and then put it back together.
One thing we kept talking about was an interview with Miloš Forman when he was doing Amadeus, he had spoken to Peter Shaffer (who had written this award-winning play) and he said, “You just have to tear it all up and start all over again”. But, the exciting part is that it feels very different from the play but somehow exactly the same. We got to dig into the emotional world a lot more in the film than the play. There are shocks and surprises in the play which aren’t in the film and vice versa, so they both remain as stand-alone things.
What were your reasons for presenting the piece in three chapters?
The play is Goodman giving a lecture to the audience and the first draft of the film was very much that – Goodman in his office talking to Cameron and as we then dug further into it and the notes started coming back we realised that that was something we were going to have to let go. Then one day when we were sharing ideas I said to Jeremy, “How would it feel if suddenly out of the blue you got a letter from Stanley Kubrick saying everyone thinks I’m dead but I’m not and I really want to talk to you, I think your work is great, but I’m ill come and see me?” and that was just an idea that seemed to unlock the piece.
We are all capable of doing terrible things either on purpose or accidentally or passively.
Our producers had already rightly said to us, the problem with the lecture is that it is fine on stage as the audience can engage but they can’t in the cinema, there needed to be a narrative drama. What we found was that in giving Goodman a quest it allowed him a mental challenge, opened the door for him finding a mentor and really evolved that part of the story.
What do you believe is key to creating tension within a film?
I think there are a couple of things. The first and I guess the most obvious reality is, it’s all about character and it’s all about trying to communicate to the audience either verbally or visually that something is wrong. The other thing really important to us when casting was that there wasn’t a gloss to the film, instead, there was something very human about it. The play is just about ordinary people and their lives – that is at the heart of the work – we are all capable of doing terrible things either on purpose or accidentally or passively. Once we know that’s in the character, then it is about how you communicate that vision and how you use colour to drain the life out of it, so from the very start hopefully as an audience you are never really comfortable. These are all things that add together to make it get under your skin.
The film is impeccably cast, how did you bring everyone together, including the casting of yourself?
Well, because I played the character onstage we knew we were going into it with me playing Goodman and myself and Jeremy directing. Everyone was happy with that including the producers, it was then about finding the other roles. As soon as we thought of Martin to play Briddle we sent the script to his agent and then it was a fact of keeping our fingers crossed and praying because he’s phenomenal. When he came back and said he loved the script and wanted to take part, we were pinching ourselves. But then you need to think about commerce too as you need to get the money in place and having an international name aids that and in selling the film around the world. There aren’t many people around the world you can tick the box of being an absolutely amazing actor and an international name. Martin is both! Then you also need to think about what you want them to do so when he says yes you don’t just think, “Fuck me that’s amazing!”
Alex Lawther was also our first choice for the role and he is an extraordinary actor, he’s like an open vessel emotionally, there is just no filter. There are moments in the film when he is describing what has happened to him and his eyes just fill with tears. It’s like, “holy shit!” you just want to wrap your arms around him, he’s amazing.
Right from the beginning, we were thinking about Paul Whitehouse as we both just admired his comedy and his acting within that comedy so much. The minute we mention his name we thought no one else would be right for that role because we knew he could be funny, but we got the sense that he also had amazing pathos at heart and he was an amazing actor who you had never seen in a dramatic role. When he came to see us he was surprised we had called him in, we told him he was the right person and the minute he read the script he agreed. Everyone was our first choice, we ended up with a brilliant cast.
In the play, there are things that are ambiguous, but in the film, you are using large visual effects and the danger is far more tangible. What was going through your mind as you were creating this, what were you picturing?
Yes, you are really getting to see stuff in a way you really don’t in the theatre, and it is about how much you want to show or not. We have been blessed through the play for getting to know some of our heroes from childhood. John Landis was a fan of the play and he came to see it a few times. He’s an extraordinary man John and one thing he kept shouting at us when we were making the film was, “DON’T SHOW TOO MUCH, DON’T SHOW TOO MUCH!!!” [Andy shouts this in a comical Hollywood director accent]. So whenever we were talking about what we could do those words would just ring in our ears.
It’s a real balance and certainly in the first story, the nightwatchman story, we thought it was important. It emotionally took on more resonance than it did in the play, as the play is scary but it is much more a ghost train scare and we liked the idea that this felt emotionally much more engaged between Tony and what his life experience had been like. We felt we were allowed to see and understand a little bit more about what his fucked up pain was.
None of the effects are CG and that was a lot of fun because we had a very clear idea in our minds as to how those things would work. Sometimes the audience is looking at things without even knowing. One thing we’re trying to accomplish is making the audience feel like the men, like they are in his shoes when he is going through that change from one world to another – hopefully you don’t really know where you stand as an audience either.
How have your past experiences fed your creativity for Ghost Stories?
One of the things the cast and I all have in common is that we have all been lucky in having extraordinary careers, playing extraordinary men, alongside some extraordinary writers. It’s so exciting to be able to dig into yourself and speak truth to yourself. There is a lot of truth in these stories too from my life and Jeremy’s. One of the powerful elements of the film that we wanted to convey is that we live in a world where people feel so isolated and fucked and alone, that they will kill fifty people or join a movement that means they can create terror because they are then part of a family.
The reason comedy and horror work so well is that neither of them are cerebral emotions.
You can either say, “they are mental, kill them all” or try and get an understanding of how this is possible because they are just people. On the one hand, there has to be something that went wrong with them, but on the other, there is also something wrong with society and the way we live. It is exciting and scary to dig into those worlds but it’s very important to do. When you’re dealing with some of the greatest writers in the world and what they have to say about this stuff, it’s a privilege to be able to work in those arenas.
How do you create the working balance between comedy and horror simultaneously?
Laughter serves a good mechanical purpose because it is a good tension reliever and misdirection technique. As soon as someone laughs it is called an offbeat technique. They laugh, they relax, which then allows you to go BANG!!! and hit them with something really scary, as opposed to when they are already tense and expecting it, so it’s technically useful. It was important for us to keep the jokes ‘real’ rather than ‘silly’ (apart from the Sooty joke) and that they didn’t feel like gags. Jeremy and I make each other laugh a lot so when we’re improvising and coming up with ideas we just tried to keep it real. The reason comedy and horror work so well is that neither of them are cerebral emotions. They can have a huge impact very quickly, so that was the chord we were trying to strike.
What films and directors in the horror genre inspire you?
There were so so many. The BBC ghost stories at Christmas – some of the best ever filmed (Lawrence Gordon Clark’s direction is just unbelievable), Evil Dead, Drag Me to Hell, Dario Argento’s work, Night of The Demon, The Innocence, The Haunting, Armchair Thrillers – the ITV series, the Nigel Kneale series called Beasts, Dead of Night, American Werewolf. The very first day writing the play was a brainstorm of what scenes we love from our favourite horror films and before you know it, they have become ingredients in a big stew pot that becomes its own thing.
Jeremy and I, our love for horror hit right at the boom of the video nasties. The only horrors you had seen if you were lucky were the Hammer Horrors shown on BBC 2, then suddenly there was Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Driller Killer, Texas Chainsaw Massacre – a world was opening up to you that vomited all over you. Some were terrible and were shit but some were these remarkable, extraordinary visionary film directors that you were introduced to. Dario Argento, Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, George Romero, Mario Bava – all people that had a proper voice and something to say. So those influences run pretty deep, some we’re not even aware of I suspect.
What were the logistics of getting the film made?
It had been in the pipeline for a while, hanging around since the play was onstage. We had a lot of offers from American film companies who wanted to make it but we decided not to. Instead we wanted to wait and make it the way we wanted to make it. We also wanted to keep it as British and English as we could. The film has British horror going way back in its roots, we felt we wanted to be true to that so we knew we’d wait, bide our time and make it ourselves. We waited until the play had finished on the West End and gave ourselves some breathing space from it. As I said, we needed to be able to rip it up and start again which is very difficult when it’s something you have known and been a part of. Also, Jeremy and I have known each other since we were fifteen so it’s an adoration for our love of horror and ghost stories. We felt it was a wonderful opportunity.
How long did it take to make?
It took 18 months to adapt and the shoot itself was quick – 5 weeks and a very very ambitious schedule. We had the most brilliant team of collaborators and producers. Jeremy, who is my co-directing other half and oldest friend, and I are very much of the same mind and it leads us in the right direction – thank god.
Ghost Stories is populated entirely by male characters, which beneath the horror, is a theme commenting on the destructive trappings of masculinity. Can you talk us through your exploration of this theme?
The film and the play are absolutely about that suffocating male bullshit and the different versions that takes and how crippling it is. Sexual politics are really difficult subjects to talk about because in some ways the further we progress, the more fucked up things seem to get because what our roles are – it’s such a smoosh it becomes very hard. If you look at male suicide rates, it’s horrific, it’s insane, it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying the inability for men to open up, the inability to talk about their feelings, the inability to properly analyse what it is to be a man, it’s insane. This isn’t a film which is entirely about that but that’s certainly at its beating heart for sure and that’s something we hope people talk about.
The film and the play are absolutely about that suffocating male bullshit and the different versions that takes and how crippling it is.
We were so heartened by some of the reviews, a women reporter who got exactly that and said exactly that. Although it should be said that there is one woman in it and she is fucking amazing! Louise, the women who plays the grieved mother at the beginning. When she is standing there and the screen freezes on her, that is an amazing performance! So that’s one of the many things we would love people to go away and talk about. I think it’s a topic which can’t be underestimated.
There’s also a lot of questions around spiritualism and cynicism in trying to catch people out. I know that you have a history with psychology within your work, including writing and directing many of Derren Brown’s stage shows. What made you decide to include a scene in which a psychic is outted?
There are a couple of reasons. From a pragmatic point of view we wanted to establish who Goodman was, what his skill-sets were and what he was famous for. But then I am, as is Jeremy, fascinated with that fraudulent psychic world. That’s not to say that they are all frauds, but there are definitely fraudulent psychics and I’m very well versed on how that world works. Jeremy and I liked that setting but there’s also something very interesting within the world of grief.
If you visit those people doing the psychic readings, you either have to pragmatically look at it and think that either this man has got the gift and it’s real and that is my (God forbid) little boy who died of Leukaemia and whose spirit is now coming back. Either that or this piece of shit has stolen it from the internet or someone has fed it back to him and now he’s just giving that back and using it. You’d think that it’s so digesting, and I would never do that so it must be real, it must be the spirit of my son.
We have so much denial because the need for closure is so giant. How do you deal with death? How on earth do you deal with the death of a loved one? It’s everything, it’s massive and you never get over that shit. So if someone comes to you and says, “It’s ok, it’s ok, there is heaven and your son’s there”, and if you can have a slither of proof, then you thank God. So, it’s a really interesting area. It’s not to say that God doesn’t exist or heaven doesn’t exist or whatever you believe, but there is one thing that does exist and that is the abuse of that and the way people manipulate and use that for their own ill-gotten gains.
But, it also brings up another really interesting question that is, who is the biggest sinner there? Is the fraudulent psychic the biggest sinner for giving the parent fake closure or was Goodman the biggest sinner for saying, “He’s a fucking liar, your son isn’t in heaven. That’s a lie, you cannot have closure and peace. I’ve just destroyed your comfort.” It’s a really massive question because morally you know what the answer is but it’s not as black and white, not as simple as that, so they are really big and interesting questions.
Jeremy’s working on the League of the Gentleman at the moment and I’m in a Liam Neeson action film called The Commuter that comes out in January.
In terms of working with Jeremy, we are just talking about what our next thing will be. We have three things that we are excited by and we’ll dig into those until we figure out which really feels like ‘the one’. But, they’re all left of centre, none are traditional. We just love the idea of giving the audience an experience because that’s what we love – being properly taken on a journey.
For more, be sure to check out DN’s full 2017 London Film Festival coverage.