For the first time in over two decades, Britain's infamous Hammer House of Horror is finally back in business. The first feature to come from the legendary studio is The Woman in Black, a supernatural thriller. Daniel Radcliffe plays a young lawyer who heads out to a remote parcel of property to settle an estate. Instead of paperwork, he finds a vengeful ghost terrorizing the locals. We spoke with director James Watkins about Harry Potter, joining the legendary production studio, and "emotional horror."
How did you get involved in The Woman in Black?
It was boringly straight-forward: they sent me the script, I read it, I liked it, and we took it from there. We developed the material a little further from that point, but Jane Goldman wrote a fantastic script and I really responded to the story and could see the potential for a very scary film. She wrote a script that spoke to deeper primal fears about loss, separation, parents losing children. It had a real emotional heartbeat - it wasn't just a vehicle for scares. It was richer and deeper and weirder and harder to get a handle on. That really appealed to me. It was this weird fusion of a classical British ghost movie and J-horror.
Do you see this as "emotional horror"?
That's a good term. Can I use that?
"Emotional horror." I love it. The film definitely works on a really scary level but it also has an emotional kick to it. I hate the laziness genre films sometimes have, in terms of expectation and intent. I think it comes down, fundamentally, to studios, distributors, whoever, saying "Okay, we can make a certain horror film for a certain price, bang it out, and if it is half-decent, we'll make our money on it." There isn't a lot of love or care or attention. There is no reason why a great horror film can't be well-crafted or can't have an emotional through line, where the characters aren't simply fodder to be knocked off. You look at The Exorcist, you look at Jaws, they treat people as people. They are scary because they treat the people as real, their situations and concerns as real. Hopefully the time you have invested in the characters will lead to a scarier experience.
Do you think audiences nowadays don't have the patience for the "slow burn" horror film, or do you think it is the studios, who don't want to give it a shot?
I think it's the latter. I genuinely think it's the latter. I mean, who knows. But I think people really underestimate audiences. If you tell a good story, and you tell it well, audiences will enjoy it. This notion of categorizing films, where there has to be a scare at minute five, a scare at minute seven, or whatever the hell it is, I think it's horseshit. I really do. If people invest in a story they will go with you. There is no formula to that. I find it quite insulting... they "bland" everything out; they make everything the same. It's like, "These are the rules, it has to go this way and if it doesn't you are breaking the rules." The people who say that will slavishly copy that until someone comes along and breaks those rules, then they will slavishly copy them. It's a dangerous cycle.
So are you trying to be the one to break all the rules so that other filmmakers will want to copy you?
[Laughs] I'm not! I'm just trying to tell the story honestly, and let the story speak for itself. Where these people fail is when they try to impose rules on the story and miss the story. I think it was Terry Gilliam who told a story where he makes a film, and he says "It's an elephant," and [the studio] says, "Actually, we wanted a giraffe." And they try to make it into a giraffe, but you're never going to get a giraffe; you are going to get a deformed elephant. It's analogous to that.
The Woman in Black is based on a book by Susan Hill, which was then turned into a wildly popular stage play. Do you feel any added pressure to live up to these previous incarnations of the story?
Not consciously. The play is phenomenally popular, but it's a play. I suppose if I were putting on a play I would have felt that pressure more.
This is the first Hammer film to come along in decades. Were you a fan of Hammer films?
Very much. Particularly the early Hammer films. The Terence Fisher directed films, the Quatermass films, and even weird films like The Nanny, and their little short films. If you know and love British horror, obviously you have to have a relationship with Hammer. It's great to be associated with [the studio]. That said, they did make some god-awful films as well.
You have said before that the studio wanted to do The Woman in Black in 3D, and you flat-out refused. Is it because you don't like 3D in general, or you just didn't feel that this was the right project for 3D?
It's both, but it is specific to this film. I don't like 3D; I don't buy the argument that "it's more immersive." I don't like the way it messes with the luminescence of the film. It makes it dark and muddy and all of that. But especially for this film, this is a film about what you can't quite see, what's on the edge of the frame. It's a film of suggestion and new direction. I thought about it quite deeply, actually. I thought, "Am I just being a luddite here? Is there something I'm not seeing? Is there a way of using the depth of the frame?" But I could never figure it out to my satisfaction, thinking it was any other thing than a gimmick to increase the cost of tickets.
It would have been a complete mistake. The argument I kept telling people is, "Look, would you have shot The Others in 3D? Would you have made The Innocents in 3D?" It's insanity, and it wouldn't happen with me.
There seems to be a resurgence in supernatural horror right now. Why do you think that is?
I really have no idea. I think it's just cyclical. You had the very hard Saw films, and at the end it is just a return to a different type of horror. I think generally there is always something about the supernatural that is somehow inherently comforting. It suggests the sense of an afterlife, a sense of something else. Maybe in these difficult times, people are looking for some kind of spiritual sense, in some way, however dark that might be. I don't know; I'm sounding very pretentious now [laughs]. I genuinely have no idea! It just is. I'll shut up.
Did you worry at all about casting Daniel Radcliffe as your lead? Were you worried that audiences would have a specific expectation of what the film would be, without having seen it?
Yeah, of course. Dan is part of this rich legacy and he has those associations. He has good baggage and bad baggage. Some people can't necessarily see beyond that. But Dan is not Harry Potter. He is associated with the iconic role of Harry Potter. But let's look at Dan afresh. He doesn't look anything like Harry Potter , and he doesn't act like Harry Potter. He's playing a different role. Sure, there will be some people who I'm sure won't be able to get over that, but honestly there is nothing you can do about people like that. What is really reassuring is that people see it in good faith and they are hugely impressed by Dan and his performance. I think he did a wonderful job. You can spend your life second-guessing these kinds of things, but when I told Dan about the role, where I wanted to take it, what I wanted him to do, the challenges, and how hard it was going to be, he was absolutely up for it. I think we kept that promise.
The film is rated PG-13. Did you have any trouble with the MPAA over getting that rating?
Not that I know of! I haven't heard anything. The thing about this film... it's interesting because I've had this discussion before with friends. I think this film is old-fashioned in the best sense, in some ways - it's very modern in other ways. But if you look back at some of these great horror films, they would probably get a PG-13. There is no gore, no violence, no swearing, no nudity, no sex... none of those "categories" that delineate a 15 [Britain's equivalent of a rating between PG-13 and R]. The fact remains, the film is very, very scary on its own terms. I've screened the film enough times to know! I think the rating issue is, in many ways, irrelevant. The question is, is the film scary? Are people finding it scary? Thankfully they are.
Is there much difference between the British rating board and the American rating board?
I don't know, to be honest. I don't do these things. It's something the distributors take care of. It's actually an interesting question, and I would love to know, but I don't really know how those processes work.
I think it's kind of nice that you get to divorce yourself from that side of the filmmaking. I always speak to filmmakers who get so frustrated when they have to take their films in front of ratings boards, who nitpick every scene.
Yeah. I'm fortunate, I suppose because it's not violence or swearing or anything like that. The film is a ghost film; it works based on what you can't quite see. It works in the imagination, so it is quite hard to censor that. What are you going to do, cut a POV shot looking down an empty corridor because it comes across as scary? It's very tricky. I think it's to our benefit though. I hope so.