Behind the scenes on the horror movie The Awakening

Nick, can you tell us where The Awakening came from?

NM: It was a script by Stephen Volk, and the central part of it was a woman going to a school to expose a hoax. The potential that I felt when it came to me was this idea of loss. I think the draft I read was already set in the 20s but it wasn’t as much about loss and grief so I was intrigued by this hook of we see ghosts because we need to, we see what we need to. You have got to have one line in your head about what the film is about and once we had settled on that, then I knew what it could be about, and anything else comes off the back of that, really.

Rebecca, what drew you to The Awakening?

RH: It was a combination of things. It was a very strong story; it was a very strong female lead and it was unlike anything I had done before, so that was really the number one for me. I got the script and I responded to it pretty much immediately; I was at that stage in my career when I wanted a very strong female character. They tend to crop up a lot in horror movies, which I suppose is no bad thing because people want to see women running around and screaming. This one had that, and I thought it had something more interesting because she is very assertive and very empowered so then it becomes a classic pride comes before a fall story with a twist. On many counts it was something that I had never even got close to tackling or even thinking about. I’ve never done a film that I was in every scene; I have never done a film that had such extremes of emotion. It was a whole set of challenges that I had never done before; in the right ways. In a good way, never an uncomfortable way.

Nick, is it true you wrote the script with Rebecca in mind?

NM: Yes. I didn’t have a picture of her next to the monitor – that would have been a bit freaky – but when I met her I said ‘I wrote this with you in mind’ and her face just fell. I think she thought she was having lunch with a stalker [laughs] When we sent her the script, the idea that she responded to it was just bonkers really. It was great. It went from the germ of maybe this could be a movie, to yes she’s at lunch, and yes, she wants to do it.

Nick, what about the time period spoke to you for the film?

NM: Just the loss really, I wanted the tone of the film to hang heavy. It was summer, but we graded and shot for there to be a sense of sickness; a country suffering from sickness. It was just to occupy a world against whom someone like Florence is swimming, and certainly what we know of that period where the belief in the supernatural grew. The era was essential. In 1921 in Britain there were over a million people that were just missing, they are just gone. The war and the flu epidemic have just decimated society and it’s in those gaps and that sense of loss that ghosts step, in the story.

Rebecca, how did you get into the mindset for a horror film?

RH: well, I suppose it’s like anything; you just have to commit to it and jump off the cliff and hope for the best. There is something quite comforting about acting fear, because you can’t really fake it. There is a certain amount of adrenaline that rises in you when you go there and you physically get yourself into that state. The adrenaline begins to take over, and you are actually terrified. You can go away and have a cup of tea and a joke about it. If you believe it enough, it happens is the short, very trite answer [laughs]

Nick, Florence is surrounded by damaged male characters, was that a deliberate choice to emphasise her strength?

NM: Yes. Something we talked about quite early. You hear people say that they like playing strong female roles, then you look at it and think just because they have a bow and arrow, it doesn’t make it a strong female role. It was very important to me and Dominic [West] that Mallory didn’t rescue Florence. It was OK to have Tom rescue Florence but it was very important to me that this woman didn’t go through the film being strong only to have the big man kick down the door and rescue her at the end.

Nick, you mentioned the idea in the film that we see ghosts because we need to, but there is also the idea that ghosts need to be seen. Was that a deliberate choice?

NM: That emerged during the writing process; the idea that ghosts need to be seen, that came from the boarding school. I was pretty lonely at times in my boarding school and all the bullying in the film happened either to me or people around me and that’s where that came from. Part of the bullying in those institutions is often being ignored and I liked this. I found it fit the central idea, this need to have friends, even when you are dead. Who is to say that dead people don’t need friends?

Nick, this is your first feature length film, how different was it to working on TV?

NM: We do have the remote control in television, and that is very limiting for a film maker because you have a limited amount of time that you can string people along for before an executive will say ‘guys we have to fill in the blanks here because people have got their remote controls in their hands’. One of the best films I have ever seen is 21 Grams. 20 minutes in, I wanted to walk out but by the end I was overwhelmed, and I think that’s what cinema needs to be.

Nick, what can we expect from you next?

NM: It is not a ghost story, it’s not a mystery, it’s not a supernatural thriller. It’s a contemporary drama called Blood, with Paul Bettany. It’s really a Greek tragedy, set in a modern policing family; two brothers who are crushed by the weight of their father’s shadow. It’s a blistering script and I can’t wait.

So no comedy then?

NM: Comedy is terrifying; comedy is like horror. With scares, it’s either scary or not, and comedy is either funny or it’s not. You can’t say ‘well it’s an interesting comedy but it’s not funny’. If it’s not funny, it’s not a comedy.

Words – Brogen Hayes

THE AWAKENING is now showing in Irish cinemas