By Junsui Films | September 2012
The Director talks exclusively to Junsui Films about the challenges of balancing fact and fiction, the importance of the rehearsal process, and tells us all about his new film, WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT…
Junsui Films: How did the idea for When The Lights Went Out come about and what compelled you to develop a period horror film?
Pat Holden: The film is based on the story of a notorious UK poltergeist haunting (‘The Black Monk of Pontefract’) which happened in the late ’60s to the Pritchard family– relatives of mine who lived on the same housing estate. I always thought it had potential as a film and luckily I came to be in a position to turn it into one.
JF: How extensive was your research process, and did the ‘true story’ narrative device have any impact on the way you approached the writing of the screenplay?
I personally interviewed the family members and this became the basis for the screenplay. I didn’t adhere slavishly to the information though; when you are trying to create a genre film for a mainstream audience you need to hit certain beats and deliver certain moments that aren’t necessarily present to begin with. Hence it’s very much a ‘based on’ film rather than a documentary. The key facts from the true story are mostly there though.
JF: The film is also set against the UK’s 1974 economic crisis and evokes a contemporary relevance with timely themes of panic and desperation; how challenging was it balancing such a poignant subject with the narrative’s supernatural elements?
The backdrop of the economic crisis I saw as more of a device for trapping the family in the house (they can’t afford to move out) and elements like the blackouts as providing added drama (on top of the house being haunted, the lights won’t work). So for me, it wasn’t so much a question of balance as much as having a backdrop in place that completely underpins the supernatural elements.
I’m pleased that the film has some contemporary relevance; period films at their best highlight and counterpoint what’s going on today and I hope that that’s what’s happening with When The Lights Went Out.
JF: Were there any particular horror films or filmmakers you looked to for inspiration and how did you go about crafting the film’s biggest shocks and jump scares?
I was particularly inspired by films like, The Innocents, The Haunting, Poltergeist, The Exorcist and The Entity. I love the way these films create atmosphere, tension and dread through masterful storytelling, amazing sound design, and intelligent, expressive lighting, rather than gore and SFX. I studied these films long and hard before making my own ghost film.
I storyboarded all the scary scenes and made sure I had lots of time in the production schedule to do them justice. It’s difficult to surprise modern audiences, particularly horror buffs, who have seen everything, so instead I tried to tell a really interesting story and people it with compelling characters so this would drive things rather than a series of jumps and scares.
JF: How difficult is it to secure funding for a period film and at what stage did you get the green light for When The Lights Went Out?
No one wants to fund something they haven’t seen before so it made it difficult to raise money for a period horror film. The tactic I took was to sell it primarily a scary film that just happened to be set in the ’70s – and that we should stick to that because it was a true story.
It’s never, ever easy to get a green light. Film finance is a terrifying process that gives me shudders just to think about. When The Lights Went Out was no exception and it took years to get it financed. I reserve judgement of any film because they all deserve an award just for getting made.
JF: The film boasts a significant budget increase compared to your last feature, Awaydays, as a director what sort of advantages, and extra pressure, does a bigger budget bring?
Awaydays was a challenge to make because it had a large cast, trains, fight scenes, and we shot in Birkenhead during the middle of winter – all on top of a ridiculous budget. Although When The Lights Went Out was easier in some ways (we had a longer schedule) it was still a real challenge because there was so much coverage of each scene needed – you are trying to build tension so you need to have lots of options and angles in the edit. Some of the scary set-pieces were covered with as many as 50 different shots. This meant I had to be super prepared on the shoot; I shot-listed the whole script before shooting and boarded all the key scenes.
JF: Let’s talk casting and rehearsals. How crucial was it for you to find and develop a credible ‘family bond’ between the central characters?
The characters, and the chemistry between them, was very important to me. Though it was a genre supernatural film, I really wanted to create characters the audience would care about. In terms of putting the cast together, I try to cast for relationships as much as individuals; it’s no good having amazing actors if they don’t gel when together on the screen. I rehearsed all the actors (the production doesn’t always understand or appreciate this part of the process so you have to fight to keep rehearsal days in the schedule) in all the key scenes, as well as doing improvs and trust exercises with the kids.
Steve [Waddington] and Kate [Ashfield] were amazing at helping Tasha [Connor] and very quickly a ‘family’ dynamic between them started to form. I have huge respect for those guys; they approached the process in such an intelligent and intuitive way. Hats off to [casting directors] Des Hamilton and Nicci Topping who found an amazing, completely unknown lead girl and surrounded her with a fantastic ensemble cast.
JF: The film’s ‘haunted house’ creates an effective sense of claustrophobia, how much was shot on location and how challenging was it executing scenes in such an enclosed space?
The entire interior of the haunted house was a studio build; we shot in there for half the schedule: 16 days in total. The rest of the shoot was exteriors and other locations like the church and the school. The house, I deliberately wanted cramped and confined – just like it was in reality; I hate it when you see a working class house that’s massive and obviously built for the convenience of the crew rather than verisimilitude. I wanted a sense of these people being trapped. I also liked the idea of using old-fashioned coverage and tension building sequences within these limited confines; I hoped it would give the film an unusual atmosphere.
It was fairly challenging because it was definitely quite cramped to shoot in at times, but the great advantage with sets is you can fly walls in and out so no angle is entirely inaccessible. You can also build in camera traps and pre-plan things to your advantage – while hopefully staying true to your overall aim of creating something that feels hemmed in.
JF: Did you test screen the film at any point?
I tested the film while it was being edited at Molinare. The first time I saw it with an audience was at the Rotterdam Film Festival. I was terrified no one would get it because the print wasn’t subtitled and the dialogue was entirely broad Northern….!
JF: From script to screen, how pleased are you with the film, and what can we expect next from Pat Holden?
I’m never really pleased with my own work, and can’t judge it with any objectivity anyway. But there are some things I’m pleased about: the cast and performances, the production design, some of the blocking and coverage.
I’m working on a couple of things at present: a film about ’70s entrepreneur James Corrigan and the achievement of his dream project: the Batley Variety Club – a huge night spot in the middle of nowhere that managed to put on acts like Shirley Bassey and Louis Armstrong. It’ll be a sort of ‘one man and his dream’ story with great live music and modern performers standing in for the classic acts of the past. I’m also writing a big budget Sci-Fi comedy for Elton John’s company Rocket Films.
When The Lights Went Out is out now and reviewed here.