By Junsui Films | November 2011
The screenwriter gives Junsui Films a fascinating insight into his storied career and tells us all about his new feature film, The Awakening….
Junsui Films: Let’s start with your background and your journey into screenwriting.
Stephen Volk: Well, there’s no formal way of getting into screenwriting. Or least there wasn’t when I started writing, which was the late 1970s when I came to London. I studied at Art College to be a graphic designer but I had always been interested in writing (from comics to books) and after making a prize winning animation film, I got into film school in Bristol.
After that I got a job as a copywriter in a London Ad Agency (OBM), but having started writing scripts and stories in college I continued to write them in the evenings while advertising paid the bills. I just kept sending screenplays out and getting them back, rejected. Then, in 1985 I got an agent and things started to accelerate. She sold three scripts very fast, one to Goldcrest, one to a German studio and the third to Virgin Films, the last one being Gothic, which was directed by Ken Russell. That was my first screen credit.
JF: Which writers or filmmakers would you say have had the biggest influence on your work?
True answer? All of them! Even directors completely unrelated to genre can have a huge influence. For example, I like the economy of the way Paul Haggis writes, or Bill Condon. I think being a genre fan means you have a massive catalogue of films in your head. I don’t think I follow in any sort of rigid tradition, like someone who says “I follow in the footsteps of Ken Loach” but I can think of the films that stand out as influences. Psycho (1960) by Hitchcock, obviously, The Innocents (1961) by Jack Clayton. But more than anything I feel myself influenced by Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). Tremendously so.
It was the film that took the leap from being a genre story into something not only intelligent but existential. I’d say also Taxi Driver (1976) by Scorsese, The Devils (1971) by Ken Russell. Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963). I also love Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) by Bryan Forbes. Less so, but The Exorcist (1973) by William Friedkin – with whom I worked on the script for The Guardian. Really I think I’m drawn to the subject matter of the films more than the director. In the end I’m drawn to a depiction of the clash between the rational and the irrational (as in Don’t Look Now) or the horrors of faith (as in The Devils), or stories where a person’s internal state is externalised, as with the neurosis of the Governess in The Innocents or the psychosis of the Taxi Driver.
JF: You’re recognised as a key writer in the supernatural genre. What is it about this subject that continues to interest you?
Thanks! Really? Let me put it like this. You can address the subject of grief in a realistic, social-naturalistic film. But you can also depict it through the metaphor of a ghost story. You can tell a story of brutality in the everyday world. But you can magnify it by telling a werewolf story. Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction provide wonderful tropes and ideas by which we can embellish and expand on everyday reality in order to try and make meaning of the world. Though I love Raymond Carver, for instance, I think realism is a complete dead alley in terms of storytelling. Imagination is everything but imagination is something that is very much frowned on in England. If it’s impossible, don’t write about it. “Write about what you know!” they tell writing students. Nonsense! Write about what you don’t know – what you feel, fear, imagine, dread….
In particular I love ghost stories because they immediately involve the psychology of the protagonist. Why is this person seeing this ghost and what are they going to do? The ghost is only there to illuminate the fatal flaw of the character: and not just for scares and conflict but to reveal on a deep level who they are. It is also the only true metaphysical genre – the writer can explore and discuss, through drama, the nature of reality, and of course the nature of belief.
These massive subjects can be tackled, yet through the most exciting form of entertainment! It’s rather wonderful. I loved the idea that my TV drama Ghostwatch was a metaphysical quest by paranormal researchers – but all done through the tacky and banal surface of a TV show! Bottom line, you can go places emotionally in a supernatural story that no other genre dares.
JF: You’ve carved out a solid career in TV as well as film. How do you find the transition between writing for the two mediums?
The writing is the same – exactly the same – but the process is entirely different. In television it’s a level playing field. You sit with the director and producer and it’s very much “best idea wins”, which is as it should be. There is the tacit acknowledgement that you, the writer, came up with the bloody thing so you, conceivably, know best!
In movies it’s completely different. Once the script is delivered you are nothing. The script is only there to get the director and then he/she is the Big I Am. Then he/she is only important in order to get the finance and the cast. So no producer round the table is going to side with you against the director – NEVER! They want him/her to stay, but they don’t give a fuck if YOU walk. You are dispensable and can easily be replaced. In fact, the director probably wants to insert his “vision” on the script anyway. And so on.
The best experience I ever had – and, frankly, the best result I ever saw produced from my writing was my TV series Afterlife. I’m not saying the producers didn’t give me notes and tell me very strongly what they felt – at times it was tough – but the stories that were made and the scenes that were shot were (with very few alternations) my stories and my scenes.
That isn’t so in any feature film I’ve been involved in in the 25 years I’ve been writing. It’s one of the things that makes me laugh hollowly about reviews, when they say a film is well directed but had a lousy script. As if the director never noticed the script was lousy! Ha! The truth is, 99% of the time the script is lousy because the director was allowed to make it lousy by weak producers. A director directs a scene he thinks is badly written? No. Of course not. He wrote it! And he’s not a writer – which is why the film is bad!
JF: Let’s move onto your upcoming film, The Awakening. How did the project first come about?
It came about when I was mentoring at a screenwriting school and one evening I showed the young writers The Innocents (based on Henry James’s ghost story The Turn of the Screw) starring Deborah Kerr, as a way of discussing my interest in films where the internal psychology is illustrated in external events: raising the question, is she or isn’t she going mad? Anyway, at the beginning of Act Three the little girl, Flora, is sent away from the haunted house, Bly, so that the Governess can confront Miles – who may or may not be possessed by the vile spirit of Peter Quint.
Well, I got to wondering what happened to Flora? Who did she become when she grew up? I started to think, what if she blocked out everything about Quint and Miles and the ghosts and in effect was in denial about her traumatic childhood. What if deep down in a way she didn’t understand she was drawn to ghosts? What if she was a ghost hunter – but dedicated to explaining the phantoms away? Then I thought I had an exciting story; how she is drawn back to “Bly”, now turned into a boys’ school, and her memories are slowly unearthed.
Of course it changed a lot along the way and all direct connection to The Turn of the Screw was lost. The story had to work in its own right, not as a sequel. The back story – which had been about rediscovering Quint and Miss Jessel – became totally different. In discussion with another director before Nick Murphy, I was made to update the setting from the 1880s to 1920. It was originally called The Interpretation of Ghosts and very much more about repressed memory in a sexual sense, but the Freudian connection diminished with the setting change to the 1920s.
JF: How did you find the process of co-writing with director Nick Murphy?
I didn’t write with Nick. He came on board and apparently (from what I’ve heard) had an extremely confident take on what film he wanted to make (about “everybody having their ghosts”), and did several drafts of the script from then on in, on his own, with the producers. I read a draft or two and gave my notes and Nick was gracious enough to say that some of them were good ideas. On the other hand he certainly solved a few problems that were giving us trouble and were unresolved in the draft I’d written with the previous director.
JF: How involved were you during the production? Did you visit the set often?
I visited once when they were shooting a big scene with cars and stuff in South London. It’s always exciting and always boring because as the writer you have nothing to do and nobody knows who you are! There was some girl watching the takes with earphones on and I asked who she was and apparently it was the lawyer from BBC Films. So she gets to listen to the actors’ dialogue but I don’t! It’s quite astonishing. But Nick said hello and Rebecca said hello and I left. I think in future I will get a T-shirt saying: “I’M THE FUCKING WRITER, THAT’S WHO!”
JF: The film attracted a stellar cast, including Dominic West and Rebecca Hall. What did you make of the film’s casting?
Rebecca was the name on everybody’s lips. She just was. I thought she was perfect and she gives a luminously good performance. It’s not easy to act in these scary pictures – I think it’s one of the best performances ever in a horror film, in terms of the pain she wrings out of herself. I think Dominic is wonderful too. Great casting and he does it all so seemingly effortlessly. He is becoming one of my favourite actors of the moment. I’d like to write a part for him in everything!
JF: What are your thoughts on the finished film?
I saw it finally at a screening when the final music was put on and I told myself to be objective. Obviously I had mixed feelings because, essentially, I’d been kicked off it and it had been rewritten by the director. But I said to myself, no, just watch it as a punter without any prior feelings and when it’s over ask yourself “If I’d just seen this film in the cinema and afterwards someone asked me if I wanted my name on it, what would I say?” And the answer is. “Hell yes, in a heartbeat!”
I think Nick has done a superb job. It’s possibly the best ghost story made in England since The Innocents and thank God, after so many Japanese and Spanish ones – this is our genre, for Christ’s sake. Ever since that moment of inspiration way back about young Flora, I’d wanted to write an English ghost story, in period, but for now, with a psychological spin and depth. It took over 14 years to get it made and now they’re saying it’s a bit like The Orphanage, although there wasn’t The Orphanage 14 years ago. No The Others, nothing! Give me a break.
JF: Any future plans you can tell us about?
I have two films nearing finance ; Telepathy, which is about old Soviet ESP experiments; and Burn, a psychodrama set in an American high school (I’d describe it as the polar opposite of Twilight!). I have many irons in the fire in TV including a crime serial called Offender and a supernatural thriller series I’m very excited about called The Midnight Men. I’m hoping they’ll go to script and obviously hoping they’ll go on to get made! Also I’ve written several new screenplays on spec such as Sgt Bertrand and Playtime (with fantasy writer Tim Lebbon), and I have a few short stories coming out. I have a Sherlock Holmes story in Gaslight Arcanum and a “weird west” story in an anthology called Gutshot. So I’m trying to keep busy. Stay tuned to my website for news.