This year has seen the release of your latest screenwriting opus The Awakening. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea? Were you commissioned to write it, or did you write it and then shop it around?
SV: The Interpretation of Ghosts (as it used to be called) came about in the late 90s when I took a stint as a screenwriting tutor and showed my students the brilliant 1960s film The Innocents based on Henry James’s Turn of the Screw. It gave me the idea of a female ghost hunter in a haunted house surrounded by her retro paraphernalia, but also the story of the ghost she encounters. I wrote several treatments and took it to various producers. It changed a lot over the years, took on many forms. It was originally set in Victorian times because it was in many ways about repression (repressed memory, repressed sexuality) and because I had this image of women in black dresses, like in The Piano. After several years BBC Films liked it enough to commission a script and that went through various drafts. Origin Pictures got involved and they began searching for a director, it was updated to the 1920s, and the Dominic West and Imelda Staunton characters were introduced and it became what was filmed, more or less.
There are two other versions of the script, one set in France, and one which is a direct sequel to Turn of the Screw, can you tell us about those?
SV: Not just two – lots. SPOILER ALERT: As I say, we watched The Innocents and there’s a point where the little girl, Flora, leaves the house, Bly, and we never see her again. I thought: what happened to Flora? What if she grew up and blanked out all her horrible memories of the ghosts at Bly (Quint and Miss Jessel). More interestingly, what if as an adult she became rabidly sceptical about ghosts, not realising the truth of her own past because she’s shut it away in denial? That became fascinating: the idea of using repressed memory in a ghost story, so that when she returns to the house (now a school) she doesn’t even recognise it, and the process of the story is her recovering those traumatic memories. That was the essential idea we retained throughout all the drafts. One, briefly, was set in Paris with Sigmund Freud as a young doctor, but it seemed a very English ghost story at its core. Eventually we felt we had to delete the direct references to Turn of the Screw and create our own back-story, but I still think it has the ‘echo’ of that book and film: ‘Flora’ becoming ‘Florence’ is still there in the name of the main character as a nice reminder.
Do you think the correct version was made?
SV: I think the final film is an excellent film and director Nick Murphy did a wonderful job in terms of the visuals and the atmosphere, and of course the performances. But it’s not really the film I started off wanting to see, by any means. BBC Films were all worried about ‘the Cranford effect’ of bonnets and such like, but I would like to have seen the version set in Victorian times, as I say, because the theme was repression and to me that is the setting that reflects that theme: in clothes, manners, in speech. It had a deeper sexual undercurrent and a social subtext, originally. Someone once said a ghost story has to be either Freudian or Marxist and I think it was actually both, before a director came on board. I also think it had a simpler and more emotional back story and, in one version anyway, an extremely shattering final scene, the like of which I’ve never seen in a ghost story or a horror film. I think it would have been very memorable, but of course I’ll never know. Also it’s possible I am wrong and the version that was made was the best possible version. It’s entirely subjective.
SV: I don’t like the word message or meaning really, but obviously there is a dramatic reason that underpins a story or makes it a story you want to write. But to answer your question as best I can: beware that you may be covering up your true nature or the truth about your own identity. The hubris of science. Pride cometh before a fall. Don’t think you know all the answers (even about yourself) because you don’t. More than anything, don’t cut yourself off from what you feel: trust your feelings and the journey it takes you on. Nick Murphy felt very much that the film was about ‘people see the ghosts they need to’ and that was his one-liner. I’m very much of the opinion that ghost stories are not about the ghost but the person that sees the ghost: they are projections of the person’s flaw that has to be put right, in whatever real or symbolic way.
You said elsewhere that the characters in the film drive the story forward rather than the mystery. Was this always your intention?
SV: Without being too highfalutin, the characters have to enable the story to happen. For me, the characters don’t come first, the story idea comes first, then you construct the character or characters in order for the story to plausibly happen. If you just take some formulaic teenager from a million other movies, what is the point? The thing is, with genre, the character has to be specific enough to feel real but universal enough to identify with. That’s the balance. As for mystery, I really hate constructing mystery stories: the placing the clues, the red herrings, the reveal, and it is usually the place where most ghost stories, like What Lies Beneath, fall apart disastrously (even The Ring: who is interested in who committed the crime? Nobody!). Ghost stories appeal to the sense of mystery and enigma and the uncanny: nobody wants the solution, really. But, then again, you give them nothing, they’re still not happy!
There seems to be a growing interest in this sort of film, why do you think this is the case?
SV: I’m very sceptical about the thesis that these things come in and out of fashion. Yes, The Awakening is being released shortly before Hammer’s remake of The Woman in Black, but hang on, I wrote it about thirteen years ago! It could have been made at any point in that thirteen year period. It could have pre-dated The Orphanage, The Devil’s Backbone, The Others or even The Sixth Sense. So fashion is largely arbitrary. I get very tired of lazy newspaper articles about vampires suddenly being in fashion again (with Twilight): the fact is, vampires never go away, they are taking new story forms all the time. And ghost stories are always around. There are times, like the ‘90s when they are unfashionable because it was all teenagers and slashers and Scream, and that’s all that could be financed, and at the time I said, “This won’t last. Audiences are going to say, OK, I get it; now really scare me”: and they did. And then there was The Sixth Sense. Which, thank God, went back to first principles and treated the audience intelligently.
SV: I am really proud that The Awakening is beautifully made and has fantastic performances from Rebecca Hall and Dominic West, one of my favourite actors at the moment: he is perfectly cast and brings a lot to the story. What I most like is that it is set in summer but it is summer tinged with sickness and that reflects the idea of a country in mourning, traumatised by death. Nick knew exactly what film he was making and pulled it off.
Can you tell us of any future projects?
SV: I have a fairly outrageous story called ‘Celebrity Frankenstein’ coming out in an anthology called Exotic Gothic 4 in March (PS Publishing), and another story, ‘White Butterflies’, is in PS’s book of genre/Western hybrids, Gutshot. I’m back working on some scripts right now, the pilots for two different TV series I can’t really give you any details about at this stage, but a press release is going out soon on one of them, I’ve just heard. Also I have a couple of new spec screenplays doing the rounds of production companies, including Playtime, which I wrote with my good pal Tim Lebbon, and a very challenging piece of work, Sgt Bertrand. People are having difficulty with the subject matter of that one, but that’s how I like it. It’s provocative in the extreme. What’s the point of writing stuff that isn’t? I possibly think it’s my best bit of writing to date. We’ll see. The point is, you’ve got to get it made and that’s the struggle.
Stephen, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me once again, as always it has been, enlightening, enjoyable, and above all an honour.
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