A big budget. A world famous actor in the leading role. A story tried and tested in print and on the stage. The cinematographic world was perhaps justified in expecting great things from James Watkins’ latest foray into the world of horror. But does he feel equal to the hype surrounding a film with such resources at its disposal?
“Everyone says ‘oh, can he handle a bigger budget,’ but it is rubbish really because it is much harder to make small films than big films because there is far less money. You have fewer resources and far less time. Film-making is all about time and money.” He describes the making of Eden Lake, his first as a “thrash” and, with The Woman In Black, despite having a world famous star in the leading role “We weren’t exactly moving at a stately pace. We were still charging through it because in comparison to a Hollywood movie this was very small.”
With this being Daniel Radcliffe’s first leading role outside the confines of Hogwarts, it would be fair to assume that the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter franchise would cast a long shadow over The Woman In Black. Some have said that the 22-year-old actor, who is purportedly worth £42 million, might find it difficult to become a star in his own right. While never genuinely concerned that the casting of Radcliffe would overshadow the film itself; director James Watkins does admit to a certain degree of trepidation. “When somebody has played such an iconic role for ten years and the association with it being so big, you do have to be mindful of it.” But any doubts Watkins may have had about casting the erstwhile wizard were quashed upon meeting him. “Dan’s incredibly smart, incredibly committed and wants to take on challenges and wanted to be challenged. I wouldn’t have cast him as an actor if I didn’t think he could have done it. I’m thrilled by the responses people are giving to Dan because it’s a hard thing for him to cast off and I think he’s done a brilliant job of doing it.”
As well as the difficulty of ridding himself of the Harry Potter affiliation, Radcliffe also had the taxing nature of the role to contend with. “He isn’t getting to act off other actors. It’s him carrying the film and I think he carries it.” Audiences seem to agree: currently holding the top spot in the UK box office after exceeding expectations by taking £3.15m on its debut weekend, Radcliffe has proved that he has the sufficient star power to ‘open’ a movie. Despite some people questioning Radcliffe’s acting chops, he gives an impressively understated performance as Arthur Kipps, a young widower, forced to leave his son behind in order to travel to a remote village where he is victim to a series of mysterious hauntings by the titular woman.
The success of The Woman In Black can’t be fully accredited to Radcliffe though: director James Watkins has made a truly compelling, traditional ghost story that ratchets up tension to an almost unbearable degree and supplies effective shocks and proper scares. The film is most redolent of is J.A Bayona’s The Orphanage and it is the type of film that hasn’t been made in Britain for some time. “The Spaniards have been doing it really well recently and I thought, well, this is really a classic British form. You look back to films like The Innocents and some of those films, brilliant as they are, are somewhat dated in their pacing.” Despite being a period gothic horror, Watkins made sure that The Woman In Black worked as a contemporary film. “I wanted to make a slow burn film with a stately pace and is really composed but to bring different influences to it.” With The Woman In Black primarily being set indoors, and predominantly known from the successful theatre adaption, when the production of a film version was announced, the concern was that it would feel stagey. Watkins has managed to allay these fears and has made a film that is definitely cinematic. “We wanted to maximise the external locations first of all, so we used a lot of brilliant locations and tried to make it on a massive scale. Inside the house I wanted real depth in the image, so we designed the sets so that the corridors were really long and deep, deliberately to keep a sense of scale within the film.”
The Woman In Black can be viewed as a reaction to the recent slew of ‘torture porn’ films such as The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film which act more as endurance tests than films. The director claims that recently “there have been a lot of horror films that are nasty without really being scary and nasty and scary aren’t necessarily the same thing.” Anyone who watched Watkins’ debut feature, Eden Lake, might accuse the director of hypocrisy. The harrowing tale of feral youths terrorising a young couple definitely didn’t hold back on gore, yet while he claims that he “likes [blood and violence] as much as the next person,” The Woman In Black gave him “the opportunity to make a film that was really deeply scary, but with no gore, no violence, and not really any blood. We thought we could make a film that acted through the imagination in the way that the classic ghost stories in literature work. We contented that anything that you could shoot would never be as scary as anything that you could imagine. We tried to get under the audience’s skin and into their heads.”
Admitting that he hadn’t read Susan Hill’s novel that the film is based upon, or watched Stephen Mallatratt’s long-running theatre adaption before taking on the directorial role, Watkins says what attracted him to the project was Jane Goldman’s screenplay. Previously known as the flame-haired wife of Jonathan Ross, Goldman’s recent successes including Kick Ass and X-Men: First Class have made her one of those very rare things in the film industry – a star name screenwriter. “I was sent Jane’s screenplay and I really responded to it. I thought it had the potential to be both a very scary film and I like the fact it had an emotional through line to it and had a heart as well as some horror. Its ambitions were slightly bigger than the things I read before.” While some directors, such as David Lynch, only feel comfortable in a writer/ director role in order to exercise the greatest possible degree of control over their films, Watkins didn’t feel he was giving up any control over the film. In fact, if anything he found that having Goldman on board was a massive bonus. “As the director you can put your stamp on things. It’s a director’s medium in many ways and you have that opportunity, but Jane is so smart that it was actually the case of having an extra ally. I didn’t look at it in terms of being a problem. I looked at it in terms of having another really smart voice, not just in the scripting stage, but also in the shoot and the edit. I have become friends with Jane and she’s just an incredible person to work with.”
After a period of stagnation for British cinema, where all that seemed to be made were bankable football hooligan films, Guy Ritchie-esque gangster films and bleak kitchen sink dramas, there now seems to be a vanguard of young British directors making ambitious and original films, which Watkins is a part of. Watkins doesn’t think blame should be levelled at filmmakers claiming that, “there are a lot of committed British filmmakers and a broad spectrum of really smart people,” but concedes that, “occasionally producers can get lazy in terms of thinking there is a quick way of finding a youthful audience and making a quick buck.” Last year saw a brace of brilliant British debuts with Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, Joe Cornish’s alien invasion caper Attack The Block and Paddy Considine’s harrowing Tyrannosaur all being released, along with an excellent return from Ben Wheatley with Kill List. Some of these directors are moving on to bigger projects but are definitely not compromising on originality; Richard Ayoade is currently making The Double starring Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska, while Ben Wheatley’s current projects include the Edgar Wright-produced Sightseers, the Nick Frost vehicle I, Macrobane, and a monsters versus cops film, titled Freak Shift. Watkins sees no reason why the current purple patch can’t continue, with his advice to young aspiring writers and directors being “just make stuff because the people who have the money are always looking for new talent and they love discovering new people, so if you make something good people will find you.”
What Watkins shares with these directors is keen ambition. While wanting to make films that appeal to a mainstream audience he is also unwilling to go for the lowest common denominator, citing Christopher Nolan as a director whose status he aspires to. It doesn’t seem likely that he is someone intimidated by the prospect of making films on a huge scale. While joking that he isn’t likely to direct a romantic comedy any time soon, he isn’t constrained by genre either, despite, so far, both of his films being horrors.
“It’s interesting, Eden Lake and this film are very different. You could potentially say they are both horror films but one’s a ghost story and one’s a very harsh thriller, but they are both in some way horrific. I’d love to make a really smart thriller.” Following on from The Woman In Black, Watkins has been linked with the Warner Bros. backed Methuselah but he says he has “three or four projects circling and I don’t know which one’s going to land. You just have to see where the money comes from.” With a string of blood splattered horrors being released this year, notably Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D, Watkins’ more nuanced take on his genre provides more than a little refreshment.