When you think of British supernatural television, Stephen Volk will always spring to mind. He is, without a doubt, one of the Godfathers of British horror screenwriting. Amongst his classics is Ken Russell’s Gothic, although he is perhaps best known for the creation of two cult television programmes, Afterlife and the sublime Ghostwatch. Jim Mcleod was fortunate enough to sit down with Stephen recently.
Hello Stephen, it’s an honour and a pleasure to get the chance to talk to you again. How are things with you?
SV: Not bad, though times are tough, as everybody knows. The cuts mean that everybody is totally risk-averse at the moment, so getting any decision made is murder. After several months of writing treatments, though, I have a script commission, possibly two. And a rewrite on an older project of mine in which there’s some new interest. So I’m suddenly busy. Also hoping that some cash will come in, which would be nice.
So who exactly is Stephen Volk?
SV: If I knew that I wouldn’t need to be a writer!
How did you get into screenwriting?
SV: I drew pictures and wrote as a kid growing up in South Wales. I went to art school. I went to film school, but I also wrote stories the whole time. I felt I was a split personality between the visual and the verbal until a tutor at film school called Bill Stair (who was both a writer and art director, and worked a lot with director John Boorman) told me, no – you’re a writer, but a screenwriter. It was the first time anybody had pointed that out to me! I loved cinema and I wanted to write stories as if I was watching them, so that’s what I did, and I did it right through my first job which was in advertising, writing at night time, sending scripts off, getting them back, sending them off again. For ten years I did that, until somebody optioned my screenplay Gothic for about one and a half peanuts, then I got an agent and my agent sold it to Virgin Films. But I had several other screenplays written by then. Nowadays there might be a more formal route of going to film school to be a screenwriter on a Screenwriting course, but it was more haphazard for me back in the 1970s. So Gothic was my first screen credit in 1986 with Ken Russell (RIP) directing.
How does screenwriting differ to writing prose?
SV: A good prose writer can learn screenwriting, and vice versa. Writing is writing. It’s about using your imagination and knowledge of human beings, and the ability to convey ideas and edit them when you’ve got them. Writing a screenplay, though, you have to be immensely concise, to the bone really, and always be the camera and the microphone: if you can’t see it or hear it don’t write it down in the scene. The real skill is in cutting. You have to be conscious of the ticking clock, how long a scene runs, and it has to be 100 pages or 100 minutes or you are dead. And it’s not description, it’s incident. Things have to happen. So the real skill is in cutting, cutting, cutting because less is more and the narrative of film is merciless – you can’t divert into tributaries as you can in a novel. Point of view and a strong line of action is vitally important. But with all writing the main thing is theme and metaphor. As Paul Schrader said, his theme in Taxi Driver was loneliness and his metaphor for the theme was the taxi driver. (But you needn’t know that when you start writing. You might not discover your theme until draft eight.) On the other hand, what I love about short story writing (apart from the fact it can be done in days rather than years!) is that you can get in the head space and just let it flow with the voice in your head and the language. And nobody tells you what to do!
You predominantly write in the supernatural genre. What is the appeal of genre for you?
SV: John Ford’s chosen milieu was Westerns. Even when they weren’t set in the Wild West, they were set in Galway or something, they were still Westerns in mentality. Similarly, I think there’s something about the supernatural tales I grew up reading and watching that just chimed with me and I wanted to be in that world. Primarily they were thrilling. I loved the idea of something unlikely or impossible added to a story, not just it being about mundane reality, and the fact that that unnatural element you introduce isn’t just window dressing but it illuminates theme and character: it enables the story to be something it otherwise wouldn’t be. I think generally I like “cinema of the imagination” rather than social realism (which I find formulaic and unrewarding), but specifically supernatural or ghost stories can be great metaphors for grief, hurt, the past… It’s a wonderful playground and the territory just always attracts me. Plus, I believe we are all a mixture of the rational and irrational urges, these two things battling, wanting to believe but terrified if these things are true, so I think it’s our essential nature you can sometimes dramatise.
People are perhaps most familiar with you from Ghostwatch. Do you ever feel like saying there is more to me than Ghostwatch? I’ve always wondered if writers ever feel the same way as bands getting asked to play the same song over and over.
SV: I suppose I do, but I don’t mind that people remember it twenty years later! At the time, 1992, it was like it happened overnight (literally) and there was this angry flurry of protest in the media and it was gone. I thought really it was the kind of event if I had been back in school I would have loved, and it seems that was the way it hit a lot of people, or so I’ve heard since. I’ve done other things. I’ve written about six feature films now. You don’t know if they’re going to work or find an audience. In fact you’re often disappointed in them yourself, but the main thing you hope for is a pay day that enables you to keep on writing. And if you can keep writing you might get lucky: that’s it. If people only know me from Ghostwatch they will wonder what the hell I’ve been doing since 1992 but the reality is I haven’t stopped! So I keep writing and on and off things happen, like Shockers or Octane or Superstition. But I wrote and created the ITV series Afterlife which ran for two seasons starring Lesley Sharp and Andrew Lincoln. That was fairly well liked, I think, and I’m pleased about that, and The Awakening is just out with a reasonably high profile push behind it from StudioCanal. If people only know me from Ghostwatch they will wonder what the hell I’ve been doing since 1992 but the reality is I haven’t stopped!
2012 marks the twentieth anniversary of Ghostwatch, are there any plans to mark this occasion?
SV: Not that I know of. I’d like a special edition DVD to come out, one containing maybe an extra disk of proper interviews with the participants and a proper documentary about what happened, but that is pie in the sky at this stage unfortunately, though the material all exists. I have a feeling if anything at all happens beyond a raft of individual screenings up and down the country it will be a last minute “kick-bollock-and-scramble” thing by the BBC or something, typically. Or nothing. We’ll see. I don’t have any control over it.
Looking back at the intervening years, how well do you think it stands up?
SV: I look at it a lot with audiences and it stands up OK. Listen, after 20 years I’m not going to pick holes in it: it is what it is. It’s a bit dated, but if people have any sense at all, they’ll forgive it for that. You get a lot of giggles when you show it nowadays of course. People think they’re smart. But it always gets a great round of applause at the end. I sense that people enjoy it. The audience is often a 50-50 split of those who’ve seen if before and those who haven’t and it’s always a bit of an occasion. It’s great. You have to remind them of the context of the time though, way back when we made it. That this was at the very beginning of ‘reality TV’ – way before Blair Witch or Most Haunted.
And how much influence do you think it has had?
SV: Well, exactly that! The whole ‘camcorder horror’ style of drama, which you can trace right to Paranormal Activity – and we know the director of that had been influenced by Ghostwatch because he said so. We invented the night vision stuff that Most Haunted and a hundred other shows have just run into the ground. But Ghostwatch wasn’t Most Haunted, which is a crass, idiotic pseudo-spiritualistic entertainment show – Ghostwatch was a drama designed to provoke you and get you to think about your complicity in the TV shows you watch, get you to think about how you take information on your screens for granted, think about how you don’t question experts, about how you need to question even what you see with your own eyes…
Have you ever been tempted to return to the format and do a sequel?
SV: No. People ask, but it’s a one-off. Though somebody asked me for a story on the tenth anniversary and I wrote a sequel in short story form, which was nominated for a Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Award. It’s in my short story collection Dark Corners (Gray Friar Press) if anybody wants to read it.
How does writing for television, differ to writing for films?
SV: The actual writing is the same. The process and the industry is entirely different. In movies the director is king so once a director is on board you can be fired, and he can rewrite you and the producer doesn’t give a shit about you any more because it’s all about the director. In television, it’s the writer and producer that work on the script and get the commission, and it’s not until it gets a green light that the director is hired. So the producer and writer are already a team and the director fits in. The writer will not get fired and the director has to listen. Bollocks to his ‘vision’. There’s nothing more harmful to the quality of feature films being made than the ridiculous pedestal that directors get put on as if their words are gold. It should be an equal playing field like it is in television and there shouldn’t be the feeling you could be fired as a writer on the slightest whim even when you’ve created a project and been writing it for maybe fifteen years, thirty drafts or whatever. But they don’t care because a lot of the time producers don’t know the difference between a good script and a bad one: they just want to get it made. The money on movies is better but as it says on Sh*t My Dad Says, “screenwriting is like riding on a merry-go-round where the horse is trying to fuck you.”
So how thick skinned are you? I would imagine that unlike writing novels, where the only other input is your editor, screenwriting has lots of different people poking and prodding your baby?
SV: Just picture that and multiply it by a hundred and you might be close to the reality. It’s horrendous, because nobody knows anything and you can’t listen to everybody and you can’t listen to nobody. A writer might be happy typing THE END on page 110 of his new script, but they haven’t become a screenwriter until they’ve wrestled with development notes on a project for at least ten years. That’s what separates the men from the boys. It’s absolutely gruelling. The truth is I don’t want to get a ‘thick skin’ because a thick skin means you don’t care, but you have to develop the intellectual muscles to get through the collaborative process without imploding. After over 20 years in the business, I suppose you get better at negotiating it, but still, every single time I get notes or go to a meeting my stomach is in knots because you are thinking, literally, “Is this the meeting where it all gets fucked up?”
Have you ever walked away from a project because of a difference of opinion?
SV: Yes. Well, not merely “a difference of opinion”. It has to be much more than that! I left The Guardian, a film I was working on with The Exorcist director William Friedkin, for a variety of reasons: mainly, I couldn’t read his mind and he wanted me to write what was in his head and only he could do that. (The full story of what happened on that picture I tell on the extras on The Guardian DVD re-release, which is out now.) The other film I didn’t continue on was adapting The Box of Delights for Mike Newell. I’d written about four drafts and Newell was too busy to meet for even ten minutes to discuss where we were at, so there seemed to be no point in doing more drafts as far as I could see it. Sometimes you have given all you can, and life is too short. My US agent always used to have the philosophy, stay on in there till you get fired, which I’ve never understood. I’ve always thought honesty is the best policy and, yes be loyal to the absolute point of professionalism as long as you can, but if it isn’t working and you can’t give it your best any more, and you are torturing your own work, get out of there before it kills you. Because sometimes it does kill you.
One thing I have never understood is how far down the ladder of fame a scriptwriter is. Ask anyone to name their three favourite actors or directors and they could rattle them off no problem. However if you ask someone to name their three favourite screenwriters, most folks would be hard pushed. Do you ever get hacked off by this? The way I see it you can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear. And the foundation of a good film is its script. Or am I being silly?
SV: Why would that be silly? No. In theatre everybody says Arthur Miller is the author in his play. TV writers are the author of their dramas. Why not in film? It’s entirely political and it is all to do with power and nothing to do with creativity or efficiency. The silly ‘auteur’ system (which was appropriate in France because France was creating writer-directors) was entirely stupid applied to Hollywood. Yet somehow the cult or the director arose as a marketing tool. And it won’t go away because now even a first-time director will have the credit ‘A Film By’ – something a genius like Billy Wilder never asked for! He always said “Isn’t director enough?” Quite right! The truth is film culture, aided by the likes of Sight & Sound magazine, really want the director to be the author of the film. Why? Because it makes the critic’s life easier! The fact that it’s totally inaccurate to how most movies are made is irrelevant to them! This is the reason many screenwriters are bitter, aside from the fact that they have to sit in the room with some very dim directors and some very stupid producers. I know one thing. If writers had ALL the power instead of NONE, there wouldn’t be a larger number of bad films made. I’ve several times asked people to pay attention to the writer of a film they enjoyed. Whether they do or not I don’t know. I think they’re just brainwashed into thinking the director does everything. Except the dialogue, maybe. (Though they probably think the actors make that up most of the time, too!)
Looking back at your past screenwriting accomplishments, which has been the most rewarding for you and why?
SV: I enjoyed the experience of The Deadness of Dad which was a short film that won a BAFTA award for me. I wasn’t commissioned, I wasn’t paid a penny, I just wrote it. The director was terrific. It started as a neat little dark concept but she saw the potential for something moving and deeper, and I’m so glad it went in that direction because I realised that’s what I want in my writing – I want genre (in this case a kind of magical realism) to produce emotion, maybe surprisingly so, because people don’t always expect to be moved by supernatural of scary stories. The other hugely rewarding experience was working on Afterlife, my TV series because, not only was the result really close to what I wrote on the page, but the whole process was collaborative and involving: I was there every step of the way, working with the director and actors on a day by day basis. That’s the way it should be, but often it isn’t, I don’t know why. The producer on Afterlife, Murray Ferguson, is the best I’ve ever worked with.
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.
What would you say are the main themes of the film? Are you trying to put a message across?
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.
So what do you think of the final film?
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 weird Western stories, 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 - JIM MCLEOD
Screenwriter and author