Ghost Writer

The Fan Can catches up with the writer behind The Awakening.



Stephen Volk


Stephen Volk is best known as the writer of the critically acclaimed spook-fests, Ghostwatch and Afterlife. He's just dipped his toe once more into cinema waters with the paranormal thriller The Awakening. The Fan Can talks to Volk about bringing a classier kind of horror film to the Multiplex...


How did the film come about? It was originally written as a Victorian-era story wasn't it?

The Innocents

May contain spoilers! I had the initial idea about 15 years ago. I was teaching on a screenwriting seminar run by Colin Vaines (who has just produced Coriolanus) and we tutors were asked to show a film and talk about its impact on us. I showed The Innocents and talked about how I loved that it was told in a way that captured the true sense of the "uncanny" - ie, it vacillated between showing there was a ghost and the idea the Governess might have imagined it or was going mad: those supernatural-versus-pragmatic mutual exclusivities creating the psychological tension, because that's what the ghost experience would be like in life – we would wonder if we were crazy or not.


Anyway, I noticed that at the end of Act Two, the little girl Flora is sent away so that the Governess can confront Miles, and I thought – what happened to Flora? Who did she become when she grew up? Did she remember the ghosts of her childhood, or, more interestingly, did she blank out the trauma, especially the trauma of her dead brother, Miles?


Florence in The Awakening

I have always been fascinated by Harry Houdini, who as well as being an expert conjuror and escapologist, also busted séances in his spare time because he thought they were all obscene fakes exploiting the grief-stricken and vulnerable (a bit like Living TV nowadays). Spiritualists always claimed he was a sceptic and that deep down he wanted desperately to believe. So, in my story, Flora grown up became Florence, with the urge to bust séances because she had repressed the memory of her childhood ghosts. She'd also repressed her sexuality, in my old version, because the only person that showed her any love was a house maid. It was very Freudian. For a long time it was called The Interpretation of Ghosts (a title I prefer). I liked the idea that Queen Victoria didn't believe in lesbians. So it would be about two things that weren't believed in!


How did the change to 1921 change the script?

Florence in The Awakening

Well, as I say, the fact it began as a sequel to The Turn of The Screw, the setting was the 1880s. I liked it because it was (and is) about repression. And in that era you saw it in those button-up clothes, the straight backs and corsets, the manners, the mode of speaking – everything reflected that theme. And it was about the clash between the metaphysical and the physical. In my original the Joseph Mawle groundsman character attacks Florence because he is implicated in the death of the ghost: he wants to shut her up. But in another version she ends up with a fate worse than death. There were many versions. In the filmed version I am convinced and like that she lives at the end, though apparently no matter how they edited that last sequence, some of the test audience still thought Florence was a ghost! So I think they left it as was, for the ambiguity. Personally, I really want her to be alive after the shit and the monumental revelation she has been though. For once I couldn't see the point of it being nihilistic. But ambiguous is fine I suppose.


In discussion the Victorian setting was increasingly a worry to others because everyone was afraid of the Cranford factor. I always said I never watched (BBC TV series) Cranford so I didn't give a fuck about that, my images were of these bonneted women in black (Florence had a female sidekick at that stage) rather like in The Piano, floating round a haunted house, attending all this retro Victorian equipment. But they wanted it post-WWI because then national grief became almost a character, certainly the emotional landscape against which the story played out – which, in fairness, Nick Murphy in his direction really made work fantastically well. The Mallory character was a mid-stream decision, say about draft ten, because as usual producers always want a love story at the heart of things, and by then the idea of a sequel to Turn of the Screw had been abandoned, probably rightly, because as they said, we can't make a film just for people who know Turn of the Screw or have seen The Innocents. Besides, why set out to make a film that's as brilliant as The Innocents when you can only fail? So my initial start point went down the Swanee. But I think the final film really earns its setting in 1921 and it works terribly well.


You written quite a few stories based around the paranormal. How does this differ?

The Awakening

They mostly all have séance scenes (Gothic, Afterlife – except Ghostwatch, which the parapsychologist, Dr Pascoe, does say at one point "We've created a massive séance!") so I do definitely return to the same furrow to plough. I've realised over the years there's no point avoiding the ideas and tropes that excite you. Better to go for it. As Samuel Beckett says, "Fail again. Fail better!" Gothic was about conjuring your deepest darkest fear and calling it to life, and that is what a lot of my stories are about – things jumping from the boundary of internal life to external, e.g. the wish fulfilment of Pipes appearing in Ghostwatch, Florence's repressed memory in The Awakening. So maybe it doesn't differ at all!


A sceptic going on a journey to discover the truth about themselves and the supernatural world is also the journey psychologist Robert (Andrew Lincoln) goes on in my TV series, Afterlife. In a way Rebecca Hall's character starts as Robert and becomes a screaming wreck who sees ghosts, like Alison, the other character in Afterlife – maybe Florence is a melding of the two. I suppose deep down in this film I was playing with ghosts and memory being the same thing. Memory externalised. I like the idea, I think the idea is essential, that ghosts appear for a purpose and that purpose is embedded in the character, their fatal flaw, and that's what you are dramatising. Good old John Carpenter says horror is the internal made external. I'd agree with that. Furthermore, I'd say, if it isn't, why the hell are you writing it? If it's not about character, the genre is just jumps and gore and "that'd be cool". I'm not interested in "that'd be cool".


How does this venture compare to your previous forays into film?

The Awakening

I think creatively there is a through line via Gothic and Ghostwatch and Afterlife to this one. Even though it changed a lot along the way, I think there is a fair bit of "me" in there. The ghost of me, anyway.


I was always glad BBC Films commissioned the script and developed it because for years, no, decades (in fact ever since I watched the Ghost Stories for Christmas like The Signalman) I wanted the BBC to be doing good, traditional, period ghost stories – it's part of our heritage, for God's sake - every bit as much as Jane Austen! Anyway that's my tub-thumping: it always was, actually.


As for forays, yes, good word - mostly screenwriters aren't involved in the making of a film, rightly or wrongly it is all about the director's vision. I wasn't involved in this one apart from one visit to the location, which was nice and impressive with its period urchins and old cars. In TV it's different. I was on the set and writing the whole time and got to know the actors as I wrote for them. It's always hard to be the one who battles with the blank page for so long and then hand it over to get it rewritten and you're sadly not part of that process any more. But, bottom line is Nick has directed a terrific movie and that's the main thing and it is 100% the movie he wanted to make. The great thing is, as he himself said, it's not a horror film with emotion added, it's a psychological drama that happens to have ghosts at the centre of it. And I'm so glad he got that balance right. I think he also completely understood the need to take traditional supernatural tropes and gives them a fresh, psychologically potent edge. Which is why people say the film feels quite modern, I think.


What do you think of the current state of horror cinema?

The boy in The Awakening

I'm not drawn to all the endless camcorder spookiness (all derivative of Ghostwatch, let's face it), or what is called nowadays torture porn, Saw and suchlike – they just seem utterly juvenile and cartoony. I just know it's too damned easy to film something that's repulsive. It's not clever and it's not actually rewarding to watch. I don't find it thrilling now, if I ever did. The J-horrors, like Dark Water, reasserted genuine chills invoking the weird, they reintroduced the idea of atmosphere which had been lost in Hollywood's "explain-it-all, puzzlement-is-bad" thinking – but atmosphere is hellish hard to put on the page of a screenplay. You have to direct, or trust your director. If the director says, "I don't think that would be scary," then you have to rewrite it. Or he/she will, ultimately.


Good Horror is hard to get off the ground because the bean counters want cheap and gory with teenagers. End of. If you are interested in weird literature or substantial filmography of great scary pictures and want to push boundaries or flirt at the edges of genre, or mix genres, it's very difficult. It's actually difficult to get any script commissioned these days, let alone Horror. Unless it's unashamedly stupid, on-the-page idiotic and crass, forget it. The mere title Cockneys Versus Zombies makes me want to weep.


On the other hand I recently liked The Last Empoyee, a German film, which has a wonderfully anxiety-making atmosphere, though it shifts to a bit of gore finally which seemed to me inappropriate. Even though it was possibly in the character's imagination. Strangely the protagonist of that one questions his sanity (like the Governess in Turn of the Screw) - very much so, and even though the plot isn't quite glued together right, that aspect works well. I'd much rather seek out those kinds of unusual, memorable films that get under your skin, or intellectually and emotionally ambitious films like The Road or Never Let Me Go, rather than go to Texas Chainsaw 15.


What do you think of the final film?

The Awakening

I think it is tremendous. I told myself before I saw it, try to be objective and just ask yourself if you are glad you've got your name on it – (which I have to say mostly isn't the case with movies I've written). But the answer with this one was, "Hell, yes."


For all the changes along the way - and you can tell that there were many - it remains true to its purpose of being a solid British ghost story, which is, if nothing else, such a change from the recent glut of Japanese and Spanish fare. As I say, it's our genre! By the way, I should point out I started to write this long before The Others or The Devil's Backbone or The Orphanage, so those films weren't in my mind at all: though they might have been in the financiers when they finally gave it a green light! Honestly, it isn't my fault that British films take fifteen years to get off the ground!


I must say that Nick and producer David Thompson got together an unbelievable team, including Eduard Grau who shot A Single Man. He photographed this so beautifully, with ethereal, silken light rather than just gothic shadows. And Daniel Pemberton's music is perfect. I just think on a tactile level the movie is gorgeous, and no writer in his right mind could dream of a better cast. All three of the leads nail it. Not just nail it, but bring so much more to the parts. No wonder Rebecca is up for a British Independent Film Award already for the role. And Dominic is increasingly my favourite actor around. I would just write anything for him to be in it. As Nick says, as a person he "wears life lightly" but as an actor he's incredible deft and subtle.


Of course I will never know what my Victorian version set in 1880, The Interpretation of Ghosts, will ever be like, except in my head. But at least the old title gets a name check in the last scene of the film, and that seems only fitting. It made me smile, anyway.


Steve O'Brien





The Stephen Volk Interview
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