Impact sat down with James Watkins – director of Eden Lake and now The Woman in Black – to talk about his adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel, working with Daniel Radcliffe, his strong stance on 3D and the importance of mixing entertainment with intelligence.
Impact: Firstly, congratulations on how atmospheric and scary The Woman in Black is. I counted 9 good scares!
James Watkins: Yeah, I think 9 jumps and a sense of overriding dread.
Impact: I have a quote from you here that says, “I don’t choose the stories, the stories choose me.” The producers approached you originally for this film, what was it that spoke to you about Susan Hill’s story?
James Watkins: It was really Jane’s script that I read first before the novel. I thought – A) You can make a really good scary movie, and B) it wasn’t just a delivery vehicle for scares, it was about more than that, it had a sense of loss, a sense of longing, it touched on themes of grief and how it warps and changes people. You’ve got the woman in black who becomes vengeful, Dan’s character Arthur Kipps who becomes damped down. Basically, it was a film that I thought had bigger ambitions, I thought it had a heartbeat to it.
Impact: You have been asked this many times already I’m sure, but the play adaptation has been very successful – to what extent did you consider that when approaching your film?
James Watkins: Basically we were based on the book. I think the play is very good, but it’s a play. It’s a very post-modern theatrical register, it’s an incredibly smart device, to make it work as a play. What they’re doing is maximising the limitations of theatre, using the theatricality to make it scary. We’ve got a film, in a film you have to be literal and create things for real and actually that gives you enormous opportunities – you can go on location, you can create a house, an environment. So, I wanted to make sure that the film was as scary, more scary, than the play. It’s gratifying when we get feedback saying that it’s scarier than the play. It was really about going back to Susan’s book, that’s what Jane did.
Impact: So it wasn’t really a frame of reference? What sticks in my head from the play is the rocking chair. You’ve used that very effectively in the film.
James Watkins: Yeah, it’s also an iconic sequence in the book.
Impact: After Eden Lake you said you wanted to do a “psychological thriller with a little more tenderness.” Do you think you’ve achieved that?
James Watkins: I’m not sure you’d necessarily describe it as that. I mean, there is more tenderness in it I suppose. It’s not a psychological thriller, it’s a ghost story. I haven’t quite made that film yet.
Impact: I’ve also heard that you’re massively anti-3D.
James Watkins: Yes.
Impact: I think that’s a revelation, I couldn’t possibly be more on your side! Your resilience to not let The Woman in Black be in 3D is absolutely essential. How did you manage to convince the producers?
James Watkins: I basically said, “if you’re making it in 3D you’re not making it with me.” I refused to sign up to the notion of 3D. I met with Dan (Radcliffe) and he saw things completely the same way as I did. Once you’ve got the leader actor, and it’s someone like Dan, you’ve got a pretty big ally.
Impact: So you wouldn’t consider doing a 3D movie in the future then?
James Watkins: No. I never say never, unless something persuades me, a different reason as to why 3D works. I do not find it immersive, I find it a barrier between me and the film.
Impact: I think with The Woman in Black there’s such a depth to the image, there are things going on in the background that you may or may not see, and those are important. In 3D you lose that aspect.
James Watkins: I think that’s very true.
Impact: After writing My Little Eye, Gone, Eden Lake and The Descent Part 2, you’ve now put down the pen and exclusively sat in the director’s chair. Do you think that’s a permanent shift?
James Watkins: No, it was just because I liked Jane’s script. I’ve been writing stuff, I’ve got a project that I’ve written with Warner Brothers. I’m not dogmatic about it, if there’s something that I’ve written that I want to do then that’s one thing, if there’s something written by other people that I want to do then I’m open to that. The line between writing and directing is quite blurred.
Impact: Would you say you prefer one more than the other as a creative process?
James Watkins: They’re very different challenges, different satisfactions. For me, directing is the logical conclusions of writing screenplays.
Impact: I have to ask about Daniel Radcliffe. I’m sure our Quidditch Society at Nottingham Uni will be very keen to hear how he’s doing now. How was he to work with and do you think he’ll shake off those Harry Potter shackles and have a varied career?
James Watkins: I do. Dan’s a real pleasure to work with, he’s very committed, very focused, incredibly hardworking. He wants to have a rich and varied career, and he’s making the choices to affect that. This film is part of a shift. He has played the same role for 10 years in such a phenomenally successful film franchise, but I think now people are going to see him in a different light. He looks older, he’s playing a different role and he’s playing it with a different energy. I hope he’s given more opportunities.
Impact: I’ve read that you’re a fan of The Wicker Man. What directors do you feel have most influenced your work?
James Watkins: That’s a good question. There are so many… I suppose Hitchcock is the standard for somebody who makes suspense films – he’s the master of suspense, he had a complete understanding of the mechanics of film. He made films that were intelligent but also accessible. If I look at the people now who are doing it, whether it’s Danny Boyle or Chris Nolan… or Alfonso Cuaron – these are people that are making films that, for my mind, are showing you can make films that are hopefully commercial but at the same time have an ambition. What I don’t like is the way these two films can be split. You can either make a film that is art-house and nobody wants to see it, or you make dumb commercial entertainment – I think that the ambition should be to marry intelligence with commerciality.
Impact: That’s your ambition then?
James Watkins: Yeah. I don’t see the point in trying to make films that nobody wants to see. You never know whether people are going to want to see it, but you might as well try and tell stories that you think will entertain. There’s a big American producer who talks about film being the ‘transportation business” – people have busy and difficult lives and they go to the cinema to be transported somewhere. That can be somewhere horrific, somewhere comedic, somewhere spiritual – it can be all sorts of things. That’s what I think cinema does, that’s the magic about it. I applaud directors that have that ambition.
Impact: Any horror directors in particular?
James Watkins: Guillermo del Toro, I suppose. There’s a famous quote where he talks about how the most brilliant horror films should have both horror and sadness, I think his films do that very well. That was something we tried to do with The Woman in Black.
Impact: You’ve mentioned three new projects – another horror film, a sports movie, and a big Warner Brothers’ film. Can you give us some more details?
James Watkins: Erm, not really.
Impact: I’m really intrigued by the idea of a sports film, is that a personal project?
James Watkins: I love the idea that you can make a really great British sports drama. If you look at a film like The Fighter, that’s a sports film that had some grit. I was just watching the Djokovic v Nadal match (the Australian Open 2012 final) – these guys kill themselves. If you ever see a tennis player’s feet at the end of a match, they’re bloodied and battered. The effort, the graft, the sweat, the sheer physical exertion – I don’t want to make a cosy film, I want to make a film that actually shows what these people do, I think it could be really fascinating.
Impact: A tennis film..?
James Watkins: No, it’s not a tennis film, but I can’t really say.
Impact: How about the Warner Brothers film?
James Watkins: It’s a big budget superhero-type film, a spin on a superhero film. We need to get the draft into better shape.
Impact: You’re branching out then?
James Watkins: As a director you need to have three or four, if not more, projects on the bubble. You never know what will come. You look at every director, even the really successful ones, they’re all hustling just to try and get the next job – it’s expensive getting a film made, it’s a lot of risk for people to throw a chunk of money at a film. You constantly need to keep your options open.
Impact: Well, hopefully The Woman in Black will open those doors for you.
James Watkins: Thank you.
Impact: Finally, do you have any advice for budding filmmakers at the University of Nottingham?
James Watkins: Yeah. My advice is very simple – make stuff. There’s people in London, people in Hollywood, who are hungry for material, they are hungry to discover new filmmakers. It’s a business that thrives on fresh blood. Partly because people are excited by that, partly because you’re cheap. If you make stuff it doesn’t matter how bad it is, if you keep doing it you will get better, writing, directing, anything. I see a lot of young filmmakers who spend too long trying to promote, worrying about the wrong things – just make the films. If they’re good and you get them into somebody’s hands, then that will be enough.
Impact: James Watkins, thanks for speaking to us!