by Steve Prokopy
GHOST STORIES co-writers/directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson have been friends since they were 15, and it should come as no surprise that they bonded over their mutual love of horror films, in particular the classic UK titles that came out of Hammer Films and Amicus Productions, as well as lesser known works (in America, at least) that aired on British television. But they were also fans of more recent movies like AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON by John Landis, whom they believed managed to find the British-ness of its location.
Nyman came up in the film and television business as a writer and actor, appearing in such works as SEVERENCE, DEATH AT A FUNERAL, KICK-ASS 2, and most recently in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI. Dyson was a key writing on the beloved dark comedy series “The League of Gentlemen” as well as “Tracy Ullman’s Show.” But when the two got together, they wanted to pay tribute to their lifelong love of scary movies by putting on a type of anthology horror production for the stage. The result was GHOST STORIES, which debuted in 2010 and has been staged all over the world to high praise from critics and the public alike.
The pair eventually decided to attempt to adapt GHOST STORIES for the big screen, and the result of one of the scarier things you’re like to see this year. Nyman plays professional paranormal skeptic and debunker Professor Phillip Goodman, who embarks upon a terror-filled quest when he is given a long-lost file by his aging mentor containing details of three cases of inexplicable hauntings. There are hints along the way that Goodman might be less prepared for these cases than he believes, but nothing quite prepares you for they way the film pulls it all together. Also starring Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and a particularly game Martin Freeman, GHOST STORIES opens at the Music Box Theatre on May 11. I spoke with Nyman and Dyson recently to discuss their long history with horror, how they adapted their play, and the religious undertones that make certain scary movies that much more sinister.
Question: I’m aware that this film began life as a play many years ago. But the film is so fundamentally cinematic, I can’t even imagine the staging. How do you make a play scary? How did that look on stage?
Jeremy Dyson: I think that was our secret weapon on stage, because most people came into the theater with that thought. “We’re in a theater. How can it be scary?” And the truth is, to us, it was easier to do it on stage than it was on film. Maybe because the audience is less familiar with what the tricks might be. It’s a different game, fundamentally, but what it meant was that when we were turning it into a film, which we were excited about, we knew we would have to do a lot of work and let go of the theatrical version and re-create it as a piece of cinema. We did not want that accusation of it being stagey.
There’s no danger of that.
Andy Nyman: [laughs] It’s funny because of the timing, but when we were first writing it, Jeremy cited Milos Forman saying to Peter Shaffer [who wrote both the stage play and screenplay] about AMADEUS, not to compare the film to the stage version. The play had been this incredible smash, but Forman said, “You have to tear it all apart and start again.” And there’s that horror knowing that you have to do that. But whenever we were faced with something that we knew we had to destroy in the play—the “kill your darlings” of the film—we’d often think about Forman saying that, and it because a useful thing to refer to. We knew that a mountain of work would be required.
For those of us who are horror fans, the settings of these three stories are quite familiar. But again, I can’t imagine re-creating those for the stage.
JD: See, what you’re identifying is exactly what made the play so thrilling. It was the notion that you could take these tropes, which as fans we love, and put them on stage in a way that is deeply theatrical with a brilliant design by our designer Jon Bausor. We would do these minimal designs, and our brilliant lighting designer James Farncombe, who would use darkness so you would get these pockets of images. Our greatest ally, as you rightly question, was that a theater audience coming in and thinking “Fuck off, how can a play be scary?” So you know that’s the jousting match, and that’s really challenging. But scaring people in the theater is ancient; it’s just not done very often, but it’s been around forever.
AN: Horror movies as we know them, certainly from the sound era, all began life as theatrical hits. The early Universal films of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN were adapted from successful Broadway plays. So there’s a long history of putting genre material on stage. It’s just fallen out of fashion, certainly in the UK, over the last 30-40 years. But there are parallel feeds between theater and early film audiences, and one of the reasons it fell out of fashion is that the version of pure entertainment on stage is musicals. Broad farces don’t really get written anymore. I’m talking about broad comedies that don’t have anything to say; they’re just their for entertainment—they’re not for theater audiences anymore. And that’s the same with horror. That’s for the people that don’t go to the theater. “That’s not for us. We need something important in the theater.”
And those two things—broad comedies and horror—are always ignored critically. What’s amazing in the history of cinema, they’re the thing that constantly deliver and suddenly because of GET OUT and THE SHAPE OF WATER—two horror films that aced it last year—there’s some sort of meta-horror thing you hear about—“New Horror”—but they’re just great horror films.
JD: I never felt that horror was a caricature of empty entertainment, quite the reverse. The most cursory knowledge of the horror of the genre tells you that there are quite a lot of works with plenty to say, but it’s the way it goes about saying it that is different and maybe not intellectual. It’s visceral, mythic, so it operates on an audience in a different way than a more fated drama. And that we love as well; we love the smuggling you can do with genre.
AN: There’s also a scary challenge as well with comedy and horror than a more clever drama—and I mean that in a “We’re better than that” attitude. Whether it’s on stage or in the cinema, if you say “I’m making a broad comedy,” it’s very easy for that not to work. And the evidence is that people are either laughing or they’re not. You can hear it. And it’s the same with horror. They’re either screaming or they’re scared or they’re hiding or they’re not. That’s quite unique to those art forms, because with everything else, it can be intellectualized and discussed: “That didn’t work for you? That’s interesting. I thought it was wondering. It really moved me and touched me.” But you fucking know, you can hear people falling over with laughter or screaming. It takes balls to do that, and I’m not saying that in a self-aggrandizing manner. I’m talking about the craft of those things. And for all the snobbery about it, there is a showmanship that goes with both of those forms that says “I am standing up and telling you that this is what I’m presenting.” And the fall from that is much higher because you can’t go “No, I didn’t mean for it to be funny.” But you did, because it’s a big, broad comedy.
JD: There’s nowhere to hide. But because of our other work—I’ve got a background in TV comedy and Andy has his acting career and with conjuring and stage magic and conjuring [Nyson is also a writer for illusionist Derren Brown]—both of those, you have a very direct relationship with the audience, and the audience doesn’t lie; it has no agenda. When you’re sitting in a test screening with 100 people, you get the truth; it’s pure information. We love the rigor that that imposes and the challenge in that. It’s really exciting to us creatively.
It’s funny you say that with horror you can’t hide, because when I was a kid, I loved anthology horrors films because you could hide. If one of the stories wasn’t working, you knew the next one might be better. But you two have nailed all three of your stories, which makes the entire experience all the more terrifying.
AN: [laughs] I know what you’re saying about anthology films, but the good ones generally are good all the way through. And that could work with straight narratives as well, if you have a beginning, middle and end. If it picks up pace in the end, you’ll still forgive it.
There is a great deal of humor in this, and you turn it up to break the tension and pull it back, and the tension goes up and up. It’s like you have a mixing board and you’re adjusting the levels. Talk about your use of humor.
JD: It wasn’t something we talked about, even with the play, which is the same mix tonally. It just came out that way because that’s who we are. It wasn’t a conscious decision.
AN: What we knew, what we didn’t want to do, is make a comedy-horror film. It’s a very different thing. The template for us—not even one that we decided upon—but it was a film that influenced us so profoundly was AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, because John Landis’ use of comedy and humor is sublime. There are never jokes and never gags, and they always come out of truth and uncomfortable situations. Even when it’s at its broadest, when he’s naked in the zoo, running after to steal a coat, it’s rooting in the truth that he’s turned into a wolf and woke up in the wold compound at the zoo. His clothes would have ripped off. There’s real truth even at its broadest, and that was something, while we were writing it, we said we never wanted to just write jokes. It was always out of real situations and moments.
JD: It’s rooted in character. The thing I remember being blown away by in AMERICAN WEREWOLF was how British it was. It felt like it was in the same tradition as a Monty Python film, particularly in the way he absolutely nails British society. It was so acutely observed. And such a brilliant character comedy, and the way he go British types. He’s got that lovely running gag about the two policemen. It’s so skillfully done, but there’s nothing parodic about it at all. It’s its own world and it just somehow makes the horror of it all the scarier because it felt like it was in the vernacular of a really good sitcom.
AN: There is also something we did within our film that parallels with AMERICAN WEREWOLF, and it’s worth talking about loosely. There is something really unique about the British Jewish experience, which is very different from the American Jewish experience, and I say that as someone who spent a huge amount of time in the states and loved being in New York and L.A., and one of the reasons I love that is that in both there is a very comfortable Jewishness in the DNA of America, certainly in those big cities. You drive down the street and it’s like “Hey, it’s Purim festival, or this and that.” But fuck me, that is not what the British Jewish experience is like, and it’s one of the reasons Landis seems to get the British-ness so well is that he’s got this awkward outsider’s eye. There is something about the British Jewish experience that is awkward and is an outsider thing, and I don’t mean that in a paranoid way. But as opposed to the American sense of “Hey, whatever, here we are.” There is very much a European sense of “Shh shh shh. Don’t make a fuss.” It’s a very different thing and it’s so pertinent at the moment. Things are ugly at the moment in politics, irrespective of what one’s views on Israel are. What it’s scratching the surface of is the British Jewish experience.
JD: Which of course is universal as well to anyone who is a minority division and knows a variation of that. It’s everywhere at the moment, much more than it was when we arrived with the play eight years ago.
It’s interesting that you bring this up because you’ve made your lead character a professional skeptic, and there’s nothing cooler than converting a non-believer. And there’s a language around that type of hero that are religious terms, like “conversion” and “non-believer.” It all comes down to a type of faith.
JD: Completely. For us, there was a big thing with Goodman that debunking the supernatural was a proxy for his father’s religion. They were all beliefs in ancient superstitions that set you free of materialistic paradise. Although neither of us…we’re not practicing or traditionally observant, and we wouldn’t describe ourselves as being rational materialists, but you can see the value of your heritage and your legacy, and I’ve long been fascinated with the psychology of religion. So that was there from the get-go for us when we were writing, and that we could get at some of that stuff through what looks and feels like a horror film.
I want to talk very quickly about the ending without talking about the ending. That is one of the few moments where I could see how a stage version of that would work. But was the stage version in any way similar that that?
AN: It’s so interesting. It’s not completely changed, but what you see on the screen has no relation to what you saw on stage. It’s so much cleaner on stage—no less odd. But it tries to take the form that you think you’ve been watching and that you’re clinging onto like a safety blanket: “I know what this is. I’m okay.” and then it suddenly stops being that thing. But in terms of what physically happens, they’re quite different. And I’m hoping that you’ll get the chance to see [the stage vesion] at some point.
I would love to. That’s all I could think of.
AN: It’s a blast. The joy is, there are a few points in the film that aren’t in the play, and there are plot points in the play that aren’t in the film. They really to co-exist as bastard twins of the same thing, really.
There are definitely moments where we get a sense that the professor is going through something. Were you worried about peppering in those moments throughout and not tipping your hat too soon?
JD: Well that’s the game, isn’t it? Without spoiling anything, when I saw THE SIXTH SENSE, I was blown away, but someone I was with said, “I knew two minutes in what was going on.” So you can’t…
AN: It’s like that modern phrase “Your mileage may vary” when you do a narrative like this, because people watch it in different ways. It’s never going to universal, but hopefully it will still be enjoyable. That’s what we’re going for.
Congratulations and best of luck. I actually can’t wait to see this with an audience, because I can imagine that being a much different and even more enjoyable experience.
JD: Thank you. It’s been lovely to talk to you.
AN: Thanks for your support.
Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com). For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker & actor interviews under the name “Capone.”