Exclusive Interview: Director James Watkins Talks Old-School Horror in The Woman in Black
British writer/director James Watkins first made his mark on the horror genre with the shocking thriller Eden Lake in 2008, after which he wrote the 2010 sequel The Descent 2. Now Watkins has returned to the genre he loves to helm the feature film adaptation of Susan Hill's classic tale The Woman in Black for CBS Films and iconic production house Hammer Films.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-Harry Potter role, The Woman in Black follows Radcliffe as a young lawyer named Arthur Kipps, who is ordered to travel to the Eel Marsh House to sort out a recently deceased client’s papers. As he works alone in the old and quite possibly haunted house, Kipps begins to uncover its tragic secrets and soon discovers why the small village he's traveled to is being held hostage by the ghost of a scorned woman set on vengeance- The Woman in Black.
Dread Central recently had the opportunity to speak with Watkins for an extended interview wherein the director talked about the differences between his latest work and his previous directorial effort Eden Lake, working with Radcliffe and his thoughts on psychological scares versus gore.
Although Watkins himself is a successful screenwriter, the script for The Woman in Black was penned by Jane Goldman, whose credits include X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass and The Debt. Watkins discussed how he and Goldman collaborated together once he came aboard the project.
"When I first was considering directing The Woman in Black, they sent me Jane's initial script, which I very much enjoyed and knew I had to direct," said Watkins. "So when I officially came on board, Jane did the writing, but we opened a dialogue and kept developing the script; that collaboration continued right though the shooting and editing processes really."
"So while I did have some influence on parts of the story, Jane was very much the screenwriter throughout the entire evolution of this story. She was always around on set and on the phone, ready for whatever needed to happen. She’s an incredibly smart woman, and it was fantastic to be able to work with her on this movie," added Watkins.
For his first foray into directing, Watkins offered up fans a gritty and intensely shocking thriller in Eden Lake. However, with The Woman in Black the director wanted to change things up a bit and give fans an experience this time around that hearkens back to the classic 'chillers' that originally put Hammer Films on the map decades ago.
Watkins explained, "Trying to scare audiences now in a more classic style storytelling fashion was a huge mountain to climb for this movie. I think that was part of the appeal for me to direct The Woman in Black- the challenge, so to speak. Eden Lake is a relentless film; I haven’t even let my mom watch it in fact so I wanted to challenge myself to make a truly scary film without relying on gore and violence to get those scares. The Woman in Black is a straight-up ghost story, and I always say that what you can imagine is always infinitely scarier than anything you ever see; that's something I hope to prey on a bit here."
"I really wanted this to feel as different as it possibly could from Eden Lake or really, anything in the horror genre right now," added Watkins. "I felt like if we kept the palette muted, almost mimicking that black & white look, it would be more immersive for viewers. This isn't a modern story; it's a classic story, and I thought it needed to look that way. Sometimes we do incorporate deep reds into our color palette, which was my way of paying homage to Argento and his brilliant work as a horror filmmaker."
When it came time to cast the role of Kipps, Watkins went with a very familiar face in Daniel Radcliffe. The director discussed working with the Harry Potter star on The Woman in Black and how he suspects many of Radcliffe's fans will be blown away by the actor's ability to shed that persona in his latest starring role.
"I'm not much of a Harry Potter fan myself so I just thought Dan was a really interesting fit for this story, especially after having met him," said Watkins. "The key thing here is that Dan is not Harry Potter, and we both were very aware that he'd be bringing that 'baggage' on board; the reality is that it's really not necessarily terrible 'baggage' to have. But at the end of the day, Dan is a fantastic actor that wants to challenge himself and go in new directions and show people he's moved on from the world of Harry Potter."
"Daniel really understood the material from our very first meeting; we both saw the character of Arthur the same way, which was great. We didn’t want the focus here to only be on the scares, and we agreed that both the movie and Arthur needed to have heart and an emotional journey to them. That’s one thing I really responded to in Jane’s script; The Woman in Black is a properly elevated genre film in that sense. I think it really delivers in terms of scares; its ambitions are a tiny bit bigger than that, and Dan understood all of that from the very beginning. Maybe it’s just me, but I hate putting people in boxes and so many people have put Dan in this Harry Potter box. He’s a victim of his own success in that way, and it’s hard for people to see him as something else."
"The nice thing about the response we’ve had to the film is that people can’t believe it’s Daniel Radcliffe they're watching on the screen. He looks very different, and the whole atmosphere and weight of his performance is very different. He takes it into a very different register, and I think it’s definitely been a successful challenge for him as an actor," added Watkins.
Watkins knew going into The Woman in Black that his biggest challenge as a filmmaker would be to make a period piece horror movie that could still manage to prey on the sensibilities of audiences who are primed for more fast-paced and gritty genre fare these days.
"The way I understand horror fans is that they just want to get scared and have fun while watching a movie. I know a lot of fans are used to modern horror so that was a bit of a concern for me- would they respond to this story? The way I see it, though, is that if you buy a ticket for a scary movie, you expect it to be scary; and the feedback we’ve gotten back so far on The Woman in Black is that the film is incredibly scary."
"I think it’s easy to make people jump, and while we have a lot of those moments here, I also focused a lot on delivering a slow building, unsettling tension that gets under your skin without needing gore or violence. That approach felt true to the story, and the film wouldn't have worked had we gone in any other direction. Being a huge horror fan myself, I think audiences will find our approach in The Woman in Black both intelligent and terrifying; I cannot wait until it comes out," added Watkins.
Look for The Woman in Black in US theatres on February 3rd, 2012. The UK will be getting it on February 10th, 2012.
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