Following on from our recent “>visit to the set of The Descent 2 comes the first of four exclusive interviews with the film’s cast and crew; writer James Watkins!
Watkins is fast becoming a name to watch within the genre having co-written My Little Eye before going on to script Aussie backpacker thriller Gone and the forthcoming British hoodie-horror Eden Lake, which he also directed.
In addition to writing the script for The Descent 2 Watkins has also been directing some of the 2nd unit material for the film, and it was thus that I was able to catch up with him on set at Ealing Studios for a chat about his current projects.
Phil Newton: Hi James, so if we could start with how you got involved with this film?
James Watkins: Well, basically I got involved because Jon Harris, who is an amazing editor, edited the film that I directed, Eden Lake. We were very lucky to get Jon because he’s edited all these huge films and then to do my little film … we were incredibly lucky. I think Christian Colson the producer had a sense that we’d get on and so having developed that relationship with Jon on Eden Lake, and Jon was attached to direct The Descent 2, it seemed like the logical step to bring me on board and get me involved with writing Jon’s. And it was a pleasure because I know how good he is and it’s nice working with people who you like and trust.
PN: Were you a fan of the original film?
JW: Oh yeah, I think the original’s fantastic, I really do, it’s one of the best British horror films of the last 25 years. It’s a real stand out film in terms of how it develops. As well as the psychological dimension there’s that really elemental horror of being down a cave, the claustrophobia, the darkness, all those primal fears. For me that’s actually the scariest part about The Descent and that’s part of what Jon and I – and I hope I’m not putting words into his mouth – wanted to pursue primarily within the second one. So within the frame you’ve got this absolutely rip-roaring popcorn monster movie but at the same time you have this really tense psychological dimension of these people in this hostile environment that plays on your worst primal fears, and that for me is what really sustains it and hopefully makes it much richer than just another genre movie.
PN: How did you approach the script, was it always planned to be a direct sequel to the first film? Did you already know that Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) were going to be coming back or was that something you brought in?
JW: I don’t know what conversations had happened before I was involved but the brief was always – and I think it was the right one – to take the movie from that point, like the way that Halloween II picks up from Halloween. I suspect that there had probably been hundreds of conversations about do we relocate it to somewhere else or another decade or ra-ra-ra, but this was the most simple and sensible thing. I think there’s a really clean logic to it, very satisfying in a sense that you’ve got these girls who’ve disappeared and people will miss them, and so people will go out and try and find them. So we go into the rescue team and obviously for the people who’ve seen the first film we’ve now got anticipation because we know what they’re getting into whereas they don’t. The Juno one’s a tricky one because I’m not sure what they’re saying in terms of her involvement, I don’t know whether she’s meant to be a surprise…
PN: I think people know she’s been cast now.
JW: I suppose her name is on IMDb and all that malarkey then, so fair enough. Well, it’s just that Juno is a great character so if you can get her back in a decent way then why not? And as you’re reaching that operatic third act of the film then you basically want a diva don’t you, so that’s what you get!
DC: Did you get any kind of input from Neil (Marshall) on the script?
JW: Oh yes, lots, absolutely! He’s been fantastic, just nudging it and moulding it and saying this is the way I’d take this and this is the way I’d take that. He’s been involved all through the scripting process actually.
PN: How’s it been with the new actors coming in, have you found that to be a collaborative experience?
JW: More for Jon really, I understand they’ve been terrific and really great. They seem to have said my words (laughs), but you know what’s great is that there’s a real level of enthusiasm from them and they’re really excited about being involved and exploring their parts. By all accounts they’ve been a real pleasure to work with and I think there’s some real finds there which is nice. I think that having the old blood and the new blood is what you need to keep these things alive really.
PN: You’re currently here on set doing 2nd unit work as well so I suppose it must be good for Jon having the writer present in case he has any issues?
JW: You know, it’s a funny one because they always say you should keep the writer away, but I suppose it’s good in that I have some directing experience which is helpful to some degree. For example, on 2nd unit what’s good is if someone asks you a question then in some way having written it you’re empowered because you can talk about it in terms of character and approach. Jon is fundamentally shooting the drama as you can see and I’m shooting little bits and pick ups and stuff, but occasionally if there are any dramatic elements then I can have a conversation on a level which is respectful to the actors and that’s important. It’s not fair to ask actors to shoot drama without a director that has some sense of the dramatic underpinnings of the scene, it’s just disrespectful really, so that’s partly why I’m here I think.
PN: You were telling me earlier that you’ve just directed your first film, Eden Lake, where you worked with Christian and Jon and with some of the other guys on this shoot?
JW: That’s right, Simon Bowles our production designer did my film, Paul Hyett our legendary prosthetic make-up man, he was on it. You know, half the make up crew and costume crew worked on it. There’s a whole chunk of people here which is really nice for me.
JW: We’ve got Michael Fassbender who’s just been Bobby Sands in Hunger and has just done Creek with Joel Schumacher, his star is rising. And we’ve got Kelly Reilly who I think is probably one of the best British actresses around – she did Othello at the Donmar Warehouse – and Thomas Turgoose (This Is England) and Jack O’Connell. You know, the best think I did was cast really well and I cast terrific actors, classy actors.
PN: The film’s completed now and screened at Cannes didn’t it?
JW: Yes, we’re opening at FrightFest in August and then Optimum are releasing it in the UK at the beginning of September. We did incredibly well at Cannes; Harvey Weinstein has bought it for America, we’ve sold to territories all around the world. It’s funny, if you’re the director of a film, until it goes out into the world, you get all the feedback and I’ve just been getting incredibly positive feedback. Now obviously no-one is going to ring me up and say I thought your film was crap because they just wouldn’t, would they? Then when you put it out into the world, you take the temperature as to how the world responds and it filters back to you, and – touch wood – at the moment the response that is coming back is very gratifying, especially gratifying because of the nature of the subject matter. I think it may well be controversial when it comes out because it’s about kids…
PN: I was going to ask, could you say a little about what Eden Lake is about?
JW: It’s set in England, about a couple who go camping and a young teenage gang that come into the same territory and they have a few little altercations and then it grows and develops. It’s a white knuckle ride, I mean I’ve sat with audiences and in the last half hour people are just incredibly tense. But it’s not a monster film, it’s more real life – people have described it, as they do, as Deliverance meets Stand By Me. It’s definitely got those elements in it but what’s been particularly good is that people have found it incredibly taut and tense and at the same time they’ve said that, for the genre, they’ve found it to be more sophisticated, more intelligent. You’ll have to see it, I don’t want to make out that I’m making a Mike Leigh film, I’m not, I’m making a horror thriller, but it hopefully plays beyond that genre.
PN: Gone and My Little Eye also dealt with situations that almost anyone could find themselves caught up in. You seem to be someone who’s more into real life horror rather than the supernatural, would you agree?
JW: I have written some supernatural horror but it’s just never been made! (laughs) You know, for me that’s the most interesting thing, that any of us could walk into those situations. It’s the ‘what if’ scenario, and if it’s a ‘what if’ that I can readily identify with then that’s much more terrifying. If it’s a ‘what if’ that’s such a stretch then I end up falling at the first hurdle of the premise and that troubles me. Christ, Alien, I mean that’s not a real life horror film but for me it’s pretty much the perfect film. So it’s all about the idea for me; if the kernel of the idea and the truth behind the idea and the horror behind the idea is sustainable and can nourish the whole story then that’s what I’ll pursue.
PN: So have you got a preference over writing or directing now, or would you like to keep doing both if you can?
JW: You know what, if I can I’d love to continue to direct because it’s all storytelling and with writing you’ve started the story and so often you have to hand the baton on. I’m sure I’m speaking for lots of writers where it doesn’t mean it’s better or worse when someone else directs your work, but what comes out is different and it’s not necessarily what you intended. Many times you’d like the final product to be the clear idea of what you intended. Writing is an act of creation whereas direction is an act of interpretation so inevitably it is somebody else’s interpretation of what you’ve written and they may improve it but they may make it worse possibly. Selfishly I invest an awful lot of time and effort in what I do, writing is incredibly time intensive so if I’m going to spend nine months trying to figure out my way around a screenplay then ideally if Eden Lake gives me the opportunity to direct more then I hope so. It’s a brutal business and it’s an industrial process and all of that, but I’d like to think that I’ll hopefully get another shot at it.
Thanks to Mr. Watkins for taking the time to chat with us! The Descent 2 will be released in 2009.
Next week: Shauna Macdonald!