02 September 2012
Posted in Film
Pat Holden on writing and directing a feature film based on a family haunting
'The Black Monk of Pontefract' is considered the worst case of poltergeist haunting in European history. But to me it is, and always will be, Aunty Jean’s Ghost.
I’d grown up with breathless tales of its activities delivered by my mother Rene, a regular visitor to the house, where she kept Jean and her kids company amidst the unholy chaos the ghost created.
Jean needed the company because her husband was terrified of the ghost and often absented himself to the local working men’s club to calm his nerves with quantities of Tetley’s. He was, on occasion, so calm that he slept in the garden.
It would be hard to blame him for his absenteeism; the ghost’s behaviour was by turns terrifying, chilling and surreal. Very occasionally it was even funny (on one occasion a dotty Spiritualist relative tried to ward it off by singing hymns. The ghost retaliated by conducting her singing using a pair of disembodied hands inside a pair of gloves).
Perhaps this was why the ghost earned a nickname (Fred) among the family and why they tolerated it for so long. Or was it a prime example of Northern stoicism? A coping mechanism? Or some sort of bizarre co-dependent relationship between house-proud Jean and wilfully destructive Fred?
Whatever the reasons, they stuck with it through black-outs, deafening banging, flying furniture, sudden chills, farmyard animal noises on the landing, upside down crucifixes, unexplained puddles, ‘transmigration of matter’ (look it up) and children being dragged unwillingly up staircases by their hair.
Its activities were enough to draw pundits, scientists, journalists, interested onlookers, three priests of various denominations, psychic investigators, students from the University of Leeds, local police and the town mayor to 30 East Drive. Everyone saw it.
Except me. For, despite my earnest protestations otherwise (I don’t mind being dragged up stairs by my hair - honest), I was considered far too young to enter the house. I longed for the day I’d be old enough to see it for myself.
But by then, Fred was long gone. The family reverted back to normal. When Mum and I visited I’d stand in the hallway willing Fred to do something, but there wasn’t even a sniff of supernatural activity. I sensed a jejeune air in my mother also; after the Second World War the ghost had been the most exciting thing in her life.
So why isn’t the haunting known about today? At the time it was a big story and the subject of double-page spreads in local newspapers. But it happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before the syndication of regional stories and long, long before the internet and social media.
Thus it became a local story, for local people. And increasingly forgotten by them too — the only remaining evidence some fading memories and a few moth-eaten clippings in the town museum.
But I always thought that the wider public might find the story of a malignant monkish spirit, trapped in a council house with an ordinary family, interesting too.
Cut to 25 years later. I’d moved to London and developed a career in advertising, firstly as a copywriter, then as a commercials director. And, as is the commercial director’s wont, I pined to try long-form. I wrote several scripts. I got an agent. Nothing concrete happened.
After an inspiring weekend seminar with a chap called Dov Simens, I determined to option the ghost story and, after a pilgrimage back up to 30 East Drive and the kind understanding of my Aunty, did just that.
Around London the story was considered a promising one and over the next few years various scripts were developed with various writers at various companies. But none were green-lit. Reasons were mooted for this, the main one being that the story was ‘cross genre’. Try explaining that to your Aunty Jean.
The project lay idle for several years until Bil Bungay (Moon) and Deepak Nayar (Bend It Like Beckham) agreed to get involved on the basis that I’d write and direct. This was a fantastic opportunity. It was also daunting; I was in the delicate position of telling the personal stories of people I was fond of, and directing my own material. No longer would I be able to blame the writer.
Someone once said writing is easy; you just sit at a typewriter until beads of blood appear on your forehead. It proved thus. My wife found herself married to a catatonic. Our children’s clown of a dad was suddenly Spock-like. Friends would see me staring into a corner and shout: ‘Stop writing!’
The hardest aspect was the structure. This was a true story and wouldn’t easily submit to three acts and turning points. So I stopped wrestling with it and instead sought to get across the spirit of the story rather than the facts. This was very liberating and in the end I found I hadn’t strayed too far from reality.
I handed the script over. My wife and kids breathed a sigh of relief. Then the producers raised the money. We were off and running. Easy.
I’m joking, of course; anyone who has been through the film financing process will know what an insane nail-biting rollercoaster ride it is. But came the day and we were ready to roll.
I wanted to make an old-fashioned supernatural thriller in the mould of The Haunting or The Innocents that relied on character and suspense to create scares rather than blood, gore and SFX.
I wanted to paint an authentic picture of working-class 1970s Yorkshire and people it with characters you could get behind rather than hoped would get bumped off in an interesting way.
And I wanted to create a film with warmth and humour to reflect the real family and get away from the dry, morbid tone of most supernatural films. And I wanted to do it all with an eye-wateringly tight budget.
I could say that this was all achieved by my dogged and meticulous attention to detail, my consummate craftsmanship, coupled with my firm grasp of genre and innate storytelling abilities. But I’d be lying. Primarily I leant heavily on the genius of my collaborators and a great ensemble cast.
And that’s what they are there for. They are often much more experienced than you are. I’d made two films when I walked on the set. Others had made 23.
The lead, a 13-year-old girl, was a complete unknown with no acting experience whatsoever. On one hand, I was exhilarated; not only would she be authentically Northern, she would also be my discovery. On the other hand, I was terrified; what would happen if she couldn’t give me a consistent performance? Or had a nervous breakdown from the pressure? Or turned into a prima donna? Wouldn’t I be better off with one of the supporting cast of Harry Potter? I needn’t have worried; she came to earn the nickname ‘One-Take Tasha’.
One challenge was to shoot enough coverage to create scenes that built slowly and created tension—a prerequisite of a horror film, and especially one that gives a nod to classic film techniques. This required many more angles, tracking shots and POVs than you would find in a normal low-budget British film. Some days it was a real slog. One day we managed 38 separate camera moves. But the editor was overjoyed with the material — he had a lot to play with.
The shoot is a bit like being thrown into an emotional meat grinder. Your ego expands to a gargantuan size, but at the same time you are prey to extreme bouts of paranoia. Did I get the shot? Will all this stuff cut together? Will this be a triumph or the final nail in the coffin of my career? At times I longed for it to be over.
But when it ended I felt like I’d fallen off the edge of a cliff. I needed a good sit down inside the equivalent of a darkened cupboard for several days before I could hold a coherent conversation again.
Then came the slow, sweet process of editing and post-production. After the shoot it’s like being immersed in a bath of opium. The only drawback is that by the end of it you lose whatever objective viewpoint you have about your project. And you have seen it so many times you hate the very mention of its name.
Which is fine, because it’s time to hand it over to the distributors. Who reignite your enthusiasm for the film. They are so boundlessly enthusiastic your head spins; you suddenly realise you have created the Citizen Kane of horror films. Your ego is massive again.
Then the film is reviewed...
When The Lights Went Out is released in UK cinemas on 12 September 2012, and will be on DVD and Blu-Ray from 31 December