Horror will always be popular. It plays with our fears and nightmares in a way that no other genre can. From campfire stories through to novels and cinema, our primal dread of darkness and the unknown have always been captured in tales of the macabre. Zombies, poltergeists and vampires have currently enthralled audiences across the globe; however it’s the old-fashioned ghost story which continues to be the most effective way to strike terror into our hearts.
Axelle Carolyn’s debut feature film, Soulmate (read the Movies in Focus review) uses the conventions of the ghost story as a way of giving modern audiences a taste of the past. Eschewing blood and gore for atmosphere and tension, Carolyn has delivered a film that feels like it could have been made a half a century ago. It’s a riveting gothic tale which delves deep into our fear of death and our curiosity of the afterlife. The film hit movie news headlines when the opening sequence was banned by the BBFC in the UK for a scene involving an attempted suicide.
Carolyn is no stranger to horror. She has written and directed several short films that deal with the supernatural, while she has also covered the horror beat as a journalist. As an actress, she has appeared in many genre movies and is also married to Neil Marshall, director of Dog Soldiers and The Descent (and producer of Soulmate). Movies In Focus spoke with her to discuss the challenges of directing her debut feature, working as a woman in the horror genre and what she really thinks of the BBFC!
Q. Finish this sentence: The BBFC is …
… Em, out of touch with reality? I’m trying to stay polite here… I like to describe Soulmate as a Gothic romance, a spooky Jane Eyre; if people expect a hardcore horror, they’ll be disappointed. So to say that this decision was a surprise is an understatement. Besides, the scene is not overly graphic, just realistic. I thought the responsible thing to do when depicting suicide was to make it realistically unappealing and painful. Turns out I was wrong. What rubbed them the wrong way is the fact that people who are contemplating committing suicide might learn how to do it in the most usually fatal way. Of course if anyone really wanted to kill themselves, they could find the exact same information online, where I found it in the first place. This kind of argument simply doesn’t stand in this day and age.
Q. How do you think Soulmate has changed now that you’ve taken out the original opening from the UK release?
In the cut version you pick up on what happened little by little, and it’s perhaps made the movie a bit more subtle, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The opening sequence was a way to right away understand Audrey’s state of mind, which explains her decisions later on when she stays in the house. It was also a way to make it clear that her journey throughout the movie is to find a reason to keep living, to learn to live again after what happened to her. That’s still there, but you need to pay closer attention to piece it together I guess.
Q. Do you look back on the BBFC as a learning experience and if so, what do you think you’ve learned?
Nothing at all! Ratings and censorship had never crossed my mind making this, I never thought it’d be the kind of film that would upset them at all. So now that I know that it can strike any film for any reason, pretty randomly, I definitely won’t try to second guess them or worry about it next time around either.
Q. Where did the idea for the film come from?
The idea came from a trip I took through the English countryside years ago and getting lost in a place that was so deserted, atmospheric and typically British all at once, it made me want to bring back old fashioned Gothic tales…
Q. In a lot of ways, it’s a very old fashioned ghost story. Was there pressure to make it more ‘modern’ by making it gorier or upping the scare quota?
Yes, there was. But it wasn’t so much the gore as the shift of tone halfway that proved difficult. It polarised people, both at financing stage, and with audiences. Any film that crosses genres is a harder sell and defies expectations. It’s one of the things that set this movie apart, and what appealed to me in the first place, but I know it’s also what makes it hard to classify, whether for marketing purposes, or festivals, etc. But this is one of the joys of independent cinema: you get to make things that are more atypical, more unique.
Q. You worked on the script for several years and came close to making it in the past. Things have changed quite a bit from the original concept. What would that previous film version have been like?
Probably not very good, to be honest! The version we ended up making is much more contained, closer to the real heart of the story, the relationship between the two lead characters. But mostly, I’ve learned a lot from the couple of years between the failed attempts and the actual shoot! I made 5 short films, wrote another feature script… and spent more time with this story, which meant I knew it inside out when we finally started filming. Plus, everything really fell into place once the time was right, and I ended up with a cast and crew I could not have been happier about!
Q. You’ve directed several short films, but this is your first feature. What challenges did you face and what was easier than you imagined?
Scheduling a feature is way more complex than a short film. As a consequence, every day you’re fighting the clock; some days you lose the fight and have to reschedule somehow, or decide to drop some non-essential shots or even scenes. You have to be adaptable, and that’s something I actually enjoyed; somehow making a movie, at least on this kind of budget, requires changes on the spot and lots of quick decisions, and you just have to roll with it. Funny thing is, at the end of the day, I often ended up saying, ‘that’s exactly how I’d envisioned it!’ – forgetting all the changes we had to make from the original vision, because we made the changes work!
Q. The focal point of the film is the relationship between Anna Walton and Tom Wisdom, who is a ghost. Was it difficult getting the rules right for having them interact and balancing special effects with getting the performance on a practical level?
Yes, it was a major point in every rewrite – which rules to set up, how to visually sell the fact that he’s becoming more tangible, how to make him look ghostly while remaining human enough that you’d understand why she’s getting attached to him… And special effects were barely an option for us, we had a tiny budget and little time to spend setting up complicated shots. We used a few simple tricks like wires attached to objects, or filming the ghost separately from the background so we could make him see-through by combining both images… Most of all, I had two wonderfully strong actors and wanted the performances to be the center of attention, so we kept things simple.
Q. Soulmate has quite a small cast. Tell me about the casting process and how you selected your actors?
I’d worked with Anna Walton on my short film The Halloween Kid, and she seemed like a perfect fit for Audrey. She read the script months before the shoot and we spent a lot of time discussing it together, scene by scene. She really absorbed it and became that character; directing her was such a wonderful experience. Tom Wisdom, who plays the ghost, auditioned for the part a couple of weeks before the shoot. He’s very handsome and likable, with a great smile, and I was concerned that he could never look threatening. But in the audition he played one of the scene where he gets angry, and he suddenly became pretty scary! He’s very versatile and played a difficult role with so much nuance. Tanya Myers and Nick Brimble are both amazing, well-established character actors and were both so much fun; by coincidence they’d played a couple on TV in the past, so they knew each other already. And then there’s my dog Anubis, who despite what some may say got the role because of her talent and charisma, and not through nepotism…
Q. The horror genre usually has a female protagonist but behind the scenes it’s generally very male driven. What are your thoughts on this? On the flipside, your film had quite a large female crew (and 50% of the cast is female). Do you think that this brought a different energy to the film?
I don’t really know, to be honest. It’s not something I tend to give much thought to; women and men do their jobs on set very much the same way… On Soulmate, besides myself, the producer, cinematographer, production designer, art director, costume designer and makeup designer were all female. It turned out that way purely because they were the best people we found for the job. It’s entirely possible that women in some positions – I’m thinking particularly cinematography – may be overlooked by male directors because they’d feel more comfortable working with another guy…
Q. Your husband, Neil Marshall also works within the horror genre and he’s credited as a producer on the movie. What was the best advice that he gave you and how much did he stand back and let you make the movie that you wanted to make?
Neil’s advice was essentially practical. He convinced me to buy warm, practical shoes at the beginning of the shoot; the last thing you want on a shoot like this one where you’re on location and you hardly have a moment to think, is to be distracted by practicalities. Otherwise he was really a sounding board throughout the whole process, and after the shoot he was the editor. But he wasn’t around for most of the shoot itself, he was in South Africa filming a TV pilot. The great thing is that while he has all this amazing experience and talent, he also has very different tastes and ideas from me, so we don’t really step on each other’s toes. We each do our own thing and complement each other well.
Q. The scope of Soulmate is quite small. Would you like to open things up for your next movie and make something on a bigger budget, or are you worried that you might lose a lot of autonomy?
I’d definitely like to have more money to play with! But I like doing my own thing, and I don’t have the most commercial tastes out there, so I’m very happy to stay in the indie world and keep budgets in mind as I’m writing.
Q. Any thoughts on your next directorial effort? Can you tell me anything about it?
I wish I could! But I don’t know yet. I have a script I’m shopping around at the moment, and a project I’m developing with some friends, but it’s hard to see what will get going first. Hopefully something will be green lit soon, because I can’t wait to get back behind the camera!