Interview: Director Nick Willing On THE HAUNTING OF RADCLIFFE HOUSE And How To Make Genre Movies

Nick Willing is a writer-director-producer who has directed numerous television mini-series that have tackled many famous tales. From the likes of Alice In Wonderland (1999) and Jason And the Argonauts (2000) to Tin Man (2007) and Neverland (2011), Willing has delivered impressive epic spectacles on television and more recently, he’s brought the series Olympus to the small screen for Syfy and Spike. However, Willing also has a new horror film that has just dropped on DVD – The Haunting Of Radcliffe House (also known as Altar – read the MIF review) which is a wonderfully old fashioned ghost story starring Matthew Modine and Olivia Williams.

Movies In Focus spoke with Nick Willing to discuss the movie and how he delved deep into his skills as a filmmaker to deliver a horror film filled with classic genre trappings.

The Haunting of Radcliffe House was originally called Altar – why the title change?

That was something that Channel 5 did without me knowing. I would not have called it that myself. I wasn’t crazy about the title change. I think it’s a little bit hokey. The whole point of calling it Altar, for me, was that it was a type of pun. It was a movie about an altar, that also altered the people. It was supposed to be the riddle of the film.

You wrote the script – where did the idea for the film come from?

That’s a very good question. I’m fascinated by the nature of possession or obsession and obsessed people. I think all genre movies are just an expression of human behaviour. A vampire movie is a way of talking about young sexual obsession and budding sexuality, as is werewolf movies. The thing I wanted to explore was the obsessive quality of artists. I was brought up by two painters, so actually this is a film (and I’ve not said this to anyone before) is really a film about what it is to have artists as parents. And have obsessive people as parents.

I wanted to make a genre movie about family and use techniques like ghosts and terror and fear and possession, obsession and longing and sexual repression. All those things that constantly dog the everyday aspects of our lives. I love to express all those things in a genre movie.

The other thing, which I’m sure you picked up on, was the period of horror movies that I was exposed to were British horror movies of the 1970s – and it was a golden age of British horror movies. In my movie I have aspects of the horror movies of the ‘70s. I have aspects of Don’t Look Now in the cellar. The Shining in the house and The Omen with possession.

That’s what I loved about the film – it did have that ‘70s vibe. That’s something we miss in horror movies today. It was very old fashioned – and that’s something I mean in the best possible sense.

I don’t mind it being seen as old fashioned. For me, what was brilliant about those movies was that they made you think and feel. It’s easy to make somebody scared if you know someone is holding a knife and is going to cut their head off around the corner.

Building suspense in a movie must be difficult to do. You can have it on the page, but once you’ve shot it and you’re editing, is it difficult to create?

That was one of the main reasons I wanted to make the movie. I was very keen on trying to experiment with creating a frightening movie, a suspenseful movie with just the tools I had learned over 30 years as a filmmaker. Horror is like comedy in many ways. If comedy isn’t funny – it’s useless. Horror, if it isn’t scary – is useless. I hope it’s scary and people have genuinely said it’s scary. But it’s only scary because of how it makes you feel.

Now, how do you do it? It’s a combination of lots of different things. The main key of any horror movie is to do with point of view. To make the audience genuinely feel like they’re in the shoes of the person experiencing the fear. If that person is about to be killed, the actor being killed actually destroys the suspense because it’s over. It’s much more interesting to keep the person alive and continually ramp up and distort the thing that is making them scared as we go along. How you control the point of view, how you control the camera, the lenses. The distorted lenses – how you use these to put the audience in the shoes of the person experiencing the fear. That’s the key to all horror.

That’s one of the things you do – you actually set the family up as a cohesive family and you care about the characters which is something a lot of horror movies don’t do.

One of the things I said to the actors in rehearsal was try and make it feel as normal an English family, or English-American family as possible. I’m married to an American woman (who’s the producer of the film Michelle Carmada) so I brought up my two daughters in a multicultural family. That’s another reason why I made it. I made it like my family – an English-American mix. In the movieI tried to make dad a foreigner. He’s dad, but a little bit of an outsider – which would be spookier when he turns.

Was the American father something that was in the script or did it change once Matthew Modine signed on?

That was something that was in the script. I can’t remember which draft I added that to, but it was in the script before we got Matthew. Matthew was sort of a stroke of luck. He worked with Kubrick and he is such a passionate actor. He worked so hard – that role was really difficult to pull off and he embraced it completely. He was such a fan, and continues to be a fan of our movie. I can’t tell you how much in love with it he is.

As the film goes on – he seems to physically transform. Was that make-up, lighting or his performance?

It’s mostly his performance. I have to say – he can act. He’s a chameleon that guy. I give him 98% of the credit. There’s also a bit of make-up, only a tiny bit. He did that, it’s the way he moves. I’m surprised he’s not a major, major, major movie star. He is a movie star – but he should be bigger than that. He’s an incredibly talented actor.

I was thinking that when watching the movie – why don’t we see more Matthew Modine…

Yeah – interestingly, I sent him the script, not expecting him to respond. He chooses his scripts quite carefully and it was the material that he found interesting. Most American stars I know protect their image by playing it safe – he’s not like that. If it’s challenging, he’ll say, ‘let’s have a go at that’.

Was it difficult to find the right location?

It was incredibly difficult. I was incredibly lucky – I can’t tell you how lucky. I’d written a script with all those different places in mind. I had the script with a studio in the back where he could work, with the copse of trees in the background with the open fields around it, a main hall…all those different locations. A room upstairs, a big cellar in the basement and an attic room. I went to Yorkshire to look around and I went to three houses in one day. All of them were wrong but all had something, so I thought I could shoot a bit in this house and a bit in that house. Right at the end of the day my location manager said ‘there’s one more house but I don’t think it’s right’. But we walked in – and there it was – everything exactly as in the script, in exactly the same place as I had imagined.

It was right at the edge of the moors and it had a cellar, just perfect. And it had an attic room, just perfect. It even had a barn on the property which we could use as a studio and build extra sets to shoot little bits. Right at the end, I went out to the backdoor – and the sun was setting – and exactly where it was supposed to be was the copse of trees where Olivia (Williams) sees the ghost at the beginning. It was very, very spooky. It was wonderful.

It’s a great looking location and I did wonder if you had just used little bits and pieces of different houses.

Yeah – being one location made it possible to shoot as much as we did. We shot heavily for 22 days, a lot of work on making the movie and if we had to move crew around, we wouldn’t have done it in that time. We wouldn’t have got as much footage or it would have gone over budget. All these terrible things.

Seek out The Haunting Of Radcliffe House on DVD now.