IN CONVERSATION WITH JOEL WILSON
Screened on Channel 4 this Spring (with a further episode to follow on Halloween), TRUE HORROR offered a genuinely unsettling spin on the now-familiar “docu-drama” format, combining talking heads interviews with victims of paranormal experiences and often frightening reconstructions of what they went through. British TV has typically been snobby about horror, but TRUE HORROR does an excellent job of meshing all mundane everyday problems (vast electricity bills, unfulfilled careers, a death in the family) with precision-timed jump scares and real chills. We were lucky enough to be granted some phone time with its producer, Joel Wilson, whose previous venture into true-horror was the excellent miniseries THE ENFIELD HAUNTING.
The first three episodes of TRUE HORROR have now aired in the UK, with the fourth coming later in the year. What’s the response been so far?
It’s gone over really well. Twitter blew up, and we were trending number one in the UK on the first episode. People who were fans of horror were vocal in those forums – and that’s the people we really wanted to buy into it. That’s why your review meant so much to us – we wanted to make something genuinely scary. Horror fans are a very discerning bunch, and we wanted people who knew what they were talking about to get it. We wanted to make four very well-crafted horror movies.
That really comes across – it was unashamedly setting out to be truly scary. We’ve had a bunch of “supernatural costume dramas” on British TV - a little too embarrassed to be out and out horror shows. That, to me, is the real fun of it. Horror has a similar kind of rhythm to comedy - you’ve really got to go for it – you’ve got to be made to feel real dread and be made to jump. Otherwise, it’s like a comedy without a punchline. It’s quite rare to have the jump scares in a British horror show, and I liked the way they led into each ad break as a sting before the adverts…structurally that was refreshing.
Sure, though we were worried as it was a documentary, we wouldn’t be able to do it. The commissioning editor was very supportive. The interviews were helpful – they did a great job of shooting them, making them atmospheric. Quite a lot of the time, we used music more in the interviews than the drama sequences. We wanted it first and foremost to be a drama directed by brilliant auteurs of horror but be reminded by the interviews that these things happened. These things tend to be led more by the interviews, and the recreations tend to be literal interpretations of what was told. We were influenced by the interviews regarding the construction of the story, but we wanted the drama to lead.
Was TRUE HORROR the natural next step after the well-received THE ENFIELD HAUNTING?
In part. I was always too scared to watch horror before ENFIELD. I was the person who would make up a reason to shout to my wife as I ran from the toilet to the bedroom in the middle of the night shouting [adopts high-pitched coward-voice] “what are we doing in the morning?”
I remember going to see THE SIXTH SENSE. It scared me so much. But in making ENFIELD, I watched lots of horror and got involved in the craft of it. It made me quite excited about the genre. I think the good horror says something about society and it’s interesting to see how horror movies change over time to reflect society’s anxieties. We got excited about making ENFIELD, and we developed lots of horror ideas. Jamie [Campbell, fellow producer] and I have a background in documentary, and this was the perfect synthesis of two things we were interested in. I think there’s a real absence of it on British television and anxiety that it won’t reach a big audience – but ENFIELD proved it could if it was genuinely scary.
I read a review with a slightly condescending headline from The Telegraph, “CRIMEWATCH with more exorcisms”, which made me think of GHOSTWATCH. There’s a moment in TRUE HORROR featuring a figure in front of some curtains that suggested GHOSTWATCH was a prominent influence.
Oh, I remember …I was six at the time, the perfect age for it. Like many other people from my generation it left an indelible mark on me, but so did the TV movie of THE WOMAN IN BLACK. It was on quite early at Christmas because there was no gore in it, so my parents and grandparents let me watch while I was in the next room, like it was NOEL’S HOUSE PARTY. When they came back in, I was pinned to the sofa – it was terrifying, absolutely horrifying. I found a copy of it recently, and it still stands up. The ending terrifies me every time. I know! And the bit where she comes into him in bed. I didn’t sleep on my back until I was 32 – the idea of that woman coming in through the window!
Of all the shows we’ve ever made, watching the Twitter response, which was about 95% positive, was so gratifying. You never know if you’re going to get punched or kissed or jabbed in the balls. Horror fans can be difficult to satisfy.
When you’re making horror – it’s true of comedy too - certain tricks always work. We know what’s coming, but jump scares still work. I watched today the David Lynch movie where the guy comes out from the bin [MULHOLLAND DRIVE], it scared the absolute shit out of me…He comes out quite slowly…it was unexpected…brilliant.
One of my favourite jolts in any movie is the hospital corridor sequence in THE EXORCIST III. Yeah, I hadn’t seen that, but Rob Savage [director of “Ghost In The Wall”] showed me that, it’s a pleasure working with those guys. All the directors were brilliantly talented and genuinely committed to the craft and execution of horror.
How did you choose the directors?
Gareth Tunley [director of “Terror In The Woods”] is an old mate, and we have worked together a few times. I saw THE GHOUL and asked if he wanted to get involved. We worked with Amanda Boyle [director of “The Witches’ Prison”] on our first drama. She didn’t have a background in horror but os an incredibly gifted filmmaker. What’s exciting is learning about the techniques of horror with directors who are not “horror” directors. Rob Savage did a brilliant short called DAWN OF THE DEAF which he is now expanding into a movie. Tom Kingsley [director of “Hellfire Farm”] directed a movie called BLACK POND. Those people have different backgrounds, we wanted each film to have a clear identity, and they work nicely as a foursome.
The real enduring horror comes from non-horror guys – THE EXORCIST works so well as a drama, which happens to be gate-crashed by the supernatural.
Yeah, it’s about the guy’s doubt as a priest. JAWS, fucking scary, my favourite film. The beautiful thing about Brody and his son at the dinner table, seeing the love between them means you feel more scared later on when the bad stuff happens.
I love the Britishness of it – the focus on mounting bills, the problems of being a single mum…and the backdrop lends itself to credible humour, too.
In the one with the boys in the wood, there is a lot of humour. We wanted to have humour to varying degrees, and also root them in reality, with the characters having common concerns that are, as you say, gate-crashed by horror.
Were there stories that didn’t make it to the screen or parts that didn’t make it?
We didn’t include all of the parts, and that was true of ENFIELD. When you’re confronted with something from real life as with ENFIELD the reason the guy granted us the rights was, we wanted to stay very close to the book the guy wrote. With the documentary, we wanted to stick very closely to the truth. It would be inappropriate to stretch things beyond the interpretation of what we were told. We wanted to honour the events that happened by making the audience feel what the people that went through them felt – the only way to do that is to make them compelling and frightening so people will engage with them. The job was about working out for ourselves what the real problem for the family or the characters. The disintegration of their marriage, the fear of being a single mother, the loss of a grandfather and fear of death and then making sure the story had a coherent structure. In ENFIELD things just stopped happening – if in THE EXORCIST she just suddenly got better it wouldn’t be a great climax – so we worked up the ending to ENFIELD, but with these, we stuck to the story. We brought in the families and showed them the show. All of them felt we had told the stories as they said it. We were anxious that they might not work for whatever reason, but all of them loved it. That was the real achievement – we had made something entertaining that entirely honoured the people’s stories.
Some of the reviews have criticised the films for that but missed the point -this wasn’t a journalistic exercise in working out if they were telling the truth or not. A lot of people in the UK believe in the supernatural – I don’t, though I think it enough to get scared by these things. What I certainly believe is these people experienced what they experienced – I don’t doubt the people in Enfield…we wanted to represent what they felt had happened very directly without any aggressive questioning of it. We don’t present it as literally true – we want people to make their minds up.
We should be sympathetic to them just as if other people rather than ghosts had invaded their home.
Since THE ENFIELD HAUNTING was transmitted, we have had a bunch of successful movies dealing with similar subject matter: THE CONJURING 2 tackled the same story and GHOST STORIES dabbled with a similar format. Was TRUE HORROR easy to get off the ground given the popularity of this sub-genre?
Yes, we were lucky to work with the brilliant commissioning editor of Channel 4 Dominic Byrne, we got on very well with him – he completely got it, very supportive of it. He loved the idea of franchising these filmmakers to have freedom and get on with it. Unlike most things which are a fucking nightmare, he was very supportive.
You’ve mentioned being frightened by horror in the past. In TRUE HORROR, I think the baby monitor scenes scared me the most, but was there anything that spooked you in particular from the four episodes?
Yeah, the stuff with the monitor -the moment we got a baby monitor, it was ideal from the horror p.o.v. You do hear other shit through them, and you hear other people’s voices…”The Witches Prison” the stuff with the baby is scary. There are bits in all the films that affected me -the sequence with the boys in the tent is particularly chilling. The portrait of the husband’s descent into madness in “Hellfire Farm” was genuinely sad and scary. The opening sequence in episode 2 in the bedroom…particularly with our documentary budget, it was so accomplished and so frightening. From a personal level, the stuff with the baby monitor like you…the true horror of having a seven-week-old baby.
Will we see more TRUE HORROR?
We hope so. Episode 4 will be shown on Halloween. We’re talking to Channel 4 about what’s next. Here’s hoping there will be more.
With Special Thanks to Joel Wilson and Isabelle Knight.
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