The last time I sat down with Hammer president Simon Oakes Let Me In was about to roll into cinemas and he was in similarly upbeat fashion this time, just returned from the Paris premiere of Hammer’s latest film, The Woman in Black and with a big opening weekend in America behind him we talked about the secret of the film’s success and where Hammer is heading next.
Oakes was heavily involved with the film’s production, with one eye in the enduring legacy of one of the most famous studios in the world and the other on the new direction he is taking.
The Woman in Black is a good old-Fashioned ghost story, and a damn effective one. With a focus on the oppressive atmosphere and serving up carefully timed moments of genuine terror it calls to life the spirit of Robert Wise’s The Haunting and succeeds as a well told ghost story, unencumbered by the post modern gorestory malaise.
Oakes expands on the decisions made in the adaptation, the thinking behind the revised ending and a few familiar faces we might be seeing resurrected from the vaults of the house of Hammer.
There are SPOILERS here, but I have marked those in the text below.
HeyUGuys: The Woman in Black opened very well in the US last week, the biggest ever for a Hammer film.
Simon Oakes: It did, it was by far the biggest. CBS did a very good campaign, they didn’t emphasis Daniel [Radcliffe]‘s presence until the final weeks. There was an excellent campaign built online in which they created a nursery rhyme about The Woman in Black which gave the impression that it was a part of American cultural life. It was a very clever piece of marketing and we opened wide, on 2,800 screens.
And it’s done very well here critically, it’s a good old fashioned ghost story but done very well.
Well, look at the revival of Dickens at the moment, when something’s classic it has a longevity. Susan’s novel was a throwback to the Wilkie Collins novellas from the Victorian age. I don’t think people get tired of the haunted house trope. People are getting really scared, whereas what is, in modern terms, called horror you’ve got what I call the gornography of some of these films. I don’t think they have the same emotional response, there’s a visceral response certainly but [The Woman in Black] goes deeper. Very rarely do people say they don’t believe in ghosts…
Or tell me a good ghost story and I’ll believe you…
That’s it. I think what Jane [Goldman] did was to take what Susan Hill imagined on the page and made it happen, it’s a beautiful screenplay. Then James [Watkins] assembled a great team and they found a great location, we looked all over the country for the right house. It had to be gothic without being pastiche gothic.
What struck me was how straight everything was played, and when you’re dealing with a film centered around a haunted house, something which is almost beyond parody, you have to be very careful.
There’s been the observation that the film ‘does what it says on the tin’ and that’s fine. What I think James, Daniel and Jane brought to it is the thematic undertow about the sense of loss and children, how far would you go to protect your child… And if you remember at the start of the film he’s told by his boss that he has to complete this job so he’s trapped in this situation.
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One of the elements which surprised me the most that ending, and how that thematic undertow find a release.
Yes, that was created for the film.
It’s different to the book of course, what made you go for a ‘happier’ ending?
I’d say it’s bittersweet, wouldn’t you? It’s a victory for both; it’s a victory for Kipps because he’s reunited with his wife and she with her child and for The Woman in Black because she’s seen him off. We played around with a couple of endings, but we never wanted to return to London but keep it within the same world. There was one ending we were toying with and that was having Kipps try to entice The Woman in Black into the light and Jane and James decided that it wasn’t really going to work. But I think it’s a brave ending, it’s an upsetting one certainly but one that leaves you fulfilled
Well, he’s free in the end, he’s not trapped in his job which he hates, not trapped in the world without his wife. In the end it’s the Woman in Black who frees him.
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Did you have to change anything to get a 12A rating rather than a 15?
Not really – it was always going to be whatever we got. It was hovering between 12A and 15 but in this day and age having a film like this come out as a 15 certificate is pretty crazy. I’ve seen the film with 13, 14 year olds and they see so much on the internet now. There were a number of scenes which we thought might worry the censor, the burning girl for example. I mean, there are a few more frames you could have there but we didn’t tinker radically with it.
So, there’s nothing that was omitted?
No, a film that suggests things can be much more frightening that one which just shows it and the whole certification debate would have been around whether the film could have been psychologically disturbing for a young person. We’re working on the Blu-ray right now and there’s a lot of interviews we’re doing but there’s nothing horrific lying on the cutting room floor. Less is more, and to show too much could have a negative effect. So with the burning girl or the three girls at the beginning you make a choice about how to show it, and we left it to the imagination.
The Woman in Black, like the other films Hammer have recently been involved with (Wake Wood, The Resident, Let Me In), is a standalone film, and in an industry and a genre which has so many sequels, is this a deliberate choice?
If the properties lend themselves to a franchise then fine, in fact we’re looking at a situation right now where we might return to Eel Marsh House forty years later but we wouldn’t make a ‘sequel’ sequel. But Let Me In was interesting, I remember talking to Matt Reeves about Chloe’s character, who is a vampire – she never dies, so what happens when Chloe is 18 – does she come back and reprise the character. I said to Chloe ‘We’ve worked it out now – vampires age when they fall in love,’ which is a good twist… In terms of endless sequels I don’t think Hammer is designed like that really, unless the series is there already. We’ve found one called Boneshaker, which is the Cherie Priest steampunk novels, set in Seattle in the 1860s with zombies and we recently announced we have the film rights and the screenplay has just been delivered.
On the red carpet for The Woman in Black you spoke to my colleague Ben Mortimer and talked about looking back to the Hammer films and I wondered if you are considering remaking any of the classic Hammer horror films?
Certainly rebooting them, not remaking them. I think Hammer should make a contemporary Dracula and I think if we can find a route in, which we’re looking at right now, then the answer is yes. The thing is that most of the films are remarkable as such, they’re caught in a time capsule of their own but we should a contemporary Dracula, we should do our version of a Frankenstein film. We’ve done a vampire film, we’ve done a haunted house film, we’re looking at a monster movie right now as Hammer did The Abominable Snowman and The Reptile, so we are looking at them. But more rebooting than remaking. If you look back at the old Hammer films there was a strong literary background, it followed on the history of that. There’s an elegiac quality to the films and Let Me In carries on from that, and The Woman in Black is the same. We wouldn’t make a down-the-road exploitative horror, today we’ve announced that we’re starting pre-production on The Quiet Ones which is a poltergeist movie. So wherever possible we like to have a strong story base. I think you can achieve a lot with old-fashioned filmmaking.
We’ve talked about the horror side of Hammer but in the past there were sci-fi films, Quatermass for example, would you consider moving back into that genre?
Definitely, we are. We are developing Quatermass at the moment. Completely contemporary, but rooted in his character. If you look at the BBC’s Sherlock it’s got enough DNA there, so you could bring him forward and say that this is what Bernard Quatermass would be like today. So he’d still be gruff, an outside, contrary, fighting authority but what would he be doing today? He wouldn’t be doing the Rocket Group because the world has moved on since the 1950s. We’re going to be announcing something about that soon.
The Woman in Black is out in cinemas tomorrow. It’s great.
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