Talking British Horror: A Conversation with Sophia Myles and Ed Stoppard
Having recovered from a shattering emotional breakdown, college professor Ben Marshall relocates to the countryside with his wife and young son, hoping for a fresh start. He has a teaching job lined up and a new home to move into; things finally look to be going Ben’s way. Until, that is, he starts to feel that something isn’t quite right in the house. Finding himself plagued by spectral visions, Ben becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth behind a local mystery that appears to be putting the lives of his family in danger. Delivering good old-fashioned scares alongside a host of innovative ideas, this atmospheric chiller from newcomer Adam Wimpenny is a smart revision of the traditional English ghost story. With a compelling family drama at its core, the supernatural horrors of Blackwood are handled with an intelligence that maintains credibility as it twists and turns its way to a startling conclusion.
As independent genre picture Blackwood creeps its way into UK theatres, The Fan Carpet relives the immersive conversation with the film’s two leads that allowed us to get under the skin of the film, as well as spiralling outward into a discussion of the creative process, and their individual inspirations.
Why a career in acting? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Ed Stoppard: When I was around fifteen years old I went to see a production of my dad’s play Hapgood. A young Iain Glen who is now world famous for being in Game of Thrones played one of the main characters, although as far as I’m concerned he was world famous long before, and he possibly was. I just remember watching Iain and I didn’t necessarily think to myself, ah I want to do that, but rather I thought, ah I want to be him. So watching Iain Glen in Hapgood as a fifteen year old was evidently an important moment, if only because I still remember it vividly today – twenty six years later.
Sophia Myles: I didn’t decide to become part of this industry – it was decided for me. When I was sixteen I was spotted in a school play by Julian Fellowes who asked me to come along and audition for a costume drama he had written, and was producing. I just fell in love with being on a film set and so that’s how it all began. But I had never thought about it until the opportunity presented itself. In life I believe very strongly in fate and synchronicity, and I like the fact that it was chosen for me. It was and remains very exciting.
Can you recall when you first became aware of storytelling? Was it through film, TV, literature or theatre?
Ed Stoppard: Well I don’t think there was one specific source. I read a lot as a child and I took part in school plays. I primarily remember the pleasure I derived from walking onto a stage and pretending to be someone else. I distinctly remember the thrill of it, and from a relatively young age.
Sophia Myles: I listened to a lot of audio books when I was a child, and my mother would read to us. But it was through storytelling initially, and then my parents would take us to the cinema and the theatre a lot when we were children. So I have always loved storytelling, and I’ve always been a huge fan of stories. They are so important because they help you to create your own imagination.
Youth is a great time to discover stories because we are at that impressionable age. Do you think there is a fundamental change in how we connect with stories as we move into adulthood?
Sophia Myles: I’m probably the wrong person to ask because I’ve made a living out of professionally telling stories. So for me storytelling has always been so much a part of my life – it’s what I do. I feel as connected to telling stories now as I did when I was a child, and if anything my imagination is even richer now. I think it varies, but who doesn’t love a good story?
There are few professions that allow such an intimate exploration of identity, and whilst writing is one of them the opportunity to become the incarnation of a character for the actor offers a certain level of intimacy.
Ed Stoppard: One of the aspects I enjoy about portraying a character is that exploration of the person. I’m sure a lot of people are familiar with the term of “An actor discovering his motivation.” It has become somewhat of a cliché, but it is valid certainly for me, and it’s not just interesting or enjoyable for me to examine a character and figure out what makes them tick; what motivates them; why they choose to use certain words to make themselves understood; why they choose to behave in this way or carry out these actions. I find all of that interesting, but I also find it absolutely essential in portraying the character.
I realised this only recently – an odd thing for an actor to realise seven years into their career – but I’m actually not a very good liar. I can’t lie to people or at least not convincingly. I realised this the other day whilst in the process of unconvincingly lying to someone. It’s interesting because you’d think instinctively an actor would be a good liar, but then it tallied with my experience of working, where if I don’t believe it myself then there is no point in doing it. I’m sure there are actors out there, and part of me is quite envious of them who can switch it on and switch it off almost like an impressionist slips seamlessly between impressions. There must be some actors out there who operate on a similar level, and they are obviously extremely skilled, but that is something I can’t do. I can do it if I’m telling an anecdote, but if I’m working then I have to inhabit the character, otherwise I don’t believe it myself what chance is there of anyone else believing it.
So all of that exploration is vital for me, and I do a lot of it with for whichever character I find myself portraying, but it is not just because I find it interesting. I have however been lucky enough to play some very interesting characters that are both real and imagined. So it is not a grind or drudgery to do that work because I know it will help me when I come to do the work to get to where I feel I need to be.
As an actor can an interest in a project be pre-dominantly driven by story or must it always be a mix of character and story?
Ed Stoppard: It’s essential for there to be a blend. I’m sure I remember reading a glib estimation of acting jobs in that it either had to have money, location or personnel, and if you could tick two out of the three boxes… If you got paid well and were sent to the Bahamas then it didn’t matter who you were working with. If you were filming in the Maldives with interesting people then it didn’t matter that you were not getting paid. There’s an element of that I suppose, but the short answer is that if your character is interesting but the story is not, then that is not great, and vice versa. So yes, in an ideal world one is looking for interesting and well-constructed stories in which your character is ideally a fully fleshed out three dimensional, coherent, interesting and central character. Although sometimes you can play a character that is more peripheral, but if the writer has done their due diligence and created a fully rounded character then it doesn’t matter that you are one of the second reel, tertiary players in the narrative.
I have to admit that when I read a script for the first or second time, part of me is watching out for what I call bumps in the road. By this I mean where I just don’t believe it whether it is a set piece or something a character says. Now if I find a bump in the road I ask, is it because I need to do a little work on this moment to find the truth in it or is it because I just feel the writer has been lazy or stupid? But the fewer bumps in the road there are in the script the happier I am.
Sophia Myles: I don’t think you get one without the other. If you are telling an interesting story you are going to have interesting characters along for the ride. I don’t think you can separate the two. For me I instinctively know a good story and character when I read one, although I couldn’t tell you how or why because I just feel it.
Do you like to work on instinct and live in the moment?
Sophia Myles: Oh absolutely. I do no research and I undertake very little preparation if any, as I prefer to just let things unfold organically when I am on the set. So I don’t arrive with any preconceived ideas of what I am going to do or how it’s going to be.
How do the different approaches of the creative team whether it is the writer, director or actor find a harmony? It is amazing sometimes how the multitude of personalities and methods of working can discover the same road that leads to that one destination.
Sophia Myles: Well as long as you’ve got a method or a way of working that works for you, and which makes you feel safe and confident in what you are doing, then everyone around you is going to feel comfortable. The same applies the other way around. Everyone has a different process for approaching the work, but as long as you are comfortable with your way then everyone else is going to be fine with it as well. We are all so different; everyone perceives the world differently; everyone’s mind and body works differently, and so in the end it is just about getting the right group of people together at the right time.
But I love being a part of a team, and especially a team that works well together – there’s nothing more thrilling than successful collaboration. I would hate to be a captain of a ship or the leader of an army – I’d much prefer to be one of the troops.
Returning to the point about “Bumps in the road”, when you first read the script for Blackwood was there instantly that sense of believability in the characters and the scenario?
Ed Stoppard: Absolutely! I knew Joe because I’d worked with him on a play earlier that year with his producing partner Adam. They sent me the script and I was amazed because I didn’t know that Joe was a screenwriter. But when I read it, I was propelled along because it had this great momentum, and a bump in the road never came along. There was never a point where I thought, oh he’s got to go back and look at that – it needs a rewrite. It just never happened. Instead I just kept turning the pages and believing in it, and I found myself being carried along with the story and wanting to find out what happened next. None of the character’s motivations ever felt forced, and the situations always felt believable.
I remember phoning them up and saying, “Guys I’m going to be honest with you – I was really worried that this phone call would have to be one of those, “Oh guys I so wish I could do it, but I just don’t think it’s for me.” But it was the opposite in fact because it was a fantastic script and I said, “Let’s make this film.” I was delightedly surprised, not just pleasantly, and looking back it’s my own fault for underestimating Joe.
Sometimes good scripts leap off the page, and as you read them you can visualise it, and you can hear the characters speaking – the film almost runs through your head as you are reading it. Joe’s script absolutely did that as I read it, and believe me I read many more scripts where you think somehow we’ll drag this off the page or the director will have a greater vision than I do as to how to make this work. But few and far between are the scripts I read where the film plays out in front of you like it is on a reel. So I was full of excitement and I had a feeling of real possibility when we got down to starting the shoot. I thought it could turn out to be both interesting and entertaining, which I believe the both Joe and Adam achieved with great success.
For you Sophia, when you first read the script for Blackwood what was the appeal of both the story and the character?
Sophia Myles: I just thought it was utterly gripping, terrifying and fascinating. It’s interesting to explore a story that deals with a young family where mental health issues are involved, although it is not explicitly explained in the story that Ed’s character has had mental health issues. But the impact of those issues on his family, and not just on his own experience but also those around him is particularly interesting.
Mental health issues are more deeply explored and discussed than they were at one time. Despite the fact that mental health problems cannot be seen on an x-ray, it does not mean that they don’t still have as much of an impact as any physical ailment.
As a psychological thriller Blackwood conveniently connects with the issue of mental health, but more broadly do you think stories and film can be a means of bringing issues to the forefront for discussion?
Sophia Myles: Oh absolutely. Storytelling is the oldest form of communication within the human experience, and we all help each other to evolve by telling stories to one another. The medium of film is just a form of sitting around the camp fire and having one of your elders tell you a story. The only difference is that it is an even more enhanced way of communicating an idea to the masses.
The opening of Blackwood possesses this immediacy of Englishness – it is a very specific sense of feeling that is almost more suited to experience than description.
Ed Stoppard: Yeah, I know what you mean about that English quality. I wonder if what you actually mean is whether it has a non-American quality.
Sophia Myles: No other country in the world has the same feel as England, the same history or the same heritage. There is so much spirit in the land here; so much history with the buildings which that in itself brings energy you can’t compare to anywhere else.
Is it a case of the place we grow up informing our creative sensibilities, and consequently shaping our creative identity?
Sophia Myles: Absolutely, and I’ve found that whenever I am away from England for any length of time I miss it desperately. But what I miss isn’t something that you can necessarily put your finger on, because it is more of an energetic experience. There is a spirit in the land that is unlike anywhere else in the world I have experienced. England is just so rich in its history and there is so much creativity here – it’s a magical country. But yes, I do think we are a product of it, and we have it in our genetic make-up. We carry the history of our ancestors with us, and this country happens to be very rich in creative spirits.
Can you remember the first moments you discovered the horror genre?
Ed Stoppard: I must admit I don’t watch a lot of scary films because I don’t enjoy being scared, and so I had very little frame of reference for when we started to shoot Blackwood. I watched some of The Shining which I had never seen before, although I knew some of the iconic moments, and frankly I found it too frightening [laughs].
Sophia Myles: To be honest the thriller and horror genres or anything that keeps you on the edge of your seat are not the kind of films I would choose to go to see as an audience member. When I go to the cinema it is to be made to feel warm, fuzzy and to laugh. I don’t like to be scared, and so I have not watched many films if any within this genre.
As a consequence when I saw Blackwood for the first time I was utterly terrified. I spent the whole time screaming my way through the film even though I’m in it, just because it is so brilliantly edited. But it had me jumping out of my seat every five seconds, and so I would be too scared to see it again [laughs].
Not being as familiar with horror or thriller and their traditions, how did that impact the experience of shooting Blackwood?
Ed Stoppard: I wasn’t comparing it to anything because I don’t have that level of knowledge of the genre. But I guess I knew what it wasn’t, and I knew it wasn’t any number of different sub-genres – many of them North American. I knew it was much more of a study, and it wasn’t a film that relied on gore. So if we wanted to unnerve the audience we were going to have to do it more subtly, and in a more clever way. I also knew that it would also have more of a slow burn quality, which I really liked. So we were conscious of or I suppose I was conscious of trusting that we didn’t have to throw all of the excitement to the front of the film; in fact the opposite was important. We had to just trust that the audience could come along with us on the journey and follow the story, and that they would intuit early on that the style of the film required a certain amount of conviction on their part as well as patience and involvement.
Sophia Myles: Well I think you come to the process completely organically, and you have no pre-conceived ideas of what the genre feels like, which means you are not copying or emulating anything. Instead you are just showing up as yourself, and reacting authentically to the situations around you. So in a sense the fact that none of us were fans of the genre before made it more interesting, because we were so green as it were, and as a result there was freshness to it.
Ed Stoppard: I think the best pieces of art are the ones that demand a kind of dialogue and interaction between the art and the audience. I think that stuff that is designed for an inert audience is the least interesting. I don’t think that is a particularly profound statement, but it’s true. The stuff that is designed for people to sit back and munch on popcorn by definition is going to be less challenging, and anything that is more challenging is more rewarding. So again one of the things I liked about Joe’s script was that it demanded a certain amount of input from the audience in following the story. It required them to keep up with us and allowed their own minds to question what they were seeing – what and who they were supposed to believe. I am so ignorant of the genre, but I could tell that it was a very good piece of writing, and it scared me so I thought it must be doing something right.
Film is a dance between the filmmaker and the audience. The genre audience are a savvy one, and so part of the game becomes giving them what they expect, but not how they expect it. It sounds that you appreciate the whole experience that unfolds both in front of and behind the camera.
Ed Stoppard: I find the whole process of filmmaking fascinating – not just my bit but how all the departments do their jobs, and how they come together to make a finished product called a film, a television show or a play. People whose opinions I value and whose work I respect have used phrases such as, “It’s important not to spoon feed the audience”, and “We ourselves are the audience.” We all watch films, television shows and plays, and I know I like ti when we are being asked to earn our treat as it were, rather than it just being laid out in front of us nice and easy. Sometimes you can end up chasing your tale a little bit, but I have certainly found myself saying to directors, writers and producers, “Do you not think this is a bit obvious? Is there not a more interesting way or a less obvious way we could do this?” As I say you can sometimes wind up over thinking it, and sometimes the most effective approach is in a more obvious fashion. But it is this very simple transaction, and I think an audience on the whole feel more rewarded if they are asked to bring a little bit more to the party. I do believe this is something that Joe felt when he was writing the script, but it it is also something that Adam felt when he was directing the film. Of course this was fine with me because I am of a similar mind.
I do think that is something one should try and be aware of, although you don’t want to make it opaque just for the sake of making it opaque. It’s not big and clever to leave your audience completely flummoxed. Now I think about it, what it comes down to more than anything else is respect. It is about whether the screenwriter, director and actor respect their audience. By saying to your audience come on listen, meet me half way, and become involved is a sign of respect to the audience. It is a compliment in the same way that feeding your audience some piece of flimsy pap, which demands virtually no involvement other than the use of their eyeballs and a small part of their brain shows a certain level of disrespect.
We are heading off into dangerous territory now, and I am slightly free associating, but probably under scrutiny that statement would hold up. People should be applauded for stretching themselves and asking their audience to stretch themselves. It doesn’t immediately follow that if you don’t stretch yourself; if you don’t ask your audience to stretch themselves that you are either worth less or worthless. But listen, why not strive? If you are inclined to strive, then strive.
Sophia mentioned that she’d rather be one of the troops, but with this love of storytelling and interacting with the audience do you aspire to take that step towards writing and directing?
Ed Stoppard: Never say never. I’m afraid that if the mood takes me I can be one of the world’s great prevaricators, and sadly my writing and directing career has suffered as a result. But if I’m being honest one day I would like to look back from my frail dotage and think, yeah that thing I wrote wasn’t perfect. It could have been a lot worse, and equally that thing I directed I made a half decent fist of it.
I’ve rubbed up the wrong way against one or two writers in my career because I am quite opinionated about certain things, and as we talked about it is important for me as an actor to believe in what my character is being asked to say and do. Some actors don’t give a fig, and whatever the lines are they will just say them. Actually some of them are brilliantly skilled at sprouting nonsense and making it sound credible. It’s been said that the difference between a good actor and a great actor is that a great actor can make rubbish sound good. I think I must be a good actor because if I’m given something that is sub-standard, then my portrayal is sub-standard. I’m only ever as good as my material.
I have some sort of writing inclination because I find myself saying on jobs from time to time, “That line isn’t very good; what if I said this?” although I think a lot of actors do that. In terms of directing I am fascinated by the process, and so there is a part of me that would really like to direct something. Truth be told one day I really do hope I direct something even if I make a hash of it. I’d really like to give it a go because as an actor your input into the process is relatively small. You might do a couple of day’s rehearsal, meet the director for a coffee and chat about the character. Of course you do your own work on your own, but then you turn up on set, shoot the scenes and go home, and you don’t come back until your next scene. This could be days or even weeks away or not at all as you might only be on set for one day.
So at some point I would love to take on that much larger task that a director has. But on some level I think I would be a rubbish director because I can see and hear myself saying to actors, “Look can you just say it like this?” It is the worst thing you can say to an actor, because it doesn’t really help them. It might on one little word or on a tiny thing, and even I sometimes say to a director, “Give me a line reading.” But the vast majority of time it’s not helpful because it is not connected to the thought of the line. I think that my inclination would be to say to actors, “Just say it like this” but at least I’m aware of it, and I would have to find a more useful way of putting across to the actor what they need to be doing in the scene.
But yeah one day one day you’ll hopefully be interviewing me about a film or television programme I’ve directed, which would be good.