Cinema, Exclusive, Horror, Interviews, Possum

Matthew Holness on Possum, outsiders and the horror of public information films

Very few British TV series have a fanbase as dearly devoted as Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. It was a love-letter to the horror genre, it was beautifully observed, and it was absolutely hilarious. Now, co-creator and star Matthew Holness has delivered something very different with his feature debut Possum. It’s a chilling, challenging and deeply unnerving psychological horror about a disgraced children’s puppeteer named Philip (Sean Harris), who returns home with the titular horrible puppet in a bag. As he verbally spars with his monstrous uncle Maurice (Alun Armstrong), Philip repeatedly tries and fails to dispose of the terrifying Possum as the mystery of a missing young boy swirls around him…

Is Possum something that you’ve had in your mind for a while?

Back in 2008, Comma Press, who are a publisher based in Manchester, asked me to contribute to an anthology called The New Uncanny. They asked a number of writers to reinterpret Freud’s theory of the uncanny for modern audiences. So, we were given the list of these essential basic human fears that Freud highlighted as being the things that creep us out the most and create a sense of the uncanny. I thought it might be nice to combine a couple so I picked the fear of dummies and the fear of doubles, and thought about what kind of person would create a puppet that was a complete copy of themselves.

That’s where it started, so I wrote the story for that called Possum and then a few years later I thought it might be a good subject for a film, particularly as I wanted to make a silent horror film. The idea occurred to me that the character in Possum doesn’t really talk to anyone and what he does say you can’t really believe. So that felt like it was a good match for that, a good way of making a silent horror film for a modern audience.

Was it a challenge to write a lead character who really doesn’t communicate at all?

It was a challenge but I think being true to that character was important and that character doesn’t reveal himself. In the story he reveals himself more but you never know if what he’s saying is true or not. He’s an unreliable narrator, so with the film the idea was to convey a sense of that, which is a hard thing because you want the audience to be with your character but in this particular case I also wanted them to be very wary of him. They have to win him over and he has to win them over so it’s a long while before you really get a handle on him.

That is difficult because for a long time in the film you’re not really sure where you are with him and you don’t really know if he can be trusted or not, and I think that was all part of the script. And the idea of the paranoia that he feels, the lack of trust he has for other human beings, that also applied to the audience. You’ve got to work to understand him and it is a challenge because it takes a while but that was the thinking behind it: how do you present a character that no one wants to know? That’s his whole problem, that’s what the story is about.

There’s a very distinct look to the film with the 35mm cinematography and those Norfolk locations. Did you always have a very clear idea of what it was going to look and feel like as a movie?

I did, I had a very clear vision of it in my head which did inevitably change a bit because things always do when you actually go into pre-production on things. From the script there were probably far more fairy-tale elements. I kind of had it existing in the old fairy-tale world of the silent films I’d been watching, so Maurice’s house was very much a gothic castle within a run-down house in the middle of nowhere. That’s certainly still there and that’s very much how Charlotte Pearson has designed the interior of the house, so it still conveys that but I think when we were shooting, for one reason or another when you’re looking for the right locations and things, it just felt that it had to be more grounded in reality.

It had to be grounded in the reality of Philip’s childhood so it then became much more about making it resemble visually the public information films that were broadcast during that era and were fronted by the same kind of monsters that the film kind of deals with. And those films terrified me as a child but they were part of the wallpaper for that generation of children, and they are there to protect children but at the same time they are terrifying. They also give that idea of a very real, threatening adult world so they were a perfect way into Philip and the story and what’s happened to him. So, it became important to make it feel like those things that we remember from childhood, that kind of reality that’s all still there in our subconscious.

Once you’ve seen those, you never forget them! Dark And Lonely Water and so on…

Absolutely, there’s some really really creepy ones. The BFI put out a couple of very good DVDs a few years back and there’s a couple of stranger danger films that were big influences on this and they’re just so frightening. One of them actually uses fairy tales as a way in to present that subject matter to children, which is actually just very frightening. Those films were very, very important in terms of setting the mood and the feel of the film.

And was the Norfolk setting always part of it?

Oddly enough when I wrote the story I had South East coast in my head. I come from Whitstable and I’d kind of set it in my head on a little stretch of beach near there. But actually, when it came to the film, if you go to Whitstable beach now there’s so many people it just doesn’t feel very remote, but the Norfolk coast still does and particularly the area where we shot on the salt marshes, it’s very, very evocative and creepy…strange is probably the word really, isn’t it? They’re quite eerie and very atmospheric so that felt like it was the right place to be.

Somewhere that’s away from technology, away from all those things and is still kind of like the Britain of 1977, ’78, that kind of thing, where things haven’t changed that much and Philip is just walking around and re-treading old ground constantly.

Sean Harris is incredible in the film. What was it like working with him to create Philip?

Well he’s fantastic, he’s a method actor so it meant that it was very intense because I was directing Philip, really, I wasn’t directing Sean. So that was a very intense experience, and in fact when Alun came on playing Maurice, the two didn’t interact at all off camera so that was all part of creating that tension. That bristling tension that you get between those two characters on screen, that’s all part of the fact that was the only way they were interacting as people at that stage!

And a huge difference from working with the kind of people I’d worked with before which were primarily comedians, so there’s just instantly a level of professionalism that suddenly hits you! It was a very good learning experience for me just in terms of directing serious proper actors doing fantastic work. You realise that they give you a really brilliant take every time! Whereas with comedies you’re kind of shooting about seven or eight and you’re like “Well, that was good from that, shall we paste that from this bit and we’ll get some cutaways,” you don’t really have to worry about that when you’ve got people like Sean and Alun.

Given Philip’s nature, we spend a lot of the film in the dark about what’s happened and what’s going on. Was it tricky to walk that line?

Well, the temptation is to tell the audience what’s happening and not leave them worrying and not leave them questioning anything, and there’s a real tendency for films to do that. They don’t want anyone feeling like they’re not quite following the story but I think with this it was very important to keep the tension of: we don’t know who Phillip is or what he’s done or whether he’s done anything. During the development process there was talk of “Let’s make more of the missing boy.” But my worry with those things is that they then become very plot heavy and they become a police procedural or something like that, and the film’s never really been about that for me, it’s a psychological horror film and it’s about Philip’s psychology and we’re seeing what he’s seeing at all times, or what he thinks he’s seeing.

If you choose to follow logic then it just becomes a crime drama and it was important for me not to go down that route because in crime dramas you have the reassurance of knowing that justice will prevail, but I think in horror films there’s a real tension there because justice doesn’t always prevail, as it often doesn’t in real life. So, it was important to keep the audience thrown into the nightmare side of it. I didn’t want them to think “I’m getting a handle on this story so it’s all going to resolve itself at some point.” I wanted to keep that tension of keeping Philip always at a distance from them because he’s a character that would keep everyone at a distance, he wouldn’t let anyone in and I thought it was important in terms of the truth of the story and the truth of him and the character. I didn’t want people knowing him too well until the end.

I think it was important for me to ensure that he’s still lonely throughout the film. He has to be lonely, he has to be on his own. And the people that really stick with him I think are people that can kind of recognise that sense of isolation. And in that regard, it’s kind of a slow film, it’s slow-paced and it’s kind of repetitive at times but that’s intentionally so, because he’s been doing that every day for god knows how many years so that was the reason for how to structure it in that way.

What was the process like of developing the look of the puppet?

In the story it’s sort of pieced together with various pieces of dead animal and roadkill and all this stuff, but obviously when it came to the film…I had this feeling that that would be a little bit too much on film and look a little bit like a stuffed monstrosity and just look a little bit ridiculous. We wanted something that we didn’t show too much. So, Dominic Hailstone who’s an artist and a director himself, he designed the puppet and we then sent those designs off to Odd Studios in Australia to create the puppet physically and we had a number of those that were created for various roles in the film.

Oddly enough the initial head that we had for the puppet just didn’t seem to work because it was emoting too much, it was trying to scare too much and I just had this feeling that it wasn’t doing it for me. So, I had a last minute chat with Dominic and said “Look, I think it’s trying to be too frightening, what can we do, I think we possibly need to go down the Halloween route of having the blankness there and let the audience put their own fears upon it.” And so that’s what Dominic did, he did a sculpt of Sean’s head, it wasn’t a mould or anything, he actually sculpted it! I think he did it very quickly in about 3 to 4 hours and sent it through and I said, “That’s perfect, that’s absolutely amazing,” it was absolutely terrifying, that’s it, that’s what it is. So, we got the head of the puppet very last minute.

But again, with all these things, you don’t want to show it too often and you don’t want to show it too early in the story. So, during the shooting it was about swamping it in shadow and in the editing cutting around it until the point in the narrative where you want to creep the audience out and show a bit more of it!

I also wanted to ask about the Possum rhyme which is as creepy as the puppet itself!

That wasn’t in the story but it was very much part of the film. The silent horror films have this very strange, very poetic way of doing the screen title cards, so initially I wanted to have screen title cards like an old silent horror film and Joe Avery, an artist that I worked with before, did Philip’s notebook, he did all those very creepy illustrations. And initially we were going to use those as title cards but it slowed down the pace of the film so in the end it was put on as voiceover. But yes, those rhymes and the strange poems were the first things I wrote for the screenplay, they were in there from the start, definitely. Just to give that sense of childhood nightmare fairy-tale.

How did The Radiophonic Workshop get involved?

It was during the edit. Tommy Boulding my editor and I were using a lot of The Radiophonic Workshop pieces for the temporary edit and there were a lot of tracks that had been used in Doctor Who, there’s one from ‘Inferno’, the Jon Pertwee one, by Delia Derbyshire and they were so kind of strange and creepy but just so atmospheric. And so, it was always part of the atmosphere of the film when editing it together and I was actually keen to license those tracks and just use them for the film. But weirdly enough Phil Canning, my music supervisor, said “You know what, the Radiophonic are looking to go into film scoring again. Shall I see if they’re interested?” I never thought in a million years they would be but I said, “Yes, let’s please see if they’re interested.” And miraculously they were keen to meet and discuss it.

They watched the cut of the film with the temporary tracks on and said “Oh, you’ve used some Radiophonic Workshop…” “Yes, absolutely!” They took that and they liked the film and agreed to compose an entire score for it, which I was absolutely bowled over by, couldn’t believe it. That for me was like a miracle, I was just so chuffed that they said yes. And they’ve done an amazing job. And because it all fits in with the theme of Philip’s background, his childhood, they are the sound of our childhoods. Absolutely perfect!

Just hearing them over those opening credits does immediately put you in a certain headspace…

And you just know what world that is in some way. It might be a world you don’t really know logically or rationally but subconsciously you’re aware of it because we’ve all seen and absorbed those programmes, those public information films. It’s just putting you in a place that your subconscious recognises if not your conscious brain.

Have you enjoyed watching the film with an audience?

I have, yeah, and I’m very pleased that they all jump at the right points! I’m very pleased that everyone stays and watches it, really. There’s been a couple of people I’ve observed walking out during the end, it’s pretty traumatic. But in terms of Q&As afterwards I’ve found the audiences very perceptive and interested in the characters and interested in Philip which is very gratifying for me because that’s what it’s been about really, it’s been about giving that isolated and ignored character a voice. So, I love the fact that audiences seem to really connect with him and with the subject. It’s been great, it has.

Given how bleak and upsetting Possum is, do you think you’ll try something lighter for the next film or are you sticking with upsetting horror?

[Laughs] No, in fact I have written a second script and it is darker than this one so that’s very much where I’d like to keep writing at the moment, I’d like to direct another one. So that’s where my head is at at the moment, we’ll see.

Possum is released in UK cinemas on 26 October. Read our review here.

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