AR: This being your first feature, did you feel overwhelmed at all with your responsibilities as the director?
NM: You become so focused on the task at hand. You relay a professionalism, the way you conduct yourself. When shooting I don’t notice any more stress making a feature movie than I did when I made my first documentary for British television..(jokingly)2,000 years ago, it feels like it. The problems always remain the same. Francis Coppola, a director I admire much, said that “One’s reach should always exceed one’s grasp” is the phrase he coined, he loves his writing but talking about directing. Whatever the task at hand you’re always trying for more than you’ve got. If you dropped a $100 million dollars in my lap I’d be wanting the movie to look like $150 million and if you dropped a million dollars in my lap I’d want it to look like two. I think that’s the nature of it and I think the certain demands from a director’s point of view in terms of the aesthetic layout, the narrative delivering to the pacing, they are very different in a movie than they are to television but in terms of the responsibility being overwhelming, no I can’t really say that was part of the problem. If anything one might would argue that the bigger the movie, bigger the project the more people you have to collaborate and to lean on and be inspired by, if anything it’s certainly not more imposing.
AR: Coming off your success from the BBC Series “Occupation”, were there any tricks or lessons learned that prepared you for “The Awakening”?
NM: Well they’re very different. There’s always a central talent you look to try and grasp with any film, with any project: what is it about?, what is the governing principal of what we’re doing here? and for “Occupation” and “The Awakening” they’re totally different. The latter is a genre piece that has to draw on a lot of the traditions of English ghost stories and the like. The central idea of that is about loss. It was exploring the need to see ghosts and as much as the presence about them from a dramatic point of view. “Occupation” was a BBC Series about British involvement in the Iraq War and as such the central emotion/idea was about control. All the characters have no control of their life and that was the narrative for the wider problems of their presence in Iraq, they couldn’t control that situation, none of the characters could control their fate. So my approach had to be totally different, the visual approach had to be totally different than “Occupation” very much trying to deliver, setting the impression that we were always trying to give up what was happening, again exaggerating the sense of control. What we’re doing with “The Awakening” is I wanted this central idea of loss and absence to be viewed within the group, in every frame. “Eddie” Grau and I, the cinematographer and I, we composed the shots very much as if there were other people in the room. We would say, what if there were someone sitting there, how would we compose the shot? You try to accentuate throughout the whole film the sense that there are people missing. It’s very easy for us to forget in our generation that nearly ¼ million people in four years coming from a population the size of Britain is an astonishing amount of loss. I wanted that to be resonating throughout the whole movie and that to be the backdrop. That was something we had to always serve throughout the filming process. You take a different path from your previous projects.
AR: The film looks and sounds fantastic. Having worked with Daniel Pemberton (Music Composer) on “Occupation” does collaborating become easier and how was it bringing Eduard “Eddie” Grau (Cinematographer) into the mix?
NM: I think it does become a great deal easier, I think you can overdue it, I would be reluctant to go into a film with exactly the same team as any other project. I think you need a few fresh voices in there, a little bit grit in your oyster and it’s in that slight of getting to know each other, working out where whose elbow goes where, that is the creative process in itself, but there’s no denying that having familiar people around for certain key elements has been very helpful to me. Daniel and I work very well together, he trusts me when I push him in certain areas where perhaps other composers would feel I was teaching them to suck eggs, teaching them their business and Daniel doesn’t do that, he knows I have particular interest and abilities in music. With Eddie, I partly enjoyed it, we’re simply getting to know each other, he brought his own agenda to the movie and what you see in the finished film is a clash of those two things. We agreed quite early there were things that were powerful which we agreed setting out and when the shit hits the fan, they know the director has to have the last say for obvious reasons. There were rules we set up that we agreed, we wanted this, you call it “Summer England”, we’re familiar seeing it in a number of costume dramas. We wanted to make that feel sick, like this idea that the whole country is suffering from this loss and that has somehow created an atmospheric illness in the country, so we wanted these muted colors. Day to day in the shooting of it it’s very helpful to have a guy saying ”what if we put the camera over there?”, that process is very productive as well, you don’t want to be debating too much on set but wanting to stay on your toes around your collaborators is a very helpful thing. Eduard and I come from different backgrounds, neither of us come from the genre, he comes from a very different aesthetical background than me, that was helpful. If we went to the same school per se, I don’t think we would have gotten the advantage we did.
AR: You co-wrote the screenplay with Stephen Volk, were there elements that did not make it into the film? Ex. The Groundskeeper, Edward Judd played by Joseph Mawle (Game of Thrones)
NM: The screenplay was very different. Stephen wrote the initial story and screenplay, then I took it from there. It’s interesting, it’s purely for a device point of view, I’m presenting a who done it with three people in the house, it’s not like a Agatha Christie where you’ve got fifteen people marching around. I had three people in the house and one of them is clearly connected in some way to the issue at hand and I couldn’t do that if I didn’t have an outside foil. If I’m going to hit you with my right hand I need to wag with my left hand and Judd was the wagging left hand, just for pure narrative terms was necessary. I was particularly pushy on making Florence as strong as she was, as coherent as she was as a female character. I didn’t want her to be rescued by any of the men including Malory, Dominic West was absolutely bored with that. Similarly I like the idea that ultimately the only real threat that came to Florence wasn’t from the supernatural, only the physical, the real, the living. Ironically it’s something that Judd warns her about early in the film, “It’s the living you outta watch out for not the dead”. I like that notion that the things that hurt us are the people around us not our relationships with the dead
AR: Does your job become easier when working with such professionals as Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton?
NM: The job of a director in many ways it gets easier when you work with top class talent like that. You also gotta raise your game, they are very bright, intuitive, gifted actors and they’ve worked with some pretty extraordinary directors themselves. It gets easier in many ways, you can allow them off the leash in so many regards and what they bring to a scene, you need to keep your ears open. If I just see the cast as people to move around and say exactly how I wanted to say it I think you’re wasting a good cast, you’re better off getting mannequins. Often than not I would encourage them without stepping in, I’d say let’s just run the scene and see what mechanics we find. Rebecca in particularly, I deliberately gave her a few takes to investigate to see what’s there, then I would toss some stuff in and then we would try to shake it all off. We deliberately we’re going in knowing we’d be working with many takes for a low budget film, we found when you shook it all off the things that stuck, some she brought some I brought, whatever, it stuck for a reason and generally it was good. So that was a dynamic that we came up with quite by chance quite early. That I gotta say as a director working with that level of collaborative talent is stunning. Nobody knows I’m a big mouth and everything has to be exactly as I want it but nonetheless within that it’s great to be bouncing off such gifted people.
AR: How much of the character, Florence Cathcart, was on paper opposed to what Rebecca Hall brought to the role?
NM: That’s very interesting, I always wanted Florence, I mean Rebecca, I‘ve merged the two in my head, I written it for her. I didn’t write it for anybody else, I said going into the producer’s office I said I’ll do this but I’m writing this for Rebecca, I see this her as this sort of character, she wasn’t until Stephen gave me the script, she was much less fucked up to be honest a bit of a know it all. What Rebecca certainly brought it was she got up and running with the modernity of Florence. I wanted Florence, both of us wanted Florence to be this woman that winning would turn into ten years after our story, we wanted her to feel slightly anarchistic and she brought this polish about it , she gave us this wonderful equine quality. In the way of horses: bright, sharp and strong but also quite skiddish and scared. That’s a very, very tricky quality to perform and THAT quality had been something I was seeking but couldn’t possibly put on the page, it’s just impossible to lay lines down on the page, if you do you get characters talking about themselves, which is completely anti-drama. We worked on that together, it was like watching some sort of beautiful butterfly open her wings, just occupying this character, just bursting out of the paper and flapping these beautiful metaphorical wings. It was a joy to see, a joy to have in the cutting room. I mean to spend six months in the cutting room with Rebecca Hall everyday is a little boy’s dream.
AR: You were recently nominated for Best Newcomer at the London Film Festival, any pressures on yourself to follow up on that success?
NM: No I have to say I’m not. I won a BAFTA a few projects ago. The night at the BAFTA’s I was thinking for the first time, oh my god I really want to win this. Generally I don’t, I have this weird thing that I would rather my mom like the film. It’s not saying I don’t care what producers think, I certainly care what viewers think but I don’t mean that I’m above it, I just don’t find myself caring. I’m very proud of the BAFTA on the mantel piece but I don’t find myself caring about that as an aid. Reading the Twitter feeds when (*inaudible*) was released over here, that was the greatest thing, you can give me all the gongs you want but it’s not going to replace people going: can’t wait to see it, oh my god you have to see it. That’s a genuine outpouring, they aren’t like you and I, they aren’t immersed in film, they don’t have an axe to grind about saying this and that. They don’t care about that it’s a pure, raw outpouring of their love for the film. Having a positive response, overwhelming feeling from that, that’s been astonishing.
AR: The third act has a few twists and turns, any worries that viewers might get lost in the shuffle?
NM: It’s a big shuffle. Worried? Yeah, I guess. There’s a certain amount of daring yourself to do this. I come from television, you don’t analyze, you turn it off, you flick over to the news, you switch it off and go to bed. You don’t get that lobby chat that you do in a movie theatre, talking on the subway going home, walking back. That certain analyzing and discussion was absolutely imperative, we got to give something more than just something that ends after the credits run. It’s reprehensible that moviemakers don’t give their audience more and I see the experience as vital for it to continue deep into the evening and the next day. I wanted this complicated thing, I want people to go into the lobby and be: hang on, he was talking to her and she was.., oh my god that came from left field completely. I know there’s a risk in that, flipping too many pancakes, try to throw too much up into the air. I would rather go down that route and give an audience bags to turn over again in their minds and then to go back through the film and retro fit their own understandings within the film, to revisit it in their head knowing what they know at the end. I much rather more there rather than the credits roll and they know it all, they got it all, I don’t have to think it through.
AR: You have made a very entertaining and scary film, I put it up with films such as The Sixth Sense, Robert Wise’s The Haunting and The Ring. Any steps taken to stray away from those films or techniques you used from watching other films of the genre?
NM: It’s interesting, I’ve seen The Sixth Sense, The Orphanage, and The Shining, I haven’t seen many. I’m not a big fan of the genre, I’m a fan of the greatest examples of the genre because they are great films. As a genre I don’t have much interest in it anymore than I see myself as a comedy writer, action writer, or action director. There’s a moment in the film where a red ball bounces down the stairs and somebody on set said that’s obviously a reference to “The Changeling”, and I have no idea what their talking about. It’s very important when making a movie like this you marry up two threads in your cloth. That there are traditions of the genre, familiar to people, you can’t make a cowboy film and no one gets shot, it’s just not fair you’re robbing the audience of the traditional tropes of the genre. Similarly you gotta run the other thread through it, which is novelty and fresh ways of doing it. I think we got the balance very right, there’s enough familiar, enough fresh and I think that’s the key to everything.
6.5 / 10 – IMDB
61% – Rotten Tomatoes
53% – Metacritic