When you think of British supernatural television, Stephen Volk will always spring to mind. He is, without a doubt, one of the Godfathers of British horror screenwriting. Amongst his classics is Ken Russell’s Gothic, although he is perhaps best known for the creation of two cult television programmes, Afterlife and the sublime Ghostwatch
PLEASE NOTE THIS INTERVIEW WAS FIRST PUBLISHED ON MY OLD SITE .
GNOH – Hi Stephen, can I just say what an honour it is for me to have you here for an interview.
You’re kidding. My pleasure to be asked.
GNOH – As the creator of some of the finest genre television this country has seen, how do you feel about the current state of play, as far as genre fiction being portrayed on the screen?
Wow. What a compliment. Thanks!
To try to answer your question... first there’s the general dire climate of TV commissioning at the moment, partly because of the political situation and cuts across the board. It’s honestly never been as bad in my career of over twenty-five years in the TV-film business. Many writers I know (very good writers, and very good producers) have not worked for two or three years. I mean literally not worked. It’s terrible. There’s a complete famine of script development money, nobody paying for scripts anymore, they want you to write the whole thing on spec, screenplay options of as little as £1, that kind of thing. I don’t know how agencies keep alive because there’s no dosh coming in from clients at all. Secondly, there’s the general emasculation, I’m afraid, of the BBC coffers and staff – this from the actions of the new coalition government too.
All these things make commissioners far more risk-averse in the TV and film worlds. Paradoxically in film it means studios only want $100million+ CGI blockbusters, or tiny no-budget indy films (and they really don’t want the latter anyway). Films between 10 and 30 million are impossible to get green lit. Yet in TV (in Britain anyway) it means narrowing the current brief to commissioning the mainstream and “safe”. In television that’s a return to “docs and cops” (medical and crime shows) and the new request by Danny Cohen (Head of BBC1) for “blue-collar workplace drama”.
You can see in some ways that is what TV does really well. But it also does genre well, at times: given the chance, the climate, and inventive producers who give a decent rein (or reign) to their writers.
Sadly script editors, commissioners and Drama Heads are now very controlling and hands-on. It takes weeks, months, sometimes years of meetings and notes to get as far as getting a single script commissioned, let alone a series. It’s a gnat’s whisker off impossible, really, the hoops you have to go through and the drivel often you have to listen to in respectful silence. I always say, only half-jokingly: “Only the BBC takes really intelligent people and gets them to behave really stupidly.” But then there are also brilliant people there that I love and really admire. In spite of a flawed system, they do keep coming up with exceptional work.
Then the odd thing like Paradox or Outcasts slam final nails in the coffin of genre for the next few years, when I guarantee no SF will be produced except the “safe” Doctor Who and Torchwood. Which is a real shame. As SF is the only rational way to react and express ideas about the modern world and the society we live in – as somebody said (not me!).
In short, I think it’s a very hard time to sell genre: but hopefully it’ll pass.
GNOH – Are there any script writers out there you like to work with?
Not really. I’m not really a natural collaborator in the writing-team sense.
In TV, I invented Afterlife but wasn’t really the showrunner in the American sense. The excellent producer (Murray Ferguson) and his team ruled the roost (in the nicest possible way) and “cast” the other writers and developed the other scripts without me needing to read them, initially. But they were good writers: Mike Cullen, Guy Burt, Mark Greig. They brought many fine ideas to the mix but I didn’t write “with” them, though I gave notes and might have polished the odd scene in production – ironing out character things (because I’d created the characters, you see).
In movies on the other hand you tend to be kicked off a project and get rewritten, or rewrite somebody who has in turn been kicked off. I tend not to do that. The latter anyway! I’ve left certain projects though. Often. But never met the guy who gets co-credit. It’s mostly acrimonious – may involve credit arbitration, all of it ugly. Mostly born of the producer or somebody not having faith in the initial writer or feeling they haven’t taken it where it needs to go. I often think scripts can be “over-developed” (i.e get worse over draft after draft) because the producer has lost track (or never knew or understood) what kind of film it was in the first place. They almost never trust the instinct of the writer. Even that expression would probably make them laugh hollowly.
Of course you go through the process, usually, if you get that far, of collaborating with a producer or, hopefully, the director – but that’s not the same as writing it with another writer.
Recently I did have the enormously thrilling experience of writing a spec script from scratch with my good friend Tim Lebbon, the fantasy and horror novelist, and we had a total blast. Not only was it great fun but we – crucially – wrote something that, in the end, we both felt we couldn’t have written alone. It was a real Lebbon/Volk hybrid and we’re really proud of it. It’s called Playtime, by the way. It’s out to producers as we speak.
GNOH – How does it feel to hand over your script to another person to actually produce the show?
In television, it can be a great experience because ideally you don’t really ever “hand it over”! On Afterlife I was there right the way though two seasons – 14 episodes, and nothing major was changed without running it by me first. Movie writers better read that sentence again: yeah - 14 episodes and nothing major was changed without running it by me first. It was blissful, and I honestly believe that is the way to get the best work out of a writer. Nobody was slacking or lazy, no-one gave me an easy time. Everybody pushed, but we all pushed towards the same thing.
On a movie it’s different. More often than not you get to you point you are dropped or the whole project is dropped or goes into limbo. Producers so fret about getting a “name” director attached – because that is what the financiers want to know, in order to sell the bloody thing, they’ll do anything, anything, go get that director. Fire you. Turn the character from male to female, drop that character, or plot, make a new one: anything the director says. If you don’t develop a thick skin you’d die. You do die a little, every time another story is ripped away from your arms.
Sometimes seeing a film in production is like watching through the railings as a whole pile of kids play football with your ball. Sometimes it’s like having your child stolen and having to watch as someone repeatedly slaps it round the face.
GNOH – How much involvement do you have once the script is in the directors hand?
It depends on the director.
On Afterlife (ITV) I always made a point of visiting the set every episode. Apart from anything, I wanted to meet some of the fantastic guest actors they had, like Ken Cranham, Adrian Lester, Phyllida Law, Liam Cunningham, Mark Benton. Also it’s immensely reviving if you are sitting in your hovel writing alone all day to occasionally see the fruits of your labour. Very exciting and intoxicating. And the directors, like Martyn Friend and Charles Beeson, were always all too happy to have me along. It was brilliant watching them work and being on hand for some script tweaks. Of course Lesley Sharp and Andrew Lincoln were just amazing, I respect so much how they inhabited the roles of Robert and Alison and cared so much about them and about the show. Hats off to them, wonderful actors and lovely people, both.
I remember my first set visit to Gothic and seeing Gabriel Byrne as Byron, Tim Spall as Dr Polidori, Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley... all just like I imagined the scene in my head! That’s both very weird and very marvellous, I can tell you!
On the other hand, once Nick Murphy took over my movie The Awakening (BBC Films/Canal+) I wasn’t really involved. He had a very clear and determined vision of how he saw the film and wanted to write it (or rather, re-write it). Clearly he didn’t want to involve me in that process, so you can either weep into your pillow over that or just think, fuck you, and get on with the next screenplay! He did however send me the shooting script and I gave a few notes (actually, I usually hate that moment, but I was unusually impressed), and he thanked me and thought they were good thoughts. The awkward thing about that situation, psychologically, is that it puts you in a difficult head space as regards the finished film. Is it “my” film? No. Is it entirely Nick’s film? Clearly not. I’ve seen it and I think it’s excellent, it has the ghosts of all the previous drafts running through it, but deep down I’ll never know if “my” version – seven, eight, nine drafts ago would have worked. Anyway – as Lindsay Anderson used to say... onward!
GNOH – How happy have you been with the final product of your scripts?
There are always doubts and very often all you can see are the flaws, but it’s unfair of me to point those out. Very often the director and producer have tough jobs and have fought battles you don’t even know about. Best to be a team player, back them up, and keep your private thoughts to yourself. Be the big man. Don’t whine. (Or at least keep the whining private.)
I was pleased with The Deadness of Dad, my BAFTA-winning short, because it had the quality of emotion I envisaged in the script. It was quite simple on the page but the director got the tone just right.
Afterlife I am very proud of, overall, especially the climaxes of series one and series two. I think I did my best writing there – with the best support in all departments. I occasionally watch them again and quietly marvel how it all came together. With time and perspective it’s easier to see one’s intentions and think more clear whether it was creatively successful. Sadly, one is always analysing and never happy. But obviously once something is made you have to let go.
For sheer quality of production values and performance, I have to say I think The Awakening (starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West) is superb. Nick has done a terrific job. I found it both scary and moving. Trouble is, you’ll have to wait until the autumn to see it!
GNOH – If money was no option, and you had total control, are there any of your works you would go back and redo?
I think there’s a way of remaking or re-cutting Gothic to make it a different kettle of fish: I had a different prologue and epilogue which I think would’ve worked better. Then again a different director would have made an entirely different movie. When I was writing it, I didn’t see it as “A Ken Russell Film” at all.
On a minor note, my Channel 4 Shockers film Cyclops was entirely wrongly directed. It should’ve been shot entirely like found footage but the director used the third camera to cut away from the POV. That one could’ve been so much more powerful and horrifying. The way he did it made it safe.
Then there’s Superstition, a film I wrote a while back based on the true story of Carole Compton, a Scottish nanny who was imprisoned in Italy in the ‘80s for attempted murder and accused by the press of witchcraft. That got out of my hands and far from being Crucible-like it became... well, I don’t know, because I’ve never watched it! But many hands were all over the screenplay: always a bad sign. The so-called non-fiction book was based on my original screenplay, so read that!
GNOH – So how did Ghostwatch come about?
Oh, long tale. I proposed it to the BBC as a six part series: “TV documentary team joins psychic researcher to investigate a haunting” was the pitch. The BBC baulked at a supernatural six-parter (this was the late ‘80s) so I pitched to the producer that we just did the final episode I’d outlined... a “live broadcast” from the haunted house – except what if we did it AS IF IT WAS LIVE? Her eyes lit up. With excitement or fear, I’m not sure which. And we were away.
GNOH – How hard was it to sell to the BBC?
Well in those days, in total contrast to today, Ruth (Baumgarten, the producer) could propose it to the Head of Drama and they’d go “OK, commission it.” It was that sort of conversation got you a script commission, and from then on it was you and the producer (and, eventually, the director).
Richard Broke (Head of Screen One) “got it” and thought it was exciting, and certainly Will Wyatt knew all about it, though subsequently denied all knowledge when they were looking for heads to roll after the reaction to the broadcast. Ironically, looking back, there were worries about whether it was scary enough, but good old BBC were ballsy enough, in those days at least, to commission it. And make it. Even though afterwards there was a clampdown and they wished they hadn’t. But that is to do with the very individual political position of the BBC vis-a-vis the trust of the nation. And I say that without irony. That was actually the nub of the problem in the aftermath.
GNOH – Do you think you could sell it to them in this day and age?
No way in Hell! BBC Editorial Policy (the marvellous Ed Pol!) would be over it like a rash! We’d be told we have to make it clear it’s a drama and not really happening – making the whole project pointless and toothless. In point of fact there’d be no point doing Ghostwatch now: if you had that concept now you’d bypass drama and just do it as a straight reality show! Though I bet you a fair bit that BBC Drama are looking for something in the vein of “paranormal activity”. They’re good at looking for things after other people have done them. They did Apparitions, what, thirty years after The Exorcist?
GNOH – Looking back at it, do you think the media furore was a bit of an overkill?
It was a bit of a shock, certainly. I never ever thought of it as a “hoax” though. We never used that word in meetings, ever. We may have mentioned Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds, but ours was first and foremost a drama. What pissed me off about the antagonistic coverage in the tabloids was, I think, nobody reviewed it as a drama. Nobody except possible Kim Newman and that was on its DVD release ten years later in 2002. Kim has since gone on record as saying “How many TV programmes do you remember from that week or that month in 1992?” Which is a way of saying it carved its unique niche in TV history, which is nice. And I am told that Mark Gatiss and the rest of the League of Gentlemen are fans. That’s very pleasing because I love their work, especially Psychoville. They understand what’s uncanny and spooky, for sure. And that laughter is very close to horror. Jeremy Dyson, interestingly, says in the same way that some people have a “funny bone”, some people have a “horror bone” and some people don’t. It’s true, that. You can’t learn horror. You can learn all sorts of things about writing, the craft, the skill, but what makes something scary? That comes from deep down.
GNOH – How was it working with Ken Russell?
He was a sweetie (apart from the one time he ripped me a new one for talking to the actors when he wasn’t there!). He hardly touched the script, asked me to write a new opening and closing sequence, but more or less it was a shooting script he did in a couple of hours while his train was delayed. He improvised a few scenes (the belly dancer and the dwarf dream) but at the very outset he loved the script. Said it was scarier than Alien. Said he wanted to do it straight – not tongue-in-cheek (though when suddenly asked if it was a comedy at the NFT, he said “Yes!”).
He wanted to cast Bob Geldof as Byron, but Bob was running round the world for charity so he cast another Irishman as his “Mick Jagger” Byron. For me it was Natasha who made the film what it is (if it’s anything!): she was brilliant, intelligent, luminous and instinctive.
Ken was a bit past his Bete Noir/Enfant Terrible days but still a creative force to be reckoned with. The screenwriter Paul Meyersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth) told me that the only director who could have directed Gothic justice apart from Ken was Nic Roeg.
Ken understood that it was all about the pictures and the film was really about film: Hammer films in particular. It was making a true story in the English Gothic tradition of Terence Fisher, but Ken of course wanted his usual theme of poets as equivalent of rock stars. Some scenes were warped out of shape in rehearsal and that shook me up on the set so I stayed away. I got a nice card from the cast on my birthday (which is the same as Ken’s: July 3rd) saying “Come back Stephen! We’re having fun!” but my nerves were rattled and I was getting on with another script. In retrospect, I should have gone more. A film in production is a precious and rare time and it’s good to savour it. It was a good cast and crew. And Ken achieved an astonishing look on a very small budget. Shame the Lake District near his then home had to stand in for Lake Geneva, though!
GNOH – What can you tell us about your new project Awakenings?
It was shot last summer and will be released later this year. It stars Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton. I’ll give you the pitch...
England, 1921: a nation beset by the grief following World War I. A skeptical woman scientist, Florence Cathcart, is adamant in her conviction that all ghosts and spiritual manifestations can be explained away as either callous fraud or the products of fevered imaginations. But when she is called to a countryside boarding school for boys to investigate rumours of an apparent haunting, she finds her beliefs -- all her beliefs -- shaken to the core. Facing something genuinely awakened from the past, she realizes her rationality finally gives her no place to hide.
Sound good? I hope so!
GNOH – What draws you to the supernatural?
Big question! Fundamental question! I think it’s like John Ford was drawn to Westerns probably because the theme chimed with him. It was a genre within which he could find things to say and things to explore. It’s the same with me about the supernatural and paranormal. I like SF and some fantasy or crime, but often I like the clash in a paranormal story between the pull of instinctive, primal, illogical forces (of the imagination?) and safe, rational, scientific, organizing forces of rationalism – or writing, if you will. Dreaming and fearing against writing and feeling safe, in a way.
I like ghost stories because they work best when there’s an engine of doubt. A movie like Blithe Spirit isn’t truly a ghost story because doubt is absent. It’s a fantasy. Also I like that ghosts are really in symbolic terms the embodiment of something missing or lacking in the main character, so they symbolise the search and the resolution right there. I also really like the “gubbins” of these stories. I love psychical researchers and mediums. It seems to me that both are on an insane metaphysical pursuit which some might say absolutely absurd: but I like taking something absurd and convincing the audience it’s real or believable. I love séance scenes. Gothic has one. Afterlife has one. The Awakening has one. The Super-8 film I made when I was 15 was called The Last
Séance. To me, it’s as potent a theatrical device as the gunfight in one of John Ford’s Westerns.
GNOH – How does script writing compare to writing short stories and novels?
Very different and very the same.
It’s all writing but the craft is different. An idea comes and I think “Is this a film or a story idea?” and it’s often about whether you see the “voice” of the story or whether you see it being told best in action and pictures. But that doesn’t always apply. Sometimes I write a short story that I know cannot possibly be a film because it wouldn’t work – then when I’ve finished I think What if this was a film? I had an idea while back I thought would make a good, simple short film. Two hander, one location. But somebody asked me for a short story for a themed collection and the idea fitted, so I wrote it as a story. It’s called Bless and it’ll appear soon in The Unspoken, a themed anthology edited by Willie Miekle, the proceeds of which will go to cancer research.
I always say the difference is the Ashtray Question. In a screenplay you can’t say: “Bill is a bank manager aged 33 and he’s been waiting for the birth of his baby for twelve hours.” A script cannot convey any of those things! All we can see is a man in a room. We don’t know he is called Bill yet and we certainly don’t know he is a bank manger. Or that he’s 33! But what you can show is a full ashtray. The full ashtray conveys he’s been waiting. And so on.
Other than that I think the voice leads you through a short story which can be at its best a kind of stream of consciousness. You can write a script like that but essentially what is much more vital is structure and the interrogation of each scene so that no line is wasted because it’s vital that nothing of film is wasted. You can divert in prose because there are no rules but film is merciless as regards narrative drive. I hope in my work that writing one way informs the other.
Apart from anything, the longeurs in screenplay writing, often ten, twenty, thirty drafts over five, ten years mean that I need to get instant gratification elsewhere and for me that is in short story writing, which I really enjoy also because I’m in complete control. The finished product is absolutely in my hands: not the producer’s, not the director’s.
GNOH – Do you have a favourite out of all your fiction?
I like After the Ape which Stephen Jones picked for Best New Horror 21 and Ally Bird and Joel Lane picked for their anti-fascist book Never Again. I’m very fond of that story because it took a long time to write and is very special to me. I feel enormously rewarded that people like it, especially writers I admire. I’m very pleased too with a recent story White Butterflies which will appear in Gutshot (PS Publishing) edited by Conrad Williams. It’s set in a really unusual world for me and one I became fascinated by. And The Comfort of the Seine which will appear in Gaslight Arcanum edited by Jeff Campbell and Charles Prepolec (Edge Publishing) later this year.
GNOH – Can you tell us about any upcoming writing projects?
I have a couple of TV series ideas being developed at the BBC which I’d really very excited about. I can’t give any details of them as yet, but stay tuned. I am working towards getting a script commissioned at present: first things first! Then I have a story for House of Fear (Solaris) and some new screenplays to get my head into.
I’m hoping the next one to go into production will be Telepathy. It’s a film dear to my heart about two Russians, a farmer and a cosmonaut who share a telepathic link and are commandeered by the Soviet authorities to help with an experiment testing ESP in space. The film looks like it might be a British-German-Latvian-Irish-Welsh-Russian co-production! But any of that could change. We have the actor attached who is our number one favourite: Moritz Bliebtrau (The Baader Meinhof Complex, Das Experiment), so we are hoping it will be filming early next year if the funding is in place. The director is Lesley Manning, who directed Ghostwatch and has worked with me extensively on the script. She’s terrific and it’s her pet project right now.
The latest script I’ve finished is one called Sgt Bertrand. It’s probably the most uncommercial thing I’ve ever written, but I’ve become utterly obsessed by the subject. It took me 20 years to research and write it. It’s a true story about the most terrible criminal ever known in France. “His outrageous crimes scandalized society – but he never hurt a living thing.” I’ll leave the rest to your imagination!
GNOH – You have won and been nominated for a number of awards. Do awards or the praise of fans mean more to you?
Both are fine!
Sometimes awards are fickle. You see things nominated or short-listed you know are not very good and wonder how they got there. You see something by YOURSELF and wonder how it got there! I was up for a BFS for Vardoger last year, but was far more proud of After the Ape. A few years ago I got a Stoker nomination for 31/10: but it’s by no means my favourite or best story. So go figure. Then again, going up to collect a BAFTA was one of the high points of my writing life. I still look at it when the writing is going badly and one is able to think “Well, I did do something right once!” It helps, sometimes. But as Alan Bennett said, people being very kind about your last piece of work doesn’t actually make a jot of difference when you are battling with the blank page in front of you.
I do love feedback from friends and readers, though. In TV and film you are cut off from the actual audience because you get feedback from professional readers and script editors, so it’s to a certain extent “unreal”. A short story is direct contact with a reader. So to get a thumbs-up from, say, Gary McMahon about my story Swell Head, or someone like Mark Morris telling me he loved Afterlife, is just priceless, really.
People think they are somehow intruding or it’s unnecessary to tell writers they liked or loved something. Let me tell you: it isn’t. An e-mail or message telling me something wasn’t half bad really makes my day. Because, as most writers will tell you, that feeling of inadequacy, or feeling “I can’t do this any more” or “This is crap: you know what? Everything I do is crap!” just never goes away.
GNOH – So what does the future hold for you?
More crap! More stories, more screenplays. No holidays this year, apart from FantasyCon and alt.fiction. If you don’t go to both, you don’t know what you’re missing! I love it! Other than that – work and more work, mostly speculative. And trying to get some cheques in. If I get a BBC script commission, I’ll be a pig in clover. If not, I’ll be writing a new spec screenplay and another bigger, more blockbusting Hollywood movie with Tim Lebbon. I’ve got a new Los Angeles agent so that could mean a trip out there, possible to coincide with The Awakening being released. Hopefully there is still something in the market for smart, classy, scary movies. I hope so.
GNOH – Many, many thanks Stephen for taking the time to visit my blog. It has been a huge honour for me.
I can’t imagine why! Cheers though. I appreciate it.