There’s something that connects first-time filmmaker Gareth Tunley to actress/director Alice Lowe. As well as Tom Meeten, Rufus Jones, Paul Kaye and Dan Renton Skinner; comedy. Coming through the same generation of comics, each writing and starring in some of Britain’s best comedic offerings across the past two decades – this small collective are now all collaborating on a cinematic endeavour entitled The Ghoul. Except here’s the thing – this profound study of depression is far from being a comedy.
“It’s a bit of a curveball,” Tunley explained to us during an interview we conducted with the talented director, alongside The Ghoul’s lead actress Alice Lowe. “I always wanted to do serious stuff and I got waylaid into funny walks and silly voices for about 15 years. Still available for bookings. As a parallel thing I was making short films and they still tended to be funnier and lighter. I wrote a couple of horror scripts that had a comedic edge, and I just realised this film, or something like it, was knocking around in my head. No-one was, for whatever reason, showering me with millions to make my movies so I thought, why not try and make something off your own back, and just lead with your best idea.”
The film peers into the life of Chris (Meeten), a detective who is working undercover to get to the bottom of a curious double homicide. Though as the narrative unfolds, the line between reality and fiction is blurred, in an innovative way. And through this complex, internalised feature, we adopt tropes of the thriller genre to explore depression and mental health – much like The Babadook managed through the horror movie formula. This move into darker territory was one Tunley welcomed, however, admitting the pressure was alleviated somewhat, with no obligation at all to make people laugh.
“Comedy is just so hard,” he said. “Drama is demanding enough but having to think about an audience laughing is such a monumental pain in the arse, it’s a relief sometimes to do something serious.”
Lowe also agreed that had the actors being the platform to inject humour into proceedings, it would risk overwhelming the viewer.
“Because there are two realities in The Ghoul, these delusional fantasies and then reality, if you added something else to that, like a comedy or parody, it could slip into something very confusing. It’s very much about maintaining the structure of reality and non-reality, so if you add anything else into that, it will all fall apart. But it works, it carries you along, you’re not going ‘oh I wish there were a few more laughs’. You’re so gripped by it, it’s a traditional thriller,” she said.
A thriller that Lowe was compelled to get involved with – especially after reading the screenplay. “The script was what blew me away, the script was so clever and so tightly written. That’s no mean feat, you can read a lot of stuff that doesn’t make any sense to you on the page, but to actually convey a very complex idea in a very clear way is what completely sold me on the script. I already wanted to work with Gareth anyway, and I know he’s clever, but I was reading it thinking, my God. I read some scripts as an actress and quite often don’t think that they’re any good, but this was such a good debut screenplay, it was a well-oiled bit of machinery, it was like every cog made sense and made it work, so I had a lot of faith in it.”
Tunley did explain, however, that having so many comedians on board the project did add a certain edge to the movie – given it’s a career path that takes a rather courageous person to journey down.
“Having a cast of people with experience in comedy brings some interesting textures. They do make it lighter and funnier than it would otherwise be, but comedians often have a sense of danger about them because they’ve been on stage they have sense of fearlessness and they bring that edge of danger. They’ve all done quite risky live material over the years, and they bring that sense of spontaneity, that edge that a scene could go one of two ways,” he explained.
To confront depression – particularly in men – is seldom seen in cinema, and Tunley believes that by placing such powerful themes in the make-up of a genre movie, allows it be explored in a unique way.
“Even though there are all kinds of genres playing in to this, like the horror genre which comes through, at its heart it is a detective story, which has a resilient little format that just seems to be able to absorb all kinds of different themes and ideas, which is probably why it has survived for a hundred years or more.”
Lowe agreed with her friend, and director – as she believes there’s no better place to delve into and study such themes, than through films of this nature.
“Genre is an evolution of fairytale really, and what are fairytales other than a kind of metaphorical representation of psychological events that happen in people’s lives? Or fears, dealing with traumatic occurrences? When you cinematify an idea like depression, there is going to be a certain storytelling device which lends itself to that, and this has been brilliantly done by being made into a thriller. To experience depression can be very passive or stultifying or zombifying, that’s not particularly cinematic, but what Gareth has done which is really clever is make this into a cinematic experience,” she continued.
“There might be a trend in films where the enemy is yourself. The protagonist in that is also the antagonist, and you could argue that about The Ghoul as well. Maybe people will look back on this era in film and see it’s when people were really battling their own psyche.”
The Ghoul is released on August 4th