Simon-Merrells-02-Judas-GhostStepping out of the haunted village hall for a break from a dance with the supernatural, Simon Merrells took the time to rendezvous with HeyUGuys to discuss his foray into horror with Judas Ghost. Probably most recognised for his role on TV’s Spartacus: War of the Damned in which he played the villainous Crassus with brutal pomp, Merrells is a regular face on both the big and the small screen.

During the course of our brief conversation he shared with us how he discovered his love of performance, and storytelling, as well as his early memories of horror’s most famous monsters and authors. Whilst reflecting on filmmaking as a musical journey, along with the fortunes of the modern short film he invited us inside the village hall to discuss his one location supernatural horror.

Why a career in acting? Was there that one inspirational moment?

Aside from the odd teacher here and there I went to a pretty horrible comprehensive school that wasn’t much fun. I remember being cast in the school play A Man for All Seasons, and it was just a world apart. The English teacher was a great guy whose approach was “When we’re in this room I’m Pete; I’m not your English teacher; I’m your director. We are a company and we are going to put on this play.” I immediately responded to that, and for a school boy I took it pretty seriously. I did a lot of research for the role and I never forgot the buzz of performing the part. So that was a formative moment. But my parents knew my brother and I were interested in acting, and so when we were kids they sent us to Sylvia Young evening classes now and again. We always loved watching movies and acting out scenarios in our Nan’s garden, and so all of those were formative experiences.

In addition to film, did theatre or literature figure in your introduction or discovery of storytelling?

Well books were very important, and we had lots of audio books that we would listen to. But as little kids we used to make up our own stories and act them out. I seem to remember that we were taken to the theatre when we were young – mainly pantomimes which for a lot of kids are their first experience of theatre. It’s an important experience and I remember the thrill of it. Aside from watching a lot of films, we had great dramas on TV: Play for Today, I, Claudius and such shows where you were blown away by the characters, and the level of acting talent. It was just so inspiring.

Were you a fan of horror growing up and can you remember your discovery of the genre?

Big time! The Hammer horror films, Dracula, Frankenstein and the Werewolf – I loved all of those. I can even remember peering through the crack in the door to watch the 1933 King Kong and thinking it was amazing – I still do. I loved horror films and being scared. Now it’s all torture porn which I don’t find enjoyable, although the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was great. I also read a lot of horror, in particular the great spooky stories by Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James and Roald Dahl. Also who can forget The Monkey’s Paw?

What was the appeal of both the character and the story when you first read the script for Judas’ Ghost?

To be honest we all thought the first draft of the script was a little ropey [laughs]. I did the audition and I liked Simon Pearce’s vibe. He is a young director, but what surprised me even then was his focus, professionalism and the notes he offered. I did a recall with Martin Delaney, and when I got the job there was some trepidation, but we had a whole week where we literally went through the script line for line, talked about the characters, and rewrote a lot of it to make it more palatable and believable to us. It was vital that we had that week, because there is no way to play that material unless you comprehend it as a real situation. Of course this is initially quite difficult because it’s not real.

When we walked in and I saw the village hall set I immediately thought this is the movie; this is serious. Then on the first day during the first scene of us walking, I looked at the monitor and I thought yeah, I believe this. That was a very important moment on the film.

To create a terrifying atmosphere does the director first and foremost have to create a sense of terror for his cast?

Well it’s the same as any role; it’s an environment. In fact theatre is a more natural environment to tell a story; because once you are on stage people believe that theatre has more artifice. But if you are on a film set you are surrounded by machinery, marks, spots and everything is cut up and shot out of sequence, which makes it more of an unnatural environment. Your job in a way is to blow all of that away when it comes to the action, and to try to focus in on your little group you are working with to make the moment seem as true as you can. If that involves creating tension then you find a way of doing that as you would find a way of expressing anything that was required. But a lot of it is not down to you; a lot of it is down to the director, the director of photography, the lighting guys and then later on the way it is edited and scored. All of these will create a sense of suspense and tension that might have nothing to do with you. They might have even taken a shot of you from another scene giving a certain look, and used it in a different scene because it works, and so all of those things go into creating a scary atmosphere.

A finished film is invariably the result of collaboration between numerous individuals. Is that one of the aspects of the job you most enjoy?

You never stop learning from your colleagues, and if you are working with good people then it’s like playing tennis, but without trying to win. Sometimes in a way it’s similar to making music.

On the subject of music in film, the comparison of writing and directing to composing and conducting has been shared with me in recent interviews. I wondered if we could pick up on your previous point in contrast to this observation.

Well if you think of key words such as timing which you can apply to both music and scenes in a film. I just worked with Jim Gillespie on the thriller Take Down which is still shooting. It was a big ensemble piece with coverage of a number of characters, and sometimes Jim would say, “I can’t put my finger on it but it’s not working.” So he’d suggest trying it again with more energy or more pace; bringing it back a bit or pushing that bit, and then when we’d do it he would say, “That’s it.” He said, “It’s an intangible thing sometimes, but you just know.” You hear it like you’ll hear notes out of tune, and it’s like listening to two orchestras playing the same piece of music. Whilst the one is immensely better and touches you, the other does not. So it is a fair simile to use.

There have been a number of memorable one location films including Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men. The claustrophobic space can feed the suspense in drama, thriller and horrors as is the case in Judas Ghost.

The power of the story increases because we are in that one location and are not reliant on outside scenes. It’s kind of focused like a pressure cooker. But that is why film is such an amazing art form, because you can be given a set of limits, and yet the imagination combined with what you can do with the cuts, shots and music allows so much flexibility in how you tell a story. That’s why I admire good short films because they are like little Zen poems. It is hard enough to make a feature, but to tell a complete and satisfying story in ten minutes is a challenge. Even writing a short story is a different art form, because you’ve such a short amount of time.

What are your thoughts on the place of the modern short film?

They are not watched by the public so much anymore. You used to go to the cinema and there would be a short before the main feature. Whist you still get these shorts in some art house theatres; most of the time they are someone saying look what I can do.

I did a sci-fi short nearly a year ago called The Leap, which is just being finished and runs at nearly half an hour. It’s so ambitious that it’s like Blade Runner, and with the CGI, the graphics and such, it is obviously the director saying I can make a movie; look at this. But it is a means to an end.

I did a very important job a year ago in Sofia, Bulgaria, where we shot Index Zero, an Italian production that has been dogged by a few problems afterwards. The director has recut the film and he’s going for the festivals now. It’s a film that is very close to my heart. Sometimes you work on a project and you’ll worry whether it will be completed and have a release because money can run out during post-production. It’s battling on, and that film was an extraordinary experience. It was shot in and around Sofia on an industrial wasteland landscape. The locations used in that film are beautiful, and are second to none.

Pixar have been proactive in supporting the short film, and it still offers young filmmakers some valuable experience, which the studios could actively use to develop young talent.

It’s a slightly different culture now, but things have resurgences, and film will always be with us. It is not always going to be computer graphics and animated versions of humans that some people were scared of. As fantastic as Avatar is you need real actors for it, even if you replace them with CGI afterwards – you need that input. There’s no need to worry about drama or even theatre disappearing because it is a basic human need. When we were hunter gatherers we were concerned about nothing more than survival and eating, and yet people were still painting on the walls. They were probably acting out the day’s hunt around the fire, and that reflects the human need for storytelling.

How do you compare and contrast film, theatre and television?

Well it’s all acting. You are learning lines, trying to express and to be part of a story. But the processes and to a certain extent the techniques are different. You rely on a certain amount of instinct, and it took me years to become comfortable with the environment of a film set. I had told myself I was theatre actor, and that’s where I belonged. But now I love both film and theatre.

Film is liberating from the perspective that some of the responsibility is taken off your back, because you know that if you do very little you can trust the environment and the way it is shot to convey something. If the camera is here in front of you then you are not going to be acting big because it will not look right. So there are certain differences in technique, but that doesn’t mean that everything on stage has to be big. You have to be heard but some of the greatest moments on stage are moments of stillness when you feel the audience leaning in. So it comes from the same roots, but the environments are different.

You rehearse a play where it’s you, the other actors, the director, set and lighting designer. But once you are on stage and the curtain comes up it’s yours, and that’s how you feel. On set it can be cut, moved around and you go from one part of a story to another. Also being out of sequence requires you to make strong choices and ensure you know where you are in the story. If you are lucky you’ll get some rehearsal time, but it’s rare now, and you tend to rehearse on the day and sometimes you shoot the rehearsal, which can be a good thing.

What experience do you hope audiences take away from Judas’ Ghost and what do you think it will bring to the modern horror film?

I hope nothing more than people are entertained, carried along with the story, and they believe in the characters. I don’t hope for much more than that and I don’t believe it’s going to change people’s lives. I just hope it succeeds in doing what it says on the tin – that it’s an affecting ghost story.

We did our best to try and make it believable, so that when you see the characters are frightened you believe it. Hopefully that leads to a chain reaction of empathy from the audience who will feel that fear as well, albeit in safety because they are not in that situation.