At FrightFest way back in August 2017, comedian-turned-filmmaker Matthew Holness showed up with a sneak-peek clip from his feature debut, the little-known-about Possum. Before it played he gave a little intro to the crowd, and made it very, very, very clear that, contrary to what the crowd knew him for (cult comedy Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, mostly) it wouldn’t be funny. Not even a little bit. And he wasn’t joking. Despite only being 60 seconds long, that clip was the scariest thing that played all weekend.
Fast-forward over a year later, and Possum is finished and doing the festival rounds, prepping for a big UK release just in time for Halloween. And those extra 84 minutes are just as downright freaky as what we saw all those months ago. So naturally we sat down with Mr Holness himself to ask not only how he did it, but why. You can read our glowing review of the film here.
So to kick off with the obvious – you’re so well-known for comedy, what spurred on the shift to the dark side?
To be honest I’ve always been in to much more serious stuff, I’ve written short stories and things over the years, and I’ve been trying to break away from doing comedy stuff for a long time. But the trouble is, if you’re known for something – particularly a show that has a very strong following – it becomes quite hard to be perceived as anything else. It’s taken a long time to get into a position where I can make something serious, and for people to actually take me seriously doing it.
I guess there aren’t really any real reasons for wanting to change, other than that’s what gives me pleasure in writing. I don’t really get anything out of comedy anymore, so I don’t see any point in doing stuff if you don’t feel it’s what you should be doing.
And we know that you’re a big horror fan anyway – were there any specific influences you took forward into Possum?
Oddly enough, I’d written the story in 2008 and I hadn’t thought of doing it as a film initially, but I was watching a lot of old, silent horrors; German Expressionism like Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Jekyll and Hyde – which is an American film, but a really interesting one as well. I was just obsessed with these silent horror films; they kind of expressed, by not expressing, because it was all visual. There was so much implied stuff and it felt like such an interesting way of making a horror film. And I thought about how you could do one now – how could you make a silent horror film?
Then I thought about Possum. The narrator in it is someone who doesn’t speak to anyone other than himself, so there’s this unreliable narrator, and you can’t really tell if he’s telling you the truth or not. This is someone who doesn’t really speak, who’s experienced something so horrific in his past that he doesn’t tell anyone. And suddenly it felt like this was a story that you could tell silently. So it was born from that really; the wish to do a modern silent horror film, and having a story that kind of fitted into that way of telling it.
A major part of that tone is just how thin Possum is on plot too – was it always the plan to keep it as a mood piece rather than be story-driven?
Pretty much, yeah. The story had to be developed further in terms of its plot [from the original short story]. It needed a greater sense of an ending – a more cinematic ending, but it was important that it didn’t get cluttered with conventional plot narratives. The original script came in at 45 pages, which is nowhere near the usual length-
Enough to set off alarm bells with development execs?
[laughs] Exactly, yeah, and through the process there was – not really pressure, but suggestions that we make more of certain aspects of the plot, like the disappearance of the schoolboy, and that kind of thing. I was resisting that because I felt that child abduction is something that we’re very familiar with in crime dramas but we’re not really familiar with it in horror. It feels like you can’t really go there in horror cinema whereas you can in crime. It’s over-saturated in the crime genre; there are so many stories that deal with it as a subject matter, but to the point that it becomes quite predictable and safe, from a viewer’s point-of-view, because you’ve always got that innate sense that justice will prevail. And there are forces of good going out to combat the evil.
But in horror, there’s none of that security. It felt to me that if you cluttered the film with conventional crime narratives, it ceased to become what the film was about, which is the inability to move past that experience; the lack of justice, the lack of any protection for victims like Philip. So it felt like it had to be about someone who hadn’t spoken to anyone, who went over the same ground over and over again, that’s probably come back for the umpteenth time to his home town, always trying to resolve this thing from his past, but he never can.
So it had to be almost a test for the audience – are you going to stick with this person? It wasn’t about making him particularly welcoming at all; that was another challenge. How can you make someone who’s quite a creepy figure anyway, how do you make an audience stick with him? It’s a little bit of an endurance test because there is that lack of plot, but that was the only way to be truthful to his experience, and him as a character, essentially.
Something that feels so key to that side of Philip’s story too is this timeless feel the film has – it could be taking place in any time, anywhere in England really. As someone who’s played with time quite a lot before, is that timelessness important to you in film?
Maybe, not above all. The big problem for writers, particularly in something like the horror genre is technology. You either have to accept that technology imposes a logic on a narrative story or framework, or, if it’s horror, you try and play with that technology as a means of the haunting/curse/whatever manifesting itself through that technology. I think it actually hampers a writer to have that technology around you, because you’re connected to everywhere, and it was important to this story for it to be somewhere where there was no connection, no communication between people.
It’s always difficult because we do live in a highly connected world, but Philip certainly would never have owned a mobile phone. So it was important to make the reality of the film reflective of his psychological reality; we’re looking at everything through his head, so to me that was as much about the geography of his mind as it was about any place or location.
And Philip’s mind is a very grim place, what was the atmosphere like on set? Sean Harris isn’t the sort of actor to just switch his performance off?
No, he’s in character the whole time, so we were filming Philip essentially, and it was an intense experience. It was certainly something I was new to, having worked in comedy predominantly, so it really was [intense].
Part of Sean’s method is to really bring that reality out everywhere, so that the truth of the character, and the emotional truth behind the film is there at all times. Which of course [laughs], can be intense, but it was suitable for the film absolutely.
Such a key part of that intensity is Philip’s relationship with the puppet – I talked to some of the guys at Odd Studios about their side of the process, what was your experience designing Possum itself, and bringing it to life?
In the original story it was something that was stitched together from various bits of roadkill, animal parts, whatever. It was a kind of a Frankenstein’s Monster in a way. But when we came to think about it in terms of the film, it felt like something like that might just look “too much” on camera. We wanted something that was more haunting than that. You can see something horrific, but once you’ve seen it, the effect wears off, which is why we kept so much of it as secret as possible. You don’t get a full look at it really, until about half way through. And even then not fully face on.
I worked with Dominic Hailstone and he took the script, with all these elements like the spider legs – that whole feel – and he drew up some storyboard elements of how that thing might look, keeping as much of it hidden as we could. He designed a puppet based on our conversations together, then that puppet design went off to Odd Studios who created it. And oddly enough, it didn’t work initially, because the head was too expressive; it had a scary face, which just didn’t work. It was a bit of a gamble because we were about a week away from shooting, and I just knew that it was going to be very difficult to create anything frightening from it, simply because the face was doing too much.
So Dominic and I went back to the drawing board, had another chat and a think, and we decided to go for something that wasn’t emoting at all; a blank canvas onto which the audience can project their own fears. It’s exactly how they did it for Halloween and stuff like that, and you suddenly realise how that’s frightening. Dominic went away and literally sculpted Sean’s face in about 3 or 4 hours [laughs], and sent it over, and we went “Yep, that’s terrifying”, and that’s how the final look came about.
There’s something innately scary about it not only being a puppet, but a children’s puppet-
And all of that comes from those silent horror films. They’ve all got fairy tale elements, they’re all drawing on folklore and mythology, and those are the things that really creep you out. You suddenly realise that all these folk stories and grim fairy tales are all about things like child abduction. This was how they warned kids to stay away from bad people, and so it needed that creepy fairy tale feel; instinctively that felt like the right way to do it. The right way to cover that subject matter, but in a way that didn’t feel exploitative or like we were trying to make a film for the wrong reasons.
And it’s a film that’s not scary in the standard jumpy sort of way either, it really gets under your skin. How much of that comes from you looking at your own fears and what you find scary?
Loads really. You can make brilliant horror films purely through technical artistry and design, films like The Conjuring, which are wonderful, but you don’t really think about them after you’ve seen them. They’re absolutely terrifying as an experience, like a ghost train ride, and I’m all for horror films like that. But this one felt instinctively about a very serious topic, and you do end up projecting your own fears, and I think you have to.
I don’t think you can ever really know what’s going to frighten someone. It’s like doing comedy, you’re not going to know until the audience respond to it, so it’s always a bit of gamble. You can only really put in what you instinctively feel unnerves. And if it unnerves you, then hopefully there’s gonna be other people out there that it unnerves as well. So yeah, a lot of it is about stuff that scares me, definitely.
Is it a world you want to stick with – are you going to do more of this sort of thing? What’s next?
Yeah, hopefully. I’ve written another one which I think is grimmer than this [laughs], so we’ll see how people respond to the idea of it. But yeah, that’s what I’d like to do next.
Possum hits UK cinemas just in time for Halloween on 26th October.