“It’s a vicar’s job to keep the myth of God alive – whether he exists or not isn’t the point – it’s the belief that’s important.”
This is a line writer/director Nick Murphy ended up having to cut out of his debut feature, the low budget British ghost story The Awakening. But it sums up the idea at its core; early twentieth century cynical ghost-buster Florence, played by Rebecca Hall, makes a living out of debunking claims of paranormal activity, until a case arises which challenges her own disbelief.
Murphy acknowledges that modern-day ghost films, such as The Sixth Sense and The Others have set the bar “pretty high” but he wanted to do something slightly different. “I didn’t want to just create a world where we’re frightened of ghosts, but to incorporate why we see them – and the need to see them – the emotional tangent that isn’t always addressed in this kind of film.”
He says a good ghost film has to have two threads. “One is the need to be fresh and novel, but the other is to be traditional. You need cliches – it’s a bad word, but it’s the truth. You have to be able to weave these two threads together into a satisfying cloth for the audience. From the response at the London Film Festival, the film seems to be a massive journey for the audience and a hell of an experience that continues into the lobby and onto the train home, as they discuss the film afterwards.”
Meeting Nick Murphy at the May Fair Hotel in central London, during the London Film Festival, I was interested to learn his own view on ghosts, given that his lead character’s scepticism begins to shift. After some thought, he acknowledges an answer Hall has previously given to the same question, before expanding. “I’ve never seen a ghost and if I had to choose, I’d say I don’t believe in them. But every culture on earth has invented a belief in the supernatural and that’s not a product that’s been sold by a marketing firm, so it would be crazy for me, if I happen not to believe in them to say you don’t need to believe in them – clearly there’s a benefit to it.” Florence’s problem in the film, he notes, is that every time she disproves the existence of a ghost, she’s losing sight of the fact that not everyone wants to know it’s not true.
With the stars of the two leads rising ever higher, having Rebecca Hall and Dominic West in his debut feature is an impressive feat. “Getting cast in your first film is really tricky.” It’s almost more of a boast than an acknowledgement, until he goes on to clarify, “I guess I lucked out. I think they just liked the material and like working with fresh people and fresh ideas. It wasn’t a struggle to convince either of them. I actually wrote Florence with Rebecca in mind and I was gobsmacked when the took she part.”
Murphy acknowledges that without the cast on board, he would never have got the film funded. “First you have the script, then the director, then the actors attach themselves to the director and only then will the financiers seriously consider it. Up until that point, it’s just flirting. They’ll say ‘We’re really excited,’ but excited doesn’t pay the bills.”
The Awakening earned Murphy a nomination for the Best British Newcomer Award at the London Film Festival to add to the TV BAFTA he’s already won for directing the Iraq mini-series Occupation. Would this make it easier for him to get future projects funded? “I don’t know how awards change things. I’m enormously flattered to be nominated as the Best British Newcomer – but I got The Awakening sorted before winning my TV BAFTA and I’ve already got my next feature financed. It must change things a little bit, but the industry is not foolish. They don’t suddenly start squealing and throwing their arms in the air because there’s an award on your mantelpiece. They know what a good director is and what a bad director is and they’ll make their own mind up really.” Murphy acknowledges that perhaps the Oscar and film BAFTA are different, but he doesn’t believe most other awards make a tangible difference, except perhaps getting your name under the nose of someone who would never otherwise have heard of you.
In this fickle, cast-led world, perhaps more than anything else, it’ll be being associated with Dominic West and Rebecca Hall that will get the name ‘Nick Murphy’ under the noses of the movie-money-men for the foreseeable future, although he’s already signed up another internationally-successful British actor, Paul Bettany, for his next project.