Praise for Twisted Tales Events

'In the past few years Twisted Tales has become a major force in the promotion and appreciation of horror fiction. As well as putting on author readings and signings at bookshops it has expanded into organising larger events, bringing authors and critics together for discussions of the field. I've been involved in quite a few of both and have found them hugely enjoyable and stimulating - I believe the audiences did as well. May Twisted Tales continue to grow and prosper! If you love the field, support them! I do.' - Ramsey Campbell

‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill

'Twisted Tales events are wonderful... a great way of promoting 21st century horror fiction. Supported by Waterstone's Liverpool One and really well organised, Twisted Tales brings together established names in the genre as well as new voices and of course readers. Looking forward to much more to come...' - Alison J. Littlewood

Monday, 7 November 2011

Stephen Volk interviewed by David McWilliam

Stephen Volk is the creator of the award-winning paranormal drama series Afterlife and the notorious BBCTV "Halloween hoax" Ghostwatch. His latest feature film (co-written by director Nick Murphy) is The Awakening, a supernatural mystery starring Rebecca Hall, while his other movie credits include Ken Russell's Gothic and The Guardian, co-written with its director William Friedkin. His short stories and novellas, a selection of which are collected in Dark Corners (Gray Friar Press, 2006), have earned him nominations for the British Fantasy Award, HWA Bram Stoker Award, and Shirley Jackson Award. .

The Awakening is will hit cinemas across the UK from 11th November. View the trailer here:

DM: How did you come to write horror professionally?
SV: I grew up loving horror books and films and for some peculiar reason I fell for the idea of writing scripts. In school for my own pleasure I wrote a film script of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories - it just struck me they were very cinematic - but I was also writing horror stories in prose at the time, much like the stories in the books I was reading like the Pan and Fontana books, or Poe. I went to art school, then film school, then got a job in advertising as a copywriter and wrote screenplays at home burning the midnight oil. Through advertising I met a director, Richard Loncraine, who put me on to his agent (this after I'd been writing scripts for about ten years and trying, sometimes succeeding in, getting meetings with the likes of John Boorman or Ridley Scott). I gave this agent, Linda Seifert, three of my spec screenplays (Gothic, Horror Movie and Telepathy) and she sold all three within six months. Which was astonishing, though of the three as yet only Gothic has been made (I now know all too well that simply selling a script is a far cry from it hitting the screen). After Gothic came out I'd begun to get commissions from the likes of TriStar in the States and they were sufficiently time-consuming that I couldn't meet the deadlines and maintain a day job, so I quit the day job. I was worried I might have to go back to advertising in lean times but Sandy Leiberson, Head of Production at Goldcrest at the time gave me an enormous vote of confidence when he said, quite casually, "Oh, you won't need to do that." And, touch wood, I haven't.

DM: What are the different challenges and pleasure of writing for television, film and the page?
SV: Well, everyone who loves film and TV knows the thrill of watching a great story and great acting, a really wonderful gripping narrative. I suppose I'd say: imagine creating that stuff yourself. What could be more exciting? If you love movies you live and breathe them. Having said that, the way they are made, for the writer, is shit. You have no respect and others with far less intellect or talent or even common sense torture your work into becoming a pallid and often idiotic version of what you wrote. It is almost unbearable most of the time... and for the rest of the time it is literally unbearable! Suicidally so. I can't exaggerate how gruelling and unpleasant the process is 99% of the time. The difference with writing fiction for the page is that you are 100% in charge, except for perhaps minor comments or alterations by editors - but these are more like nettle rash compared to the attack of a Bengal tiger in the film world. Really. It's really quite a deeply masochistic profession being a screenwriter. As they said in Sh*t My Dad Says: screenwriting is like riding a merry go round where the horse is fucking you!

DM: Have you ever worked with a director or producer who has contributed positively to your scripts? Has any collaboration illuminated an aspect that had hitherto not been apparent to you?
SV: Yes, sometimes that has happened, definitely, but sad to say it is outweighed by the number of times a script is railroaded and transformed for the worse. It’s not as if it isn’t clear to me when it’s happening: it’s simply not in my power to do anything about it. The system is against the writer, the person who created the thing, which is hugely illogical when you think about it. In films it is often about the director finding their “vision” – which we all know is crap but they have to find something if they’re going to make the bloody thing!  But occasionally producers or directors can be very perceptive indeed. I can think of one who said we should lose a central character, and she was right. And the director of my BAFTA-winning short The Deadness of Dad took what was really a nasty horror-type idea and encouraged me to find in it something strange and tender – something I’ve been trying to recognise and excavate in my work ever since, in fact. I could probably roll off lots of examples of good ideas I’ve got from other people. Case in point: I’ve written a screenplay with another writer, the fantasy novelist Tim Lebbon, and that was a wonderful collaboration because we know each other really well and we weren’t scared of looking stupid, we essentially trust each other – and that’s different from collaborating with non-writers: it’s not a level playing field because they have all the power. Every relationship is different, though. I worked for some time with Richard Loncraine on Gothic and he persuaded me that the creature shouldn’t be a patchwork of scare figures from the stories Byron et al had read, but their actual fears made form. Lesley Manning elevated Ghostwatch simply by pulling it off on a practical level and not imposing any directorial “stamp” at all. Similarly Charles Beeson directed the last episode of series one of Afterlife brilliantly, I thought, and the series wouldn’t have been nearly what it was without the talent of Murray Ferguson, a fantastic producer who’s wonderful on a story and character and pushed me in all the right ways. On the other hand with The Awakening, to be honest, the director Nick Murphy took away my script – which had already moved away somewhat from the Freudian/Victorian sexual ghost story I intended – and rewrote it in the way he wanted. I wasn’t part of that process but I’ve seen the film and I love it, and the “ghost” of everything I wrote is there on the screen. It’s changed, but the same. Weird.  

DM: Ghosts have been a recurring trope within your work. What is their appeal to you as a writer?
SV: I think ghosts as a device are interesting because they afford you the opportunity to externalize character. John Carpenter says all Horror is about an internal emotion, externalized - and a ghost is always absolutely that thing. To me, it always represents something missing or lacking in the character who sees it. A fatal flaw, in other words. Then it's about how the character deals with what he or she sees. I often say that, to me anyway, ghost stories are more about the seer of the ghost than the ghost itself. The audience in Ghostwatch wants to see the ghost because it is a wish-based experience of vicarious pleasure which backfires on them. In Afterlife, the ghosts in the individual stories represent different things but Robert's son Josh is symbolic of his grief and being unable to move on - that's what his relationship with Alison is all about. One person can see it and the other cannot: I find that hugely poignant in human terms and I like ghost stories especially, I suppose, because they illuminate human emotions in a very basic, primal way. In The Awakening the psychical researcher played by Rebecca Hall grapples with denial for a long time before "awakening" to the truth, and I think it's true that drama is not about conflict, but only conflict in as far as it causes something to be revealed about the characters. That's why two people shouting in EastEnders isn't dramatic, though it is conflict: You see, nothing is revealed. A lot happens, but it's empty.

DM: What are your favourite ghost stories, in any medium, of the 21st century thus far?
SV: I wasn’t expecting to, but I rather liked the new BBC version of Whistle and I’ll Come to You, written by Neil Cross. I’m not a bit fan of his cop show, Luther, but I thought this drama with John Hurt was genuinely eerie and had a sense of the uncanny I hadn’t seen on television for a long while. I actually read David Ambrose’s Superstition recently and it’s superb, multi-layered and challenging, even edging into ideas about reality. Amazing stuff. We were going to do it for TV and I was thrilled, then it turned out the movie rights were snaffled up years ago. I liked The Orphanage, despite terrible plot holes, and I enjoyed Graham Joyce’s novel Silent Land, because everything he writes is top notch, full of great ideas but completely absent of showy language.

DM: With Ghostwatch and some of your stories in Dark Corners, you have worked within the subgenre of haunted house stories. As a writer, do you perceive this to offer a different angle on the ghost story? Do haunted houses still focus on illuminating aspects of the characters or does the emphasis shift more towards the ghost’s own history?
SV: I do think it is still about the characters. Maybe the focus being the house you have a wider net, by which I mean the house has existed longer, there are more possibilities, but there’s also the restriction of it being a haunted place – the action is constrained, which is often a good thing. The additional thing, I think in longform storytelling anyway, is that the house almost becomes a character. You saw it in Mark Gatiss’s Crooked House, which was a spoof of The House That Dripped Blood, and you see it in Marchlands, which wasn’t really a ghost story because there was no threat and nothing at stake – the little girl ghost was merely window dressing for a mystery story. I hinted at it in Ghostwatch when the paranormalist talks about “the onion skin” – that Nigel Kneale idea in The Stone Tape, that if you go further and further back who knows what primal evil might be there?

DM: Have you seen the final cut of The Awakening? If so, are you happy with the results?
SV: I’m really happy. I think it’s superb film-making. It’s brilliantly shot and acted and I realised more than ever that my story was about trauma and pain. I’ve honestly never seen a film that communicated pain so effectively. I think in the end it is quite haunting for that reason. Rebecca Hall is superb. They all are, and I hope they get the plaudits they deserve – but of course it’s often the way that a genre film gets treated rather snootily by the critics. But in this case it isn’t out-and-out Horror as such. It’s spooky and scary, but it’s got a level of psychological depth (I hope!) that makes it a bit more unusual. I think it’s a class bit of work, and I don’t say that immodestly, I say it trying to be objective because I wasn’t really involved in the making of it.

DM: What projects are you working on at the moment and have lined up for the near future?
SV: I have a few new spec screenplays out there raising eyebrows I hope, and I am talking to the BBC about a couple of TV series ideas, genre and non-genre. It’s always a long haul to present precisely what they’re after. I also have a few TV projects sniffing around in the USA and Canada (producers have to be very nimble on their feet these days about where they find the finance – everyone has to think outside the box more and more). On the prose side, I have a new novella under consideration which is very special to me, and have some exciting new short stories coming up in The Unspoken (Generation Next), House of Fear (Solaris), Exotic Gothic 4 (PS) and Gutshot (PS). Oh, and a play. Strangely, a play.

DM: Our next event, Twisted Tales of the Weird West (on Friday 25th November), will feature readings from other contributors to Gutshot. Your story in the anthology, ‘White Butterflies’, relocates the Western to the arid landscape of Kazakhstan. Do you agree with Conrad Williams’s claim that, in order for the Western to survive, it needs to be revitalized by shifting away from straightforward tales of the Old West, and that its future lies in generic hybridity?
SV: Is “generic hybridity” just a posh way of saying “mash-up”? I don’t know. I don’t know if Cowboys and Aliens did anything new for the Western except add space ships, but then, I have only seen the trailer: it looks pretty much like Bonanza with added CGI to me. And there have always been comedy-Westerns, so is that “generic hybridity”? The future of a genre is usually “our generation will make it more real”: that is usually the promise in any supposed reinvention of the crime story or cop show or horror, or comedy even, the implicit accusation that previously it has been formulaic. “Till now!” In fact the challenge of genre is usually keeping the things people love and you love yourself as a fan and giving them a new spin. And you do that on instinct. I find I’m always writing ghost stories and always wanting the “new spin” to be psychological depth. Whether I succeed or not, I can’t say, but that’s what I attempt, at least. I’d like to think that rather than putting Jack the Ripper at the OK Corral, the future of the Western is in thinking about what makes something a Western on a deeper, mythic level – a level of landscape and survival and moral law, or lack of it. The TV series Deadwood did that brilliantly, by being both true to history and iconoclastic. Basically in “White Butterflies” I wanted to explore what the Western is if you take away the West. Is it a state of mind or a set or circumstances? I’d wanted to write about the world of these bizarre rocket salvage people for a long time but it was Conrad’s call to arms that focused my mind, and I’m so grateful because without it the story may never have been written and it’s one of my favourites. The question is not how much but how little do you have to add to a story to make it a Western. Maybe only a horse. Maybe only a gun. Once I added a horse and a gun I was halfway there.  

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