INTERVIEW: Director Andy Mitton on Ghostly Chiller ‘The Witch in the Window’

The Witch in the Window will be playing at Frightfest London 2018.

The screening will take place on Monday 27 August at 1:20pm at Leicester Square Cineworld.

Tickets are available here!

Far from just your average ghost tale, Andy Mitton‘s The Witch in the Window is a gripping, character-driven story about the relationship between a separated father and his estranged son (Alex Draper and Charlie Tacker respectively) as they work on flipping an old farmhouse. Unbeknownst to them, the ghost of the previous resident doesn’t want them to leave, and seems to grow stronger the more they improve the house.

We caught up with Andy to find out more about this atmospheric chiller with parental fears at its core.

Naomi: You’ve used the concept of ghosts before in your previous work. What kind of storytelling opportunities do you find this horror archetype presents?

Andy: The supernatural in general, whether it be ghosts like in this film and in We Go On, or something more demonic like in YellowBrickRoad, I think is a pretty limitless foundation for telling stories. In thinking of horror ideas, I lean that way for a few reasons. One, because I’m a believer myself – more in reincarnation than ghosts – but for me these concepts aren’t so fantastic or far from reach. And two, stories of the supernatural tend to attract a wider scope of audiences, and be more inviting in general. Ghost stories are rarely about blood or body counts. Don’t get me wrong – I’m into that side of horror too, and I’d love to explore it as a filmmaker, but so far ghost stories have just been a better breeding ground for atmosphere and character and some of the ways I’ve tried to be distinct.

Naomi: You’ve mentioned before that ghost stories tend to fall apart in the third act, primarily due to a lack of clear rules about how they work. How did you go about addressing this challenge when writing The Witch in the Window?

Andy: It’s interesting, because We Go On was very clear about its rules. They had a complexity to them and they needed to be well understood for all the plot points to come about, that was very important to Jesse and me. This time around my focus was more zoomed in; the themes were ambitious but the amount of plot was more manageable. And the ghost rules are much simpler, so I tease them out enough to make the story work, but leave some things more veiled.

The ghost in this story isn’t one that needs to be “battled” or overcome in any way – I think that’s really where a lot of stories stumble. Rules or no rules, traditional story structures says the hero must face the bad thing, and usually beat it. With this one I didn’t even mess with it. I wanted something that felt more real and less predictable, so I found a way to have Simon to face it in a different way – and face himself, too – in a unique kind of reckoning that could still feel climactic and chilling.

Still, some will likely say, as in YellowBrickRoad, that they wanted to know more about this ghost, this evil. But the way I look at it is: this is a story about Simon and Finn. Lydia (Carol Stanzione) becomes a big part of their story, and the catalyst that drives it, but it’s not her story. But she’s not the protagonist and we need only as much of her as will help complete the story of our characters. The rest can stay in clues and mysteries and things left to interpretation. I think a little bit of that is fun but it’s a delicate balance, and with this film we really tried to test it out and keep tweaking it until it felt right.

Naomi: The father/son relationship between Simon and Finn has been praised for seeming so natural. What made you want to have this relationship as the centre of your film?

Andy: This movie’s very much about the fears of parenthood, of bringing up kids in a world that’s increasingly unsafe, where we can’t promise to protect them. My own boys are just toddlers but I’m already wondering what it will be like when they’re twelve, and you pretty much have to stop telling lies about what’s evil in the world. With that in mind, I wanted to install that fear into the central relationship. Alex and Charlie just elevated everything with their connection and their sincere approach to the conversations. It’s a total joy as an editor after the fact to be able to linger on shots that hold tension just through acting.

Naomi: As someone who worked closely with Draper and Tacker, can you give us any insight into how they prepared for their roles?

Andy: They had very different processes, but it ended up working great on set.

Alex comes from theatre, and is very precise about preparation and knowing exactly what’s going on. He’s been one of my favourite actors for a long time for how collaborative he is, how easy to communicate with he is, and how interested he is in the storytelling, every layer and every level.

Charlie on the other hand is pure instinct. His strength is how relaxed he is on camera. He shows up and listens, and I know he learned a lot from this team, especially Alex. Honestly a lot of young actors could learn a lot from Charlie. He’s not trying, he doesn’t force moments, he understands how to make small choices, but powerful ones.

Together, the two of them just meshed and I knew in the first week of shooting that scenes were really crackling.

Naomi: What made you want to set the film in Vermont?

Andy: I love Vermont. If you can shoot in Vermont, in May no less, you do it. Everyone was kayaking and hiking and barbecuing on the days off. It had that great family feel you get on location. But I have a lot of history, specifically with the town of Middlebury where we filmed.

We shot near Middlebury College, where I went to school and where I’ve also worked on the theatre department staff a few times since. My whole career’s stemmed out from my relationships from Middlebury – frequent collaborators Clark Freeman, Cassidy Freeman, Jesse Holland, Jay Dunn, Tara Gioradano, Dana Yeaton, and more are all alumni, and we all did theatre together as classmates.

Alex Draper, who plays Simon in this film, also went there and remains as a tenured professor in the theatre department. So the whole movie sprung out of the desire to write a haunted house movie with Alex in a lead role, something that felt small and manageable enough to do independently. He helped find the house – so I knew the house before I wrote the script – and then we took the production to Middlebury and offered below the line positions on our crew to current students so they could get some hands-on experience. The school was nice enough to let us shoot in this creepy house that was already infamous among some of the students there and as a production plan, it all worked out great.

The-Witch-in-the-Window-599x330.jpgNaomi: As well as the central supernatural threat, The Witch in the Window isn’t shy about highlighting the scary aspects of everyday life. How do you think these two different types of horror balance each other out in film?

Andy: I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently – it’s a really good question, and not an easy one. As a younger writer I think I fell into the trap pretty often of putting message before story. Like the story was being engineered to suit the message, and I don’t think that’s very satisfying. With this film I really tried to look at it first and foremost as a story, and one I would have found legitimately scary, surprising and satisfying if twelve-year-old me could watch it. I also knew what my themes were but I didn’t build the story just to hold them up. Instead I build pathways for them to flow into, and I gave some of my feelings and fears to the characters and let things happen naturally. I figure if I just try and build a good solid story, those feelings will find their own ways out. It’s a challenge, but a worthy one!

Naomi: Were there any scenes that stand out in your mind as particularly challenging to shoot?

Andy: The first scene comes to mind, for lots of the usual reasons of handling exposition and setting a pace and a tone, but mostly because I went into the shoot having written the wrong scene. It was a flat, awkward, sort of cordial meeting where Simon is picking Finn up in New York. And we were shooting it in Vermont, trying to make it seem like Manhattan, and it just wasn’t flying. It was the first thing we shot on Day One, and I knew I’d whiffed.

Turns out it was a blessing in disguise because we were able to reshoot it in Manhattan about six months later, and I had a second chance to write the scene and do it right. The eventual scene we got(a long steadicam shot I eventually cut into three pieces) works much better but was a bear to shoot, with so much to coordinate and time out in a tiny space. But I’m happy with it, especially because since the 2016 election happened between the shoot and the re-shoot, I got to write in that very specific new fear that was gripping us at the time, and is still gripping us, unfortunately.

The-Witch-in-the-Window-616x348.pngNaomi: Not only writer and director of the film, you also produced, edited and composed music for it. Are there any unique opportunities and difficulties that this level of creative control brings?

Andy: This felt to me like my most collaborative effort despite wearing all of those hats. After all, on set I’m only the director, and the on-set environment is the most collaborative place to tell stories. I’m working with all my department heads so closely and taking everyone’s ideas in. Hopefully that’s what I’m doing anyway, I’m far from perfect. After wrap, editing’s something I just love doing, and just feels like the chance to complete my thought as a storyteller. If the edit’s not working for everyone I’m the first to take me off the job. Composing I also love and have done since I was young, but going forward I won’t always be the right choice and there are so many great composers I’d love to work with. For this particular project though, I had the main theme already in my head before I shot, so I ran with it. I’m also pretty cheap hire, it turns out!

So in the end that may be a lot of control but I think the question is, towards what end am I steering everything? If it’s all to make only the movie I’m happy with, that I think is right and best expresses my “art” or whatever, then we have problems and I’m being a dick. But no, in my view we’re making genre movies and when it’s done it’s not for me or about me; it’s for the audience. If I’m in love with something but most people aren’t feeling it and it isn’t testing well, I dump it. My producer Richard King is especially good at telling me the hard truths, which is one of the reasons I like working with him. Nowadays I even get a perverse sort of pleasure from throwing out things I love, because I know I’m making the thing as a whole better, and that’s the most exciting thing.

Witch-in-the-Window-The-3Naomi: Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects that you’re able to tell us about?

Andy: I’ve got a small pile of scripts I’m ready to shoot, ones I’ve been holding back because they’re a little bigger and aren’t perhaps wise to try and do on my own. I’m hoping I can get them off the ground now. In the meantime, I’m in the midst of writing a high-rise horror story that’s a nice new flavour after the rural farmhouse thing. I’m really excited about it. That sometimes means a month later it’s in the bin and I’m on to something new, but hopefully this one sticks.

We’d like to say a huge thank you to Andy Mitton for speaking with us! You can keep up with Andy and The Witch in the Window on Twitter. Check out the trailer below.

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