INTERVIEW WITH A FILMMAKER: Director Ashley Thorpe Talks ‘Borley Rectory’, Harry Price, and the British Gothic Revival

It’s been a long and winding road for Ashley Thorpe’s production of Borley Rectory, a film that documents the investigation of what came to be known as ‘the most haunted house in England’. Featuring an enchanting and unique mixture of live action and animation, the film goes some way to capturing the atmosphere of one of England’s most chilling ghost stories.

Helped along by a successful crowdfunding campaign, the project is now complete, and stars Julian Sands, Jonathon Rigby and Reece Shearsmith. Vampire Squid caught up with Ashley Thorpe to talk about his fascination with this most haunted house.

Borley Rectory has been in development since 2011. Now it’s playing (to great reception) in festivals – you must be very relieved?

Ashley: Yes, it’s been quite the journey, quite the endeavour. Towards the end, I started joking that it has felt like my own version of Fitzcarraldo, except dragging a Rectory over a mountain.

For a while, the story of how this film struggled to be made totally eclipsed the fact that it was being made. The script was written back in 2011, and then with money from Glass Eye Pix we recorded the narration with Julian just before Christmas that year, and it all seemed to be going well. With the narration recorded, the project was shopped around for funding, and although a number of companies initially signed up for development (including at one point Channel 4’s Shooting Gallery), the sources fell through and the project languished in limbo until 2013 when we looked into crowdfunding it. Reece Shearsmith saw the poster on Twitter about half way through that first campaign, liked it, and I cheekily asked him if he’d like to be part of it, and lucky for me he said yes.

With Reece onboard, and then the rest of the cast, we were able to get shooting the first sections and finally get the film production underway. But it was no smooth ride, you know. My cast and my producer Tom Atkinson were absolutely brilliant in keeping the project afloat because as we got up to speed I was made redundant around Christmas 2013, just before my daughter was born, and suddenly without a livelihood to rely upon, our world was properly in peril. The film was going great, but I was in serious trouble.

It was a long slow crawl, animating evenings and weekends raising my daughter, trying to make this thing whilst simultaneously trying to keep our head above water. Animating in the dead of night next to a baby monitor. Three years solid animation with about two weeks off in total, I’d guess, for that entire period. In a weird way, making the film became a focus, a light at the end of a long tunnel, in a way. The production looked hopeless on a number of occasions but we got there in the end with the help of a great many people. I have come to rely on the kindness of strangers.

What is it about the story of Borley Rectory that you find personally compelling, and why do you think the story has endured in the British imagination?

A: For me, it came from my childhood. I discovered the story in the Usbourne Book of Ghosts at the local library as a boy. I was very susceptible to frightening material when I was young – due to suffering from night terrors – but there was something especially haunting about this one story. I think it was that moniker The Most Haunted House in England that really struck a chord. This wasn’t just ‘a’ haunting, it was ‘THE’ haunting. I loved the way that they told the tale using a series of images in the book, and that was a key part of my approach when I started storyboarding the thing. It had to be very visual.

I think the reason the tale has lasted is that it was replete with such delicious gothic imagery; a nun bricked up within the walls, a phantom carriage driven by a headless coachman, cold spots and spectral messages scrawled upon the walls. Wonderful material. It also represented the beginning of that blend of ‘scientific method meets the supernatural’, which of course was such a huge influence upon things like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson’s Hell House. At the time, it was quite ground breaking. Now, of course, it all seems so archetypal. Its fascination also lies with the people. All the major players in that case were curious characters. They’re all quite mercurial and mysterious, so at the end of the case you’re left with more questions than answers. In fact, the ghosts are far easier to pin down than those investigating them!

T: The story of Borley Rectory is inextricably linked with that of Harry Price. In your research for the film, what sort of picture of Price have you uncovered?

A: Price is just as interesting as the case he’s investigating. Again, it’s the duplicity. He considers himself a scientist yet courts the press and the cameras like a showman. He spends years debunking mediums and minor phenomena as hokum and then publicly declares that Borley Rectory is the most haunted house in England. A salesman, an outsider, who longs to be part of the establishment. He’s fascinating. I’m very careful not to dismiss Price’s claims about the rectory but I’m also clear that there were many agendas afoot at the time both with Price and the various occupants he was investigating. Price is SO synonymous with Borley now. That’s why I imply that he in turn joins the ghosts he’s chased there once he passes. Price himself said ‘people don’t want the debunk, they want the bunk’. I’ve tried to maintain the mystery and represent both.

T: You’ve previously described Borley Rectory as ‘an ultrasound of a haunting’. Can you explain what you mean by this?

A: I mean it both visually and philosophically. It was something that came to me when I was looking at the ultrasounds of my daughter, before she was born. Those live ultrasounds are the most incredible thing that I have ever seen because they are so disorientating and ethereal. You’re looking at something and you don’t really understand what you are looking at, until the focal depth changes and you pull back through the layers of the child’s skull and you suddenly realise that you were staring at your child’s face but from the inside out or so close you couldn’t understand what you were seeing.

It got me thinking about perception and about ghost photography and how they are often very beautiful images because they linger on the border of abstraction. I suppose it’s also the idea of something growing within a space, and in this case, very much the product of multiple perceptions.

T: Borley Rectory, of course, has a unique and striking visual style. From a technical standpoint, what have been the most challenging aspects of shooting the film?

A: Surprisingly, making it has actually been far easier than maintaining a livelihood while making it. The crowdfunders were a lot of work but the production has been relatively straightforward. I’m pretty studious when it comes to planning projects and my producer Tom Atkinson is very, very organised when it comes to shoots and their breakdowns, so the shoots themselves went like a dream. We boarded every single shot.

It took me about 2 months before we shot anything, so when Tom and I sat down and broke down the shots into setups, we could clearly see everything we’d need and also how we’d do it, which bit would be painted in, what could be done with lighting etc. So when we walked into the studio, we knew exactly what we were doing. When you’re paying by the hour or day you have to be very efficient, but we were not only getting all the shots we’d boarded but had time as a consequence to improvise a little and shoot extra material inspired by a performance or discussion.

I suppose, technically, the sheer volume of work was very difficult. We may have had a crew of say four or five on the shoot but when it came down to the actual animation it was just me; keying, composite, rotoscope, animation and edit. Me. By the baby monitor in the dead of night. Usually you’d have a crew of animators, a production line, but not this time. The film is by no means the work of one person; there’s a team of talent behind it, but the animation studio was a one man band.

T: You started Carrion Films with a view to promoting British-style gothic horror, at a time when most studios were imitating a more American style. Do you think that there is now more of an appetite for these kinds of stories than there was when you started?

A: When I started Carrion, there didn’t seem to be much of that type of material around at all and it was something that I believed was seriously untapped. I still do. There’s such a rich vein of stories woven into the British heritage, so many legends to explore in novel ways; there’s a life’s work there. I don’t think that the industry has changed necessarily. The proliferation of media has certainly democratised things a little, there’s certainly more of it out there, but I think the basic core business mantra of chasing anything that looks like it could potentially make money and then doing it to death – whether it be zombie movies, killer dolls, you name it – has been there since the beginning and will always be there. Every now and then something unusual will sneak through the net and surprise or upset the balance and then the focus will shift again before order is restored again.

I love the ‘golden age’ of Hammer horror, and it’s very easy to look back on that period from, say, 1958 to the late 60’s as a boom in British gothic. In some ways it was, but these films weren’t made as some part of a gothic crusade – it was business. They were often considered revolting and exploitative at the time. But they made serious money. It was revisiting tried and tested material with a – then contemporary – spin. I thought that The Woman in Black was going to usher in a new ‘Hammer era’, especially as per days of old they were so hot to get a sequel in production, but that seems to have stalled somewhat.

I don’t really believe in the idea of evolution very much in terms of modern society. I think we’ll make the same mistakes over and over. Yet I personally think that the desire for the gothic, and I mean that in its truest literal sense of the word, has and will always be there. As to how much of it we will see, or how widely it will be seen, will depend greatly upon business forces and risk taking. The days of Lew Grade are long gone.

T: Can you tell us anything about Carrion Films’ upcoming projects?

A: You know, it’s hard to see much beyond getting Borley out there and into the sales market at the moment, but there are a few things lurking in the wings. Around the time I started Borley, I also wrote a feature script for a Victorian gothic melodrama based on Spring Heel Jack, which was in development with Creative England for a while. I’ve also penned a treatment for a Dartmoor-set portmanteau feature called – provisionally – Hell Tor, which would be an Amicus-style anthology piece, but exclusively using genuine Dartmoor ghost stories. That one could be great fun, especially with other contributors. I can really imagine Reece, Steve or Mark Gatiss adding something wonderful to that one.

There is also a good chance that I may be adapting a wonderful script from a very respected writer of supernatural drama. That’s in very early stages and in discussion with the agent, so I can’t say too much more on that one. Needless to say, it will be dark and obsessional like everything else I do!

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