Monday, 19 March 2012

Interview with Reg Traviss - Director of Psychosis

Reg Traviss and Charisma Carpenter
Director Reg Traviss’s horror debut Psychosis is an old-fashioned feeling film that possesses many of the traits which made many old British horror films so distinctive and unsettling. The twisted tale of an American writer (played by Charisma Carpenter) spending time in a sprawling house in the English countryside while recovering from a nervous breakdown, it evokes an off-kilter and edgy sensibility reminiscent of the Hammer House of Horror/Tales of the Unexpected era of British chillers. Is something sinister and supernatural afoot in the house, or could the bloody events be figments of a fractured mind? Given that many of the films I’ve reviewed this month have featured characters with ambiguous psychological profiles further unhinged by spooky houses, I thought it might be appropriate to post this interview with the director of Psychosis; which I conducted back in 2010.*

Psychosis is your first horror film. What made you want to make a horror film?

I’ve always liked horror films. An American Werewolf in London was one of my favourite films for years. In particular though, I used to love the Hammer Horror films and the Hammer House of Horror TV films which were on during the 80s. I always wanted to make a horror film and recreate something which people felt struck a chord in terms of style and genre. I suppose I also wanted to bring something to the fans of horror, hopefully something that is a little different to most contemporary films.


Where did the idea for Psychosis come from? 

It was originally a short story called Dream House, written in 1974 by Michael Armstrong, the writer director behind British horror classics such as The Haunted House of Horror (1969) and Mark of the Devil (1970). The story was made into a short film in 1980, back when cinemas would run B-Movies before or a after a main feature. I saw it in about 1984 when I was about seven years old. It had been cut-in alongside three other shorts and a wraparound story which then formed an anthology horror movie called Screamtime (1983). The story had always stuck with me, as among other things, such as the atmosphere, I just really loved the twist. We approached Michael and obtained an option on his original story. I then went about adapting it.

The genesis of 'Psychosis'
How did you tackle the adaptation? Did it change much in the page to screen process?

The film resembles the final draft of the script very closely. Nothing changed really other than scenes being cut during the film edit, as is normally the case. I wanted to take Michael’s original story – the twist and premise mostly – and turn it into something new, but with nods to the genre. Really I only kept the initial premise and the twist, although I did create a kind of double twist too. I wrote several new subplots, several main supporting characters and generally changed quite a lot, including the main character.

How have you attempted to bring a fresh twist to the ‘haunted house’ tale?

I think the fresh twist to the ‘haunted house’ tale was always there in the original, which was why I always liked it. It was different to the rest but still simple. It was my intention to keep that simple sensibility which many British horrors and thrillers had back in the 70s, which relied on suspense and clever trickery and then I brought to it several intricate layers, possible red-herrings, to compliment the simplicity of the twist and make it appetising for a modern audience. I like the audience to think, and I think audiences like that too.

Obviously the location of the house is important to the story – what drew you to shoot in this particular house?

I actually based the house in the script around the real house. The house in the original story from 1974 was just a suburban detached house. My girlfriend, who was the film’s costume designer, and I were invited to spend a weekend in the country house of some friends. The weekend had echoes of a Hammer House or Tales of the Unexpected too - other guests included a psychic and an astrologer. Over dinner on the first night I told them about this idea for a film I had and they said I should look at Shapwick House, which was the old manor in the nearby village. I thought it was perfect. The house has a history of hauntings and exorcisms. A witch was also burned there hundreds of years ago. The oldest part of the house dates back to 1492 and it’s very isolated. I wrote my adaptation of the story around the house and we went about arranging the permission with the current owner.

Shapwick House
Any spooky occurrences while you were there?

There were various reports of bumps-in-the-night while we were there. Also, one afternoon the clapper-loader took his daily call from the lab back in London. They told him that the previous day’s rushes were good, although there was an over-exposed person in the back ground of one of the takes. I never saw it personally in the end, but that’s what happened.

How did you go about involving Charisma Carpenter? What do you think she brings to the role that another actress couldn’t?

I knew that whoever was going to play Susan was going to have to be very good indeed and would need to have an in depth understanding of the character and story, and of course the ability and experience to implement it. We had considered and screen-tested about half a dozen actresses. I think Charisma understood the story and character of Susan really well, and also we both clicked  and have since become good friends. Susan’s character and journey is a complex one and Charisma and I talked for hours on end before she got the job. She had a lot of ideas and suggestions which made me know instinctively that she was the person for the role – no question at all – she just knew the character, and knew how that character would behave and react. I was aware of Charisma’s previous work and so was also convinced that she could pull it off creatively on screen. Also, on a smaller note, I quite liked the fact that she is part of the tradition of cult US horror. That felt like a good mix to me, being that my treatment for Psychosis was that it would be reminiscent of UK cult horror. We have this American character finding herself in this creepy English setting – so it seemed right to cast an American actress. Charisma brought a lot to this film.

Reg Traviss and Charisma Carpenter on set
What can this film offer viewers that other contemporary horror films cannot?

I think it offers viewers a contemporary film which has definite echoes of Tales of the Unexpected and Hammer House of Horror and all of those off-the wall British horrors and psychological thrillers of the late 60s through to the early 80s. But the style and homage aspects are not forced upon the viewer. It’s not a genre-piece; it’s just set within that kind of 'reality.' I think Psychosis offers all of this to the viewer; it’s almost like an appreciation of weird, creepy Englishness, but as a contemporary, serious horror movie. The story is very layered and it’s not predictable, especially not the twist. It offers a lot of questions and in a lot of ways the audience can interpret much of the film in different ways, which I think is good.

Films such as The Haunting and The Innocents relied on suggestiveness and ambiguity to illicit shivers from the audience. How have you approached the subject matter in Psychosis?

I approached Psychosis in a similar way using ambiguity for the most part, but decided from the outset to have bursts of violence also. So it’s a combination of the two, and I felt that this contrast was important as it mirrored the main character’s state of mind and her surreal journey. The suddenness of the violence following periods of suggestiveness was crucial really, not simply to make the audience jump but because it was integral to the story.

The Innocents (1961)
The idea of a character experiencing supposed supernatural encounters while those around her believe she is losing her mind has been tackled before in various horror movies. How have you approached this subject? How do you explore it in new ways? 

That’s a tricky one to answer without giving away the twist. I suppose the main way that I approached this idea was that there is very little supernatural going on around her and although much of that may appear to be supernatural, it isn’t, and I avoided conning the audience. The answers and clues are all there – hopefully though most people will only realise that either at the end of the film or hopefully during their second viewing.


*This interview, which appears in its entirety here, was part of a feature I wrote for Gorezone Magazine, when I still contributed to it (for my sins) back in 2010. The final piece used only excerpts of this interview and appeared in issue 58.


2 comments:

Cody said...

You know, I've been thinking about checking this one out.

James Gracey said...

It's not bad! A little muddled in places to be honest, but it seems to be one of those films that reveals something new with each viewing. I enjoyed the vintage British horror feel it indulges in.