Thursday, 9 February 2012


With The Woman in Black about to become the revamped Hammer's biggest box office success, we catch up with president Simon Oakes for a chat about the legendary production company.

Now part of Exclusive Media, the revered name of Hammer was resurrected in 2007. Since then, they've scored critical acclaim with Let Me In, Matt Reeves' superb take on Let the Right One In, and the chilling pagan horror Wake Wood. After retro stalking thriller The Resident, featuring Hilary Swank and a cameo from Hammer legend Christopher Lee, Hammer are about to solidify their comeback with The Woman in Black.

Already a hit in the US, it opens in the UK on 10th February. Daniel Radcliffe takes on the role of Arthur Kipps in this spooky and atmospheric adaptation of the beloved Susan Hill novel and hit play, scripted by Jane Goldman and directed by James Watkins


Can you talk about the discussions you had with Jane Goldman about the changes to the book?
As you know, if you've read the book it's a pastiche of Wilkie Collins and that sort of Victorian melodrama. The thing about those books, was that the novellas were quite thin, and that's not a negative statement, but you had to imagine what it was like. The thing with Jane was that the alchemy was strong - we never went with multiple writers, we went to Jane, James Watkins and Daniel. Jane got it immediately; she knew the book, and loved it as a teenager. She asked if I minded her opening it out, and I said you've got to open it out. She's such a modest person, she asked the question but she was going to do it anyway! She was going to find these scenes, such as the marsh, and Nine Lives Causeway and the big set pieces - she brought that to the screenplay. She took the pages, and thought, what would that look like onscreen. She's very, very good. We worked closely with Susan Hill. Susan's a great pragmatist. She's not remotely precious about her material, in the sense she's very realistic about what you have to do to make the medium work. She got on famously with Jane. We got them together very quickly, they had lunch together. Daniel met with Susan, James met with her, and then we all met in the country where she lives. Susan loved Jane - she saw a bit of her as a young woman in Jane, in Jane's incredible can-do work ethic. It was never a problem - it never crossed our minds that it would be. We'd love to work with Jane again. She's probably the busiest writer in the universe right now. We have an idea of something we'd love to work with her on.

Let Me In premiered at the London Film Festival, but it's an event that routinely neglects horror - is there still a sense of snobbery in the film world?
A hundred percent there is. Interestingly enough, one of the greatest horror directors of our time is Alfred Hitchcock. Kubrick. Polanski. Spielberg's Jaws. Scorsese is a huge Hammer fan, but the powers that be at these sorts of things... it's very much a chattering classes thing. But if you look at the numbers, people go and see these films. I just think the trouble is that horror is a word that has negative connotations. Which is why we call ourselves Hammer and talk in terms of genre. That's what we try and do. Horror's been usurped from what it really meant by that succession of relatively exploitative films. By the way, I thought the first Saw and Hostel were really good - 3,4,5, they just became exploitative. [On the recent horrors that have impressed him] I thought Insidious was really good, but besides that there's been nothing that's really struck me.

I wanted to get some Wake Wood love in why was that such a low key release?
If we had at the time, the investment we'd had on this one... I think we should do a sequel. It came out of Ireland, it had Irish film board support, and Vertigo, but Vertigo bought the UK rights for a pretty low number, which meant there was very little upside, and casting was difficult. I think it's a really strong story and concept, but it suffered for the lack of money and the fact we shot it on digital and not on film. You shoot on film it makes all the difference it terms of depth. Thank you for mentioning it though.

What was the reason behind releasing The Woman in Black in the US first?
There was no method in the madness in that way, it was just a question of the timing. As you know, distributors look for what they believe to be the perfect time. Momentum were looking at one time, quite soon after Christmas, with the success of The King's Speech the same time the previous year. It was a question of looking around at what's on - they wanted to open it Super Bowl weekend as a bit of counter-programming. The tracking was very strong female, which is good. So we held up really well against Chronicle, which they spent a lot more than we did on P&A, and on more screens. We only just lost out to number one. But we did a tremendous Monday, and took over $1.5 million. It looks like it's got some legs, and often with a film like this you get a return. With strong female tracking, at 65%. Girls tell me they go again and again, with girlfriends, boyfriends, mums.

Can you talk about the settings of The Woman in Black, and the creepy dolls and props?
We were painstaking in our research - the location manager never gets any credit in any interviews, but he did unbelievable work. He had to find the iconic Eel Marsh house, which was gothic but not cheesy gothic - to be spooky without being a joke. He found Nine Lives Causeway on the Essex coast, which is a tidal causeway - that's all real. The house was in Leicestershire, the village in Yorkshire, the causeway in Essex, Pinewood for the build, so we were all over the place. It was a lengthy process. The props never get enough credit. The dolls were real, and we had a brilliant propmaster. That was something Jane wrote a little bit about in the screenplay, so to go out and find the mangy old automata was really spooky - the cat, the clown, the monkeys. Really brilliant. They were all originals. They were probably the things that were most expensive, apart from Daniel's insurance, because they were collectable antiques.

Hammer's always had a tradition of not just horror - are there any plans to go back to sci-fi?
Definitely. Horror is very much a broad church. The Saw and Hostel films are adjunct to the whole history, and Hammer had a history of being quite literary. So sci-fi, monster movies were a part of that. So we certainly are looking at that. We have two projects in development, one of which is a monster film. I can't tell you what it is, but you could probably work out which one it was if you use your imagination. And we are looking at rebooting Quatermass at the moment. It's very early stages - we have a fantastic writer, but sadly we can't announce it yet, as we're still in the negotiation stage. Right at the beginning - I hate that word mission statement - but we looked at all the different subgenres within Hammer: vampire lore, the walking dead, the sci-fi, monster movies.

Do you think in terms of franchise when rebooting Quatermass?
You become a hostage to fortune if you talk of franchise. We do have something called Boneshaker, which is a Cherie Priest Steampunk novel, which we've acquired the rights to and are developing with our US partner Cross Creek. It's an 1860s vampire novel set in Seattle. It's very cool. I'm actually interested in Quatermass for television at the moment. It's about rebooting his character, with certain characteristics that remain the DNA of Quatermass. The Rocket Group, we can't do that now, which is this dystopian world as a metaphor for Russia. What we're saying is, what would Bernard Quatermass be today?

You've now got a publishing imprint, with The Greatcoat coming soon. Are you looking at moving into other avenues, like games?
Definitely. We have a little partnership, doing some online stuff at the moment, which is quite fun. We definitely want to be more in social media, with games if we can. With games, as you know, it's incredibly expensive in developing, and it's the question of whether it's a generic Hammer game or a specific film title. It's not something that we would do ourselves, we'd do it in partnership with someone else - our expertise is making making films and television. In our partnership with Random House, we're a brand working with writers in the genre. I'm very keen to do something in the games world, and we're interested in getting that fact out there. It requires a just spark of imagination from the big games developers, saying 'we think that Hammer is sufficiently strong as a brand in this country', as it's beginning to get more traction in America with the release of this film. We want to do theatre as well - we're doing Hammer Theatre of Horror, as there's a huge market for scary theatre. We're partnership with Sonya Friedman to do a theatre version of... I can't say!

You've used big names like Hilary Swank and now Daniel Radcliffe - is that a conscious effort to declare you mean business?
Yes and no. Let Me In had Chloe [Moretz] who's beginning to become a huge star, but she wasn't really well-known when we cast her. Matthew Vaughn very kindly let us look at an early assembly of Kick-Ass and that's when I saw Chloe and realised she'd be amazing as the young vampire. The answer is: where the material fits the bill, you'd be crazy not to cast a marquee name in it. But when there's a situation... we're announcing a project tonight, The Quiet Ones, which is a poltergeist movie based on a true story of a group of scientists who were taken off-campus by a maverick professor, and they create a poltergeist. It's an ensemble piece, and the star of the movie is the situation. The thing with The Woman in Black was that Arthur Kipps is on the screen pretty much the whole time. You need to have somebody who's going to grab people's attentions, which I think Daniel does very well. There are so many good young actors and actresses around now, I wish we did live in a world where you could have the ensemble, repertory group Hammer used to have in the '50s onwards, where the same actors like Cushing and Lee would play the roles. It's very difficult to do that now. It was great to have Christopher [Lee] come in and do a cameo in one of our first new Hammer films [pictured below], and we'd like to think actors would come back and work with us again. I don't think the British and American actors need encouragement - if we find the right material we'll cast them. There's some amazing talent coming through - Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, all the young phenomenal actresses.

In light of David Cameron's comments about commercially viable films, what's Hammer's statement on those comments?
It's incredibly important to us as you can't have a commercial business without being commercially viable or you'll go bust. We have a lot of employees, and a lot of mouths to feed. In fact, at the premiere I said I hope this is what our premier was saying about a commercially viable film. You know, the UK Film Council takes an awful bashing and the reality is that they've had incredible success over the last couple of years. There's no doubt there was a period of time where they did invest in some pretty ridiculous things, and it seemed to be like a club of people. But there was The King's Speech, there was us. I think Hammer is a commercial enterprise, and it always has been - it's why it's stayed alive for so long. The reason why it stopped being successful in the '70s was because of the urban myth films that came out of America, like The Exorcist and The Omen - we just didn't catch up in time. They didn't have a team of people thinking ahead about what they should be doing. I think we're a professional outfit, and trends... I don't know. I don't think we should jump on a bandwagon. If suddenly there was a trend for a certain type of movie... by the time you're jumping on it, it's already gone. I think David Cameron's comments are well made if they're interpreted properly. He said if we're going to be supporting films using tax payers money there should be capital gain. Unless you change the way it's structured. I've just been to Paris for The Woman in Black premiere, and if you go by their cinemas, of ten movies, at least seven are French. If broadcasters supported filmmaking more, we'd have a chance.

Do you need to up the ante in terms of what's being shown on television?
I think all the Hammer films were X-rated and play on late-night television - they wouldn't even get a 12A today. I understand that. Television is much more stuff that you see. The irony is, here we have a film that is less gory than something you'd see in Whitechapel, and it's taken $21 million in its opening weekend - it's all about storytelling. James and mine's argument is that atmosphere, suspense and dread are all much more frightening than body count. Because people are so bored of body count now - they see it on television, the news. Sherlock is so good for that reason, other than the great writing and acting, because you don't see a lot of blood - you don't need to.

How much creative input do you have in the films you're making?
A lot, as much as possible I'm allowed! We have a great team - Tobin Armbrust, our head of production who is very cinema literate and very savvy; Ben Holden, in development, Shira Rockowitz. We get involved in script notes, casting. If things work you take the benefit, if things don't work, you take the downside. But you can't be involved in this business and say, 'here's a cheque, go off and make a movie'. That would be the biggest disaster. I don't think you can futureproof anything - stick to your guns, stick to your philosophy. The world has changed in terms of the amount of space there is for content, so you have to think very laterally a lot of the time. The thing is with Hammer is that there's no question that they simply didn't see what was coming. Since we've started we've made movies in the US, UK, Ireland, and we're doing a picture in South Africa. We're global - Hammer was the plucky Brit in the '70s.

Interview: Becky Reed

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