Eden Lake, which opens in the UK today, is the most compelling and provocative British horror thriller I've seen in a long while, although it's definitely not for anyone of a nervous disposition. Or scared of kids. The director is James Watkins, co-writer of My Little Eye and Gone, as well as the forthcoming The Descent 2. Here's the first part of my interview with Watkins who makes his directorial debut with Eden Lake. Part two, which deals with the film's controversial ending as well as The Descent 2, will be along later.
Was this written for you to direct?
It was very much written to direct. I had a deal with Working Title and I had one opt out and this was it, and I went to [WT head honcho] Tim Bevan and said there’s this idea that I want to do and it was sort of below their radar, my grubby little film, so I was able to take it to other people and I took it to Christian Coulson, who produced The Descent. And Christian read the script and phoned me up that afternoon having just read it. He said, I love it, which is pretty unheard of in the film business for someone to respond that quickly. Before he read it I told him, here’s the deal, I want to direct. And I was very open to where that might go and how that might go. I was thinking maybe this is me, my credit card, my camcorder and my cousin, let’s do it for nothing kind of thing. And Christian got involved and he saw potential in it and thought maybe we could make this properly and get it properly financed and so he said let’s make a couple of shorts. Firstly, as a development tool it was helpful for me and my learning, but also so that when went to financiers and you say Here’s the script and they say Who’s directing? [And you say] it’s the writer. Faces fall. So we got to a position where we could say, Here’s a DVD of seven minutes of the film, have a look. I was incredibly lucky because Christian fought for me and believed in me. People are weirdly resistant to writers wanting to direct. It’s such a directors business and writers are so badly perceived, generally.
I remember talking to one screenwriter who said that people don’t want him to direct. They like him in the box marked “writer”.
It’s out of their comfort zone, they want him in that writer box. So I strove really hard to get myself out of the box and in terms of making the film what I didn’t want, because I’d heard it so many times when a writer directs, even in the theatre, they go, He’s a good writer but somebody else should have directed it. And it’s niggled me for years and years and years, so I didn’t want to make a writerly film, one of those ones that’s two people talking in a room, I wanted a spare, muscular, tense thriller, stripped down. That’s kind of what I’m interested in aesthetically as a filmgoer and a filmmaker but politically I was really aware of that. Let’s make a film that people think It’s directed.
Let’s talk about the film’s genesis. I’ve heard it classed as hoodie horror…
Not a word I use.
… but it’s at the forefront of this wave of movies with evil kids in it. But clearly you wrote this a while ago.
Of course. That’s what’s really interesting when you get hysterical headlines or reactions, oh you’re just jumping on the bandwagon of tabloid headlines and you forgot how long it takes to make a movie. I was writing this three years ago. I didn’t have any direct experience of being beaten up or anything like that. I think I thought there was something in the ether, this powder keg of this sense of disconnect between adults and kids and youth and this sense of a fear and sense of a threat and do they ever match up. I just though those were interesting issues but at the same time I wanted to write a hard, muscular genre horror thriller and glance at them — it’s not a social realist Ken Loach film. I’m trying to walk a line and make a film that works as a genre film but also something that has a little bit more resonance.
It’s interesting that horror doesn’t tackle these kind of issues, the monster is almost always supernatural.
Well that really interested me. I thought why don’t we have a horror film, back to those films from the early 70s, where the horror is from within, the horror is unavoidable, where you leave the cinema and the horror lingers. One thing I’ve discovered is its relatively easy to create a jump in the cinema through a card cut or a pump of music, but ultimately that’s not that satisfying. For me, the best horror films are the ones where you leave the cinema and the horror stays with you and you can’t quite shake it off, it slightly gets into your bones, and I think by making a film that has some degree of reality plays into that.
What horror films are you talking about specifically?
Well the one that came into my head as I was talking was the original The Vanishing which really kind of scared the hell out of me, but in terms of the 70s stuff, survival thrillers like Deliverance, Straw Dogs, that whole 70s cinema of queasiness, that sense of uncertainty that informed that cinema I find quite interesting, you’re watching a film and you’re not quite sure where it’s going or what side it’s taking, and for me that’s kind of interesting.
You made a couple of shorts prior to filming.
The first short I tried to take the film into a standalone piece condensing it and it didn’t really work, partly because one of things about Eden Lake or a long form project is you can take your time and let the sense of dread build. In a short film you’ve got one hit on the hammer. A lot of people develop into making feature films from shorts, I haven’t, I’ve developed from writing feature films and so I find the short form difficult. The second one we just did an extract from the film, we did the torture scene and chase scene and that was in many ways a technical exercise, shooting in a circle, over three days, keeping up the performance levels and the intensity, so I learnt an enormous amount about the filmmaking process but once you can learn those skills, like Orson Welles and his train set, there’s a lot of mystification that directors do. I’ve always raged against this, it’s just another form of storytelling with different tools, and I think if you can focus on telling the story, there’s a lot of very capable people around who can help you with lenses. I’ve always said that writers start with a blank page and that’s an act of creation and directors have a script and that’s an act of interpretation. For my money creation is more difficult. Working with actors was the one big one, that was a new experience but again Christian would say, as a writer you’re privileged because you fall back on the same things of character, motivation.
Did making those shorts inform the final screenplay?
The first one was a bit more abstract, it was like an arthouse French film and the kids weren’t scary. The kids were a little bit younger, couple of more stagey school kids, so I decided not to go that route. The kids were much more withheld, in many ways, but I realised that on the page you could keep them metaphorically in the shadows, but onscreen where things are shown, you had to show them. So the rewrite after that was rewriting the gang, to bring them forward, differentiating them, trying to have a sense of the dynamic within the gang, the power relations and the peer pressures, and the whole process of making the film has been bringing the gang more centre stage and spending more time with them.
Dealing with kids is always tricky but especially in terms of having kids kill and kids being killed…
The two taboos. Killing children and having children commits acts of violence are two massive taboos and sure that’s going to upset some people and the film has strong reactions, both ways, fortunately not all bad. I’ve had people [say] You’re a sick bastard and weirdly I’ve had people say you should show your film in schools. It’s a troubling issue, if you can't be thought provoking within the context of a horror film where can you be.
In terms of writing and filming, did you have a line in terms of what you could and couldn’t show regarding the kids.
Many times we were quite restrained, for example, the little boy burning. Because it was a stunt, I shot it on two cameras and one of them was on a long lens and it was a midshot and I didn’t use that all, I kept it just glimpsed in the background. There were lots of case, even in the torture sequence [where] I’m focusing much more on the reactions of the kids than actually what’s happening, and you’re seeing them look scared and be sick and seeing their hands quivering. I very much wanted to show the consequences of violence as much as the violence itself and to replicate that visceral sense within the audience. Any experience I’ve ever had in my life of violence has been queasy and left me feeling sick and horrible and unpleasant and violence is nasty and I wanted to hopefully reconnect the audience with that experience and that nastiness.