That old Black magic 0

by Joe Utichi for The Sunday Times Culture Magazine

In the dying months of 2010, on a sound stage at Pinewood Studios, the boy who was Harry Potter is in the process of proving he has more to offer. There are two sides to Daniel Radcliffe on the set of this new film. The first is in front of the camera: pensive, still, silent. Radcliffe’s Arthur is a desperate man, still beside himself with grief at the loss of his wife, adrift in a creepy village itself all too familiar with death. Off screen, he is alive; high on the atmosphere of the set, to be found gossiping with the crew or reading aloud from a copy of The Timewaster Letters, Robert Popper’s zany correspondence with ever-patient department stores and industry associations. For Radcliffe, the attitude is as important as the acting. “I’ve seen film sets where the actors are playing up and they’re miserable,” he says. “I think you have a responsibility, as a lead actor, to be leading with energy as much as you can. I love my job and, generally speaking, I’m always happy on set.”

The jovial atmosphere adds to the sense that there’s a good horror film being mined from the pages of Susan Hill’s classic ghost story. The Woman in Black has had some kind of life in every medium going since it was first published in 1983, but perhaps it is best known for its time in the theatre. Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation has been terrifying audiences for longer than Radcliffe has been alive, and is the West End’s second longest-running play, after The Mousetrap. This fresh iteration comes under the auspices of the recently revived Hammer Films brand, in the charge of the director James Watkins and the screenwriter Jane Goldman.

It’s an unlikely trio of collaborators — Radcliffe had starred in five of the world’s highest-grossing blockbusters before either Watkins or Goldman had their first credits as director and screenwriter — but they have become a surprisingly strong unit. All three are turning the volume down. Just as Radcliffe is keen to loosen the shackles of Potter’s noisy blockbusters, so Watkins is out to show there’s more to his directing style than the impressively bloody “hoodie horror” of his debut, Eden Lake. Goldman, meanwhile, is stepping away from her frequent collaborator Matthew Vaughn for the first time. Their work is more at home in the big-budget realms of epic fantasy and comic-book action. “I’d just come off Kick-Ass, a movie with a lot of showy dialogue, to the point that some of it ended up on T-shirts at French Connection,” Goldman remembers of her head space during early drafts of The Woman in Black. “Doing this — in which, for 20 minutes, there’s no dialogue at all — was quite a leap.”

Her taut 93 pages tell the story of Arthur Kipps, a bereaved single father dispatched to the remote village of Crythin Gifford to tend to a dishevelled estate. As the local children start to die in strange circumstances, and Arthur witnesses a ghostly figure dressed all in black, he is forced to confront the village’s dark past and his own tortured grief. Goldman’s script has been refined by the collaboration with Watkins. They have kept the focus on Kipps, trimming several flashback sequences that told the tragic life story of the titular woman.

The change meant finding an actor who could hold the film largely on his own, and their symbiotic collaboration meant they even had the same couple of names in mind. Radcliffe’s wasn’t one of them at first, but out of their discussions, his name came up. “James and I had a really similar reaction,” Goldman remembers. “It was slightly out-there, but we were both struck by the brilliance of the idea.” Watkins met Radcliffe in Los Angeles. “We looked each other in the eye, in that way you do with lead actors, where they’re sounding you out and you’re sounding them out. And I was absolutely convinced that he and I wanted to make the same film.”

Radcliffe’s casting was accompanied by the spirited naysaying of those convinced the 22-year-old had no business playing a father, especially having just changed out of his Hogwarts uniform. These were, of course, the same voices that had complained, in the early days of Potter, that Radcliffe would soon grow too old for the role.

Kipps is described as being 27 in the screenplay. “But actually, for the era, 22 is completely accurate for the age of someone in his career position, and to have been married with one young child,” Goldman says. If anything, making Kipps slightly younger deepens the tragedy of his char­acter and strengthens the fear he takes to Crythin Gifford. “It brings an entire other layer to it, and it’s just one of those ideas I wish I could claim as my own.”

Having lived with patronising criticisms since the age of 11, Radcliffe takes them in his stride. “Taking risks is how you prove to people that you’re ­prepared to take slightly more extreme steps than perhaps most actors would have to,” he says, suggesting an awareness that the risk isn’t in the work itself, but in how people receive it. Later, he says: “If it goes well, it will be a testament to hard work and persistence.” He happens to be discussing his plans to take off for Broadway, for the musical revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (which occupied most of his 2011 and by all accounts went very well indeed), but he could just as easily have been talking about any of his endeavours. He is committed to paying back the credit extended when he spent 10 years sharing the screen with some of Britain’s finest actors. “I’m proud of Potter,” he says. “But I have to prove to people that I’m serious about this.”

Channelling the quiet mourning of Kipps is a fresh challenge because of the limited dialogue. Radcliffe is used to a world that breathes exposition, he explains. “In Potter, you have to be more demonstrative of everything that’s going on around you. I hesitate to use the term ‘spoon-feed’, but you have to let everyone know where your character is at any given stage, in no uncertain terms. Here, there are moments when you shouldn’t be sure what Arthur’s thinking. You know it’s probably not happy thoughts, but you’re not sure exactly why, or what he’s going through at particular moments. For me, it’s a lot more fun, really. Leaving people wondering is a lot more interesting.”

Tortured characters are becoming Radcliffe’s stock in trade, though a few minutes in his company is enough to confirm how much performance goes into that. He simply stamps his jovial personality into submission as soon as the cameras roll. “I’m not ‘method’. I have no method, really, whatsoever. But it’s all internalised and almost insidiously withheld. I’m not one of these actors who feel they have to live every moment in the character. To be honest, I think that’s absolute rubbish. If a director comes up to you and says he’s not sure about something, and your answer is ‘Well, there’s no argument, because I am the character’, then you sort of leave no room for creativity. You’re basically saying you’re the most creative person there, which is rarely true.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t identify at all with the parts he plays. “My mind certainly has a capacity for melodrama,” he admits. “I can see the Greek tragedy in any event. I think everyone can associate with loneliness, and that’s definitely something I’m drawn to.” On set, Watkins is focused on tapping into that very human connection, to make it scary. “Jane’s script had these wonderful thematic values — the sense of loss Arthur feels and the very relatable emotions of parents’ deepest fears,” he says. “I wanted to let those breathe while remembering that, ultimately, this is a haunted-house film, and that’s how it should work.”

Now the film is ready, Radcliffe feels confident about what he and Watkins and Goldman have achieved. “On the surface, it’s a simple story, but those are the best, because you can layer them with whatever themes and textures you want,” he says. “It’s not a big, showy horror film, but it certainly does the job and scares you.”

The real test, Watkins says, will be showing it to audiences: “When you’re sitting watching a room full of people, and you can feel them jump and twitch, and you know they’re under the spell of the film — at that point, there’s a sense of satisfaction to the whole process.”   

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