|EEL MARSH HOUSE AND A GLIMPSE AT LOCATIONS BEYOND|
For Watkins, crafting a modern period film was an intriguing contradiction and one he wanted to use to his visual advantage. “When people ask me what the time period is in which the film is set, I’m very evasive. I see this film in a way akin to a Tim Burton film. It’s a story about a guy who gets on a train and lands in this other world of sorts.”
At the center of this ‘other world’ is a house that becomes a key character in the film. Eel Marsh House – the former home of Kipps’ deceased client, and the location where he discovers the Woman in Black – was an important focus of the production’s location and production design.
“We scouted all over the country to find the right exterior location,” notes Watkins.
“We ultimately found this beautiful house in Peterborough which has a wonderful gothic sense without being too caricature.”
“It’s a very brooding house and seems to have a lot of mystery around it which is very cool,” adds Oakes.
Production designer Kave Quinn, whose past films include Layer Cake and Trainspotting, found it perfectly spooky: “It almost has eyes. It’s a Jacobean building with a gable at the front which gives it an incredible evil look.”
In defining the look of Eel Marsh House, Watkins was keen not to play to ghost house stereotypes. “I wanted it to have this sense of decay, but I didn’t want it to be a monochromatic cliché,” he says.
With Quinn, he sought instead to make use of a rich color palette, resulting in a decidedly more highly saturated look than convention would suggest. “We have these kinds of bruised colors,” continues Watkins. “The colors of decay and death: purples, blacks and rich, deep crimsons. I really wanted the sense of the beauty of the house to come through. At the same time, it’s a haunted house, it has to have nooks and crannies and crevices and dark spaces.”
Quinn sat down with Watkins to fine tune her designs for the interior which were based on a rough blueprint of the exterior (interior sets were then built on stages). “I gathered together loads of research materials on things like staircases and panelling,” says Quinn.
“Kave did wonders as a production designer,” compliments Watkins. “She really understood what I was trying to get at. We designed long corridors so I could have real depth in the frame in the Polanski sense of looking through doorways and half seeing things.”
Watkins continues - “A ghost story is what you can’t quite see – what’s in the corners of the frame and in the margins. That was something we built into the production design.
If there are blanks for the audience members’ imaginations to fill in, what they will dream up will almost always be scarier than anything we could show so we carefully designed the sets so it’s more about what you half see. There are moments when we look out a window and wonder ‘Is there something out there?’ because there’s just a glimpse. That’s terrifying and creepy, and creates a growing sense of danger.”
With Eel Marsh House’s exterior and interior fleshed out, the next order of business was to find a location for the village of Crythin Gifford. The search proved challenging. “Being that it’s the 21st Century, obviously anywhere we’d find would be full of cars and road signs and newer buildings that would need covering up,” explains Quinn. “We wanted to try and find somewhere that had almost been untouched by time. The village we found, Halton Gill, is right in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales (an upland area of Northern England). It hasn’t been over-developed, so all the houses are original from something like 400 years ago.”
“It is important that the village conveys a sense of isolation,” says Oakes. “With Halton Gill, we could play in terms of build and design in a way we couldn’t really do anywhere else.” Other key locations include Bluebell Railway in Sussex, which served as the railway location for the scenes bookending Kipps’ journey, and a remote marshland.
“Bluebell Railway was selected because the story requires working steam locomotives but we also had the need for more than one station and Bluebell enables us to travel from station A to station B,” notes Jackson.
The marshland leading up to Eel Marsh House is one of the more bleak images in the film. The marshland they found had the perfect look and feel, reinforced by the real-life dangers associated with the shooting location. “One of the locals told us that at a certain time of day the tide rises above your head within 10 minutes and if you go 10 paces out into the marsh you can lose your footing and be sucked under,” recalls Watkins. “That was quite chilling to hear and we used that bit of info in the film.”
Aside from choosing the right locations, much of the film’s atmosphere rested with lighting. “It’s as much about the lighting as anything,” notes Watkins.
Cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones (Snatch, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) says that the primary direction he got from Watkins to define the look of the film was one simple word: “contrast.” “We tried to light the sets with a single source of light only,” explains Maurice-Jones. “A lot of films will use a key light to light the face, a fill light to light any shadow that’s left, and a backlight to pick them out against the background. We tried to use light and shade to achieve that sense of contrast with just one light.”
Finally, the look of the film owes a great deal to the editorial process as editor Jon Harris explains. “James is great at coming up with ideas for things to pop in just to make it a little creepier,” says Harris. “It’s a very back-and-forth process between us. We’ll put things together and see what works and then if he’s still on the same set he can add something to it, or apply the idea to another scene.”
He continues: “We tried to achieve something akin to peripheral vision. Although I don’t believe in ghosts, whenever I go into an old house I find things moving in my peripheral vision. We’ve been talking a lot about how to achieve that on film, because you can try to make the audience look at one thing, but they’ll look wherever they want to.”
Watkins describes his relationship with Harris as incredibly collaborative. The pair worked together on Watkins’ feature debut, Eden Lake, as well as Harris’ directorial debut The Descent: Part 2, which Watkins co-wrote. “Jon was a big part of the constructing of the film pre-edit,” he reveals. “He shot Second Unit and was very much a part of the script collaboration process with me and Jane.”