Director James Watkins had a successful horror debut with Eden Lake in 2008 and returns with The Woman in Black next month. Starring Daniel Radcliffe and produced by Hammer, this period ghost story is based on the popular book and stage play.

During a recent chat with James Watkins we talked about, his creative input, working with Daniel Radcliffe, and his thoughts on psychological scares versus gore.

You had previously written and directed Eden Lake. Did you work with Jane Goldman on The Woman in Black script from the beginning or did they come to you after the script had been completed?

James Watkins: It was a bit of both. They sent me a script which I very much liked and wanted to do and we all started talking. When I came on board, Jane did the writing, but we kept developing the script and that collaboration continued right though the shooting and editing.

Jane was very much the screenwriter, but it was a constant process of evolving. She was always around on set and on the phone. The thing was continually changing and evolving into the edit. She’s a very smart woman and it was fantastic to be able to work with her.

Will the movie more closely resemble the book or the stage play?

James Watkins: The stage play is a very different thing, so Jane went back to the source material. The book is very much a classical ghost story, where the play is more of a theatrical piece using the various elements of the theater.

Many films rely on CGI to deliver scares. Is this mostly a practical film or did you rely heavily on CGI?

James Watkins: Yeah, as with every film nowadays there is CGI that you don’t necessarily see. This movie is set in the past, so there are a lot of things like removing telephone wires and satellite dishes. In terms of achieving the actual horror effects, it’s always scarier what you can achieve in the camera.

I prefer flesh and blood and I don’t like digitally created monsters particularly. They just don’t feel real to me, not that this movie is a monster movie. It is a ghost film about what you can’t quite see, or what you just catch a glimpse of in the corner of the eye or the edge of the frame.

I keep saying it, I said it all through the shoot, and I stand by it. What you can imagine is scarier than you can see, so if you can try to tap into that, you can tap into why ghost stories are successful. I’m not saying anything new, as this goes back to movies like Jaws and to Alien. The less you can see the better and it takes a degree of persistence to achieve that. Executives always say that more is more, but that’s bullshit. Less is more.

That’s one of the reasons I’m interested in seeing The Woman in Black. In Eden Lake I thought you did a great job of building tension and showing less at the start, where others may have just gone right into the killing/gore.

James Watkins: That’s really interesting because there is a really graphic scene in Eden Lake where someone gets burned. We shot a lot more footage of that, but if you get the tiniest glimpse in a wide shot, it is much more effective than something lingering.

I understand that Daniel Radcliffe was your first pick for this role. Why did you think he was a perfect fit for this movie?

James Watkins: I just thought Dan was a really interesting fit, especially after having met him. The key thing here is that Dan is not Harry Potter. Dan is a guy that wants to challenge himself and go in new directions and show people those new directions.

He really understood the material and we both saw it in the same way. We didn’t want the focus to only be on the scares, and needed the movie to have a heart and an emotional journey. That’s one thing I really responded to in Jane’s script. It is a properly elevated genre film in that sense. I think it really delivers in terms of scares and its ambitions are a tiny bit bigger than that.

Dan understood all of that. Maybe it’s just me, but I hate putting people in boxes and many have put Dan in a box. He’s a victim of his own success in that way and it’s hard for people to see him as something else. He can absolutely be something else.

The nice thing about the response we’ve had to the film is that people can’t believe it’s Daniel Radcliffe. He looks very different and the whole atmosphere and weight of his performance is very different. He takes it into a very different register and I think it’s an interesting challenge for him.

He must have been hungry to prove himself as well as an actor that could handle roles outside of Harry Potter.

James Watkins: Totally, he’s very hungry and he’s a total pleasure to work with. He’s fearless and wants to try things and push himself. He’s a young guy that wants to have a long career and is willing to try different things.

I think this is a gutsy move for him because of other roles he could have taken. Most actors in his position would have gone for another big franchise.

James Watkins: I think it’s easier to hide in a franchise. I think the part spoke to Dan and it’s interesting watching reactions to him. He has such a huge fan base, but there are also the people that have been skeptical. What’s very pleasing is the way people immerse themselves in his performance, leaving the baggage (good or bad) behind and just taking the performance at face value.

It’s interesting for you to talk about his huge fan base, because he does have this big built-in audience. On that topic, do you think this film was designed to appeal more toward the casual moviegoer/Harry Potter fan or will this appeal to fans of classic Hammer horror films just the same?

James Watkins: That’s a really good question. I hope it’s both and it just delivers. Breaking it down to its simplest… If you buy a ticket for a comedy you hope it to be funny. If you buy a ticket for a scary movie, you expect it to be scary. The feedback we’ve had thus far is that the film is very scary and it’s filled with dread and tension. That long sustained tension and deep scares are the more important scares for me.

It’s easy to make people jump and we have a lot of that in the movie, but the film delivers slow building, unsettling tension that really gets under your bones and into your skin. It doesn’t do it with gore or violence. It’s an accessible film that just plays on your mind.

Hopefully, it offers a delightfully vicarious thrill to both audiences, but at the same time can do so in an intelligent way. I think Dan can bring all of those audiences through. I’m not a marketeer though, so all I can do is buy into the story and make it the best I can make it and hope that people come along.


The Woman in Black will be released to theaters on February 3rd. To learn more about the movie, check out our previous coverage:

-TV Spot #3
-TV Spot #2
-Photo Gallery
-New Photo and TV Spot #1
-New Trailer
-Trailer and Motion Poster 
-UK Trailer 
-Quad Poster
-Teaser Trailer