With Ghost Stories, Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman have created one of the most uniquely compelling supernatural movies to come along in decades, but if you’re looking for precise answers to just how the duo have done so, I’m afraid I don’t have any answers for you there, readers. See, the best thing about Ghost Stories (which was adapted from their highly successful UK theatrical production) is that at a certain point, the story takes a brilliant left turn, and the secret of that reveal has been kept that way for years now (and this writer won’t be ruining it, either).
For those who may not have heard about the concept of Ghost Stories, it follows the skeptical Professor Goodman (Nyman), who has been given three cases of supernatural activity and must follow up on them to see if he can debunk the concept of an afterlife once and for all. And to say anything further would ruin all the great fun that awaits viewers when it arrives in theaters and on VOD on April 20th, courtesy of IFC Midnight.
Daily Dead sat down with both Nyman and Dyson while at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival earlier this week to speak with the co-writers and co-directors about the process of taking Ghost Stories from the stage to the screen, and we also discussed just how they’ve managed to keep certain aspects of their spook-filled tale under wraps for so long, and more.
It’s so great to chat with you both today. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not really into supernatural-themed films, but I loved this movie. There's a moment where it completely takes a turn, and I was just like, "What the hell's going on?" It's so hard to surprise genre fans these days, and I love that Ghost Stories does that in a really fun way. Congratulations, it’s so much fun.
Jeremy Dyson: Thank you so much.
Andy Nyman: Thank you, that's very kind, thank you.
I know this is something that you guys adapted from a stage play that was very successful for quite some time. I'd love to hear what it was about that production that made you realize that this would translate really well to the big screen?
Andy Nyman: You know what's funny, Heather, is that it wasn't really about that production, it was when we were writing it. We have loved horror our whole lives. We met when we were 15. It's one of the things that was our unifying experience, really, and so when we came to work together and write this, it was drenched with the things that we love about horror films. What are the scenes? What are the moments? What are the things that thrill us? We wrote a play that we would have wanted to see when we were 15, which is fundamentally exactly the same people we are now. We thought, "God, f—k, if we could go see a play, what would it be?" That's what we wrote. When we wrote it, we sort of knew, "This is a film, isn't it?" That's what was exciting. It was a film onstage.
Jeremy Dyson: Yeah, it was partly the moment you referred to, the structure of that was the same in the play. It felt like it was a cinematic idea. We also were quite disciplined about, "That's great, but we're doing a play. Let's do the play and focus on getting that right, and then we'll look at how we might turn it into a film." That's why it was over quite a lengthy period of time, where it grew and developed quite organically. We didn't force the process. We learned a lot from staging it as a play, that I think we were then able to take into the experience of putting it on screen.
Andy Nyman: I can't move away from what you've said, though, because honestly, it's so thrilling to hear that, because that's what we love, is that idea that as an audience you're sitting there and suddenly it's all bets are off. You just think, "What? Stop. What?" It's so exciting to hear that. What is so exciting is—again, with no spoilers here—that is the experience of the person in the film. That's what your protagonist is going through.
When I think about the films that have really hit me, and touched me, and shaped me, the one that springs to mind more than any is Deep Red. You are doing exactly the same thing that your protagonist is, which is to hang on, because you know you've seen something that doesn't add up. It's very Hitchcockian. "What is it?" You as an audience are doing the same thing. Something just doesn't quite feel right. "What is it?" It's not until you get to the end that it's like, "My God, of course." I'm not talking about our own work now, I'm talking about those other things. To hear that, that it was an experience that you had, is just so exciting to know.
So, at what point was it like, "Okay, now we're ready to take this next step." How did that transition happen?
Jeremy Dyson: It went through a few stages. Because the play started off very small in the UK in a subsidized theater, where we staged it with not much money at all. It was only supposed to be a brief run of a few weeks, but then it was one of those "right time, right place" things, when suddenly there was this audience for it that was excited for it. Then it went into the West End. At that point, there was a lot of heat on it and it was making noise. Inevitably, we had approaches from Hollywood, who wanted to buy it as a property and develop it. That then forced us to think about what we wanted out of it. Fortunately for us, those deals didn't work out. It's very tempting to take those offers.
Andy Nyman: The truth is they didn't work out because we stopped them. Jeremy's being diplomatic. We went through negotiations because you sort of have to, that's the way the process works, unless you just say "no." You have to decide, weigh everything up, but it made us really decide what we wanted. What we wanted and what the negotiations really made us see was, "We want to do what we've done with the play," which was we wanted to make our film. If it wasn't going to work and it was going to die a death, we wanted that on our heads, rather than you go and see something that some studio or someone else has made, and you sort of think, "Why have they done that?" At least you think, "Well that didn't work, but it was ours," or, "That's worked brilliantly, and that was ours." We just sort of said "no" to everything.
Jeremy Dyson: Then that meant that we had to write the script on spec. Obviously, we're not going to take anyone's money if we want to do it our way, which was empowering, and obviously there's a challenge in that, but we wanted to do it that way. Then we wrote the script that we wanted to make, and then we went out to find the right people to make it with. Fortunately, our first choice of production company in the UK, Warp Films, who we greatly admire, that have made the most fantastic films over the past 10 to 15 years, they loved the script. They loved the project and wanted to make it.
When you're doing a live theatrical experience, you have to work within the confines of certain parameters. Were there freedoms that you were able to experience by doing this cinematically? Were you able to open up these ideas a little bit more?
Andy Nyman: We could obviously open them up visually, but it's interesting, that question, because one of the things that made the play really successful for an audience was that it felt limitless. You were seeing a kid driving through a forest on stage, and you were seeing a guy walking through a huge empty warehouse on stage. You were seeing all of these things that were in the film, but just done in a theatrical way. The designer, Jon Bausor, had the most amazing idea, and when we were writing the play, we tried to write, "Let's not worry about how we're going to have a car driving through woods on stage. We can't afford to do that." There's always a way. We just wanted to write in a way that felt utterly free.
Then, when we came to change that to the film, inevitably, there'd be some opening out of it visually, but it was really about looking at the script again, and opening out the ideas, and opening out more than the visuals in the shooting.
Jeremy Dyson: There's a paradox, that Andy was just saying, where you're actually freer on stage, because you could only sketch things in and the audience has to complete most of it in their imaginations, because that's what theater is. Whereas film is very, very literal. That is quite restricting, because you're fixing that. You don't have that escape valve of everyone imagining something slightly different. You have to show your version of it. We have to fix what that warehouse was, whereas on stage we had a few elements. We then had to actually go and find where we were going to film it and make it real. That's thrilling in itself.
The best thing is, I know this film has played a few festivals before SXSW, and the stage version existed for quite some time, but no one has really ruined the reveal after all these years. Is it refreshing and a sigh of relief to know that there's some really good secrets in this film that viewers are going to be able to experience organically once Ghost Stories is released?
Andy Nyman: In the play, at the end of the play there'd be an announcement that said, "Please keep the secrets." What's amazing is half a million people have seen the play around the world, probably more now, and now quite a few thousand people have already seen the film, and lots of critics have seen it and written reviews, but nobody's spoiled anything. That's really amazing, because we also hate spoilers. We hate that every trailer shows you everything. Every review tells you everything. It means that having someone tell you a really great story is a very precious thing. It's a really special experience, to go see a movie or a play, especially when you're paying for it, when you're investing your hard-earned money to go and see something, and take that time out. We love that. We think it's really important and special, especially when it's a mystery, to go in and think, "I don't really know what this is." Then, the journey is so much greater. We love it that no one's spoiling it. Yeah, long may that continue.
One of the cool things about this movie is the fact that it seems like an experience that's going to reward on multiple viewings. Is there an art to creating stories like that, where there are all these things that are in there, but you don't know what you're looking for in them yet? So, once you're done, you're like, "I want to go right back in and start pulling away all those different layers."
Jeremy Dyson: It was very conscious to us, and we absolutely wanted to do that. We did that with the play, because we love that ourselves. That's layering in the detail. It's not like we're the only people that have ever done that. It's because you love it in other things. My kids are huge Pixar fans, and they just love going hunting for the Easter eggs and finding all those little things. I've loved and treasured that since I was a kid. Yeah, we absolutely wanted to build that into what the story was.
Andy Nyman: Oh yeah. What you touch on as well is an interesting thing. There are a few films that when you get to the end of them, you realize watching it for a second time will be a dramatically different experience, because you're seeing it with fresh eyes. Not only that, we both love magic, conjuring stage magic, and there's a great thing within stage magic called dual reality, which is where an audience perceives one thing is happening, when actually it's something completely different happening. That's just the most powerful, powerful thing. It means when you finally reveal the secret, to be able to go back and unpick that, and see things that initially, in the dual reality, you thought "ABC" meant "ABC," but now you realize, "Holy shit, it means 'XYZ.' How did I not see that? It's so clear." That's a really exciting thing. We love the idea that audiences can go back and see it again.
Missed out on our previous SXSW 2018 coverage? Check here to catch up on all of our interviews and reviews from Austin!