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Interview with The Woman in Black: Angel of Death director Tom Harper

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Tom Harper has directed a large range of film and TV content, including Misfits, Peaky Blinders and The Borrowers - and he is only in his early 30s. On New Year's Day his most high profile project to date, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, was released in cinemas. I talked to him about what it is like to move from television to cinema, how his career has taken off, and the future of how movies are shot and viewed by audiences. 

You didn’t direct the first film, so how did you end up coming on board with The Woman in Black: Angel of Death? It must be interesting coming into what seems to becoming a series, whereas the first was directed as a one-off by a different director.

At first I wasn’t sure about it. At the end of the first film it felt like a complete thing so I thought ‘Why would you make another one?’ Then I heard Susan Hill’s idea about setting it forty years in the future with an entirely new set of characters and I thought actually that was a good idea. The ghost is fantastic, it clearly resonates with audiences, first with her novella and then with the stage play. Clearly she is a brilliant, vengeful ghost that connects with people. I wanted to learn more about it. I spoke to [screenwriter] Jon Croker who told me about the Second World War setting and the evacuees and I thought there was something very interesting about this. There’s something so nice about taking a group of evacuees to safety and then have them in a house where they are put in jeopardy.

The first film was a big success and a lot of people have speculated that Daniel Radcliffe’s name was largely behind the success. Does it worry you that without that big name this film may be harder to pitch to audiences?

Well, that’s a very good question. If you worry about those things you’d never make anything. You never know. You just have to make something to the best of your ability and hope it resonates with audiences.

This film has received the more restrictive 15 rating, whereas the first film the studio chose to cut in order to get a 12A and get younger audiences in there. Is this part of a deliberate aiming of the film to older audiences?

I think the BBFC is slightly tighter now than it was then, partly in response to the first Woman in Black. Personally I think that’s ridiculous as there is such immediate access to all sorts of content on the internet to anybody. Sure, I think the film is scarier, but compared to some there is no blood or gore or swearing or sex.  

I think the BBFC’s approach is now to consider the overall tone of a film more than individual parts. Do you think that’s an interesting way of viewing horror? Apparently it’s ‘Sustained threat’ that helped earn Angel of Death a 15 certificate.

Sure, but I think it’s an arbitrary thing to sit and make a decision about that with no specific criteria, I mean with sustained threat it’s.... well, my feeling is that the American system is much better where if your parents say you can go and see it then you can go and see it. Personally I’m about empowering people to make their own decisions.

I’m interested in the way the film was shot. The first movie was film on 35mm film, and I know you have worked with both digital and celluloid. I was interested you gave this film a distinct look compared to the first one. Was it your decision to shoot digitally with the Arri Alexa digital camera? Did you consider staying with 35mm?

Yes we did. Personally, however, I don’t think I’ll ever shoot on 35mm again, unless there is a very specific creative reason. I think technology has moved on. Basically I think there are some wonderful things about film but I think the advantages of working digitally have surpassed that, unless there is a very specific aesthetic reason for doing that. You are not limited to the amount of stock, there are lot more visual effects, cost wise. I think you can achieve some wonderful, wonderful things with digital and it’s getting better all the time.

There is a lot of publicity at the moment with 4K, both in terms of cinema projection and with TVs for the home. I believe Angel of Death was mastered in 2K? Do you think it’s a problem that there is a lack of 4K content or do you think this new obsession with a ‘K’ figure is perhaps being stretched out of proportion? Is it important to have something in the highest ‘K’ figure?

No I don’t, I definitely don’t. But I think it’s just one of the ongoing evolutions of technology. All these things make subtle differences and it is the combination of choices you make. I think one of the key things about making digital work aesthetically for me at the moment is actually about deteriorating the image rather than making it clear, like Peter Jackson shooting at 48 frames per second and that’s an artistic choice that he’s made, but for me I find it a little bit sharp. I massively admire him for making those choices but they are aesthetically, for me, not as pleasing. I think that’s partly to do with the fact that what we think is aesthetically pleasing is based on our upbringing and what we are used to and how we reconcile images, and what we have available from things like fashion and photography. I did shoot on film with The Scouting Book for Boys and I thought that looked beautiful.

Was that 35mm or 16?

That was 2-perf 35mm. But I look at it now and it feels dated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but a film made for £1 million now would not be shot on 35mm. You just wouldn’t do it. Which means that it feels from another time. But if you go to the early part of the century, around 2005 and before, everything was shot on film. As we get more and more used to higher resolution content I think we are gradually going in that direction and we will come to expect. But what we can’t really consider to be aesthetically pleasing now we will see as not good enough quality is my guess. But it’s all about where we sit in that evolution.

The Angel of Death did look quite filmic when you compare it to something like The Hobbit, which has that pin-sharp crystal-clear clarity. Angel of Death had more of a textured look which I feel suited the feel of the film.

Yes, well the DP would be a bit more informed about this than I am but together we used a lot of different ways to make that image feel more filmic. For example we used anamorphic Hawk lenses that really distort everything and you’ll see at the side of the frames they really bend round. It’s about distorting and degrading the image and make it more pleasing and give it that period feel at the same time giving you the freedom and flexibility of digital. Difusions, black frosts, added film grain.

It’s interesting you mention that, actually, as I grew up around Maldon in Essex and spent my summer holidays around Osea Island where the film was shot and it was amazing to see it in the film looking so grim and horrible, whereas my memories of it in real life are it being a nice sunny place. There must have been a lot of grading work involved to make it look so atmospheric?

Ah, wow! It was all shot in the daytime, for a start, and obviously it’s a great expansive space and there’s no way of lighting it. A DoP friend of mine once tried to light a big space like that from a boat and they just had the light moving around all the time, so it was all day-for-night and special effects with smoke and we built the island up.

At the London Film Festival I was lucky enough to see your film War Book and it was one of my favourite films at the festival. It was amazing how much tension you got from the confines of one room. It was chilling, like Angel of Death was chilling, but in different ways. Which did you shoot first? Was it hard to go from such different projects, with one a chamber piece and the other a bigger genre movie?

Ah man, it was massively different. What happened was that The Woman in Black was going to happen then it got pushed by six months and so I thought rather than sit about doing nothing I might as well make a film. I had this script by Jack Thorne, who I had worked with before and so we thought, fuck it we’re just going to make it. We had no money but steadily some money came in. We shot that first, even thought The Woman in Black sort of already happening. We had already cast Phoebe [Fox] in The Woman in Black so it was a great way to work with her and get to know her. Then we sort of tag-teamed it. We had a lot of the same crew who worked on The Woman in Black so I was able to strong-arm them into doing a freebie on War Book.

Do you know when it’s coming out?

We are talking about late spring next year. We’re at Rotterdam at the end of January, then a few more festivals and then hopefully after that.

Who’s distributing it?

We don’t know yet. We’re talking about some sort of clever or interesting strategy where we do screenings in old World War bunkers.

That’s interesting, like ‘event cinema’?

Yes, because it’s all set in one room and it is an unconventional film in many ways, it’s all about how you get someone to watch it. We’re thinking about ways we can create a buzz and publicity around it and get people to go and see it.

I was interested in how cinematic you made War Book, in a different way to the way The Woman in Black is cinematic. You’ve directed a lot of TV content and many people are saying TV is the new cinema. Do you find much of a difference, when you go from shooting a TV episode for Channel 4 to directing a big film like The Woman in Black? Is there still a big difference or is the gap lessening?

I think the gap is lessening. There are still definitely differences.

If you look at something like This is England 86 or Jack Thorne's drama Glue, which could be taken as an eight-hour movie, they all look very cinematic. Could it be that when audiences go into cinemas their expectations are going up because they are now so used to seeing such great content at home?

Yes, I think that’s a really really good point. I think there is definitely a convergence. I went to see The Godfather the other day, they did a rerun of it at the BFI and I actually thought that this sort of film is actually more likely to be made for TV today than the cinema. Ok, so that’s Copolla so he might still make it as a film or Fincher maybe, but that sort of drama is much more likely to be made for TV. And that’s great, it means you have so much more time to explore your characters. It’s character driven.

Do you have a preference between the mediums?

They’re different. I love working in both. I’m doing War & Peace at the moment.

That’s a lot of book to get through.

Yes, it is a lot of book to get through. Though to do that in a film – that’s really hard. It’s more suited to, like, ten hours. Well, I don’t know actually. The scripts are pretty good. It’s Andrew Davies and he's done most of the story. A lot of the philosophy and military tactics aren’t in there but most of the story is.

You are probably tired of people saying this but you are remarkably young for someone who has such an impressive CV. Do you think it is becoming easier or harder for young people to go into the industry and do what you are doing now?

I don’t really know. It’s always hard and you always need a bit of luck. It was hard for me until I got lucky. You try to carve out a path and you get lucky then take two steps back.

Did you ever think that it was just too hard?

Yeah, I nearly gave up. I made my film Cubs, my first short film that did well, but before that I made 10 short films, some were shit but some were decent, then I made some films that were pretty decent and I sent them everywhere and we got into some weird dance festival in Zurich. And then Cubs, which is definitely a better film but not that much better, just went everywhere and got into Sundance. And because it was at Sundance everyone thought ‘Ok, we want this in our festival.’ But it’s always hard.    

The Woman in Black: Angel of Death is in cinemas now. Watch the trailer below: 

 

 

 

 

 




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