As our regular readers will be aware, we’ve been getting properly excited about The Ghoul for some time. Now our excitement levels have reached a new level: the writer/director of the film, Gareth Tunley, has been kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
Written and directed by Gareth, the cast of the psychological thriller includes a comprehensive cross section of The Velvet Onion family: Tom Meeten, Alice Lowe, Dan Skinner, Rufus Jones, Paul Kaye, Waen Shepherd, Rachel Stubbings, Sean Reynard and Geoffrey McGivern all feature.
As you can probably tell from our recent review of the film, we think The Ghoul is flipping marvellous, so having the opportunity to speak to Gareth about its production was a real privilege (even if he’s not always entirely serious…).
TVO: Where did the idea for The Ghoul come from?
Gareth: Hmmm…difficult to trace. About ten years ago the first bits of it started to float around my increasingly addled brain. At one point I actually had bits of paper with the story beats on them on my wall, a bit like the Coulson character in the movie. Or a very organised, very boring serial killer.
Making the film has been a real labour of love; how long have you been working on it?
Tom Meeten and producer Jack Guttman came on board late 2013, so almost three goddamned years. Good job I didn’t lose the hard drive with all the footage on it in that hillbilly poker game.
How did you decide who to cast?
I knew I needed someone incredibly versatile and resourceful to play the lead role. So I asked Tom Meeten if he knew anyone. Boom boom! Seriously: I knew Tom would be able to do it but even I didn’t know he’d be as good as he is – he’s brilliant in this film.
For the main roles we carefully considered people we knew, then put feelers out for parts we couldn’t cast with people we knew. But there was often a link of some kind, or else I think the answer would have been a ‘no’ to such a small film. Tom, as producer, was key in the casting process and spent ages pondering who’d be right for which part and juggling people’s schedules, while I ate Jaffa Cakes and panicked.
What convinced you that Tom could perform a non-comedy part?
I didn’t need much convincing. Me and Tom did a short called The Baron just before this which is pretty broad, but by working with someone that closely you learn how much you can trust them. Tom gives you everything you need and more for the edit, which is all you can ask of a screen actor.
I first met Tom in the late 90s when he was wrapped in bin liner in a pub basement getting yelled at by Steve Oram. This was part of a comedy act, I hasten to add, not some sort of distressing psychotic incident. I’ve seen him do incredible physical, sometimes even quite dangerous live stuff since. So I had no doubt he’d be absolutely fearless and committed, which he was – and then some.
Do you have a shorthand for working with this team, given you’ve all worked together before?
They say 90% of directing is casting, so it was mainly just good to have a cast I could trust to deliver. Beyond that the only ‘shorthand’ is that they know how to interpret (ignore) my impossibly cryptic directions: “Play it sad but happy; do it fast, but in a slow way; do it quiet, but as though it’s loud” etc etc.
The cast brought a lot to the roles. Alice Lowe goes from icy femme to ordinary woman in this film; Rufus Jones gives a performance that starts out old school charming then just keeps getting more and more frenetic; Geoff McGivern is funnier than I’d ever imagined that part to be, while Paul Kaye (who turned up completely spaced out from a night shoot the night before) makes what was kinda-sorta meant to be a funny little storytelling scene into something heavy and spiritual. Too many others to mention, but they were all great.
As the writer, director and co-producer – and as someone who also acts, how easy was it handing the roles over to other people to perform?
Well I couldn’t have played any of these roles myself, but having been an actor helps you to have some empathy for what it’s like when there’s a camera pointing at you and you hear someone yell “action”. There are a million fiddly reasons that a take might not go well from a performer’s point of view, and having some acting experience helps you to appreciate that.
We’ve heard that everyone ended up mucking in to help get the film made. Why do you think everyone was prepared to go the extra mile?
Much as it pains me to say anything nice about anyone I think this is just a bunch of very nice, very professional people. I think when they decide to do something they’re committed to it, through thick or thin.
What was the brief to Waen Shepherd for creating the music and how did the process work?
Waen is a genius and a gent. Having said that he clearly has an orchestra tied up in an abandoned warehouse somewhere, as there’s no way he got all those amazing sounds out of a computer – as he unconvincingly claims.
There was sometimes a quite specific brief; for the opening credits sequence, for instance, I played Waen everything from God Speed You Black Emperor to Angelo Badalementi. Then Waen would go off and come up with something completely unique.
Other times Waen would just give me a load of rough drafts of things inspired by very early cuts of the movie, and I would use them to inspire the edit as it went forwards.
Sometimes I’d cut up his tracks and re-splice them together into clumsy Frankenstein hybrids – to Waen’s horror (although he was very nice about it, as is his way). Then Waen would do a proper re-versioning based partly on the mental butcher’s job I’d done.
Beyond that I’ve no idea how Waen does what he does. Witchcraft and sorcery, I suspect. The range and depth of the score is one of the main things I like about the film and it has had an amazing response so far.
Did you always intend to move behind the camera?
Directing and writing were always the main ambition but I am currently available for acting roles. In fact ‘available’ is listed as a “skill” on my acting CV along with ‘horse riding’ and ‘stage fighting’.
You’ve world with Ben Wheatley; what would you say you’ve learned from him?
Ben’s a massive inspiration and gave some Ghoulish notes toward the end of our edit which were very useful – and comforting, in that he didn’t urge me to bury it in concrete. The main thing was that long before his first feature he was just getting on and making stuff, one after another after another – that was the principle thing.
Then when Down Terrace (which I was in briefly) came along it had a massive galvanising effect. I saw it and thought, “Holy shit, this is a properly brilliant film, how the hell did he do it?” That film was definitely a leaping off point, in terms of having a practical model for getting a film done on this scale. I’ve heard rumours he’s made a couple of films since then as well, but can’t confirm that.
Do you prefer comedy or non-comedy projects?
I love doing both. We had a great laugh on The Ghoul despite it being all serious and everyfink.
What have you done that you’re most proud of?
I’m very pleased with The Ghoul. Beyond that there was an Edinburgh show once that went so badly one night I had to leave the venue during my own show to buy a round of drinks for the audience. I wish I was kidding. Now that’s how to pull a room around.
Why do you think the group of people we write about on TVO choose to work together so often?
I think it’s evident there was some sort of nightmarish secret experiment on children in the 80s, the effects of which are only just becoming apparent.
And finally, what’s next for you?
I am working on something so top secret that if I told you we would be instantly vapourised along with everyone reading this, so I’ll keep schtum for now.
Big thanks to Gareth for taking the time to answer our questions; we wish him and the team the best of luck with the film. We’ll keep you posted as/when we hear of any public screenings of The Ghoul, but to tide you over, here’s the teaser (which is pretty awesome in its own right):