Exclusive Interview: Borley Rectory -
with Ashley Thorpe, Reece Shearsmith, Jonathan Rigby and Julian Sands
By Andreas Charalambous - 15th November 2014
In my efforts to stay up to speed with what is happening in the independent horror scene, I had been trawling through various crowd-funding sites to see if there were any current productions that would raise my excitement – and the odd monetary pledge on behalf of WeHeartHorror.com.
It appeared to be my lucky day as I quickly came across a campaign that just about ticked every box going, and got me very excited indeed. It was also no surprise that this particular campaign had smashed its funding target within a week of launch! Yes, this seemed like a very special project indeed.
An Intriguing Narrative – Check!
Talented Cast – Check!
Brilliant Vision – Check!
The production in question is Borley Rectory – based on the case of reputedly the most haunted house in England - starring great British talents such as Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen, Psychoville, Inside No 9), Nicholas Vince (Hellraiser, Nightbreed, M is for Metamorphosis), Jonathan Rigby (A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss, and various other works on British horror), and Julian Sands (Dexter, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Warlock); all brought together by the vision and direction of the equally-talented writer and director, Ashley Thorpe.
We caught up with Ashley Thorpe, and cast members Reece Shearsmith, Julian Sands and Jonathan Rigby, to talk about the production that has caught many horror-lovers’ imaginations.
We Heart Horror: Ashley, you certainly like to keep yourself busy working within the field of horror. For those not familiar with your work, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Ashley Thorpe: I’m a Devon-based animator whose work is inspired by what I believe to be the neglected aspects of British folklore and myth. Other than making animated horror shorts, I’m also an illustrator and have painted commissions for Headpress / Critical Vision, Little Shoppe of Horrors and Fangoria magazine, wherein I’m also a regular contributor as a writer, most recently providing the John Hurt interview for issue 336.
I’ve also dabbled in radio having provided the scripts for The Demon Huntsman and Dead Man’s Shoes for the Glass Eye Pix old time radio venture Tales From Beyond the Pale. In between all that, and looking after my children, I occasionally sleep...but then come the dreams.
WHH: Like many from our generation, you discovered the story of the haunted Borley Rectory in the Usbourne Book of Ghosts, when you were a child. It must have really captured your imagination considering after all these years you are now making a part-animated documentary film based on the most haunted house in England. What really fascinated you about this particular story?
AT: I think it was that moniker ‘The Most Haunted House in England’ that really struck a chord. This wasn’t just ‘a’ haunting, it was ‘THE’ haunting. And being a visualist first and foremost, it was a story that was full of these wonderful gothic archetypal ghosts; the phantom Nun, the ghostly carriage, all that wonderful stuff. The book had the story broken down into a series of almost vignettes, little square pictures of the key happenings and so the
story stuck in my head almost like bullet points. It lurked there at the back of my mind for years, fermenting.
I don’t know why, but there’s also something very ‘lonely’ about the story of Borley Rectory. For me it evokes great melancholy. All these lives with holes in.
WHH: You have a very impressive cast attached. Reece Shearsmith and Jonathan Rigby were excited about the project through seeing your conceptual work. It must have been quite thrilling to assemble the very talented cast you now have?
AT: I have to constantly double check to make sure I’ve not made it up, actually! We have an extraordinary cast on board for Borley Rectory. And each and every one of them exactly the right person, exactly as I imagined them when I was storyboarding the piece. I think there’s just something about this story and perhaps something about the way that we’re approaching it that has just drawn people in. It’s not like I’m some lauded auteur - it’s the material. I think it’s a story we all want to see told and in such a way that really does the legend justice. The film really will be the sum of it’s collective enthusiasms I think.
WHH: And your extraordinary list of cast members became attached with this production in a variety of ways.
Reece, You wanted to become involved with Borley Rectory after seeing Ashley’s tweets online. As you are a huge fan of the genre, I imagine that you come across many aspiring horror projects through your social media. What set this one apart in that you wanted to get involved?
Reece Shearsmith: It was the combination of the subject matter and the way Ashley wanted to render the story. His beautiful ethereal animation seemed to suit the material perfectly; I felt he had a very sure and confident vision for the piece.
WHH: And what about yourself Jonathan?
Jonathan Rigby: Well, it wasn't a hard decision. I just had to look at Ashley Thorpe's previous work, all of it sumptuous and imaginative in equal measure. Then I had to factor in the allure of the Borley story and that was that. In fact, given that I was already familiar with Ashley's style, the decision took all of a milli-second.
WHH: And Julian – What was it that attracted you to this production?
Julian Sands: I was most impressed with Ashley’s work and intrigued by the Borley Rectory story. It reminded me of the stories l had read as a child; Lord Halifax Ghost book, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood.
WHH: Does Borley Rectory make the perfect British ghost story?
AT: It’s archetypal really, isn’t it? Or, it’s become that way. The fascinating thing about the story of Borley Rectory is that it’s a delicious blend of old school gothic with what was then the emergence of a new scientific way of investigating the paranormal. Harry Price was the first ‘ghosthunter’ in many ways and he knew how to work a crowd, so it’s a lovely blend of gothic archetypes, science and duplicity. You can absolutely see the story's influence on literature throughout the 20th Century, especially with things like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and then something like Richard Matheson’s Hell House. They all owe a debt to Borley.
RS: I think there is so much speculation surrounding this story - even the question marks over the validity of Harry Price's methods - and conclusions - that the story of Borley Rectory will forever remain a fascinating puzzle. Like Jack the Ripper, we will never have definitive answers, so that only adds to the mythology that surrounds the story.
JR: I think the Borley saga is a fascinating one, ripe for the film representation that has so far - mysteriously - eluded it. As Ashley already mentioned, it was an inspiration for Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House, showing that beyond its perfectly British credentials it can resonate internationally too. Just as with Harry Price himself, there are so many question marks and puzzles and enigmas floating around it that it really is the perfect ghost story, and one with so many permutations - at least as many as the procession of ecclesiastical tenants who moved in and then rapidly moved out!
WHH: Jonathan - As a film historian and through your past involvement with various projects and productions, it is clear that you have a strong appetite for the horror genre. Do you enjoy grounding your non-acting work around horror?
JR: I've been fascinated by horror, particularly Gothic horror, from an unhealthily early age so I'm very happy, 40 years on, to be covering this massively fascinating field in greater depth than was possible back then. There's always something new to discover; it really is rich and inexhaustible terrain. I think you're asking whether I'm happy to focus on the one genre and to be identified with it. Well, I'm interested in all aspects of film so I try to take a wide-angle view in everything I write. In fact, one of these days I'd like to write a book about British comedy. But if I'm 'typecast', that's fine by me.
WHH: Reece, Jonathan and Julian – Could you tell us a little about the roles you play in Borley Rectory?
JR: I play the role of Harry Price, who was renowned as Britain's premier ghost hunter throughout the 1930s and 40s but he was quite an ambiguous figure. He was a great debunker of fraudulent practitioners yet a question mark hovers over him to this day: was he too capable of being fraudulent from time to time, or at least, shall we say, somewhat 'selective' with his data? Maintaining this ambiguity is the real challenge and it's the kind that actors always relish. Also, he was a master self-publicist, with a non-scientific flamboyance that makes him a showy character as well as an enigmatic one. He's an iconic figure really, and no actor is likely to turn up his nose at one of them.
WHH: Julian – you play the role of narrator. Did you carry out any special preparation in becoming familiar with the story of the Borley Rectory hauntings?
JS: To play the narrator, the main preparation was to become familiar with your writing and work and to be in good voice. In order to fulfill the director's expectations. l have subsequently visited Borley and seen the site of the Rectory.
WHH: You have played a variety of roles across many genres, throughout your career. Do you enjoy working within the horror genre?
JS: l don’t enjoy the horror genre any more than other genres, but what l look for in a project is originality, intelligence and creative merit. Having said that, there is always something compelling and scintillating about a well-conceived horror film.
WHH: And Reece - You have played a variety of roles throughout your career. You played quite unique roles in The Widower and A Field in England, amongst many others. Can you tell us a little about the role you play here?
RS: The character of V.C. Wall is rather mysterious in real life. There is very little known about him, but he was in fact the catalyst that brought Borley Rectory to the attention of Harry Price. I think a lurid mixture of sensationalist journalism and genuine intrigue probably drew him to investigate the haunting. He obviously knew a good story lay within the walls of Borley Rectory.
WHH: Were there any particular challenges in playing this role?
RS: The only challenges were technical. The whole thing was done on green screen and so very little of the "reality" of the surroundings actually existed whilst we were filming. That becomes it’s own hurdle. But I approached playing the part like any other.
WHH: Ashley - You began putting plans together in making Borley Rectory. What was the catalyst, and can you tell us a little about the process and any hurdles you had to overcome?
AT: Oh, the hurdles! Ha ha. Well, the catalyst was actually when the project - which was a lot less ambitious than it is now - was turned down for a local arts grant. I took it away and completely re-wrote it and just went to town on it, putting everything in there that I wanted to see and explore. When Glass Eye Pix helped facilitate Julian Sands’ narration, this was a contributing factor because from that point on there was no way back. We had something tangible, a voice in the dark, all we needed now was pictures!
Sourcing money was and is always the hard thing. This project realistically should cost at least £20K to make. It’s a half hour animated film with a tiny production crew. It’s an immense amount of work and I think there’s a tendency to overlook that basic fact; that this is not live action. After we’ve shot a scene there subsequently follows months of work, not just an edit and a grade, but a frame-by-frame obsessive process. We had great support last year and made enough to get started, once we’d aligned all those busy schedules, and now I feel like we’re flying!
WHH: You recently began a crowd-funding campaign to raise the funds to complete the shooting of Borley Rectory, which has proven to be a storming success. It’s quite uncommon to see a crowd-funding target smashed within a week of the campaign going live. Did you expect to get the response from the public that you did?
AT: No, but I was very happy! Absolutely over the moon by the response. In response we’ve rolled out a number of stretch goals and a number of new perks including a handmade doll of the phantom nun, a prop used by Reece and a number of incredible and exclusive Hellraiser-related items. We’ve raised enough to continue but there’s still plenty of time to really push our budget and help make something truly wonderful.
WHH: Reece mentioned acting in front of the green screen, with much of the surrounding environment to be added later. Could you speak a little about the animated aspects of Borley Rectory?
AT: Yes, it’s a culmination of all of my previous techniques, really. The majority of it is rotoscoped, a mix of photography and digital painting against digitally painted backgrounds. There are a few shots that are based upon actual quite recognisable shots of the rectory and the interiors are planned via a dimension accurate 3D model built for us by Double Farley Studios in New Zealand. It’s been RSI inducing but a very rewarding process actually, as I wanted to make something that had the textural qualities of both ghost photography but also vintage film (circa 1930s) and I didn’t want to just resort to slapping a load of Adobe filters on it. So I’ve been splitting layers and running them at different focal lengths, each slightly more blurred to give many of the shots that strange yet lovely look that portraits from the 1920s had. Incredibly laborious but hell, it’s a labour of love.
WHH: Could you share with our readers how the production is currently going?
AT: I could but I’d have to kill you! No, it’s going very well. We shot a great deal of the key scenes in May, so I have months of animating ahead of me including some sync scenes with Reece and Jonathan. So while I animate myself into a nervous wreck, we’re hoping that the campaign will raise enough to facilitate the shooting of the remainder and ease us towards completion. The next major scene we’ll be shooting is the infamous séance led by Price.
WHH: Finally, a question for you all – What is you favourite horror film / type of horror film?
RS: It's impossible to name a favourite - but more often than not, I enjoy films that tell ghost stories - quite fitting in light of Borley - as they often can be the most horrifying. Less is always more - I love The Haunting and The Legend of Hell House, which both include terrifying buildings stuffed with demonic spirits. I don't believe in ghosts, but I will be forever fascinated by them.
JS: My favorite horror film is probably Rosemary's Baby. l tend to prefer psychological atmospheric films like The Others or Fall Of The House of Usher or Blair Witch Project to slash and gore films. Not a big fan of these. l enjoyed Hammer Horror films immensely growing up.
JR: My favourite horror film is likely to vary from week-to-week, or even day-to-day! For Gothic you can't do better than the original Hammer version of Dracula. For historical horror Witchfinder General is hard to beat. For what's now called folk horror, Blood on Satan's Claw is maybe the classic in the, ahem, field. I love the Italian luridness of things like L'orribile Segreto del Dr Hichcock and the frozen Belgian erotica of Daughters of Darkness. I have a low tolerance for zombies but Night of the Living Dead, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue and Zombie Flesh Eaters are all marvelous films. And The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a real masterpiece. I've answered at length, but in fact this is an unanswerable question - though of course I'm asked it all the time!
AT: Ooh, difficult one! I’m with Jonathan on this. I have so many and all for different reasons. I’m a huge fan of Hammer horror, the classic Universal monster series and I also love the expressionist terrors such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Hands of Orlac and of course Nosferatu. If I had to choose one however, it would have to be Alien. Primarily because of the effect it had upon me when I first saw it as a young lad; that collision of blue collar space, Giger’s gothic and all that rich symbolism just knocked me for six. Giger’s extraordinary imagery felt like some evolutionary trespass. Erotic. Horrific. I’m still obsessed by it. Ok, I’m sat here wearing a Nostromo crew jacket!
If you would like to contribute to the campaign, bag one of the excellent perks on offer, or to find out more information on Borley Rectory, please click here: http://igg.me/at/BorleyRectoryReturns/x/262667
Indiegogo Campaign ends on 15th December 2014.
Also, check out the videos below, courtesy of Carrion Films.