SoSF: Special – Stephen Volk

30 10 2010

[Interview conducted by Ghost Appreciation Month, team member, Mark S. Deniz]


Stephen Volk


Stephen Volk is the creator/writer of ITV1’s multi award-winning paranormal drama series Afterlife starring Lesley Sharp and Andrew Lincoln, and the notorious, some say legendary, BBCTV “Halloween hoax” Ghostwatch, which spooked the nation, hit the headlines, and caused questions to be raised in Parliament.

His latest feature film, The Awakening, shoots in June 2010 starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton.

[Taken from Stephen Volk‘s website]

Very honoured to have you over at Beyond Fiction for this very special ‘Stars of Speculative Fiction’ interview for Ghost Appreciation Month, Stephen.

1. I’d like start by asking you what you are up to at the moment, what books, stories have you coming out/recently out?

What have I been up to recently?…. Well, I seem to have had several stories out in anthologies at FantasyCon: After the Ape was in Never Again and Best New Horror; In the Colosseum was in The End of the Line from Solaris; and Swell Head was in The 7th Black Book of Horror, as well as my piece on Westworld appearing in Mark Morris’s Cinema Futura from PS. I’m also presently working on a long novella – around 30,000 words – which has required a lot of work but I’m getting there. This one’s a real labour of love and something I’ve had in mind for a long time.

This summer BBC Films and Origin Pictures shot The Awakening, screenplay by myself and director Nick Murphy (BBCTV’s Occupation). It’s now in post-production for a 2011 release. It stars Rebecca Hall as a hard nosed psychical researcher investigating a haunting in a boy’s school in 1921. It also stars Dominic West, Imelda Staunton and John Shrapnel.

Sadly, I’ve recently had a paranormal TV series pilot crash and burn at the BBC after three years’ development, but I’m talking to them about other concepts: it seems “genre” is out at the moment, so that is painful. If, as they say, they want me to write for BBC1, I will have to find out what they want of me. I also have other TV series ideas I am punting around, one of which I’m exceptionally excited about. It’s selling the thing is the hard part!

I’m also putting the finishing touches to a spec screenplay called The Life and Loves of Sgt Bertrand, and working with Tim Lebbon on a screenplay called Play Time, which we are both enjoying immensely.

So not much then? 😉 Sorry to hear about the series pilot, as that must be really frustrating. Very much looking forward to The Awakening though!

2. So how did you come up with the idea for Ghostwatch, and why?

GW came about in the late 80s when my agent Linda Seifert thought – wrongly! – that the BBC might be in the market for a six part supernatural thriller, because Edge of Darkness had just been a big success. So my original outline for a thing called Ghostwatch was a six-part drama series about a documentary film crew (World in Action -type) who get involved with a psychical researcher (we didn’t have parapsychologist in those days!) and the final episode happened to be a live TV transmission from a haunted flat in a tower block in London. The thing was to be written like a conventional filmed drama, without breaking any fourth wall or anything – like Edge of Darkness.

Well, it turned out the producer Ruth Baumgarten couldn’t persuade the BBC to invest in six hours of supernatural telly (it was ever thus!) – so she said to me: “Can we do it as a 90-minute single for Screen One?” And I said, “Look, it’d be crazy to shoe-horn six hours of story into ninety minutes, but what if we just did the final episode – the live TV bit – and pretended it was a live TV transmission from a haunted house?” And she went “Oh my God! Do you think we can do it? It could be like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds!” And I said, “We can try.”

That’s how the idea came about, but explaining the why is a bit trickier.

Firstly ever since seeing the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas and The Stone Tape I’ve always wanted to do a ghost story for telly. But what makes a ghost story work? Often the use of the first person to entice you in. The believability: this really happened. And what’s the equivalent of that first-person narrative in TV? The documentary, the live broadcast, talking heads. That’s why I thought GW would really work as an extension of the ghost story telling tradition.

The second answer – beyond simply scaring people for fun – was as a satirical take on the way TV was going.  In 1992 the producer, director and I were all acutely aware that the boundaries were being blurred between fact and fiction on TV. Reality TV had raised its ugly head and shows like Rescue: 999 used actors to recreate dramatic situations in documentaries, whilst dramas like NYPD Blue used hand held camera to feign a documentary feel. The high water mark of this blurring was when during the first Gulf war CNN used music over a newscast of the bombing of Baghdad. Music: a fiction convention! So the producer intuited at the beginning, as we all did, that this project was subtextually an examination of television. Who do you trust, who do you believe? Can you believe what you’re told or even what you see? In that respect – without being pompous or self-aggrandizing in any way – I think Ghostwatch is more political than a lot of “political” dramas the BBC has produced over the years.

Excellent stuff but such a complex situation this screenwriting lark!

3. As it’s a regular question in this series, I may as well throw it in now, what on earth is speculative fiction then?

All fiction is by its nature speculation, isn’t it? “Speculative fiction” as a category I take to mean Fantasy/Horror/Science-Fiction, but all those appellations are pretty nebulous, to me anyway. Nowadays I call it “genre” because of the preponderance of “genre” films. Generally I suppose we define “genre” as something that plays “what if” a bit more than realism. A white guy and a black guy sharing a flat is realism. A white guy and a zombie black guy sharing a flat is genre. I think you could say speculative fiction really introduces an element of the impossible or the unlikely or the unknown to a narrative (whether the paranormal or simply the future). I don’t really think of definitions when I write, personally – that’s for others to do after the event. I had a story in Best New Horror #21 which Steve Jones said wasn’t horror until the last two pages: I didn’t think it was horror at all (even though it had King Kong in it!). And I gave a story to a horror anthology recently which definitely wasn’t horror. It was just – weirdness.

Time to start a ‘remove the Speculative Fiction from literature’ Facebook group then?

4. Another regular question of mine involves music and I’m curious about whether you listen to music while you work. If you do, why? If you don’t, why not? Does music inspire you?

Sometimes silence is required – I can understand it more for prose writing when you need to hear the rhythm of your own sentences, but for screenplays I literally pick out ten or twelve albums to put on repeat, and they are specific albums – often soundtracks – chosen to short-cut me to the head space of the film I’m writing. So, it’s getting the atmosphere going that you can immerse yourself in. Beside me right now sit the OSTs of: Gods and Monsters, Finding Neverland, In The Valley of Elah. They have a wistfulness about memory and the past that I find evocative for this novella I’m writing. When I move on to another project, I’ll pick a different ten or twelve.

5. Do you believe in ghosts, the afterlife? How does your belief/disbelief affect your writing?

People assume I believe in ghosts (otherwise why do you write that stuff, right?) but my personal belief system is often totally different from that of some of my characters. I don’t see a contradiction here.  I’m a complete skeptic and atheist and every fibre of my intellect and research tells me there are no such things as ghosts, all mediums are charlatans – it’s all mis-perception, delusion and self-delusion (not that, I hasten to add, that isn’t interesting in itself – I write about those subjects a lot: all the time).  Essentially, I’m fascinated by what makes people tick and most of all I’m fascinated by what we choose to believe in, and why. It obsesses me, in fact, and I’m not really interested in a ghost story that doesn’t in some way acknowledge the psychological component: that’s just a cop-out, to my mind.

My wife says I believe in ghosts and pretend I don’t, because she knows I am a complete wimp and scaredy-cat and I have to say, of course, if I’m in the dark and there’s a loud bang I’ll jump – but that’s my emotions at work. In the cold light of day I still say there’s no such things. I don’t think I’m unique here: a lot of my friends who write ghost stories are privately skeptical people because they are both intelligent and by their very nature as writers, analytical. But, like me, they write ghost stories for all sorts of reasons.  Not to preach about what they do or don’t believe in. In my case, I love the fictional world of ghosts and ghost hunters and mediums and skeptics, of the TV and storybook ghosts I grew up on and I want to return to, and re-live that excitement I got reading and watching them for the first time.

I definitely see where you’re coming from. I’m still undecided on the whole ghost belief element but adore reading about them and watching TV/film involving them too.

6. I’m sure any budding scriptwriters are eager for me to ask you for tips on how to get a foot in the door of the industry. What advice can you give?

Meet other writers, form a group, critique each other, go along to conferences in the genre you love, write to producers, ask for copies of the scripts of the show you’re enjoying, ask if they’ve got runners’ jobs going, move to London – but most of all, DON’T write because you think in some misguided way there is money in it (or fame – ha!) but because you love it. Not just love it – here’s the test – you can’t NOT do it. If you can go a week without writing, you’re not a writer – you’re a fake. Deal with it. If you go on holiday and you have to pack a notebook, just in case you want to write something – you’re a writer. Ask yourself, not “Do I want to be a writer?” but “Do I want to write?”  – the rest – in terms of getting into scriptwriting – is, a) work hard, and b) luck, like anything else. Don’t expect to get an agent on one script – write five. Write ten. None of them might get made but they might get you in a door. Get better by writing. Don’t just ask a writer for the address of his agent (that’s insulting, by the way): ask if you can improve what you do. Contemplate that – horrid thought – You Might Not Be Good Enough Yet.  And decide the medium you love, not the one that feels commercial, or feels “cool” – that’s bullshit. I started writing screenplays when I was 15. My first was made when I was 30.  Write, write, write – also READ scripts – WATCH, films, WATCH TV! Learn! An astonishing number of writers who decide to write scripts, to my amazement DON’T WATCH TV! Like, you’d write a novel without having read a book or two? Get out of here! In the end Steven Soderberg says it best: Talent + Perseverance = Luck. Make your luck. By stamina and fucking hard work. And, if you love it, you will never give in till you get there.

Pretty brutal advice there sir, but damn valuable too!

7. I’m sure there shouldn’t be any other answer than ‘collapse’ to this question but what do you do when you’re not writing or attending screenings and cons?

It’s important to have chill out time. Every Sunday I meet my old art director and we go for a walk and chat. Other odd things occur during the week, shopping, going to exhibitions, social life, etc – but generally I do 7-8 hours writing a day – most of which is not *writing* – like NOW! But it all adds up and things get done. Yesterday was a day in London, four meetings with producers, all of which might come to nothing. And of course I watch TV and movies. That’s work too!  it really is! You can’t write stuff without having a passing acquaintance with what’s laughingly called the zeitgeist. Theatre, art, books.  It’s all tax deductible, remember.

That’s what I keep telling the tax man!

8. Why do you write?

As I say, I think a large part of it is to return to a feeling you had when you were much younger when you found yourself really excited by certain things: The M R James Ghost Story at Christmas, The Stone Tape, The Prisoner, The Avengers, Edgar Allan Poe, The Hound of the Baskervilles… when you first started to slip to the dark side and get sucked into this lovely, terrible genre. It’s a kind of regression in that respect but it’s also returning to riff on it, understand, embellish and push at the sides of the genre you love – shove the concept of a ghost story a little bit this way, or that – just playing “what if…” or “oh, that’d be great….”  I’ve said before when people ask “Where do you get your ideas?” – I think essentially the ideas get you. It’s not work – well of course, it’s work – but the ideas come from somewhere else and attach themselves. The interesting thing about the “why” is “what makes one story idea appealing and another not?” – then it’s very much about you as a complex individual, and hopefully a body of work over a period of years starts to reveal to the reader (or watcher) what that author is about. Even if there are themes there of which the author is blissfully unaware.

9. How do you think the industry is doing at the moment, both in terms of for screenwriters and indie press?

In films there is no money. Studios are only interested in massive blockbusters based on books or comics or both, or sequels to remakes. It’s very uninspiring. You can make a film for £100,000 with no name actors but even then the money is impossible to find. Everything is impossible. Not just difficult – impossible! The Film Council is closing. All the subsidies are gone. And in television nobody is giving any script development money. The BBC (recently slashed by 16% cuts) is the only place interested in paying writers up front – but they take 6 months to read anything and (as I heard yesterday) they are no longer interested in “genre”. So that’s that!  It’s a desert. A wasteland out there.  And, with electronic books, the publishing business is virtually in meltdown, too. My God!  I don’t understand that in all these three areas we are teetering on the brink of utter ruin, yet broadcast media and the global entertainment industry and supposed to be one of the few worldwide growth areas! Go figure! Like I say – it was always fucking difficult – now it’s fucking impossible! What are you going to do? Just keep writing. People will always need stories. Gotta believe that or we’re sunk. (Which we might be!)


10. Who are your favourite authors? Who inspired/inspires you to write?

Oh dear.  There’s a whole thesis right there! Where do I begin?  Big inspirations were Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch at the beginning. Loved the way they slipped between screen and page. Psycho. Duel. Twilight Zone. Star Trek. Amicus pictures. The Devil Rides Out. Man, those guys’ careers were my idea of heaven on earth. Also, in terms of my interest in television and imaginative television, Brian Clemens, whose flair in The Avengers was outstanding, and Dennis Spooner, who also created a load of those ITC shows (Department S, The Champions) with Monty Berman.  I loved those. I also adored Michael Crichton when I saw Westworld, one of my favourite films, and of course Rod Serling (Planet of the Apes). In print – off the top of my head – I love Chris Priest, J G Ballard, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Robert Shearman.  Non-genre writers I love include Raymond Carver for his economy, Pete Dexter, Joyce Carol Oates (superbly creepy short story writer), Bret Easton Ellis, Rupert Thomson and early, nasty Ian McEwan. The Comfort of Strangers is a super horror novel. I wish he’d write another.



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