There's a secret at the core of Ghost Stories, the British horror anthology that had SXSW audiences screaming in terror. And it's one that's been safely guarded for years, ever since the tale of a skeptic investigating three cases of alleged supernatural events debuted as a theatrical production in London's West End in 2010.
"Half a million people have seen the play," said Andy Nyman, who co-wrote, co-directed and stars in the film adaptation, "But (if you look online), you can't find out what it's about, other than it's about a professor who does three cases." Nyman and co-writer/co-director Jeremy Dyson are honored that audiences of stage and screen have been so keen to preserve the surprises their scary story has in store. "We love that so much. It's so rare you get to see stuff without knowing anything."
The secret was preserved by fans at SXSW, who spoke of Ghost Stories in urgent whispers, urging others only, "Go see it. Trust me." Then came a warning, "You'll want to see it twice!"
Following Ghost Stories' premiere at the fest, FANGRRLS spoke with Nyman and Dyson, and in a perfectly creepy setting. High above the Alamo Drafthouse Lamar theater lies a string of karaoke rooms, each with a specific theme. We sat down with the horror movie makers in the haunted room, which was dark, boasting faded gothic wallpaper, cobwebs, a guillotine blade above the door, and an eerie diorama of nightscape where a slasher surely lurked. There, we asked about Ghost Stories' path from a long-ago summer camp to SXSW's esteemed Midnighters slate.
"Jeremy and I have been best friends since we were 15," Nyman said. "We met at summer camp, and bonded over a love of horror films almost instantly." Over the years, both went into show business. Dyson built a career in comedy, co-creating BBC sketch show The League of Gentleman, and writing for The Tracey Ullman Show, the comedy/thriller Funland, and the silly spin on historical stories, Psychobitches. Meanwhile, Nyman was making his way as a character actor, appearing opposite Liam Neeson in The Commuter, and popping up in horror properties like the cutthroat comedy Severance, the anthology ABCs of Death 2, and the zombie miniseries Dead Set. It was this deep love of the genre and a drive to work with together that finally led to these long-time friends to making their narrative feature directorial debut with Ghost Stories. But first, the play.
Because their careers had taken such different paths, the dream of collaborating seemed "just an impossibility," Nyman told us. "Then about eight, nine years ago, I was walking past The Woman in Black, the play that's been on in London for 28 years. It just occurred to me how strange it was that there hadn't been another scary play. It felt bizarre that there hadn't been."
It was around this time that Nyman saw a performance of The Vagina Monologues, a play where actresses sit on stools and directly address the audience with stories about female experience. "I had this sort of lightning strike of, 'Ooh, you could sort of do The Vagina Monologues with ghost stories,'" Nyman said. "Jeremy loved that idea, which is of course not what Ghost Stories is exactly. But that was the seed that was planted, that then led us on this journey of creating this play."
The play was a wild success with a two-year West End run, and productions from Moscow and Toronto to Lima, Shanghai, and Sydney, before its creators began to think on what might be next. "We realized, 'God, there's sort of a movie here.'" Nyman said. "Once the play had finished in the West End, we had about a year of breathing space and distance from it. Then, we decided let's try and write the film version." Eighteen months later, they had a script. From there, they sought producing partners who would allow them creative control.
"It was very important," Dyson said. "Once we decided we were going to do it, the only way we could do it was the same way we'd done the play, which was to do it on our own terms. Fortunately, once we'd written the script, we found partners, who were willing to let us do it that way."
Their way included dramatically changing the format of the play, which was presented as a lecture from the skeptical Professor Goodman, who spoke directly to the audience. "You can't do that on film," Nyman said. "Suddenly, this thing that holds the whole DNA of the play together has got to get thrown away. Then that becomes a whole separate challenge and a painful challenge, because you've got something you know has worked, because it's been running for a long time. It's clearly working for an audience, and you've got to take that and tear it up, and start again."
But their gamble has paid off. With each festival appearance, buzz is building. And fans of Martin Freeman won't want to miss his surprising turn here. Whether you know the English actor from Sherlock, The Office, The Hobbit or Black Panther, you'll be blown away by his performance as a smug suit with a dark story to unfurl.
Both Nyman and Dyson had worked with Freeman before, and were ecstatic when he agreed to sign on. "(For that role) you need somebody who has funny bones, but who is also a brilliant dramatic actor," Nyman said. "Also, what's really interesting about Martin, is he's an A-list movie star, and yet there's something really invisible about him, about his acting. He can just sort of vanish into these roles, because that was also something that was a key requirement for that."
Still, the pair worries certain aspects of the British humor won't translate to American audiences. "In the UK, the humor leavens it a bit more," Dyson said. "But it's quite specific British humor, and it may not play over here in quite the same way. It's not that the film doesn't work, but it reads differently."
Nyman added, "It might feel more intense here." But hey, that's nothing but good news for horror fans.
Ghost Stories is in select theaters now.