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Interview With John Shackleton co-writer and Director of the Sleeping Room
By James Whittington, Wednesday 20th August 2014
From the producers of the FrightFest 2011 favourite Panic Button comes The Sleeping Room, a supernatural tale of ghostly Victorian revenge.
Here we chat to its director and co-writer John Shackleton about the movie ahead of its world premiere at FrightFest 2014.
HC: Where did the idea for The Sleeping Room come from?
JS: Brighton based writer Ross Jameson, lived in a Regency house by the seafront and learned that it used to be a brothel in Victorian times upon the discovery of a hidden room. With further research he found out that many of the brothels had secret rooms known as sleeping rooms built in, so that the girls could rest between assignations. This underbelly of Brighton’s past, combined with its faded grandeur and atmospheric seascape provided Ross with all the fantastic inspiration needed to launch into a screenplay.
HC: It has three credited writers, how does that work, for example, do you all sit down in one room at the same time?
JS: Ross’s original screenplay was heavy on atmosphere and mood, had its themes and villains clearly drawn and its teenage protagonist Blue, being drawn deeper into prostitution, whilst being manipulated by all around her. Alongside this, I was attracted to the project because of the original visual devices and metaphors at play, including an antique Mutoscope (What The Butler Saw machine), the mirror and of course, the hidden chamber and all its secrets.
After optioning the screenplay… in September 2013 (with my Producer cap on), I was courting for a Director for the project and sought the ear of Alex Chandon after meeting him through the Shortcuts To Hell competition and being super impressed with his entry. Alex passed on the project but gave me extensive script notes, mainly concerning story and supporting character development, streamlining the script and embellishing upon the horror element to make Blue’s journey much bigger, more twisted and disturbing than either Ross or I had previously envisaged!
Massively inspired by Alex’s input, the two of us gelled creatively and sparked upon dozens of ideas surrounding the core ghost story, racing through numerous screenplay drafts in a very short and intense period of time, following our gut… and inadvertently becoming writers in the process. Still lacking a Director to helm the project, I wasn’t considering myself for the role until Producer Gareth I Davies pointed out that it would make a perfect first feature opportunity for me, whilst lining up our bigger project We Are Monsters. That was literally a coin in the slot, penny drop moment, and from that point on I switched to Writer/Director mode, embraced the challenge and took ownership of the screenplay, choosing the tonal path through the story I felt most confident and comfortable with, that I felt I could deliver upon, even within the most restrictive of budgets.
HC: How did you go about casting the movie?
JS: Ross had worked with Brighton resident Julie Graham already on a couple of short films and she was very keen to play Cynthia, particularly on the basis of the films heavy Brighton credentials! We had been working with Jeremy and Irene at Jeremy Zimmermann’s in the casting of We Are Monsters, and they helped us find the wonderful Leila Mimmack whom I instantly recognised from her gutsy and earthly performances in things like Inside Men and Becoming Human. Chris Waller randomly made contact with me upon hearing about the project, who had worked with Alex on Inbred and whom I respected enormously. He’s a great actor, fitted the role like a glove and had long since dreamt of shooting a film in his hometown of Brighton… and so that decision was a very easy one to make. Jeremy and Irene cast Christopher Adamson as the most wonderful monster I could ever have imagined, alongside the seething menace of David Sibley, playing Blue’s pimp and protector – Freddie. We were struggling to cast our leading man Bill right up until the eleventh hour, when Zimmermann’s introduced me to Joseph Beattie. When you see the film you will understand why this role was such a tough one to cast, and the role needed to be tackled with clear focus and absolute confidence. Joseph came at it with his own character mythology and back-story, and we lucked out completely with him - just days before the camera began to roll!
HC: It’s a pretty bleak and dark movie, what was the atmosphere like on set?
JS: The atmosphere on set was amazing! Our 1st AD Alex Gibb was an absolute legend who kept reminding everybody that ‘this is a horror film – there will be screaming!’, and when the camera wasn’t rolling, there was a lot of fun and laughter had on set for sure. We’d lucked out again in so many ways; Gareth did an amazing job in finding an incredible production team, securing our perfect locations, and even getting all our set builds constructed against all the odds, without prep time or any real financial resources to make happen. By rights this film shouldn’t exist at all… it’s only the immense good will of our very talented cast and crew that made it so, alongside our wonderful post-production team over at Bang, back in Cardiff.
HC: How did you shoot the old Mutoscope sequences as they look incredibly realistic?
JS: The authenticity of the Mutoscope sequences I always knew were absolutely key to this film. The filmmaker of the time was a Victorian pimp and serial killer, and these sequences had to feel as though his hand had made them. Our pre-production time for The Sleeping Room was practically non existent, and I knew that there was no way I could tackle these and do them justice, alongside everything else we had going on. I’d been talking to Jake West over the past couple of years at FrightFest and knew that he was really interested in creepy Victoriana, as we’d discussed collaboration on a couple of other projects in the past. Jake has a very visual approach to his work and the eye for detail that I knew was a perfect fit. I was thrilled and somewhat relieved when he offered to come onboard and take ownership of this essential element of the film! We provided Jake with a closed set for the day, access to hair, make-up and costume, and two actors and he did the rest including the casting of Lucy Clements… again delivering something far more chilling and twisted than I could ever have dreamt up!
HC: The Sleeping Room crosses many horror genres, which category would you place it in?
JS: In many ways The Sleeping Room pays homage to the Victorian horror melodrama. I know that the appropriation of that word has negative connotations as being somewhat naff and over the top, but we’re operating within an unashamedly heightened reality and timeless space here, with a grotesquely exaggerated plot and characters, all designed to enhance the films dramatic and emotional intent. It’s not hammy, but tonally it’s not a million miles away from films like The Woman In Black and other Hammer titles, but we’d always hoped that the present day Brighton underbelly would provide a nice bit of indie Brit flavour, and started out with early references London To Brighton and Brighton Rock. We were also aiming for some creepy and atmospheric chills, more psychological than out-and-out gore, as the film very much takes place within the central characters headspace.
HC: Are you nervous that the film is showing at FrightFest?
JS: Yes that’s the scariest part of all! I’m very proud of the film and all we’ve achieved with it, and can only hope that it finds its audience from FrightFest onwards.
HC: So what are you working on at the moment?
JS: I’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign (click here for more information) for the P&A and marketing spend on The Sleeping Room, so that we can really do it justice and give the film the best start in life. I’m also reunited with my main project, We Are Monsters after a year apart. I’m deep into rewrites of the screenplay and super excited by where it’s all heading. With a bit of luck, we’ll be making this big one next.
HC: John Shackleton, thank you very much.
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