Interview: Ashley Thorpe, director of Borley Rectory

With Derby officially one of the most haunted places in Britain it seems rather fitting that dramatised documentary about ‘the most haunted house in England’ Borley Rectory will get a showing during Paracinema at Derby Film Festival this weekend. Ahead of the showing Storge editor Sarah Lay spoke to director Ashley Thorpe about the painstaking six years of work he put into making the film.

Borley Rectory by Ashley Thorpe
“For me it came from my childhood. I discovered the story of Borley Rectory in the Usbourne Book of Ghosts at the local library as a little boy. I guess I would have been about seven.

“I was very susceptible to frightening material when I was young – due to suffering from night terrors – but there was something especially haunting about this one story that kept drawing me back over the years. 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.

“I loved the way that they told the tale using a series of images in the book and that was a key part of my approach when I started storyboarding the thing; it had to be very visual and play out almost as a series of tableau.”

Film director Ashley Thorpe has spent the last six years of his life making a dramatised documentary of a story which has fascinated him since childhood. Borley Rectory, a Gothic-style Victorian house in Essex, was in 1929 declared ‘the Most Haunted House In England’ by psychic researcher Harry Price.

From unexplained footsteps sounding through the mansion, to apparitions the stories and studies uncovered by Price were many, something which Thorpe says drew him to the tale. “I think the draw was that the tale was replete with such delicious gothic imagery; a nun bricked up within the walls, a phantom carriage driven by a headless coachman, cold spots and spectral messages scrawled upon the walls. Wonderful stuff. It also represented the beginning of that blend of scientific method meets the supernatural which of course was such a huge influence upon things like Shirley Jackson‘s The Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson‘s Hell House. At the time it was quite ground breaking . Now of course it all seems so archetypal.

“It’s fascination also lies with the people. All the major players in that case were very curious characters. They’re all quite mercurial and mysterious so at the end of the case you’re left with more questions than answers. In fact the ghosts are far easier to pin down than those investigating them! I liked the ambiguity of the story and I loved the idea of trying to make a documentary about it that embraced this ambiguity whilst steeped in a kind of quiet dread.”

The documentary uses a mix of live action – including performances from a core cast of Reese Shearsmith (League of Gentlemen), Jonathan Rigby (A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss), Annabel Bates (Rellik), Claire Louise Amias (And To All A Good Night), and Nicholas Vince (Hellraiser, Nightbreed) – and animation mixed together in what Starburst Magazine has called ‘a unique – and haunting – viewing experience.’ And it’s one which has been painstaking to put together. Originally envisaged as a short Thorpe quickly realised it would be a full feature. “It was in the first edit really, incredibly, and it came about quite organically. As each cast member came on board I naturally wanted to make sure that they had something interesting to do so I would rewrite their scenes, give them more to do with other actors, a few more lines and of course this made the film longer. But I didn’t really appreciate how much longer until I started editing together the first few scenes.

“Seems obvious now, but at the time I was so buried in the practicalities of animating, trying to earn a living, looking after my then baby daughter – the day to day things – that it wasn’t really until I cut together the first seance scene in 2016 that I realised that there was no way that this would be a 30 minute film.

“Surprisingly though the finished film doesn’t really differ from the original concept at all. Another thing that I hadn’t really anticipated was how the pacing would affect the overall running time. Again it sounds ludicrous. I wanted Borley Rectory to harken back to an earlier age of cinema, far from the machine gun edits and gimmicks of modern horror. I wanted long slow takes, so your eyes can explore the frame and realise that you’ve been staring at a ghost all along. One of my favourite sequences last for about two minutes and consists of about four edits intercutting between a little girl staring into the darkness at the end of her bed and what she sees there in the shadows.”

Borley Rectory Reese Shearsmith

The look of the film was key to creating the atmosphere and the corner-of-the-eye emergence of spirits and in the long frames. “The style felt a very natural way to tell the story, for me at least. It was never a particularly considered approach. It just felt correct.

“I wanted the film to walk a line between something that evoked the past, that was very stylised, almost expressionistic and not all totally ‘real’ and yet told a true tale, so a blend of something photographed and painterly seemed right. I’ve described it as an ‘ultrasound of a haunting’. I mean it both visually and philosophically. It was something that came to me when I was looking at the ultrasounds of my daughter, just as the project was coming together.

“Those live ultrasounds are the most incredible thing that I have ever seen because they are so disorientating and ethereal. You’re looking at something and you don’t really understand what you are looking at, until the focal depth changes and you pull back through the layers of the child’s skull and you suddenly realise that you were staring at your child’s face but from the inside out or so close you couldn’t understand what you were seeing. It got me thinking about perception and about ghost photography and how they are often very beautiful images because they linger on the border of abstraction. I suppose it’s also the idea of something growing within a space and in this case very much the product of multiple perceptions.

“I was trying to emulate both the look of films that were contemporary to the hauntings and also the look of spirit photography but the mood that I was aiming for were very much the films of yesteryear. The majority of the influences are all from early cinema.

“I’d say that the tone of something like The Old Dark House is in there somewhere with its blend of quiet chills and wry humour. Ultimately I hoped to make a documentary that was both informative, intriguing – in the hope that it might encourage further reading – but also chilling. I wanted to make something full of quiet dread.

Borley Rectory essentially a collage approach with a few styles of animation. The actors are photographed against a green screen with a few props or bits of furniture to interact with and then I composite them in After Effects into digitally painted backgrounds and animate in additional layers, light effects and atmosphere. It really is a collage with about half a dozen different styles in there.

“The rotoscoping technique alongside this collaging is something that I had used on my previous short films – Scayrecrow, The Screaming Skull and The Hairy Hands – all stories that were inspired by what I believed to be the neglected aspects of British legend.

“There’s a little traditional animation in there, some of the ghosts are painted, and a little 3D stuff done in After Effects, such as the aerial shots of the Rectory but my aim was to take the footage of the actors and make them resemble the look of the ‘painted’ backgrounds as much as possible.

“I also spent a great deal of time working into the footage to take the digital shine off of it using masks with various strengths of blurring to emulate a depth of field that we’d really struggle with doing live at the green screen composite level. Borley Rectory has pretty much every technique I know applied in it in some way.”

 

Borley Rectory by Ashley Thorpe

While being very much one-of-a-kind in approach the film recalls classic cinema in look and acting style, acknowledging the sensation of Borley Rectory when the story stormed through the press but also giving time to each of the characters and the human aspects rather than purely relying on the scares and supernatural. “Apart from bits of expressionism, a little Lynch, a little noir and so forth for the style there was one film that actually influenced the approach of tackling factual material in this manner and that was Wisconsin Death Trip.

“I saw it back in the early ’90s, I think as it was part of BBC Arena, and it was a beautiful documentary that studied essentially what was an outbreak of Ergot poisoning. But what it did do that really impressed me was tackling the tale using mainly contemporary material – newspaper reports, diaries etc – the tale told in the words of the towns people as it happened. Very little voice of God narration. Plus it was all photographed in beautiful black and white, reminiscent of Ansel Adams. I loved it, but I didn’t realise the direct influence it must have had on me until about half way through making Borley.”

It wasn’t just the look but the sound which was key to the eerie suspense throughout the film, and in bringing out aspects of the different characters around the tale. “The score has a strange story of its own really. Originally it was supposed to be scored by Steven Severin of Siouxsie and the Banshees. We were deep into the final edit and although Severin seemed confident that he would finish the score in time I grew worried when I heard very little from him in early 2017. It transpired that the reason for the radio silence was that he had suffered from a pulmonary embolism which hospitalised him for months. For a while it looked like he was recovering but a relapse over the summer meant that we had a film that had a premiere and initial festival appearances locked but not a single note of score.

“Luckily for the project, my old friend and colleague Mick Grierson stepped in and after a couple weeks discussing how the score should work, actually managed to score and perform the entire film in about two weeks. The man’s a genius. 

“Mick’s score adds so much to the film. He breathed life into it and knew exactly how each different section of the film should be scored slightly differently. Orchestrated in a similar way but treated in a different approach. So you progress subtly from Victorian via playful trills towards the darker, brooding noirish tones of the Marianne sequences. The score grows darker as it progresses and as we dig deeper. It becomes more contemporary. We discussed everything from wanting the title theme to resemble Rachmaninov through to using the glass harp as an instrument throughout as it had these historical links to both mediums and madness.”

Borley Rectory by Ashley Thorpe

It will be a recognisable feeling to independent filmmakers or those taking a DIY approach to their art, the consuming challenge of supporting themselves as much as wrangling a creative vision into being. Thorpe used crowdfunding to support the production – a route which the digital age has made more accessible but brings with it new challenges as well as opportunities. “Surprisingly making it has actually been far easier than maintaining a livelihood while making it! The crowdfunders were a lot of work but the production has been relatively straightforward. I’m pretty studious when it comes to planning projects and my producer Tom Atkinson is very very organised when it comes to shoots and their breakdowns, so the shoots themselves went like a dream.

“We boarded every single shot. It took me about two months before we shot anything, so when Tom and I sat down and broke down the shots into setups we could clearly see everything we’d need and also how we’d do it, which bit would be painted in, what could be done with lighting etc. So when we walked into the studio we knew exactly what we were doing. When you’re paying by the hour or day you have to be very efficient but we were not only getting all the shots we’d boarded but had time as a consequence to improvise a little and shoot extra material inspired by a performance or discussion.

“I suppose technically the sheer volume of work was very difficult. It was a mammoth undertaking. We may have had a crew of say four or five on the shoot but when it came down to the actual animation it was just me; keying, composite, rotoscope, animation and edit. Me. By the baby monitor in the dead of night. Usually you’d have a crew of animators, a production line, but not this time. Borley Rectory is by no means the work of one person, there’s a team of enthusiastic talent behind it, but the animation studio was a one man band. Who was babysitting.”

Borley Rectory by Ashley Thorpe

 

After so long working on the project and raising the spirits of Borley on the cinema screen Thorpe is slowly starting to move onto new projects. “It’s hard to see much beyond getting Borley Rectory out there and into the sales market at the moment but there are a few things ‘on the boil’. I’ve actually been mainly painting the past few months to rekindle my enthusiasms and stave off screen dread.

“After the painting will probably come writing. Around the time I started Borley Rectory I also wrote a feature script for a victorian gothic melodrama based on Spring Heel Jack, which was in development with Creative England for a while. I’ve also penned a treatment for a Dartmoor set portmanteau feature called – provisionally – Hell Tor which would be an Amicus style anthology piece but exclusively using genuine Dartmoor ghost stories. That one could be great fun, especially with other contributors. I can really imagine Reece, Steve or Mark Gatiss adding something wonderful to that one.

“There is also a good chance that I may be adapting a wonderful script from a very respected writer of supernatural drama. That’s in very early stages and in discussion with the agent so can’t say too much more on that one. After every project I vow to take a break but I never do. Not for long. I’m at the mercy of ghosts.”

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Borley Rectory shows at 3pm on Saturday 5 May 2018 with a Q&A from director Ashley Thorpe to follow. It’s part of the Paracinema Weekend at Derby Film Festival held 4 to 13 May 2018 at Derby QUAD. Find the full programme and tickets on the festival website.

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