In Martyrs Lane, writer and director Ruth Platt constructs a horror movie about a child learning to understand the grief the adults around her are feeling. Chilling and minimal, it's a ghost movie predicated on childhood innocence.
After a tumultuous post-production and editing process conducted in lockdown, Platt's film managed to screen at a number of festivals before becoming available on streaming service Shudder. Her third feature-length directorial effort since 2015's The Lesson, this marked her biggest budget yet, with funding from the British Film Institute. What started as a proof-of-concept short film is now a candid portrayal of the way tragedy echoes through a family.
As the dust settles on the picture, and she starts to consider her next move, we spoke to Platt about Martyrs Lane. From the difficulties of telling a story entirely from a child's perspective, to going through post-production while everyone's working from home, she explains the highs and lows in getting the film in front of our eyes. Part of a growing movement of women in genre filmmaking, she discusses how the industry continues to shift towards female perspectives.
The Digital Fix: Congratulations on the movie! It’s toured film festivals, and you’ve managed to release in actual cinemas. How does it feel?
Ruth Platt: Oh, yeah, it feels great, because it was quite a long haul. We shot at the end of 2019, and we were just going into post when Covid-19 struck and everything just froze. Everything stopped and we didn’t know what was going to happen, you know, we had no idea how long it was going to take and everything. The industry has completely shifted. I don’t know if it’s long term, but it took much longer to do post, we had to do everything.
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And the editor was working from home. I was having phone calls with him, and trying to work it out and giving him notes, which is weird, because, you know, obviously I wanted to be in the room with him, but it might have been better for him. Luckily I managed to get it done, it just took a long time, and I managed to get in the room with Ben to do the sound design at the end of 2020. You know that took a whole year to get through post, so to really get it out there is really exciting and a relief, definitely.
Your last film was The Black Forest, a real jet-black comedy movie – what drew you back to horror?
It’s interesting, because Martyrs Lane definitely started off more horror and became more gentle, probably because children are the leads, and tonally, we just have to find that ghost story atmosphere. I love black comedy as well, and it was a film I wanted to make, a story I wanted to tell. I love genre, and I think I just had to get out of my system, maybe, but I mean, I’m interested in both genres to be honest, about comedy and horror. And I’m interested in characters and the family dynamic, and relationship dynamics, and so all those things can work in both genres.
I think The Lesson was interesting, because it was very uncompromising, and it was quite controversial. I remember at FrightFest, I was the only one, or maybe one of two female-made features that year in 2015. Now, of course, there’s a lot more female-made films out there, and I think perhaps it was just a bit too early. I wonder if it would have been different releasing it the last few years. But I would like to go into a purer form of genre again, next time around, if I get the chance.
Something that struck me was how well the movie captures that ambiguous grief children can feel. Can you tell me about creating that atmosphere?
That was tricky, actually. That’s why we were asked by the British Film Institute to do a proof of concept short, which is why we did the short first, and a lot emerged out of the short I think in terms of finding that tone, because it had to be from the child’s point of view, the story. And as you say, it’s about her filtering the adult world and the things she picks up on, the things she doesn’t know, filtering them through her own childlike perception and imagination.
So it was just working out how that was going to play out through her eyes. Keeping everything scaled down to her sort of point of view and at a distance in this space, understanding spatially how it works in this house, where she’s overhearing things down corridors or through doorways, and in the darkness, and in the shadows – a little ghost herself.
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A lot of it emerged through the shorts, the visual and the spatial dynamic of her in the film, but then it’s also through memory as well. Nostalgia plays a little bit of a part because it’s not an auto-biographical story, but I did grow up in a big old house and on a farm, and felt a little bit removed from it all and shut out from it all, so I use that as well, I think.
The movie is sharply edited in that way. Can you tell me about not overplaying your hand, so that we’re only ever getting what Leah gets, and not losing her perspective?
Yeah, I think it’s a real challenge to make a film from a child’s point of view, especially a horror film or a dark film. The problem is if you’ve got adult material, and the challenge in this film is to only have as much adult material as Leah (Kiera Thompson) has. Obviously, with adult viewers, we can kind of deduce more than she can, but I think it’s a high risk strategy.
There was a temptation to show more, but through the development of the film, because the development took quite a while, there were more points of view, perhaps more of the mother’s point of view, originally, and then through the development, I had to hold that back. And that was quite difficult. I was quite worried about it. And it was quite a discipline to keep everything from her point of view. It was just something we had to find and, and as I say, I think it’s quite risky. So I hope it works. But I think it’s quite unique, because it’s unusual to have that perception and that perspective. So I think it has strengths and weaknesses.
You were saying the mother had more of a role in an earlier draft. We’ve seen movies like The Babadook centre on motherhood for these kinds of films – how did you decide that Leah’s perspective was where the best version of this story lay?
Yeah, I love The Babadook. It’s all from the mum’s point of view, the whole film through. It’s very much about the mother child relationship, but it’s all from her point of view, really, most of it. For Martyrs Lane, I think there were three points of view early on; the mother (Anastasia Hille), and Bex (Hannah Rae), the older sister, and I think through the development process, it just felt like too many perspectives, and Bex disappeared a little bit.
Then it became about the mum, who had to be morally concerned through Leah’s eyes. I was worried about that. because it’s a big ask for a ten-year-old girl, for a start. It’s quite a rigid discipline, to have everything work through her eyes. So this whole story has that benefit as well, because the magical realism elements can flourish more easily, because children have a slightly, I call it a leaky barrier, between the practical real world and the dream, ‘imagine a magic fairy’ world. It’s less set in stone as it is for us, and so I think perhaps hopefully, that can work. So in some ways, it’s freeing, and in other ways it’s limiting.
I was very impressed by the two young leads. Child performances can have a bad reputation, how did you get those performances, and what do you think is the key to a good child performance?
I’m thrilled with them. I think they’re fantastic. I was worried, because I know that there’s a Norwegian film called The Innocents that’s out at the moment, there’s also, Michael Haneke has White Ribbon, which had lots of children, and he saw 5000 kids. I know for The Innocents, they cast for two years, and we couldn’t do that. So I was worried because it was a bigger budget than I’d ever had, but still quite a modest budget within independent filmmaking. We were slightly limited in how many kids we could see. But I realised when we were seeing children, I could tell within one or two lines and in screen tests, whether they were performing or whether they were bringing something of themselves to the part.
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What was interesting about Kiera and Sienna is they have this very visceral, emotional intelligence, and they’re not afraid to show themselves, so they managed to help the characters evolve from off the page, through their own personalities and through their own insights. That’s what I was looking for, rather than someone putting on a performance, and they had this incredible chemistry. In terms of getting that magic out of them, I didn’t really talk about the story with them at all, I didn’t talk about the script with them at all, or very little, or the through-line of the story.
We didn’t do chronological filming or anything like that, so it was just about keeping it in the moment all the time. It was about keeping it in that thought, ‘What are you thinking right now?’ And because they had this chemistry with each other, they were able to play off each other in a very instinctive way. That worked really well.
It was just keeping them in the moment all the time. If they felt a bit off, there was too much hanging around, get them up moving around, jumping around. before we started to film. If you’re breathing and you’re not getting tense, and you’re not stopping breathing, and all these things that can happen when you’re sitting around waiting to be set up or whatever. I’m just keeping them in that moment all the time. Once I realised it wasn’t about performance for them. it was about the truth of each thought, then we kind of ran with that, you know?
One moment that made me laugh was towards the end, where Bex and Leah share a very sisterly scene together. The movie could almost be from Bex’s point-of-view, how did you balance those perspectives?
I think that was the biggest challenge of the development process. Everyone sees it differently. Some people really love Bex, some people think she should be developed more, some people think she’s superfluous, you know, everyone has a different opinion. It was something I was worried about. I was worried about the mom as well, because we had these fantastic actors, and giving them enough. Denise and Hannah, whatever they’re doing, even if it’s fine, even if it’s slightly removed from us, is fascinating.
But it was a big worry – how much? How accessible are they to us, because they couldn’t be accessible because Leah, they’re not accessible to her. That was a self imposed discipline that I was quite worried about. And definitely Bex had more originally to do, and say. We have more accessibility to her, and to the mother, and it was really hard to strip her back.
But I think what was good about it was because they had much more of a life in the original script that even though I took away some of the scenes and dialogue, they’re still there, and they were full human beings. Those actors are so wonderful at creating that, that even though it’s removed from us, it’s still, hopefully, very palpable.
You mentioned feeling like the only woman in the room during film festivals in 2015. Has that gender disparity in horror improved?
Massively, I mean, it’s crazy, it’s great, and I’m so glad it’s happening, but I just don’t understand why it took so long. Back in 2015, at FrightFest, I loved it, it was really great being there, but there were so few women making horror at the time. I think everyone’s woken up since then, and it’s a big push, obviously there’s incredible voices coming through, Julia Ducournau, Rose Glass, Prano Bailey-Bond, and all these great great filmmakers. Where were they?
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I mean, I was there trying to make films. Obviously there are female genre filmmakers, there always have been, but I mean it just feels like now people are interested in it, and there’s a push to fund them and support them which is great, but I just don’t understand why it took so long.
Now that lockdowns are easing and people are getting back out to see movies – what’s your favourite cinema?
I’ve got two favorites! I live in Oxford and we’ve got the Phoenix Picturehouse which is really lovely, in Jericho. And we’ve got a really nice Curzon which is quite modern, but we go every Christmas Eve to watch It’s a Wonderful Life there, and it’s just a bit of tradition since it opened a few years ago. It’s just really nice because they just do really nice cinemas. So yeah, I’ve got the old and the new to local cinemas that I really love.
Martyrs Lane is available to watch now on Shudder – you can sign up for the platform through our affiliate link here.