Matthew Holness Interview: Possum

Matthew Holness is best known as the lead in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a series he co-wrote with Richard Ayoade. A cult comedy about hospital horror, it set the careers of Holness, Ayoade and supporting actors Matt Berry and Alice Lowe. As an actor he has held other parts in The Office, Life's Too Short, Friday Night Dinner, Toast of London and Back. Other written contributions include spots in several anthologies such as Phobic: Modern Horror Stories, The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease and Protest: Stories of Resistance for Comma Press.

From writing and acting, Holness turned to directing, helming short films Smutch (Sky Arts), A Gun For George (Film4) and The Snipist (Sky Arts). Here, he discusses Possum with Eoghan Lyng, his first feature length project, which stars Sean Harris and Alun Armstrong. It will be released October 26th.

Hello Matthew Holness. Congratulations on a startling film. Within the remit of your work, horror seems to have a recurring feature. What is it about horror that fascinates you?

Thanks very much. I don’t know if it fascinates me , but I feel like it is truthful. I like stuff that deals with the darker side of life, because it is around me. Such as, something like today, things are so awful, and that appeals on various levels. I grew up on Hammer Films, childhood is full of frightening things, from watching a lot of horror and knowing about fairy tales. The best horror films are far more interesting than just ordinary slashers. I was watching a lot of German silent films recently, saw how they conveyed it all visually and wanted to see if I could make a silent horror film for today.

Possum originally started as a short story. How did this transition through the mediums of literature to film?

Yes, it started off as a short story. I didn’t necessarily want to make a film out of it. I was looking around for a silent horror film, watching Nosferatu among others, adored how they were about the tortured psyche, all expressed visually. And I kept asking, how can we make a modern silent film? And that’s when it made sense to turn back to the story, because it is in the character. It’s the story of a character who is not always truthful or meaningful  in what he says to people and is therefore silent. He was putting the energy into the puppet, when expressed visually,  could convey the fears to the audience.

Have you long held an interest in the psychological elements of narration?

Those came about as I was determined to show effectively. While watching silent films it all starts at the beginning, all with the title cards, setting up a story; title cards have the effect like they are a story. The title cards were put in back then out of necessity, but had the way of setting up the fairy tale world. I wanted to use title cards throughout, as it is very effective how that sets up the story, Philip's narration was initially going to be title cards, his illustrations.We didn't go with it, we went with spoken narration instead, we hear Philip’s thoughts and see his face, and can get meaning from this instead. During the editing, the title cards slowed the film, but there is a certain power to the spoken narration in its place.

The trope of the Possum is an important one. How did you decide the iconography?

The presentation of it? Quite detailed in the passages in description, the puppet was made from road kill and various pieces meant to disgust in the story. It needed to change for the film and became more haunting. We had a last-minute change to sculpting Sean Harris’s face, then we could hide it from plain view, where audiences could continually ask when it would arrive, by keeping it in the dark, therefore projecting their own fears onto it. It’s something I learned from John Carpenter’s Halloween, how to project fear.

Sean Harris is a very hypnotic actor. Was that an essential part of your vision?

Sean Harris didn’t want to play it in a horror way. It came about because he and I chatted about where Philip’s story was. We discussed his relationship with his family, what dreadful things happened to him in his past, how he projected his pain. He got to this point in the story, just wanted it to be truthful, and then it turned into a very physical performance. He moves like a puppet, walking around in a broken body, which all came from Sean’s performance and all for the story. He needed to express himself silently and does so beautifully.

Alun Armstrong brought fatherly nuances to Our Friends In The North and New Tricks. Was this a trait you were looking for in this performance?

Those projects weren’t what I based it on. It was a difficult part to cast, as it is such an unpleasant part. Alun, I think, first turned it down as he was working in America, but then a gap had opened, and he said he’d have another look at the script. We managed to fit him in with production schedule changes. It’s like that film Never Take Sweets From A Stranger, that Hammer film, that paedophile character; the actor was so rich in parts, he’d never be typecast. Technically an actor should play anything, and Alun has that remarkable ability, Alun plays villains, he plays good guys he can play anything, he could play Maurice, and never get typecast. There´s always that danger, I suppose. His approach was very different to Sean’s, while piecing the film in the edit, I saw all the strange shifts in character, a rather remarkable way, we shot it out of sequence, and right from the off, Alun, got it, showing a subtle development throughout.

As a very fine actor yourself, did you consider a part for yourself?

Never. This is far beyond my capabilities. I can do comedy, but this, no. [Chuckles]

Can you tell The Digital Fix of any other projects you are working on?

Working on a second horror film, written the script, it’s darker than Possum, so we’ll see. Should start filming in a year or so. That’s what I’m focused on next.

Thank you Matthew Holness.

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