The Forgotten’s Oliver Frampton on J-horror and Victorian ghosts

We talk to Oliver Frampton about his excellent British chiller

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After playing at FrightFest in 2014, Oliver Frampton’s excellent low-budget British horror The Forgotten is finally out on DVD. It’s the story of Tommy (Clem Tibber), a lonely teenager who goes to live on a deserted council estate with his father (Shaun Dingwall). He struggles to connect with his dad and the estate is a pretty eerie place to live…then he starts hearing noises from the empty flat next door.

It’s a very strong debut, working both as a melancholy character study and an unsettling chiller, so we were very excited to talk to Frampton about aiming high on a shoestring, his J-horror influences and how it all started with a wedding present…

Where did the idea for The Forgotten spring from?

My co-writer James used to work in TV on The Bill, the ITV cop show, and one of the things that we used to do on The Bill was shoot in a lot of disused housing and disused estates. And one day we were doing a night shoot and we were on this abandoned estate, and this little window light was on in the tower block. It was the only light on and it was just so, so creepy.

We just turned to each other and said, “Who would live in a place like this? What situation would lead you to be the only person in a tower block?” It kind of came from there, and very quickly in answering those questions you come up with characters. So we said “Maybe it’s a father and son and they’re on the down and outs, where’s Mum? Perhaps there’s been a break-up and that’s why they’re all in such disarray?” And it just really quickly starts to coalesce into a world and subject that you can explore themes of.

So that melancholy atmosphere was always a big part of it?

Completely, because it all comes from character. The way that James and I work is that we’ll talk about people, and as I said it automatically leads you to themes of people who are forgotten in society or just the people who are off the radar, that was what we were interested in.

The other thing was, because we’re big fans of classic literature, HP Lovecraft and MR James and all the Victorian ghost stories; we were really keen to embrace the British tradition of being good at telling ghost stories! Use that model and try and update it, to breathe life back into what we’ve done historically in a special way. And I think inherently in ghost stories they’re lonely characters who are having strangeness thrust upon them.

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There are scares in the film but they kind of creep in slowly. Can you talk about balancing the supernatural and the realism?

I’m actually a really big fan of all kinds of horror. I love things like The Conjuring and Insidious, those big mainstream films that kind of do magic tricks, visual tricks, sleight of hand just to get you jumping and pull the rug out from under you. So we were really trying to find a way to do our own version of what scary was, and we’re big fans of J-Horror. We looked at the way the scares are employed in those kinds of films, which is not necessarily a jump, it’s more of a slow build. Like a noose tightening around your neck, it takes its time and just slowly pushes you further and further towards being terrified.

There are some jumps in there obviously and psychologically you’re trying to unsettle people from the outset and get them on edge, but we didn’t want to make something gimmicky, we just thought we were making something special. To not do it in a schlocky way.

The performances are great. How difficult was it to find the cast?

I knew Shaun Dingwall’s work and really loved it, so we just went to him and said “Please, you’d be perfect for this.” And fortunately he loved it. The same with Lyndsey Marshal who plays the mum, I just think she’s fabulous and she has relatively few lines in this but just does so much.

With Elarica and with Clem it was casting, so we saw lots of people. Less so for Elarica, because she came in fairly early on, and we’d selected a scene that we’d like her to do and she said “Actually I want to do another scene, I like this one better.” She did it and just blew us away.

With the Tommy character,  it’s so, so hard to find somebody who could deliver a performance that didn’t feel affected. Tommy had been faced with a fight in life and he’d internalised rather than lashed out at the world. The casting director, Daniel Edwards, set up these auditions where we were seeing 10 boys at a time. We did three days, we saw maybe 100 individuals before we got to him and we were really digging deep to find him.

But I was so pleased when we saw [Clem] because it’s that lovely thing when you’re a writer or director where you see him and just go “That’s exactly him.” And it’s the spirit of that person, the spirit of that performance. It’s really strange because, if you’re following traditional script rules, he’s an odd character to lead your film because he’s forced into making decisions, but in many ways it’s a film about him growing up and saying goodbye to his dad. So it’s interesting to watch someone play that.

Tommy’s relationship with his dad is excellent as well, that total lack of connection!

It’s hilarious, isn’t it? I just think it’s so good. Shaun was brilliant because he knows the craft of acting inside out and I would be talking to Shaun to try and direct Clem indirectly, if that makes sense. Shaun was so gracious at giving him stuff to react to in a scene.

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What was the experience of trying to find financing like? Was it an easy sell?

The way it kicked off was my wife and I were getting married, and my very, very gracious wife said “Instead of getting gifts for our wedding, why don’t we put on our invitation ‘Give us money because we’re making a film’?” And so we got a little kick-starter to spend time writing the script, to approach people, to get the ball rolling, and then various things fell in place and then it was private investors, friends and family, begging, borrowing, stealing.

It was very low budget but I’m just so glad because I feel like we really over-delivered for what the movie cost. It cost in terms of effort, but it was a passion project for everybody. And then it’s weird because things take on an energy of its own. You’re still pushing it hard but it feels like you’re on a flat run rather than a hill.

How did the pressures of the shoot compare to the pressures of that?

Jen Handorf, our producer, put together an amazing crew. People she’d worked with before and people that she knew about, knew through other people, and I called in all my favours. So we had this crew who just all wanted to do it because we weren’t paying exceptional money or anything, we just had to convince people that it was worthwhile.

But then we only shot for 15 days, that’s really quick. It’s closer to what you do in TV, film-wise it’s insanity! But the cast was really lovely because they said they never felt rushed. I always had a ticking clock in my head, but because we were shooting handheld and because Eben Bolter our DoP was lighting practically, so the lamps and things were really the only things lighting the scenes, it meant that we could work quite quick and dirty and that way we could focus on performance.

So we shot really fast and we were on the estate for 10 days, and then we were in and out of markets and streets and cafes in London, real places. The only place that was a set was Wimbledon studios where we shot the hospital stuff. And that’s the same hospital that’s used on The Bill! On The Bill it was normally really over lit so we went round turning off all the lights. I’m really chuffed with the look of the film because it’s obviously based on realism and naturalism but it’s got this otherworldly ethereal quality as well.

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The lighting and the colours in the flats really add a lot to the mood.

Yeah, Chloe James and Caitlin Thompson, who are the art directors, were amazing. We talked about colour, about blue and red, striking the difference between Carmen and Tommy, her red fieriness and the coolness of his character, and there’s the red room where everything happens.

But those flats were actually quite nice when we went in! We were given the keys and told we could use whichever spaces we want, and we selected three or four places and the guys went to town destroying them and making them look all mouldy and mottled and crumbling. I actually became strangely fond of the estate. It’s weird isn’t it because I think it looks so convincing? But it’s all a construct, hats off to the guys.

I did want to ask about the music as well, what was the process of developing that like?

Yeah, that’s Paul Frith. When I was editing the film I temp scored it with all sorts of different stuff and it was really eclectic and sort of didn’t work! So there was some really sad stuff, melancholic string quartet stuff that I’d picked up, and a lot of the stuff that was sampled in The Shining. It’s like this aggressive strangling of strings and voices, and Paul then did something completely different!

I really wanted to contrast the harsh cement bricks of the estate with this classically orchestrated idea of strings. There was this whole other direction that you could go in, like synths, kind of urban and cool metallic-y, but I wasn’t interested in going there, it felt like a really obvious choice. I wanted to do something that felt like a classic Victorian piece and the music speaks to that. Paul is just amazing.

Do you have anything coming up?

James and I are writing a film about 50 Berkeley Square, the real place in London, that is “The most haunted house in London.” We are writing at the moment a supernatural horror film set in The Blitz, during the black out, in the most haunted house in London!

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It’s been a couple of years since The Forgotten played at FrightFest. How have you found the process of releasing it and finally having it out there?

Because it was a slight hybrid of supernatural horror and social realism, we didn’t quite know how it would sit with people. So we resisted going out to distributors straight away once we’d finished. We thought we’d give it some life in festivals and see if people take to it, and the FrightFest guys absolutely loved it and that was the first thing that was really exciting.

It was actually an incredibly good year in 2014 at FrightFest, there were lots of good films and we were thinking “How is this going to go down?” but it was a slight breath of fresh air to people because it was just tonally a little bit different. And then that kicked us off and we played around the world. It’s found its niche even though we never really calculated for that. I’m just really proud!

The Forgotten is available on DVD and VOD now. Read our review here and keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.