Soulmate is a ghost story that “defies expectations”

Axelle Carolyn talks her debut film Soulmate, making a romantic ghost story and BBFC cuts

Anna-WaltonAxelle Carolyn’s ghost story Soulmate has arrived on DVD, and it’s done so under a surprising cloud of controversy, running into BBFC-enforced cuts.

The film is a heartfelt, atmospheric supernatural tale of Audrey (Hellboy II‘s Anna Walton) who moves into a remote country house shortly after attempting suicide following the death of her husband. She soon discovers that she is not alone…and she decides to reach out to the unquiet spirit. It focuses on loss and tentative connections rather than raucous horror chills, and it’s a refreshing, moving spin on a familiar set-up.

We talked to Carolyn about the challenges of making her debut feature, turning expectations on their head, and her reaction to hearing about the perplexing cuts.

How did Soulmate come about? 

When I lived in London I used to like traveling around Wales and England, visiting little villages and spending time in the country. One day I drove through a village which just seemed to encapsulate the spirit of all those Gothic stories Britain used to be so great at – movies like The Woman In Black hadn’t yet been released – and thought I’d love to try and bring that genre back. I figured I’d never get a big budget so I wrote it as small and contained as I could: two people in a house, only one of them is a ghost.

It feels quite similar tonally, and in subject matter, to your short film The Last Post. Is that emotional take on the ghost story something that you’re particularly drawn to?

I love ghost stories, they’re so fantastic for metaphors and emotional storylines. A ghost, to me, is by its very nature sad; it’s someone who can’t move past something, who can’t accept their death. Both The Last Post and Soulmate were unconsciously inspired by the same movie I saw as a kid, actually: The Ghost And Mrs Muir, which I hadn’t seen in about 20 years when I wrote those scripts, but must have somehow stayed in my head and influenced me.

There’s a tremendous atmosphere to the film as Audrey settles into the house. Could you tell us about the look and feel that you wanted?

Ghost stories are wonderful to work on from a technical point of view, because there’s so much to play on visually and sound-wise. Finding the right house was a big deal, in the right setting – the landscape plays such a huge part in showing how cut off from the world and truly alone Audrey is. I wanted the look of the film to be a bit of a throwback to the old Gothic ghost stories, so our production designer, Felix Coles, did a great job throwing in weird little touches here and there around the house, she really hit that balance between showing a house you could realistically expect to find as a holiday rental, but also giving it an eerie feel. And my director of photography, Sara Deane, and I spent long hours studying older films and even paintings to discuss the dramatic lighting, the automnal color scheme, the choice of long, slow shots and wide frames…

Then in post I had a blast adding all kinds of subtle sound effects – creaking stairs, howling wind -, which we let play as much as possible without too much music. Christian Henson, our composer, knew that the scares would work better if we didn’t signpost them through music, so we kept the music to a minimum for the night scenes of the first half, and amped it up as the relationship between Audrey and the ghost develops.

SoulmateFor a while it feels as though that Soulmate could tip into being the usual “woman, alone in a cabin, is haunted by terrifying ghost,” movie. Were you quite conscious of walking that line until the reveal?

Absolutely. I enjoyed playing with the clichés of the genre and defying expectations, plus I thought it was important story-wise to make the ghost reveal himself slowly, and for him to seem like a menacing presence at first. The way I looked at the story was, what if someone who finds themselves in a haunted house had a legitimate reason to stay? What if someone wanted to establish contact with a ghost? Again, because I see ghosts as sad rather than scary, I thought it’d be interesting to see which way this kind of relationship would be heading. And because of the way we set up the situation, and set up the characters and their motivations, it could only end one way really. At the end of the day, it’s a very human drama.

Were you nervous at all about that shift, where it becomes almost a two-handed drama between a mourning woman and a lonely ghost? It takes Soulmate from the kind of story that we’re familiar with to something quite different.

To me, that shift is the essence of the movie, it’s what sets it apart from other ghost stories. But I knew it was risky; any time you mix genres, you risk alienating half your audience. It also makes it a harder sell commercially, so I knew it was a gamble. But it’s the joy of working on a low budget: you can take chances and experiment and make movies that defy expectations…

Was making your first film more of a challenge than you expected, or did you feel prepared for it? Even though the film is mostly in one location, was fundraising difficult?

Getting the money together was not easy! It took about 4 years from its inception to put it together, going through various budget levels and ending up making it on a shoestring budget, which was in many ways a blessing in disguise, because I got to focus the story on the elements that actually mattered and make it the movie I wanted. As for the production itself, some aspects of the process were tougher than others. Lots of things fell apart then come together again in prep, but I enjoyed the shoot immensely. It was exhausting, but at the same time the most exciting and creatively satisfying experience ever. We were pressed for time and money, but because it was such a contained story and I’d had lots of time to prepare, it felt very manageable.

Soulmate-1Could you talk a bit about the casting for the film? There are some previous collaborators involved, like Anna Walton for example.

I’d worked with Anna Walton on my short film The Halloween Kid and thought she was wonderful and really easy to work with. A couple of months later, I did a huge rewrite on the script, and Anna kept popping into my head as I was writing the character. Once the script was ready I sent it to her and thankfully, she really responded to it. We worked together for the months leading up to the shoot, workshopping the script and discussing the character, and it was a wonderful experience. She’s so nuanced in her performance, so convincing, I’m incredibly lucky.

Tom Wisdom, who plays the ghost, came to audition pretty late in the day and he was a no-brainer, he was perfect for the part. I wanted the ghost to be a bit unhinged, his highs are very high and lows are really low. He’s very child-like in a way, and I think Tom conveyed that perfectly. And Tanya Myers and Nick Brimble are both wonderful; by coincidence they’d already played a couple on some TV show, so they knew each other well – shooting the two scenes they have together was so much fun!

How have you found the audience reaction to Soulmate so far?

As I expected, the shift in tone halfway through really divides people. It’s not your average, typical ghost story, and I’m fine with that. The people it touches make it all worthwhile. I’ve found that if the audience is warned not to expect a full-on horror movie, and keep their minds open, they enjoy the ride all the more.

There’s was the BBFC decision about cutting what is an upsetting, but very important scene. How has it been going through that process and facing that judgement?

Kind of surreal, to be honest. I’ve made what is essential a Gothic romance, a ghostly Jane Eyre, and they reacted like this was a video nasty! Neil [Marshall, Carolyn’s husband and producer on the film] told me years ago that he’d always thought it’d be kind of badass to have the BBFC request cuts from one of his movies (it never happened) because it’s so rare these days, and there you go – I got that dubious honor without even trying!

Do you have anything you’re working on currently?

I have a script being shopped around at the moment, another I’m working on, and a project I’m trying to get together with some friends… Hopefully one of them will happen soon!

You can buy Soulmate on DVD for £10.25 at Amazon.co.uk.