It’s hard to pin The Ghoul down. The feature debut from writer-direct Gareth Tunley is playing at the BFI London Film Festival, and we can tell you that’s a psychological noir mystery that has some fascinating genre elements swirling around.
It follows Chris (Tom Meeten), a detective whose pursuit of a murder suspect named Coulson (Rufus Jones) takes him undercover and into therapy with Dr Fisher (Niamh Cusack). However, his cover quickly becomes more than convincing, and his relationships with his friends, particularly fellow copper Jim (Dan Skinner) and Jim’s partner Kathleen (Alice Lowe) begin to shift as the engimatic Dr Morland (Geoffrey McGivern) takes over his treatment. With such a fragile grip on reality, what is the truth of Chris’ existence?
We talked to Tunley about his inspirations for The Ghoul, the decision to cast actors best known for comedy in serious roles, and why he’s determined to keep blending genres.
The Ghoul is a complex film, both in terms of plot and tone! What was the initial inspiration?
It was some ideas that were knocking around for a few years, but I guess I wanted to do a thriller that was influenced by some of the things I have grown up reading over the years. So a mix of Philip K Dick and Alan Moore, some fantastical and science fiction-y kind of tropes but woven into a film that would seem, on the face of it, to be like a naturalistic thriller.
It’s about a character that’s extremely vulnerable and suggestible and so everybody around him, everything he sees and everything he hears is feeding into this psychotic worldview.
Was it a challenge to balance the noir investigation elements with the more fantastical ideas?
Yeah, totally. I think it’s a kind of a suburban noir, that’s what we were calling it when we were making it. It’s partly a by-product of it being quite a low budget film, so we decided to make a virtue of that and just film it in the real world. It’s not pushed into any particular very stylised space but it does have elements of noir to it.
I mentioned Philip K Dick just now, one of the things I liked about Philip K Dick was that he always put his twists up front. He didn’t save them for the end, he gives you the twist in chapter three in a 20-chapter book, and then it keeps twisting from there. Hopefully the film does that. There’s quite a major reality shift quite early on and that kind of destabilises you as a viewer and unsettles you, but also means that you’re open for anything really from there on in.
Was the unreliable narrator a key element of that?
We’ve got an unreliable narrator in Chris, and in fact pretty much everybody in the story is an unreliable person of one kind or another. So Rufus Jones’ character is an unreliable sort of guy, Paul Kaye is a dodgy character, and Geoff McGivern is plays the psychologist Morland is a very hard person to read. He’s serious one minute, then comical the next. He has an earthy sense of humour and then will go into flights of mysticism and fantasy.
And again, with that character I was very, very influenced by Alan Moore. Not even so much Alan Moore’s writing, although I love his comics and his other writing, but even just by him himself and his ideas about magic and consciousness. So there’s a lot of Alan Moore in Morland. There’s no pun intended in the name, it’s only just occurred to me, but he’s got a bit of Alan Moore in him somewhere!
It really explores the city of London as well, did you always have it in your head as a London story?
Definitely, London’s integral to it. When I hear the phrase “The location is like a character in a film,” I always kind of reach for my revolver slightly! I don’t like that phrase, but I know what people mean by it. The location just becomes really important. We shot everywhere from the suburbs of South London to the upscale Docklands to Bloomsbury, and a lot of where Chris lives is actually near where I live in the East End, bits of which are still pretty hard-edged and run down. So hopefully we captured a lot of different textures and a lot of the different characteristics of London.
It’s definitely got that kind of idea of psychogeography, the character and texture of a place can echo and inform the inner world of our main character. So we shot most of the dialogue scenes, which are mostly interiors, pretty quickly but then we spent several days just wandering around with the lead actor Tom Meeten, who was also the producer, just filming the character basically wandering around. And a lot the more cinematic side of the film comes from that period of just wandering around with an extremely small crew, about four of us, just capturing the city from his point of view.
The cast is fantastic, and obviously we recognise actors like Tom Meeten, Alice Lowe, Dan Skinner and Rufus Jones mostly from comedies. What was the thinking behind casting them in these dramatic roles?
I come from a comedy background, I’ve been a comedy writer and performer, and I actually met Tom about 20 years ago in the basement of a pub. He was wrapped in bin liner being shouted at by Steve Oram. This is part of a comedy act I should say, not part of a disturbing breakdown, and since then both me and Tom have known people like Alice Lowe and Dan Skinner, and Rufus Jones and some of the rest of the cast. So we were really just casting friends but carefully looking for people who were right in the roles.
Ben Wheatley was a big galvanising influence on the film and his first film Down Terrace had a cast of very largely comedians, including me in a small role, but being given a chance to do something that wasn’t a straight comedy. So that kind of guts, to go “I’m going to do a film with a load of comedians that’s not a comedy!” just gave us the confidence to think this might work.
And somebody like Geoff McGivern is just fantastic. He brings such a lot of humour to that part that could have been sort of a bit po-faced but on the other hand somebody like Tom Meeten who’s known for big big physical comedy, he’s mostly known for his stuff with Noel Fielding for instance, it’s great to take that and almost bottle it, internalise it and get this quite intense performance from somebody who’s previously been known for comedy.
What was the actual process of shooting like? You mentioned working with friends and a small crew…
We don’t mind admitting it’s a low budget film. We made it in a very hand to mouth way. Our challenge was to make something that didn’t have any of the usual tropes of a low budget film. It’s not a mockumentary, it’s not a found footage film, not that there’s anything wrong with those, but we just wanted to make a classical sort of film, but for a fag and a fiver!
So we just shot very, very fast, we planned everything, I think all the shots were planned about a month in advance or something and we just had a fantastic small crew. Our DoP Ben Pritchard was very very committed and brilliant at shooting incredibly fast and getting fantastic results.
We had the usual low budget armoury of a dolly made out of a wheelchair, and if people see it they’ll see a motorway sequence, most of which is a static car in a garage in Twickenham with two torches taped to a clingfilm box instead of car headlights. Hopefully none of this shows up, I think we got away with it! But it was good old-fashioned Sam Raimi style resourceful low-budget filmmaking.
Do you think you’ll want to continue working on stories that blend genres or would you now want to make something a little bit more firmly rooted in a single one?
I like things that mix genres. I guess The Ghoul is a psychological thriller but it’s got little tones of horror and little notes of science fiction along the way and I’d like to keep that going. I’ve got projects coming up that have got more of a strong flavour of horror or another one which has more of a gangster crime flavour, but always mixing different things. That’s what interests me basically, things that don’t stay in one place.
Finally, how does it feel to have The Ghoul playing at the London Film Festival?
Yeah, well, it’s amazing! We’re such a tiny little film that it’s a very pleasant surprise but it’s also terrifying! This thing we made on a shoestring is going to be up against all these massive films but we’re really excited about it, and we’re also at Mayhem Festival in Nottingham, so that’s great as well. It will be great to see what a hardened genre crowd will make of our film.
The Ghoul plays at the BFI London Film Festival on Friday 14 and Sunday 16 October and you can buy tickets here. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.