If you're a comedy nerd, the name "Matthew Holness" should ring a bell.
In 2004, Holness created and starred in a British comedy series called Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, which is - without hyperbole - one of the funniest things to ever air on television. That show didn't last long (to be fair, very few have flown that close to the sun and kept their wings) but quickly became a cult favorite. The years since have found Holness appearing in small roles in other British comedies and ... writing horror stories.
In 2013, Holness published one by the name of Possum, and now - five years later - he's adapted that skin-crawling tale into his very first feature film. Starring Sean Harris as a profoundly troubled puppeteer named Phillip and Alun Armstrong as the terrifying old man he shares a home with, Possum is one of the best horror films I've seen all year, well worth seeking out when it hits theaters and VOD this weekend. Naturally, when the opportunity to speak with Holness came along, I leapt at the opportunity.
Here's how that went.
Look, I've been doing this for a long time. I don't get starstruck or nervous doing interviews. But I am very nervous to be speaking to you today.
Matthew Holness: (laughs) Oh, well, thank you! It's my pleasure!
After watching Possum, it occurred to me that this is maybe the fourth great horror film I've seen in the last few years that happened to be directed by someone with a background in comedy. I'm wondering what you think about that trend, and the line between those two genres.
I don't have a definitive answer, but I think it probably has to do with having a willingness to go places that aren't necessarily places most people would go to. I guess there's also a shared desire to shock at times. Comedy's about creating embarrassment, and horror's about creating a similar kind of embarrassment, it's just a bit more unpleasant. I also think that, to create a [joke] and execute it well, it's a similar sort of thing to creating a scare. I'm less technically-minded in that sense when it comes to horror. Possum is not about jump scares - although I was still sort of keen to land [a few of] those moments - and I suppose they both share that thing where you don't know whether either will work until an audience or reader experiences it. You know instantly if a joke goes down well or not, just as you see with a scare moment.
Other than that, I find that writing comedy is something that's very hard to do on one's own. It's always easier, I think, if you're in a situation with a team of writers, whereas writing horror is really something that must be done by oneself. I find that easier to do than comedy. So, you know, I guess there are also differences, as well!
Gimme your elevator pitch on Possum. How do you describe this movie?
Well, I guess the elevator pitch would be: a man comes home with the intention of destroying a puppet, and in the process discovers that there is a worse monster in his midst. It's a hard sell, because in addition to being a monster film it isn't a monster film. I always imagined it as something akin to George Romero's Martin, something that's a psychological horror film that's about tortured, fractured psyches and claustrophobic family relationships that are kind of toxic. It's also about a mood, really, and trying to create a sense of the uncanny from very few elements. The plot doesn't go anywhere hugely complex. It's a simple plot, and I always knew it [would have] a simple plot. This is a film about Phillip's psychology, this breakdown he's having based on unresolved trauma.
I saw this movie right after seeing the new Halloween, which is a really well-made, meat-and-potatoes slasher movie. But still, I didn't love that film, and in thinking about why I realized I'm simply not into slasher movies. Where do you stand on that sub-genre?
I really like a good, crowd-pleasing horror movie. I love films like The Conjuring, I love James Wan and think he's a brilliant director. But the thing about those kind of horror films is, you don't really think about them after you've watched them. I mean, they give you more bang for your buck! You come out of a film like The Conjuring and you definitely feel like you've gotten your money's worth. But I guess I prefer the kind of horror films that linger with you, and lots of the films that were inspirations [on Possum] had that effect on me. Think of German Expressionist horror films from the 1920's, or films that seem to be on about something else other than the surface elements of the story. I also think that smaller horror films tend to be some of the best ones - films like Seconds, or Martin - films that sort of keep to their budget, but are still very intense. And the darker they go, the more interesting they are to me.
And, by the way, I love the original Halloween, but I've gotta agree with you - I don't really go in for slashers that much. I want to get into the heads of the characters, and I can't really relate to a group of teenagers getting picked off one by one. I prefer it when the ghosts are as much a psychological thing as they are a physical threat. Ghosts coming back from the dead are all well and good, but I like it when they can be either that or a manifestation of guilt, or repressed anger, or something like that. That's way more interseting to me, when a movie takes you to a place where you're forced to confront things you might not be so comfortable with yourself.
There were moments in Possum - and here I'm thinking of the shot where Sean Harris is looking up into the camera as black water rains down on him - where I found myself thinking, "Man, this set looks like it was kind of a bummer to be on."
Ha, well, it was very dark, yes. Intense. There's no getting away from that! And Sean's a method actor, which means that while he was on set I was directing Phillip, not Sean, at all times. Sean does not break character. We did a lot of prep work together, discussing Phillip and where he'd come from and what he'd been through, and Sean wasn't really interested in the horror side of it so much as he was getting to the truth of this character and expressing what he'd gone through for the audience.
Once those discussions were out of the way, we were on the same page. Then Sean went off and did his work as an actor, which means he came back to the set as Phillip. So now we've got a person on set who is completely wrapped up in the darkness of that script. Sean will put himself through immense discomfort in order to get that truth on screen. Something like the shot you're talking about - yeah, Sean just sat there and he took it. It couldn't be any other way. Sean would expose himself to all manner of things in order to get that right, and there were many scenes in this film that were incredibly difficult and intense to shoot, particularly the final scene. They were dark and depressing to shoot, but that's where the truth of those scenes comes out. It was as dark to shoot as it was to write and to piece together.
How did you arrive at Sean Harris, by the way? Was the part written with him in mind?
I did not, actually. I wrote with the guy from Martin in mind, because that was just the reality I was seeing in my head when I wrote it. I think it went to Sean straight away when we were casting, though, and we were very fortunate when he responded so strongly to it. I'd been a little concerned, too, wondering what kind of actor would be able to go to the emotionally dark place [the script required], and the great thing about Sean is that he immerses himself in his characters and is able to go to those places and come back with something that's very affecting and truthful. There's a difference between acting where you really, really believe it and acting where it's just surface-level, and we knew that the last thing this movie could have would be an actor who wasn't that interested in the actual character. It had to be an actor who'd really be willing to give Phillip a voice.
His physical performance is incredible. The way he runs, with his hands down in front of him? It's exactly how a frightened little kid would run.
That's right! Y'know, throughout the film you see him gradually adopting this persona of a younger Phillip. It's as though he's uncomfortable in his own body and doesn't know who he is. That was all created by Sean, who just looked to what Phillip had gone through and then created all these wonderful manifestations of Phillip's trauma.
Are you scared of spiders?
I am scared.
Did you have a particularly scary experience with one when you were a kid?
Oh, too many to mention. I've always been frightened of them.
See, I've always been scared of spiders, too, but I never had a traumatic experience with one. I think they just look alien, or like something that should not exist.
I think it's the unpredictability of them, too. You never know where they're gonna move or what they're gonna do.
This is true! Very sneaky, those spiders.
That's what really creeps me out. And that's kind of why it fits with [Possum], that sense of not knowing whether it's awake or not or what it might do. Y'know, I once heard this very terrible, very frightening fact about spiders, and I can't remember if this [is accurate], but apparently they scream when they run.
I might not have that right. You can't hear it, but if you could ... y'know, actually, don't quote me on that because I'm not sure if it's true, but it was something along those lines (author's note - I looked into this, and this isn't entirely true; we absolve Mr. Holness of this inaccuracy but are leaving the exchange here for entertainment purposes).
I read somewhere recently where you said you feel like you're too old for comedy now. Is that specifically in terms of acting, or does that rule out you directing a comedy, as well?
No, I mean, I'm too old for TV comedy. That's a ruthless business. You've got to be young and trendy, and I feel like such an old fart right now. Being fashionable seems to drive a lot of comedy these days, and there seem to be a certain number of comedians who are all competing to do the same thing. So, I'm kinda too old to be bothered with any of that. And also, the truth is that if I were to go and do [a comedy] for UK TV, I would not have as much freedom as I had with Darkplace. We were really lucky, Richard (Ayoade) and I, at that time to have had such freedom to just write, direct and edit it the way that we did. I don't think they'd give anyone that opportunity anymore, not unless you're very established, and I don't feel that I am sufficiently established in that world.
And, yeah, I just feel too old for it. Like I said before, it doesn't come as easy to me as writing more serious stuff. To really write comedy well, it needs to be constantly rewritten, over and over again. On Darkplace we were changing lines right up until we were shooting, and the same thing went for the stage shows. It's a bit of a science, writing comedy. But having said all that, there might still be a good [comedy] script in me still, I suppose. But at the moment, I'm getting far more reward from writing stuff like Possum.
Do you have a follow-up planned?
I do, actually. I've written another one which is even more horrible and dark than Possum.
Haha, yeah, and that's currently in development with the BFI, and I'm hoping will find a way through the darkness of it because I'd love get cracking on it as soon as possible.
Possum arrives in select theaters and VOD tomorrow, November 2nd. I highly recommend that you seek it out.