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Getting Under the Skin of British Horror: A Conversation with Axelle Carolyn and Neil Marshall

11 August 2014

“The films that stay with you are the films that manage to get under your skin and into your head” says Neil Marshall. Ahead of the home entertainment release of Soulmate, The Fan Carpet had the opportunity to speak with the films writer-director Axelle Carolyn and producer Neil Marshall as we attempted to get under the skin of their ghost story and inside their heads.

“We’re halfway between horror and drama, mainstream and art house and while to me that’s what makes the movie unique and unexpected, it also disappoints some people who come in with specific expectations.” For a filmmaker making her debut feature Carolyn is bold and steadfast in her creative vision. It is difficult to perceive her contribution to the disquieting small village and haunted cottage narrative that merges horror with the investigative elements of the thriller and detective genre as anything other than a tale of halves.

In a conversation that spanned childhood to the present day, Carolyn and Marshall took us back to those early inspirational moments along with their discovery of horror, before sharing their thoughts on the creative process, working in genre, censorship versus classification as well as taking us inside of their Welsh ghost story…



Why a career as a filmmaker? Was there that one inspirational moment?

Axelle Carolyn: As far back as I can remember I’ve always wanted to tell stories, and as a kid I would write short stories and illustrate them with pencil drawings. Then as a teenager I decided film was the way forward. I grew up in Brussels, Belgium, in a family with no ties whatsoever to the film industry, and my parents insisted I got a university degree first. So I did, but once I had my degree I seized the first opportunity I had to get into the film industry, which in my case was to start writing set reports for film magazines.

Neil Marshall: I feel that film-making is what I was destined to do – I’m just not made for anything else.  There was a defining moment – the day I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was a revelation to me, and not only because I loved the movie so much, and still do to this day, but because I understood for the first time what it meant to be a film director. That movie wears its direction on its sleeve, and it’s brilliant.  I was aware for the first time that the story, sound, music and images had been created and manipulated by someone specifically for the effect it has on the viewer. I began making my first films shortly after that – learning the basics using a Super 8mm camera, and making a lot of mistakes along the way. It was a great self-education.


Can you remember the moment you discovered the horror genre?

Neil Marshall: There were two moments. The first was when I was about five or six years old and my Father woke me up and said there was something on the television I should see. It was James Whale’s Frankenstein, and I was both afraid and entranced by it. I’m not even sure I really understood it, but the images clawed their way into my brain, and they have remained there ever since.  The second moment was several years later when I must have been around twelve or thirteen and a friend had just got a VHS player. He picked up Zombie Flesh Eaters and I Spit On Your Grave from our local rental shop, and we watched them back to back. This was just before both titles were banned under the Video Nasties act in the UK. Well, it’ll come as no surprise that I was fairly grossed out and disturbed by those movies, especially I Spit On Your Grave, which is hardly a bundle of laughs, though at least Zombie Flesh Eaters has the scene with the shark!  But whatever the reaction, they didn’t scare me off watching horror movies – quite the opposite. I started watching every horror movie I could find after that!

Axelle Carolyn: I couldn’t pinpoint a specific moment, but I do remember being attracted to the darker, spookier aspects of cartoons, and The Disney Silly Symphony – The Skeleton Dance was a milestone for me – I loved it. But actually anything that had something to do with skeletons or ghosts.


Soulmate is your feature debut. How invaluable was both your time in front of the camera and the experience of writing and directing your three short films in preparing you for this transition?

Axelle Carolyn: I started writing and preparing Soulmate before I made the shorts, and so it’s hard to say. Each filmmaker has a different process, and making the shorts helped me figure out what the best preparation was for me – how to organise my notes, and what kind of shot list or storyboard helps for example. 

Having worked in front of a camera was certainly a huge advantage, because it gave me a better understanding of an actor’s work, and I like to think that it helped me figure out how to best direct my cast on set. Directing actors is one of my favourite aspects about filmmaking, and I was blessed with a fantastic cast – it was a real joy!


All of your writing and directing credits are shades of horror. What continues to attract you to the horror genre?

Axelle Carolyn: Its versatility. Horror covers so many shades and nuances, and I feel that just like sci-fi offers wonderful metaphors to comment on society, horror is perfect to express emotions and explore themes that would otherwise seem twee, or depressing. Soulmate deals with grief, suicide, loneliness, but because on the surface it’s a ghost story, it (hopefully) doesn’t come across as preachy or overly sad.


What was the genesis of Soulmate, and was there ever the temptation to be both in front of and behind the camera?

Axelle Carolyn: Yes, I was tempted at one point. But acting to me was always a means to an end. It was something I got the chance to try and experiment with for a while, but it was not a goal in itself. I was all too aware of my limitations, and so I quickly decided to focus on writing and directing. Early on when I was writing, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to direct, but the story felt too personal to let go of it. Of course it took years to get financed, and so I had plenty of time to prepare.


British ghost stories have a unique sense of feeling that derives from the setting. As it is a feeling it is difficult to put into words, but I wondered if you’d share your thoughts on what the setting brought to the atmosphere of Soulmate?

Axelle Carolyn: The settings play a huge part in a story like this; partly because we put the character in a fish-out-of-water situation, but also because nothing reflects loneliness and isolation like a character alone on the midst of immense, deserted landscapes. There’s a melancholy to these places too, and a certain darkness. Whilst it may look pretty and dramatic during the day, at night it takes on a whole new dimension. I fell in love with the Cotswold and Wales, and these areas inspired the story – there really aren’t many other places that have this quality.

Neil Marshall: Bleak, that’s the word I would use.  England, Scotland and of course Wales where Soulmate is set and was filmed, have a particular bleakness about them. It’s the kind of inherently spooky atmosphere that’s informed such classics as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, as well as ghost stories like The Turn of the Screw, The Woman in Black and pretty much everything by Charles Dickens. Soulmate taps directly into this natural bleakness by utilising the grey skies and morning mist to create a haunting mood.


Soulmate’s drama is anchored by the personal angst of its title character. The most successful horrors or chilling tales are those where the supernatural tension is offset by the personal or collective angst of its human characters.

Axelle Carolyn: I agree. Horror for the hell of scares and gore can be great fun, but to really get under your skin then it needs to resonate on a deeper level. As I mentioned earlier, I believe the best genre movies are the ones that deal with something bigger, and more universal, whether it’s grief, sexism or motherhood (Rosemary’s Baby), racism (Night of the Living Dead) or religion. But it all has to be reflected and expressed through the protagonists.

Neil Marshall: This is something that clearly works well in Soulmate. It is fundamentally a human drama upon which the more supernatural elements are layered. I did a similar thing with The Descent, which is primarily about a mother’s loss of her child, and how it affects her both emotionally and psychologically.  Beyond being a supernatural entity, the ghost in Soulmate is still human, and carries with him plenty of emotional baggage. So there is a build-up of collective angst throughout the story, and it helps to rack up the tension. Quite often in horror stories it is the personal and collective angst of the human characters that triggers the supernatural element, and that is certainly is the case with Soulmate, beause it is Audrey’s presence in the house that brings the ghost into being.



Soulmate almost has the feel of an old fashioned supernatural horror, but it also feels reactionary – a reaction to modern horror and a look back to the past.  How do you perceive Soulmate’s place within the genre?

Axelle Carolyn: I’m a huge fan of ghost stories, whether contemporary or classics, and so there are many, many books and films which have influenced me here. But I’d say the reason I was drawn to a more classical approach was the fact that I believe ghosts are in essence tragic and sad characters; lost between two worlds and unable to communicate. Story-wise, the biggest influence was probably The Ghost and Mrs Muir – you could say that Soulmate is an updated, darker take on that story. Stylistically I’d mention The Devil’s Backbone, The Haunting, The Others and The Innocents. But I’m also a huge fan of the Disneyland Haunted Mansion, and so there are a couple of direct references to it that I hope Haunted Mansion fans will catch!

Neil Marshall: I don’t think Soulmate is a conscious reaction to modern horror on Axelle’s part. It certainly is an older fashioned story, but I think that comes very much from Axelle’s own sensibilities. This is the story she first told me about, and this is the story she made. I don’t believe she was trying to make a statement so much as to tell the story the way it felt organically right to tell it. This is not an action movie, although it has plenty of scares, but it doesn’t rely solely upon them. It’s a story about two people dealing with death; only one of them happens to be dead already.  If that doesn’t speak of classic horror then what does?  I think Soulmate sits very comfortably amongst genre films such as The Others, The Woman in Black, The Innocents and The Haunting.


At its heart it forgoes the need to terrify and instead looks to create suspense through a disquieting sense of feeling. They say horror and comedy are the two most challenging genres because they require a reaction from the audience. What are the challenges to creating that disquieting sense of feeling that allows you to hook and then draw the audience in? Is it a case of understanding or discovering the language of the genre through image and sound and then using it?

Axelle Carolyn: There’s definitely a technical aspect to it, but I think that the biggest help was the fact that I love and respect the genre. It’s not something you can imitate cynically. I’ve seen and read hundreds of ghost stories throughout my life, and they’ve really shaped my understanding of what does and doesn’t work when it comes to creating atmosphere – from the editing, the framing, and the performances, to the sound and the music. It allowed me to pick and choose what I’d want to replicate, and what I’d prefer to avoid. The cliché in ghost stories for the past thirty years has been a heavy use of piano in the soundtrack, and so I thought we’d go with strings, which worked all the better because the protagonist is a violinist. So the music became a wonderful way to reflect her state of mind.

Neil Marshall: It certainly helps to have an understanding of the genre you’re working in.  The more genre knowledge you bring to a project the better; if only to avoid doing something that’s been done a thousand times and falling into cliché. Creating a genuine scare or a build-up of suspense is a skill. It’s easy to make an audience jump with a loud bang, but that’s not the same as creating a real fright or a classic shock moment. There has to be some substance to it or else it’s forgotten as quickly as it came.  The films that stay with you are films that manage to get under your skin and into your head. Most of the time you’re not even aware its happening, but after the movie’s over, maybe days later, it’s still there and continues to haunt you. That’s great horror film-making, and I think it definitely requires thought and precision to utilise all the elements to create the desired effect.


Genre is an interesting term if only because the boundaries of genre are frequently blurred. There is a strong investigative element to Soulmate’s narrative, and so often filmmakers borrow traits from different genres to tell their tales. What are your thoughts on the idea of genre within modern film?

Axelle Carolyn: I agree that the boundaries are easily blurred. Sadly I feel like nowadays genre limits the stories you can tell, and successfully sell to an audience. Commercially speaking, you’re expected to fit into a narrow category, and if you mix them or fall in between then it’ll be harder to determine your target audience, and to market the film to them. Genre also creates expectations, and I know Soulmate has always been more appreciated by audiences when they knew not to expect the kind of scares ghost stories tend to systematically offer these days. We’re halfway between horror and drama, mainstream and art house, and while to me that’s what makes the movie unique and unexpected, it also disappoints some people who come in with specific expectations, and don’t like movies to deviate from the norm. 

Neil Marshall: There should be no hard and fast rules for film-making – anything is worth a try. Filmmakers borrow from other art-forms, other film-makers, other genres all the time, and that’s great. Film feeds off itself as do all art-forms, and it’s this constant stirring of the pot that keeps thing interesting. Genres shift position constantly, sometimes gaining in popularity, sometimes waning. Exploring, crossing and experimenting with genre is a vital part of that process, and so the idea of genre will always be relevant.


Film is one of the great collaborative art forms, and one of the significant relationships is the dance between the film and audience or rather the filmmaker and their audience. A filmmaker once told me storytelling is about giving the audience what they expect, but not how they expect it. How conscious were you of the audience’s expectations, and was there an element of crafting Soulmate around these expectations so that you could indulge in a little gamesmanship? 

Axelle Carolyn: The first half of the film is a classical, old-fashioned ghost story, in which I’ve had so much fun toying with the typical scares and situations of the genre: the woman alone in the house, the howling wind, the spooky cottage, the noises at night, and a couple of jump scares. But I only indulged because I knew the second part would take the audience in a direction they wouldn’t expect, and hopefully hadn’t seen before. It’s risky, but it was really what appealed to me.


Following cuts that were required for reasons the BBFC cited as “imitatable technique”, what is your perspective on the role of the BBFC? It is presented to the public as a classification body, but without an uncut category does the BBFC not remain a censorship body that oppresses artistic freedom, and the self-informed viewing choices of responsible adults?

Axelle Carolyn: Absolutely, and the BBFC has a great role to play when it comes to gauging what’s acceptable for children. But the fact that they could also dictate what other adults should or shouldn’t be allowed to watch is censorship – pure and simple. If the film had been simply categorized as an ’18’, I would have already been surprised, because there really isn’t much in there to justify it. But at least I could understand that their intent was to protect children. Over ‘18’ as the old saying goes, “If you’re old enough to go to war, you’re old enough” to watch Soulmate. Now to ban the movie in its uncut form is ridiculous. Now that we’ve cut out the offending scene altogether, we’re getting a 15 classification for ‘strong violence and gore’. If anybody who’s watched the movie can tell me which violent and gory moments justify a ‘15’ when something like The Woman In Black got awarded a ‘12A’, I invite them to let me know through Twitter.

Neil Marshall: Absolutely.  So long as they’re denying us the viewer the freedom of choice to view such artistic endeavours as they were meant to be seen, then they are nothing but censors.  What you suggest is a decent compromise. Make two versions of the film – one that is deemed ‘safe’ and one that is totally uncensored for those who wish to seek it out.  I understand the need to prevent children from seeing certain movies, and as such certification makes sense as a guideline.   What doesn’t make sense is cutting a movie to fit a certificate it clearly wasn’t meant for.  I’m sure for some producers/studios the bottom line is reaching the widest possible audience, and they therefore don’t mind the odd snip here and there.  But when a film is clearly designed, as Soulmate is, for people who are trusted to drive, to drink, to vote, to raise children, to fight in wars, and generally make informed adult decisions on a day to day basis, but then are not trusted to watch a scene in which someone attempts suicide in case they should decide to imitate that behaviour, then there is something very wrong with the BBFC, and it’s high time they had a serious rethink.  


What experience do you hope audiences take away from Soulmate?

Neil Marshall: I hope they’ve had an emotional, satisfying experience, and above all that they’ve watched a genuine, heartfelt movie, made with passion and care, with a good story well told.


How would you describe the experience of directing your first feature film, and from before to after Soulmate how do you perceive your evolution as a filmmaker?  

Axelle Carolyn: Directing Soulmate was fantastic – it was the most creatively satisfying experience of my life! I had a wonderful cast and crew around me, and we all grew pretty close, so the shoot was also a lot of fun. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved, and I’ve loved screening the movie in festivals around the world. How I’ve evolved will be easier to comment on once I’ve had the chance to direct another feature, but there are definitely lessons I’ve learned, things I now know to do differently – or things to try again. I can’t wait to be back behind the camera!



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