From Radiohead to Christopher Nolan: the influences that shaped psychodrama The Ghoul

Director Gareth Tunley reveals some of the movies, books and music that fed into his mind-bending Ben Wheatley-produced debut feature The Ghoul.

4 August 2017

By Paul O’Callaghan

The Ghoul (2016)

For much of its svelte 85-minute running time, Gareth Tunley’s unsettlingly enigmatic debut feature keeps its cards close to its chest. Opening with hypnotic footage of a motorway at night that seems to beg comparison with David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), The Ghoul then sets out its stall as a darkly comic detective movie, with protagonist Chris (Tom Meeten) investigating a bizarre double murder alongside his motor-mouthed sidekick Jim (Dan Skinner).

But when Chris goes undercover as a directionless depressive in order to snoop around a therapist’s office, his new persona proves difficult to shake off, and a second, altogether more troubling plane of reality appears to swing into view.

Executive produced by Ben Wheatley, and co-starring Alice Lowe, The Ghoul sees Tunley claim a place alongside his esteemed collaborators as another ambitious, remarkably resourceful indie filmmaker intent on shaking up British genre cinema.

With the film hitting UK screens this week, we caught up with the writer-director to discuss the melting pot of cinematic, musical and literary influences that helped shape this mesmerising, London-set psychodrama.

On the micro-budget movies that inspired The Ghoul

I acted in Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace (2009) some years ago, and that had a huge galvanising effect on me. Working with Ben showed me how to scale up or down depending on production constraints. In my original script, Chris passes a crashed car in the opening sequence, but it turned out that would literally have used up our entire budget, so we swiftly scrapped that idea!

Christopher Nolan’s Following (1998) is another very low-budget film that motivated me to get out there and make something myself. I remember him talking about arriving at a location and finding they didn’t have the combination for a safe, so they couldn’t open it for a key sequence. That’s exactly the kind of dumb problem I have, and Nolan’s elegant, elliptical solution in filming around it was inspiring.

Following (1998)

Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004) was also an influence. It cleverly builds the repeated use of limited locations into the fabric of the story. Our looping narrative here meant that we could pull off a similar trick, and re-use locations in fresh and meaningful ways.

On David Lynch

People find it hard to believe, but I didn’t have Lost Highway in mind at all! We did talk about Mulholland Dr. (2001), when it came to the music and the feel of the opening sequence, but if I was channeling Lost Highway, I was doing it subconsciously.

Lost Highway (1997) opening title

The thing about Lynch is that he puts his own distinctive stamp on everything he touches. That image of the road in Lost Highway is quite universal, but he somehow makes it entirely his own. People have said that the Red Room in Twin Peaks is like Jean Cocteau, but when you go back and watch Cocteau, it’s got a completely different feel to it. We were aspiring to do the same thing – to take influences and then bury them, so that the film becomes its own thing.

On the music that inspired The Ghoul’s stirring synth score

For that opening sequence I remember playing Waen Shepherd, our incredible composer, everything from ‘Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls’ by Godspeed You! Black Emperor to Radiohead’s ‘Pyramid Song’. We talked about Angelo Badalamenti’s work with Lynch, Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score and Eric Demarsan’s collaborations with Jean-Pierre Melville.

We were also both somewhat inspired by Ennio Morricone’s work with Sergio Leone, in the sense of the music being very front and centre. In some of those films it’s like the imagery takes a back seat to the score at times. I love that, and don’t see enough of it in films these days.

Waen works incredibly quickly, which meant we had drafts of his music early on in the edit. That led to whole sequences being shaped directly by the music cues. The road sequence at the end only existed in denuded form in the script but went wild after an injection of Waen’s score – the music really inspired me to play around with the footage.

On Roman Polanski

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is definitely there in the mix. You can engage with it either as a portrait of a mental breakdown or as a tale of supernatural manipulation, and that’s the balance we were aspiring to with The Ghoul. Polanski’s style is largely classical, but he occasionally lets his hair down. Similarly, we were quite conservative with camera angles and so on, bar for a handful of key moments.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

On literary influences and depictions of London

Some of the wilder thinking about mathematics and consciousness was informed by non-fiction books such as Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. I’d like to say I understood it all, but I’d be lying.

Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor and Paul Auster’s City of Glass certainly played a role. They both concern detectives whose identities are smearing or fracturing in some way. And they both have an atmosphere that really clings to you.

A lot of reviews say we’ve crafted a kind of hellish London landscape. That wasn’t really the intention, but Hawksmoor is certainly a nightmarish depiction of the city, as is Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, which has also probably crept into the movie on some level.

Naked (1993)

Some people have said there’s a social realist element in the film, and mentioned films such as Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993), which I was surprised by but very happy to hear. I think it’s largely down to having a cracking cast who make everything real despite the weirdness hanging in the air. And, like David Thewlis in Naked, Tom Meeten carries this film on his considerably talented shoulders – we’re with him in every scene, and he never loses our sympathy or attention.

On The Ghoul’s horror roots, and its potentially misleading title

There was a discussion about changing the title for the reason that it might be misleading, but the other titles we came up with also sounded like horror films. People would suggest things like The Rite and The Ritual and The Sigil. I like that the title has a B-movie energy to it. And even though it’s not a horror film, it owes a huge amount to the genre. Horror and detective stories have intersected in all sorts of interesting ways in the past, going all the way back to Edgar Allen Poe. I think they come from the same part of society, to some degree.

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