Interview: Simon Oakes, CEO of Hammer

To celebrate the release this week of James Watkins’ Gothic British ghost story The Woman in Black (2012) – starring former Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds and with a screenplay adapted by Jane Goldman from Susan Hill’s source novel – CineVue were given the opportunity to catch up with CEO of Hammer Simon Oakes. Upon meeting Oakes, deputy editor Joe Walsh discussed the studio’s recent revival, their latest cinematic release and the future of an iconic British film institute in a genre ruled by graphic torture porn.

Joe Walsh: What was the reason behind releasing The Woman in Black in the US before the UK?

Simon Oakes: There was no method in the madness, it was just a question of timing. As you know, distributors, with their experience, look for what is the perfect time. Momentum were looking for just after Christmas with the success of The King’s Speech last year – it was just a question of what was around at the time. They wanted to release it Super Bowl weekend as a piece of counter-programming. We only just lost out to Chronicle, who spent a lot more than we did and had a tremendous Monday, taking $1.5 million at the US box office.

JW: Hammer has always had a tradition of expanding upon purely horror. Are there are any plans to go back to producing sci-fi or even historical films?

SO: Definitely. Horror is a very broad church. I think Hammer had a strong history of being quite literary Mary Shelly etc, so sci-fi was also part of that along with monster movies. We have two projects at the moment, one of which is a monster film. I can’t tell you which, but you can probably work it out. We are also looking at rebooting Quatermass. We are in the very early stages, but we have a fantastic writer on board, which again I can’t announce just yet.

JW: Jane Goldman is a wonderful choice of writer for The Woman in Black. Can you talk about the discussion you must have had about adapting Susan Hill’s book?

SO: It is quite a short book, a pastiche of Wilkie Collins and those short types of novella. One of the great things about The Woman in Black is that the alchemy is strong. We never went to multiple writers, we went to Jane and she got it immediately – she had read it as a teenager. She asked me whether I minded her opening it out and I said “You have to open it out”. She is such a modest person, but she was able to find these scenes – like Eel Marsh and the Nine Lives Causeway – some of the big set pieces.

JW: What about changing parts of the story – were you worried about angering fans?

SO: No, because we talked very closely with Susan Hill. Susan is a great pragmatist – she is not remotely precious about her material, and she is very grown-up about such matters and realistic about getting things to work on screen. She got on famously with Jane – we got them together very quickly, and they had lunch together with Daniel [Radcliffe].

JW: Was there a conscious effort to get a big name like Daniel Radcliffe on board for The Woman in Black?

SO: Yes and no. I mean, take Chloe [Moretz] from Let Me In (2010). She is now becoming a big star, but we cast her when she was not as well-known. I was fortunate to see an early cut of Kick-Ass (2010) and thought she would be perfect as the young vampire. So the answer is, where the material fits the bill then you would be crazy not to cast a marquee name in it. Where there is a project, take the one we announced this week – The Quiet Ones, which is a poltergeist movie based on a true story about a group of scientists who encounter the supernatural – it is very much an ensemble piece. With The Woman in Black, Arthur Kipps is pretty much on screen all the time and we needed someone who could capture people’s imaginations. Daniel does that very well.

JW: The setting for The Woman in Black  is extremely atmospheric. Where did you shoot?

SO: We were painstaking in our research – the Location Manager never gets any credit in interviews, but the location manager on this film did some truly amazing work. He has to find an iconic house that was Gothic but not too cheesy; it had enough sense of being spooky without being a joke. He found Nine Lives Causeway on the Essex coast, a tidal causeway which is all real. The house is in Leicestershire, the village in Yorkshire and causeway in Essex, so we were all over the place with the build at Pinewood.

JW: In light of popular torture porn franchises such as the Saw and Hostel franchises, does Hammer feel the need to up the gore in order to grab audiences?

SO: I don’t think that you need to up the gore. All the original Hammer films were x-rated and played on late night television – they wouldn’t get a 12A today. The irony is that we have a film here that is less gory than ITV1’s Whitechapel; it is really about good storytelling and atmosphere. Jane’s, James’ and my own argument is that atmosphere, suspense and dread are much scarier than body counts. People are desensitised to body counts – they see it on television, on the news.

JW: What are you doing to future proof Hammer in your role as CEO?

SO: I don’t think you can future proof anything – you have to stick to yours guns, stick to your philosophy and accept that the world has changed. The amount of space there is for content forces you to think laterally. The thing about the old Hammer is that they didn’t see what was coming – they were in this time warp. We have made films in American, Ireland, the UK and hopefully soon South Africa – it is a global industry now. Hammer is the plucky Brit, but in the 70s it just didn’t see what was coming.

It seems that there is a great deal to be excited about for Hammer’s future, and with Simon Oakes leading the way, it would appear the glory days for the iconic British studio are far from over.

The Woman in Black is on general release nationwide from today. You can read our review here.

Joe Walsh