On stage, scene 6 of Hansel & Gretel is the most atmospheric yet disturbing in the production. Both the music and the text for it are different in tone to any of the scenes before or after. Gretel has just shoved the witch in her own red-hot cauldron, and though we might expect brother and sister to leg it out of the house as fast as they can, instead Simon Armitage, who has written the poem that is the narrative of our production, leads them, and us, deeper into the heart of darkness. It’s a classic horror-movie scenario of innocents in jeopardy, and I’m reminded of the moment from Silence of the Lambs in which Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, descends into the cellar of the murderer’s lair.
Matt Kaner threads his music sinuously through Simon’s text, and the result is bone-chilling.
House where the dark broods
House where the dark blooms
House where the dark breeds
House where the dark breathes
I began my work on the scene by laying out ideas for the production team about what the visuals might be. Simon had written an evocative ‘stage direction’ for it, though that was more by way of a suggestion of mood rather than anything too specific. He was always clear that he was happy to allow us the freedom to interpret.
To begin with I intended to film footage on location in abandoned and derelict buildings, looking particularly at cellars and rooms without windows. There had been much in the news about men (it always seems to be men) who imprison young women in cellars for decades, fathering children on them and keeping these ‘hidden families’ in isolation. But after long consideration I came to the conclusion that such a stark, documentary-like contrast to all the other visual aspects of the production, would be too great, and gradually the idea of location filming began to be replaced with the idea of a nightmarish doll’s house.
Below: cameraman Pete Telfer begins to shape the ‘haunted’ doll’s house with lighting rigs. His work on the sequence is immaculate.
Most of my visual references stemmed from German Expressionist films of the 1910s – 1930s, with a spattering of American Gothic (most significantly Hitchcock’s Psycho) thrown in. The model is a complete four-story building with eight rooms leading off the spine of four sizeable hallways/landings through which the twisting stairways rise. In the event only just over half of the house was prepared for the camera, as the rest of the space was required for the lighting-rigs. (But I’m going to complete the as yet undecorated spaces shortly, and also paint the exterior of the house.)
The rooms were furnished with commercially available doll’s house furniture, much of which I carefully broke before texturising and painting. (Texture was grit gathered from the floor of my attic-studio, mixed into gouache and applied to rooms and furnishings in layers of ashy grey.)
Cameraman Pete Telfer produced wonderfully elegant and atmospheric gliding shots by panning a camera secured on a tripod, contrasting with the jerky, nervy ‘point-of-view’ footage achieved with a tiny hand-held cam the size of a golf ball. When edited together, the dual techniques were less destabilising for an audience than had we used a shaky hand-held throughout.
The making of the doll’s house is an extraordinary story for another time, though for now this post is the acknowledgement that without Simon Coupland, Jana Wagenkenecht and Stephanie Davies, it simply wouldn’t have happened. They were heroes, key to the whole endeavour and their part in it will be fully acknowledged and described at the Artlog later this year. (They know the reasons why I’m deferring the moment.)
An honourable mention, too, for Jon Street of The Moth Factory, Bristol, who guided me so unerringly through the film editing process, and contributed so generously at every stage of it. Everything, in the end, is collaboration.
Final word. Audiences have not see the last of the haunted doll’s house. Watch this space.
Broken furniture piled high in the haunted doll’s house.
House where the light peeps
House where the dark leaks
House where the light bleeds
House where the dark weeps
Extracts are from the poem Hansel & Gretel by Simon Armitage.