It's one of my favourite moments in an interview, ever. Nick Murphy, who's had a successful career writing and directing British television, was in Toronto discussing the new period thriller The Awakening, his feature directorial debut, which he also co-wrote. Dead handsome and unconscionably charming, Murphy had me soon after "Hello." Now I was rapt, listening as he described the writing of one particularly spine-tingling scene – about a dollhouse.
Okay, so there's this dollhouse in the movie. Though it looks innocent, it pops up just often enough to be ominous. We're in post-World War One England, when spectres and séances were the rage. The lead character is Florence (Rebecca Hall), a no-nonsense scientist who's come to a bucolic, isolated boys' boarding school to debunk rumours of a ghost. At one point, she peers into the dollhouse. The scene inside is blandly sweet-looking. But I bet you the price of admission that you'll gasp, because of what it means.
The scene embodies the movie's simplicity, and what I really like about it: It's an old-school haunted-house movie, but the things that make you jump aren't cheap tricks. It's nerve-racking, but not violent or disgusting. And its chills come from character – the most malevolent forces in it are the living. It let me do something I haven't been able to do at a movie in a long time: clutch the arm of the person next to me and squeal with suspense, without worrying that I was about to be grossed out.
"If I think a cupboard door is going to be shut, and it's open, that's scary to me," Murphy says. "Someone going to chop a head off, that might scare me for a bit. But I don't think you think about that afterward. Whereas, the world is not the way you thought it was? That's scary."
Originally, the film was set in the Victorian era, "house on a hill, lightning," Murphy explains. Moving it to 1921, when Britain was still reeling from its massive losses in the war – when there wasn't a household unaffected, whole villages had lost every one of their young men, and those who did come back were like ghosts themselves – gave him the emotional tangent, the why he needed to power the story. These characters, he says, "see ghosts because they need to."
This may be his feature debut, but clearly, the guy is a pro – he's been making quality TV since 1999, and won a BAFTA for the 2009 series Occupation. He knows how to mete out crucial plot information so the penny drops at just the right moment. "There's an immense reward if it's perfectly timed," he says, "the way we figure out who Keyser Soze is three seconds before the limp." And he took care to deliver a heroine for this century.
Murphy wanted "a female character that women would like," he says. "Women in this genre are often just sort of chased around, bitten or hit or kidnapped, because that's kinky to watch. That's not Florence. There's no hero going to come in and kick the door down to rescue her. I wanted Florence to save Florence." He wrote her with Hall in mind: "Rebecca is beautiful, but not in a way that annoys women. And she is bright. This is a girl who felt frustrated at Cambridge because it wasn't rewarding her. But she knows when to put her massive academic brain to one side and just be intuitive. She brings a profundity to ordinary things."
Finally, Murphy left the ending just open enough that the audience can see what it needs to as well. "I want a lot of lobby chat," he says. "I come from television, which is quite immediate – the TV goes off, you go to bed. With this, I'd like everybody to leave with a slightly different film under their belt." He can tell "when an audience is got," he adds. "It's not just the jumps, which I know will surprise people. It's when the emotional moments come, and there's absolute stillness. Getting a thousand people to be absolutely still is a rewarding feeling."
He still loves doing "telly," he insists. "But my God, it's nice to make a feature film. I grew up watching films in a classic cinema in Merseyside, in Liverpool. So what appeals about making feature films is I can do that for other people. I can let their jaw drop a little in the dark." He laughs at his own enthusiasm. "It's the best job! I can't believe they let me do it. I can't believe they let people do this." He's already done it again. His next film, Blood, about the moral decline of a police family in Britain, starring Paul Bettany, Mark Strong and Brian Cox, is in postproduction.
Okay, about that dollhouse scene. As Murphy is describing to me how he wrote it, he acts it out, so I feel like I'm seeing it live. "I was writing the scene, alone one night in my office, which is at the end of the garden," he says, miming the action of typing. "I was thinking, 'What is Florence seeing?' " And then, as if his fingers were independent of him, he typed in what it was. "And I had to stand up!" Murphy continues, standing up, pushing his chair backward, as if he has to escape from his own desk, his own words. "I walked around the office going, 'Oh-God-oh-God, oo-hoo-hoo,' " he continues, walking blindly back and forth in the hotel room, shaking out his hands as if his fingertips are numb. I'm sure that when this happened years ago he had goosebumps, because I have goosebumps as he tells me about it now.
To this, you may say, "Wha? You watched a writer remember what he wrote – that's your favourite moment?" But here's why I've returned to this story in my mind, again and again, since he told me: because the moment Murphy was describing, which he conveyed so clearly, is the moment all writers seek. It's about the ever-elusive few minutes when your mental noise – all your thinking and researching, mulling and restructuring, pondering and revising, waking up in the night with an idea and lying awake bereft of ideas – falls away, and your subconscious takes over, and you write down the exact right thing.
I'm no athlete, but I think it must be like the perfect golf swing or completed pass, that click when everything just works. Murphy felt that click, and he made me feel it, and it felt like joy. That's what I call a thriller.