The Lodgers : An Interview

The Lodgers is a spooky tale about families and an old ancient house and the rumblings of ghosts that happen there. 

Congratulations to the cast and crew for their world premiere at TIFF 2017!

 

Who are you and what do you do?

I'm David Turpin, and I'm a screenwriter.  My screenplay, The Lodgers, has just become a film directed by Brian O'Malley.  The Lodgers is actually the first screenplay I ever wrote.  Prior to that, I worked mainly as a university lecturer in English Literature and as a musician, recording under the name The Late David Turpin.  I took that stage name after I suffered hypothermia and experienced clinical death for 28 seconds.  I guess that positioned me well to move into writing a ghost story.

Where did the idea for The Lodgers come from?

The Lodgers as a project originated when I paid a visit to my friends Ruth Treacy and Julianne Forde, whose company Tailored Films produced the film.  Ruth mentioned to me that she was looking for a ghost story.  A ribbon started unraveling in my mind, and that eventually led me to The Lodgers.  At the base of the idea, there's a game I used to play with myself as a child.  I'd imagine that there was a stranger in my family home who lived under the stairs and who'd come out and use the house after dark, while we were all asleep.  When I started thinking back on that idea, the other elements of The Lodgers - the twins, the love triangle, the historical context - gradually started to take shape around it.  I often think that the most interesting ideas are the ones you can't quite trace back all the way.  You reach down into the swamp of your imagination and you pull something out without quite knowing where it came from.  You know the region, but not the exact coordinates.

 [L-R] Charlotte Vega as Rachel and Bill Milner as Edward in the gothic horror film  “THE LODGERS.”  Photo courtesy of Martin Maguire.

[L-R] Charlotte Vega as Rachel and Bill Milner as Edward in the gothic horror film “THE LODGERS.” Photo courtesy of Martin Maguire.

What do you love about the horror/thriller genre?

I love mystery.  I love feeling like I'm inside the unknown.  At the same time, I think these kinds of genres - horror, fantasy, suspense - give us a way to explore subjects that are often very difficult to deal with directly.  They give us a language of metaphor, and we can use that to address some of the things - like family and sexuality, for instance - that make the experience of being alive as fraught and as confusing as it can be.  Sexuality is such a huge, governing force in our lives, and the more we try to politely look away from it, the more it tightens its grip on us.  For me, The Lodgers is at least in part about the ways in which we negotiate with our desires, and the ways in which repressed desires become increasingly destructive the more they are denied.  Also, I think, for a gay person, there's something particularly attractive about the horror and thriller genres because of the way in which they enable us to say the unsayable and show the unacceptable.  I guess two obvious examples of that would be the director James Whale and the writer Patricia Highsmith.

What has the process been like for you to see the film come together?

I didn't have a frame of reference at the time, but I've subsequently learned that The Lodgers was quite unique in that the producers - and the Irish Film Board, who supported the film - really gave me space to create the story from scratch, and follow it where it wanted to go.  I really felt permitted to have ownership of the writing.  At the same time, a film has many authors and many owners, so it naturally moves on and become its own living thing, distinct from what's on the page.  We often hear this figure of speech in which something is described as one's "baby".  I guess the film is like my "baby", because I brought this story and these characters into the world, and then - just like with a real baby - they went on to be molded by many hands, and to take on a life of their own independent of me.  I feel very appreciative of the producers, director and cast for making me welcome right through the creation of the film, so I could see that process happening.  A lot of screenwriters are taken out of the equation once shooting starts, like an octopus fading away while her children all drift off oblivious to her.  Octopuses are beautiful and fascinating creatures, but in this instance, it was nice not to be one.

What films or writing have been particularly inspiring to you while writing this film?

In a funny way, one of the biggest inspirations for the script was Jean Cocteau's novel Les Enfants Terribles, and then Bertolucci's film The Dreamers, which is kind of a pastiche of that.  The strange knot of intimacy between isolated siblings, and the way the interior world clashes with the exterior world - those were themes that I really wanted to draw on.  Obviously, neither Les Enfants Terribles nor The Dreamers is a piece of Gothic horror, but when you're working in a genre, I think the most important thing is to be able to look outside it, and then layer in the genre elements to heighten the themes you want to talk about.  I think that's what makes the difference between a rich story and a piece of rarefied box-ticking.  That being said, if I was pressed to describe The Lodgers in a line, I'd probably call it a cross between The Turn of the Screw and The Cement Garden - with a dash of Hieronymous Bosch.

Why did you choose to make your characters young?

I guess there's a part of me that connects easily to my inner melodramatic adolescent.  At the same time, as a culture, we're so accustomed to seeing young people presented either as objects of fear or desire that we forget the vulnerability of being on the cusp of adulthood - of having this power emerging within you and not quite knowing how to direct it.  For me, The Lodgers is the story of a young woman who has to actively choose independence over captivity.  It's a story about facing change, and understanding that there will be consequences to change, but that worse than any of these consequences is the denial of one's right to one's own life.  If it weren't for our lead actress, Charlotte Vega, maybe that theme could have been lost within the heightened Gothic world of the film - but when I see her play Rachel, I really see that character negotiating that choice between captivity and the unknown, and how she uses her intelligence and her strength to free herself.

 Charlotte Vega as Rachel in the gothic horror film  “THE LODGERS.”  Photo courtesy of Martin Maguire.

Charlotte Vega as Rachel in the gothic horror film “THE LODGERS.” Photo courtesy of Martin Maguire.

Speaking personally, narrative cinema seems so obsessed with family now - with characters being defined by their parentage, particularly - that I think it's important to show characters like Rachel who gain the strength to refuse that.  You don't have to be trapped into an identity determined by your family.  You can be your own person.  Frankly, I think if more young people were reminded of that, instead of being told that family alone makes us who we are, then the world would be a better place.

What was one challenge of writing the film?

I think writing a film is always a negotiation with all kinds of powerful forces.  Some of them are really productive - the creative collaboration with the director, the producers, and the cast, for instance.  Some of them are just massive headaches that emerge from the realities of budget and logistics.  You have to keep remembering through the process that a film is not just a moving script - it's an object that exists in the world, and it has to contend with all kinds of realities that literature alone can sidestep.  My imagination tends to range around a lot, so the biggest challenge for me in any project is finding the line between the imaginative world and the concrete world so that the result can be true to what I've imagined while at the same time being feasible on the resources available to make it.  That's probably a very prosaic answer, as it's the first lesson in script-writing, but it took me a while to absorb - and I'm sure I'm not alone in that.

What was a great success about the script?

As a repressed Irish person, it's very difficult for me to congratulate myself on anything I've done.  The mere fact that The Lodgers was made at all is not something I'd ever take for granted.  Since I started writing for film, I've been constantly dizzied by the sheer volume of scripts there are out there, and the number of them - including many brilliant ones - that don't make it onto a screen.  So I really have to credit the tenacity of the producers and the director for the fact that The Lodgers did make it.  On a personal level, the fact that it did so while retaining something of my imaginative life is the cherry on top.

 Bill Milner as Edward in the gothic horror film  “THE LODGERS.”  Photo courtesy of Martin Maguire.

Bill Milner as Edward in the gothic horror film “THE LODGERS.” Photo courtesy of Martin Maguire.

Do you have a favorite scene or character?

Rachel is my favorite character.  When I was in elementary school my Mum would take me to the library on the weekends, and I would always be fascinated by the "Gothic romance" books - all these paperbacks with dramatic cover illustrations of women fleeing eerie mansions in their nightdresses, clasping candle-sticks that somehow stayed illuminated in the howling wind.  When I was old enough to take those books out of the library and read them, I loved them, but I was also always a little let down by how flat the heroines were.  Terrible things happened to them and then some doctor or soldier or something would step in and save them. 

So with Rachel, I wanted to create a character who had that wonderful Gothic glamour, but who also had an interior life - who had hopes and desires of her own, who had her own point of view and who ultimately determined her own fate.

 Charlotte Vega as Rachel in the gothic horror film  “THE LODGERS.”  Photo courtesy of Martin Maguire.

Charlotte Vega as Rachel in the gothic horror film “THE LODGERS.” Photo courtesy of Martin Maguire.

My favorite scene is around the middle of the film, so I don't want to spoil it for those who have yet to see it.  It has to do with Rachel seeing another character's physical vulnerability, and being fascinated by it because it connects symbolically with her own situation.  I think we all hope that other people will have the intelligence and the imagination not just to look past our vulnerabilities, but to look inside them and see them as a point of connection.  So when we see Rachel do that, it's an important moment for her as a character.

Fun Questions

If you were stuck on an island what five items would you want with you?

I'm going to assume this is a scorching desert island and I won't need clothes, so the first item I'll bring is a parasol because I don't like the sun.  If I'm going to be there indefinitely I'll need a lot to read.  To my discredit, I have yet to make the switch from paper books to an electronic reader.  This seems like a good opportunity to do so and make that my second object.  I'd like to have music in my life, so I guess I'll bring a piano.  I'm terribly out of practice, and this will be a good opportunity to brush up without offending anybody's ears.  I would say a pen and paper, but that's two objects - so I'll just ask for a really durable stick that I can use to write in the sand.  Finally, I have a really hideous and tacky skull ring that I wear as a talisman against people's bullshit.  You'd think I wouldn't need that on a desert island, but if I'm going to be trapped there with no companionship except myself and my own bullshit, I think I'll need it more than ever.

If you could have a superpower what would it be?

I'd be like Circe the witch and have the power to transform people into animals.  The relentless abuse of nature and the animal kingdom is the greatest evil in our world.  It reveals that human empathy is a sham based entirely on the self-interest of a single species.  So I'd transform us all into animals, and we could just see how we like that.

Would you rather be stuck in an old Gothic mansion or a hut near a volcano?

I actually live in the gate lodge of an 18th-century castellated house here in Ireland, so I guess for variety's sake I'll choose the volcano hut.