Gareth Tunley is a versatile British actor, appearing in films such as Sightseers, Kill List and Down Terrace for Ben Wheatley, and shows such as Fresh Meat and Peep Show on television. Now, he turns his hand to writing and directing with the release of his debut feature The Ghoul. Gareth took some time to sit down with Starburst to discuss working with Ben Wheatley, his own career and directing a “bunch of clowns”.
Starburst: Without spoilers, how would you, as the writer and director, describe The Ghoul as it’s a film that defies obvious categorisation?
Well, I’d describe it as a psychological thriller about a cop who goes undercover to investigate a strange double murder. He goes undercover as a psychotherapy patient, and as his sessions continue the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur. I’m not reading that from a rehearsed script I promise. Entirely off the top of my head. Beyond that, I would agree it’s a hard one to describe. We do front load our twist rather. That said, I think it’s rather spoiler-proof as the twists and turns keep coming as the story progresses.
There were points in The Ghoul that reminded us of Danny Boyle’s Trance and we wondered if, while filming, it was tricky keeping track of exactly where you were in the story as we’d assume you didn’t film chronologically?
We didn’t film chronologically, partly because we were on a short budget, but the short answer is yes, it was difficult to keep track of the various streams of reality. I find that difficult at the best of times, never mind with a film. It was all about getting the script nailed, and I spent a few months getting that right. At one time, I had a big chart on my wall which made me think I was starting to become like a character in the film: lots of charts on the wall and books on the occult. It’s not a good look, is it? No one wants to be found like that, it’s not going to make for a very good obituary so I went back to the word document. In essence, we just told the cast to play every scene as it comes and not worry too much about the complexities.
You mention the cast, and you’ve drawn some terrific performances from actors more known for lighter, more comedic work. As an actor yourself, do you have an advantage in knowing what makes a cast tick, and what buttons to push to get the performance you want?
I guess there’s two things to touch on there; the nature of the actors and my own acting background, such as it is. I mean, I’ve had what you might politely call a low-key career. If I was working as a spy, I couldn’t have been more low profile. But I have some sort of experience, and insight into what it’s like to be on a set and what it’s like to be in front of a camera when someone yells “action”. It’s also about building a good atmosphere on set. We had a fantastic cast that I knew I could trust, and it’s true they are mostly from a comedy background. They are, literally, a bunch of clowns, in the nicest possible way. I think that brought a different energy to what is a very serious film. There was a lightness of touch. With Tom Meeten who played the lead, he has quite a physical comedy presence and when you bottle that you get something rather special. The first time I met Tom was in the basement of a comedy club, and he was wrapped in bin liners and gaffer tape, getting yelled at by Steve Oram. This was a comedy act I should stress and not a breakdown. So, this is quite a departure, but he knocks it out the park.
The Ghoul is a very dark film; was that always there from the original idea or did it develop through production and when you realised the performances you could garner?
I think it’s a film about a character who’s quite vulnerable and impressionable. We realised partly in the edit quite how much really. In a way, it’s about playing with ideas and concepts, and as we continued the edit we realised quite how much the performers had brought to it.
You’re three years down the line from when you filmed, and began writing before that. How does it feel now you’re reaching the culmination of all that work?
Films always take a long time, and with a very, very low budget it takes even longer. We have been finished for a while, but it takes time to get it out into the world through festivals and screenings, and the release now has outstripped all our dreams. It’s astonishing it’s going into cinemas. We shot all the dialogue in just ten days, and I thought it might end up just being me screening the film on a sheet somewhere.
You’ve worked extensively with Ben Wheatley in the past. For new filmmakers like yourself, do you think the way Ben makes films and the, often strange, subject matter he includes has created greater opportunities?
It’s a mystery at times how he makes films of such quality, when essentially, he’s making them on the run. Ben is not just an influence, but has been an inspiration from very early on. I was in Down Terrace for him, and seeing how that was made on a similar budget meant that, for me, you had no excuse not to try and make a film with even a small amount of money. The energy and passion Ben brings to a project was a galvanising force for me, and without Down Terrace, The Ghoul probably wouldn’t have happened.
What’s next for you Gareth?
Currently working on getting a new script finished and out there, something a little different and more action led.
The Ghoul is in cinemas from the 4th August, read our review of the film right here.