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James D’Arcy on An American Haunting
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The story of the Bell Witch, a nearly 200-year old legend that is the first account of a spirit being officially responsible for a person's death in American history, sets the stage for An American Haunting. In the film, writer/director Courtney Solomon presents one interpretation of the paranormal tale, which has been the basis for several books throughout the years. He examines the lives of patriarch John Bell (Donald Sutherland), matriarch Lucy Bell (Sissy Spacek), and their daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood), and explores the possibility that misdeeds brought a curse down upon the family, afflicting them with extended episodes of violent poltergeist activity.
In this interview, James D'Arcy, who plays Betsy's schoolteacher and a confidant to the Bell family, talks about working on the project and filming in Romania.
MEDIA: How do you get involved in this movie?
JAMES: I think Courtney sent me the script about 8 months--maybe even longer than that--before we shot it. And I had just finished doing a prequel to The Exorcist, and before I even opened the script, I thought, "An American Haunting...God, that sounds like another horror movie." And I was predisposed not to want to do it, having just done The Exorcist, [and] hating horror films, by the way. I mean, I do exactly what I'm supposed to do, which is I scream, I leap ten feet in the air, and then I don't sleep for four nights. So I never, ever go and watch horror movies. So just the idea of doing The Exorcist in the first place was slightly freaky, and then to get another horror movie straight afterwards...I, before I had even read it, thought, "I don't think I want to do this." And then I read it, and there was definitely something there. But honestly, it couldn't have come at a worst time...And I thought, "Well, I'll just wait and see what else there is. I like this script, unfortunately, but I'll just sort of take it easy and see what happens." And then it just went very quiet. And actually, what I didn't know was that Courtney was quietly going away and attaching Donald and Sissy to the film. And so I guess another three or four months after he'd initially sent me the script--and I hadn't said no, but I hadn't said yes--he then approached me again and explained that he had Donald and Sissy doing the film. And at that point--you know, they're both such fantastic actors--it was too good of an opportunity to work with them to pass it up. So that's how I came to be involved, really.
Were your character's noticeable sideburns your idea?
No. Actually, if you really pay attention, the sideburns start off really pretty small and delicate, and by the end of the film, they're these huge L's that hang on the side of my face. It's one of those things that very, very few people notice, but I saw a continuity picture of myself [from] the first week, at the end of the film, like on the last day of shooting, and I went, "Oh my God, this could not be more different. This is like comedy catastrophe." So no, it wasn't really my idea. One of the makeup artists came up with the design. But, actually, I have to say, by the end, they're so difficult to maintain. I don't know how all those musicians that you see who've got these really whispy, delicate things there...I mean, they must be terrified that they're just going to shave it off by mistake or something. [laughs]
Did you know about the story of the Bell Witch before you received the script?
Actually, I didn't. It's not a huge legend in Britain, obviously. It is very specific to one part of America. And in fact, even being in California, I found that there are some people who've heard of this legend, and some people who haven't. But I didn't know anything about it, no.
Did you do any kind of research into the legend for your role?
Well, a lot of books have been written on the Bell Witch, and there's a lot of slightly conflicting stories as well. I've worked on some films that are based on books, some films that are based on reality, some films that are complete works of fiction. But they all have this kind of common bond, which is, by far and away, the best thing you can do is to operate from the script that you have, because that's the writer's angle. We make a supposition at the end of this film, which is unquestionably the filmmaker's supposition. It's one possibility of one plausible reason that this haunting may have taken place. But there are five or six other well-documented possibilities as to why it could have happened. Ummm...It's a slightly long-winded way of telling you, "No, I was far too lazy, actually, to read any of the books." [laughs]
What was your reaction when you finally saw the movie?
I've seen about four different cuts of the movie. There's a version of this film out in Britain which is very, very different--I mean, right down to the ending. My character's the narrator, which he isn't in [the American] version.
Which version do you prefer?
I infinitely prefer [the American] version, although I'm in it less...It was interesting, the first time I saw it, I sort of went, "I'm in the film less, but I like the film more. I wonder if that's because I'm in the film less?" [laughs]
Having worked on this movie, was it possible for you to be scared by it as a viewer?
Maybe not scared because I understood what the haunting was, I knew what was happening. But there are moments when I jumped, yeah. But Courtney played it really loud when he screened it for me. [laughs]
What was it like filming this movie in Romania?
When you're filming in a country where English is not the first language, there is a trade-off. It's obviously cheaper to shoot in Romania than it is to shoot in America, but you have a language barrier, and that costs time. And Eastern Europeans work in a different way to the way that even British people work. British and American crews are actually pretty similar...Romania is relatively new [to film production], so you feel like they're kind of educating these crews in the way that British or American crews would expect them to work, and what expectations we have. But in terms of what the people are like, they're utterly delightful and so welcoming to us. It's not a rich country, but they were very generous with, not just their time, but if you went for a drink with the Romanian crew, they would be the first people to go to the bar and want to buy you drink. And you knew that that was a lot of money for them, buying one drink. So I felt really kind of touched by meeting all those people.
Did you go on any of the Dracula tours that they have?
No. We were quite near one of his castles, and, unfortunately, I was filming for the three days we were there, so I didn't get to see it. But a couple of other people did. I think Sissy went with her daughter. They came back pretty pale after that experience, because they had gone up at like 3:00 in the afternoon or something like that, and they had kind of mis-timed the sunset. And so when they got up there, it was dark, and then they were terrified. [laughs] Then they all came down very quickly.
Is that a part of Romanian culture that you would like to check out at some point?
There's huge amounts of the culture that I would have loved to involve myself in. I would have loved to have gone into far more rural parts of Romania. You know, the kind of areas where they have absolutely no concept what a cell phone is. And there are very, very few places in the world like that that exist anymore. That's the kind of thing that fascinates me. To be totally honest, I think both of Dracula's castles probably have people selling mugs outside, and t-shirts, and baseball caps, and that to me, is a tourist attraction. If we could all suddenly transport ourselves back 300 years and then arrive and somebody's actually living there, and you're staying the night...Well, that could be an experience! [laughs]
Did you have any sort of creative input on the script, such as, "I don't think my character would do or say that?"
Yeah, sure. I mean, that's a slightly negative slant on it. I feel much more like the job of an actor is to come to the director and say, "My character could do this...I could try this for you, I could try that." I think that [as] actors, our job is to come up with as many ideas as we can, and if 19 out of 20 of them are shot down, then that's fine. But at least you came to the table with something to offer. All good directors that I've worked with (and I certainly would include Courtney in this) wouldn't try and impose something on you so you got into the point where you went, "I don't think my character would do that." It's a much more collaborative experience than that. You try things out...You get to a point where you become slightly instinctive with each other, and the director can look at something and say, "That's not working and I can't see why." And then hopefully you have an idea of why. Or between you, somebody can work out what it is that isn't working. But more often than not with this experience, it seemed to be about what we could do extra to add to it, if you see what I mean.
What was an example of an idea you contributed?
There's one moment that springs to my mind. Unfortunately, it's not in this version of the film. [laughs] But there's a scene that I have with Sissy which we changed fairly dramatically. It wasn't originally in the film, then it got written in, and now it's been taken out again. (It's in the English version of the film.) And that was a very collaborative moment. The truth is that Betsy Bell and Richard Powell married each other after all of this happened. And so there was a subplot, which now sort of doesn't exist, where my character is in love with her, and is debating with his own conscience--he's a relatively modern man for 1817--how indelicate that is to be in love with a 14-year-old. But actually, to be honest, for the period, there's nothing so very wrong with that...So that scene, which, unfortunately, is not very helpful because it doesn't exist, [is a time when Sissy and I] did work together and come up with a moment.
What's your own take on the paranormal? Are you skeptical or completely open to it?
Completely open to it, yeah. My grandmother died four or five years ago, and she died at about five o'clock in the morning. She had been dying for a very long time. And the night that she was dying, I had a very, very strong sensation of somebody being in the room with me. I mean, it woke me up. And I felt this voice almost saying to me, "Don't worry, everything is going to be fine, everything's going to work out..." And I went straight back to sleep, and the next thing I knew, my mother was telling me that my grandmother had died. I'm very open to all of that. And I don't have any fear of it, either.
Thanks for your time.
Thanks very much, guys.