Stars Megan Drury & Nicholas Hope Talk THE SCHOOL!
Storm Ashwood’s striking Gothic fantasy film THE SCHOOL is quickly gaining attention for its beautiful aesthetic and sheer narrative daring. Joining us to shed more light on this fascinating project are two of the film’s stars, MEGAN DRURY and NICHOLAS HOPE.
THE SCHOOL concerns Amy (Megan Drury), a doctor, wife and grieving mother who is failing. It has been two years and she still cannot manage to leave her comatose son David’s side. Amy falls further into her own selfish and twisted world of obsession and denial, blocking out everything and everyone around her. Meanwhile the walls of the hospital she is neglecting begin to fall apart. Awakening in what seems to be an abandoned old school, Amy finds herself a prisoner to a hoard of displaced cultish and feral kids. Trapped in a hostile supernatural purgatory for children, Amy becomes an unwilling surrogate mother and must try and escape an impending evil. As supernatural and psychological terror ensues, Amy must find her way out, fighting against the demonic, supernatural and ultimately her own demons.
Ahead of the film’s World Premiere this Friday July 27th at Monster Fest Travelling Sideshow Adelaide, Cult of Monster’s David Churack talked BAD BOY BUBBY with Nicholas, going dark with Megan, and what drew them both to this terrifyingly unique project!
THE SCHOOL is probably visually and tonally unlike any other Australian film I’ve seen. What was it that drew you to this project?
NICHOLAS: I liked the script, and was impressed with Storm the director when I met him. I liked the way the genre was being used to deal with the subject of loss and grief; I liked the nature of the storytelling. So that was one set of considerations – a good story told well by people with something worth saying. And then another very serious consideration was that they were paying union rates. So I’d get paid.
MEGAN: The first thing that drew me to THE SCHOOL was Amy’s journey – specifically the element of psychological metaphor, as she enters and contends with a dark and violent underworld of guilt and grief and self-conciliation. I also had a rather remarkable experience (which I only shared with Storm after I was cast!) of reading the script for the first time, only for it to trigger the recollection of a vivid dream I’d had – about a year prior to even knowing of the film’s existence – where I was in an old, run down, abandoned school with intangible shadowy threats lurking and dead leaves littering the corridors and lost children I felt I had to help and guide through the halls! This dream of mine IS the film! It’s astonishing! It occurred to me often throughout the process, especially once I’d stepped onto Nicola’s awesome set, and we started shooting all these scenes so incredibly reminiscent of my dream!
How would you describe THE SCHOOL to Australian audiences?
NICHOLAS: I’m wary about answering that one, because I’m sure the publicity department has a very well worked out strategy and I don’t want to stamp all over it with a too-quickly thought out response. So I’ll simply comment that this is a film with heart and passion.
MEGAN: Fantasy horror. Psychological thriller. A bit of THE BABADOOK, a bit of DARK, a bit of STRANGER THINGS. I keep hearing SILENT HILL and LORD OF THE FLIES thrown around too. It is about a woman, lost in grief and trauma, having to confront and travel through the underworld / the ‘upside down’ / the other side in order to let go, heal and find herself again. Although, when all is said and done, a question may remain as to how healed / reconciled she actually becomes. . .
Can you talk about your character and their role in the film?
NICHOLAS: My character inhabits the ‘real’ world of the hospital, but in some ways is a conduit to the underworld. He is the voice of reason in an unreasonable situation. . .
MEGAN: Amy is a doctor and mother. She has always kept these two aspects of her life well-compartmentalised. Until now. . .In the circumstances of the film, Amy is exploiting her position and access to resources as the former, to indulge her unhealthy obsession as the latter. These two worlds further collide as the barrier between the external and internal / reality and fantasy / past and present / life and death thins and disappears.
The hospital Amy works in is on the grounds of an old school that burned down, and Amy now seems to be unconsciously calling on and called to this broken, dark world that is buried within the sterile, fluorescently lit one she already inhabits. It is Amy’s inner world that takes us on a journey into the underworld of THE SCHOOL. There are some big lessons she needs to learn, and it is the experiences and relationships with the young ones in the school that will teach her what she needs to know.
What were your experiences working with a cast of mainly children or younger actors?
NICHOLAS: I worked almost exclusively with Megan, and that was wonderful. Megan is a generous actor, and is also concentrated and precise: working with her was very rewarding.
MEGAN: There was quite a range of age and experience within the younger cast. They were all absolutely lovely young humans and a treasure to be around on set. It is a gift to work with young children, as they are so incredibly open and available (something older actors often need to consciously work at). There are also challenges. For example, if the craft you are used to sharing with co-workers has not been learned yet.
Communication is key and patience, grace, kindness and generosity are an absolute must (and actually that goes for any set, anytime, anywhere, as far as I’m concerned!). Working with a whole cast of young ones (I had a few scenes with Nicholas and Christian, but my time on set was primarily with the younger ones) was a wonderful lesson in not being too precious about my own work, especially at times when I felt it necessary to look out for and support the well-being and work of the littler ones – though they were all incredibly self-possessed and bold and brave (Jack and Alexia!).
Indeed, the relationships in the film crept into the relationships on set, as I felt the ever growing need to care for, teach and help them all, as well as support the director in making sure we got what the film needed. Some of the older-young ones were wonderful and very supportive in doing the same thing. Will [McDonald] and Milly [Alcock] and Texas [Watterson]! Their combined experience and work ethic was wonderful to see and they were excellent with the younger ones. It was a practise in multi-tasking too! Making sure I was there for the young cast members, as needed, as well as looking after myself and hitting the points I needed to hit and plunging to the emotional depths I needed to explore.
Nicholas, you previously starred in BAD BOY BUBBY, undoubtedly one of the bravest Aussie films ever made. You’ve since commented that you feel Australian distributors are scared to back brave local films – do you still think that’s the case? And has it influenced the production of THE SCHOOL?
NICHOLAS: I was quoted out of context in that interview. There are reasons distributors make the decisions they make. Bubby wasn’t picked up by an Australian distributor until after the film’s success in Venice; and then they pulled the stops out to give it the best chance possible. But they needed proof of its accessibility first. And Bubby would have been a much different film if not for private funding from Italy. No distributor then (or now) would have touched the script or the project: sacrilege, incest, animal abuse; a cast of unknowns. It wasn’t a good business proposition. It needed someone with cash to take a risk. Not much has changed.
A distributor has to ensure that they can afford to continue distributing, and they run a private business that generally exists as a commercial model. That kind of business can’t often afford to make decisions based on the braveness or otherwise of a film; they have to think whether they can successfully sell it to an audience or not. They have to weigh personal taste with commercial potential. In a private, unsubsidised model, those considerations will usually work against risk.
When I lived in Norway, their system PAID distributors to support local product: they got government subsidies toward securing distribution. At that time, Norwegians didn’t go to see Norwegian films. By 2016 they were getting record attendances. Basically, filmmakers became very good at their craft, and became used to knowing how to engage with an audience, because they kept getting the chance to keep making films. Perhaps we need to find ways to allow our filmmakers to keep making films – to practice their craft – outside a profit model. Expecting private business to do that isn’t going to work in our current economic set-up.
As for THE SCHOOL – it seems to me that this production, which has made a series of brave choices both narratively and visually, has been favoured by canny producers who allowed the writer/director to find his own voice, and who then managed to successfully market that voice. The amount of worldwide sales made suggests that the film has already gained distributor support. And that, of course, argues against my suggestion above because a private business model has indeed taken major risks with this film, and benefited by them.
Megan, this film requires your character to go through some very emotionally intense, demanding scenes. How do you take yourself to those places?
MEGAN: It was a big consideration of mine, heading into the shoot. I knew I would have to put a lot of self-care in place throughout the period of production to make sure I’d get through without crumbling or getting sick. I am no stranger to grief (having lost my mum at age 7 and my dad at age 24, and other loved ones along the way) or darkness (I have experience of anxiety and depression and, separate to that, have always been interested in the shadow aspects of life and philosophical contemplations of death) so the territory was not totally unknown to me.
However, the specifics as relating to the mother-child bond, was something I made sure to immerse myself deeply in. I watched and read and found and listened to anything and everything I could about this type of relationship and about the very particular kind of trauma and grief one experiences when losing a child. It is a tough place to go. Even now, as I write this, I am there somewhat – with a sinking in my stomach and a deep and heavy ache throughout my chest. As an actor, you are your tool – you physiologically experience everything the character does because it is your body, your brain, your nervous system, your tears, your heart, your love, your loss, your care, your thoughts and your voice that the character comes to life through.
In terms of being on set, it was a very fast shoot. When time pressures were on, it could feel a little rough! On one hand I was being strategic and making sure I used my time and energy effectively during the repositioning of cameras or set pieces, so I was ready to go when “action” was called, and on the other hand when there was a push to get something shot and in the can and move on. There were a couple of instances when “cut” was called on what was, for me, a scene or moment of heightened emotion / intensity and the crew raced straight to each other to discuss what was going to happen next and I remember just standing there shaking and feeling utterly bereft and alone. And realising I had to work out how to look after myself in such instances – especially when it becomes hard to discern where the character ends and where you begin. Enter: the make-up team! Elvis, Billy, Mariel, Kate and Katrina stepped in and up when I needed extra support. They were amazing (it’s so important to find your peeps on set!). They became my carers and protectors and were always on the lookout to make sure I was alright.
I had a great relationship with Storm and developed an excellent rapport and working relationship with the camera department – particularly our DOP, Aaron, and steady cam operator, Damien. I was also deeply grateful that the production team reserved a room especially for me, on location, where I was able to set up a little haven – with a yoga mat, oil burner, candles and cushions and rugs I’d brought from home to put on the couch, as well as a mood board I created on the wall with evocative images of art and poetry and things that inspired and supported the inner places I needed to go.
THE SCHOOL was also shot at Gladesville Mental Hospital, which definitely added to the unsettling tone of the film. What were your experiences shooting here?
NICHOLAS: To tell the truth it was a very pleasant place for me. I wasn’t affected by the setting so much, and was charmed by the nature of the production which had a pleasingly hippy feel to it, down to the music played at lunch and the way in which heads of department worked to assist and train any newcomers. It was a delight to work on.
MEGAN: It was an amazing location, inside and out. The buildings are incredibly beautiful and it was wonderful that the art department was allowed to do all the things they did inside! The location certainly had a feel to it. Its history felt very present (just like in the story of the film!) and it was particularly eerie arriving on location before sun-up and parting after sun down.
A week or so into the shoot, I left set after a certain gate out of the grounds had been shut. We were working in a couple of buildings that were located close to a main road, and to each other, but the full grounds are large and rambling so I wasn’t at all sure where to find another exit. I called Ana, our production co-ordinator, to give me directions. I listened attentively, but in true horror style, became disoriented and utterly lost and, after being sure that a man who walked past my car had disappeared (I did not see him in my rear view mirror, only moments after he passed – he probably just entered one of the nearby buildings…? Right…?), I found myself in a part of the grounds that was very dimly lit and completely deserted. A darkened park area stretching out to one side. I locked my doors and wound up my windows, my fatigue and vivid imagination taking over. I called Ana again and she stayed on the phone and navigated me back out and around to the exit. I was later told that the park I was near is known for people seeing period-dressed nurses walking through it at night. . .
I was also very interested in an area closest to our buildings that is essentially an unmarked cemetery. Patients were apparently buried there, while the grounds still functioned as an Asylum. But they received no markings or monuments or remembrances.
This is director Storm Ashwood’s first feature – how was working with him?
NICHOLAS: Storm was very in control of the film, which always instills confidence. He had a clear idea of what he wanted, whilst being open to suggestion. He also worked well with crew, co-operating with heads of department and taking on offers that worked. It was a collaborative environment. I’d work with him again in a trice.
MEGAN: Storm is an absolutely lovely human being. Thoughtful, caring, attentive, a great listener and a diplomatic negotiator. I really liked working with him throughout the audition process. I continued to like working with him as we met and discussed things in pre-production, and so too when we were on set during the shoot.
I’m very rigorous when it comes to dramaturgy and, during pre-production, I asked many deep and detailed questions and boldly addressed things in the script that I felt needed work. He graciously listened and responded – answering my queries, delving deeper into his own thoughts about it, taking on things I offered that he found he wanted to apply, as well as articulately explaining his reasons for keeping certain things unchanged that were important to his vision.
Indeed, across the board, Storm is an excellent collaborator. Open and willing to share the artistry of creation. So brave in generously handing over his precious baby, to be cared for and raised by so many! With this in mind, I look forward to watching him become more discerning about who he listens to and when, and what is truly important to take on or leave. I think, sometimes, he is too diplomatic / too fair-minded! I was excited to watch him start learning when and how to respectfully make clear choices and stand his ground.
On what was sometimes a very stressful set – due to time pressures – Storm maintained a calm attitude and measured approach (even when I could see that, beneath the surface, there was literally a storm inside). It is so important for the master of the ship to stay calm in choppy seas, and to be adaptable to the changing swell and shifting tides! It has an energetic trickle-down effect, to the rest of the set. I thoroughly applaud him for this.
It was a first time for a lot of us – Storm’s first feature, my first lead in a feature, Aaron’s first feature as DOP, Nicola’s first feature as production designer and many more. In this sense, I felt we all really supported each other. I think we all had moments of stress, but there was always someone else there in the team to offer support and care and collaborative guidance. Collaborative support is fundamental to a good set. Again, I applaud Storm for fostering this among the ranks.
I also smilingly applaud him for saying, “You can say I told you so”, when certain things I fought to exclude or include were found to be applied in the edit. From my ADR booth I replied that I clearly didn’t need to say it, if he already knew! Seriously though, this again speaks to his honour in collaboration. His combined capacity to stay present, to own things, to inclusively collaborate and to give credit where credit is due is a real strong suit. I think it bodes well for him. I very much look forward to watching Storm’s growth as a writer and director and I look forward to working with him again in the future.
Who do you think is the ideal audience for THE SCHOOL? Do you think children should see the movie?
NICHOLAS: Again, I’ll leave that to publicity and marketing. But I wouldn’t take my 7-year-old twins to see it, because I think they’d get too frightened.
MEGAN: I have not yet seen the final product! So, I am not sure how to answer this question.When I was first brought onto the project I imagined it was targeting a sophisticated adult horror audience. As I was brought further into the fold I understood it was a little more for younger audiences. But I cannot say how young. Perhaps tweens and teens and up! Or just teens and up?!
I know it has been quite radically re-edited – the structure of the finished film is not what the structure was on the page. I also know certain scenes have been cut, others have been enhanced with special effects (thanks to the magic of Will Gammon and his team) I truly cannot say until I see it in its entirety! With you guys at Monster Fest! [Side note: I’m so chuffed it is in Monster Fest. I love this festival and hoped and thought it might suit!]
Finally: what kind of projects do you want to see come out of Australia’s film industry?
NICHOLAS: All sorts. I have a liking for complex drama, but a good film industry would be better served by a wide range of projects. And if we told those stories from our point of view, that would guarantee the uniqueness of the storytelling. I don’t think we need to limit ourselves to our shores, but I do think we should use our own voice. No-one else has it, so it’s really interesting to them. . .
And, of course, I’d want to see projects with me in them.
MEGAN: I’m an arthouse fan. I’d love to see the development and application of risky, raw, poignant, epic, funny, sophisticated, deep and dark ideas and styles – they are out there already of course, but I hope and look forward to much more. I’m very interested in Australia’s output of horror (I’m into psychological horror more than slasher horror), and the development and output of sci-fi projects too!
I look forward to seeing more women in key creative and production roles, as well as lead roles on screen, and more stories for and about the female experience in our culture and society. As well as gender non-conforming stories and roles. I want to see more queer stories and positions filled by queer-identifying people, more indigenous stories and positions available to and filled by indigenous people, more perspectives and stories told and roles available to people of colour and people with different abilities. Again, this is all happening more now than it ever has, but I am very much looking forward to it continuing to be a focus, to continue to grow and enrich Australia’s filmic landscape and nourish our combined storytelling capacity, that we may all come to know ourselves better for it.
THE SCHOOL will have its World Premiere this Friday July 27th as the Opening Night Film of our Monster Fest Travelling Sideshow Adelaide!