A relentlessly positive soul, Andy Nyman surrounds himself with many aspects of the arts, from television and theatre to magic and movies. It becomes more and more apparent in conversation how he has so successfully brought all of these passions together through performance and collaboration; his award-winning Derren Brown shows a prime example along with both the original play and film version of Ghost Stories with Jeremy Dyson, in which he also stars as the lead. It is therefore of no surprise he adores horror, lighting up when we discuss the ’89 version of The Woman in Black — his TV debut — an infamous classic that has often become a lynchpin for such conversations amongst aficionados of the genre. Open and completely down to earth, he juggles a phone call and then tucks into a cheese flan… “What could be better than talking about movies for an hour?”
How would you define cult cinema?
I remember when I was 14 or 15, I bought a book called Cult Cinema… and I don’t know if I can define it any more now. But, I guess, it’s a felt thing. I think it’s about things that feel subversive, those films you are unlikely to see at the multiplexes. But if I boil this down further it comes back to something Jeremy Dyson and I talked about a lot when we made the Ghost Stories film. We were offered American money and with that, they wanted to make it in the States… but we wanted shitty seaside England instead. When we started unpicking the film and we asked ourselves: “What are the films that we love, that have changed us and that we go back to again and again?” And I think it’s really akin to the answer to what cult cinema is; that in every single one of those films you are getting an insight into the personality of the director. The first film that pops into my head is The French Connection, where you know that what you’re seeing is Friedkin. It’s his frantic energy, his on-the-edge madness, which is what then takes you into The Exorcist. It’s the same for The Thing; you see Carpenter.
Auteur theory. Those distinctive voices… some of which have to find their audiences.
You get an insight into people and therefore I don’t think you can make a cult film as product. So it isn’t so much that they have to be horrific or violent, this or that… I just feel you need to gain an insight into what are very often extraordinary personalities that are writing or helming such films. You’re getting a vision.
What was is it that attracted you to horror?
I’m not quite sure. I was very scared of it as a kid, even the music when I could hear it coming from the TV on a Friday night. Then, almost by accident, I went to see The Fog when I was 14 because my sister had said to me, “It’s a double A, it won’t be scary, it’s got to be an X for it to be scary.” Well… it absolutely blew my mind. But, rather than traumatizing me — and it’s just the most brilliant rollercoaster of a ghost story — I found it very exhilarating. So then, shortly after, Halloween was about to be shown on telly for the first time and I connected, “Oh, it’s the same director.” I’d videoed it and must have watched the film 30 times. I just couldn’t stop. I thought it was amazing. Then, of course, that’s at the dawn of the video nasty boom which then brings me to a major film from my Selects: Dario Argento’s Deep Red; a film I ended up renting because it said on the front: “warning contains strong, bloody violence.” I thought, brilliant.
Completely different to what was coming out of the States.
What people forget about the video revolution was that world cinema was just pulled at you. So, up until then the only real horror films were Hammer and the big American movies, especially on the dawn of An American Werewolf in London (which is one of the best), so you were also on the cusp of what felt like a revolution. It comes back to ‘cult’ and, by way of all that, those ferocious personalities and maverick thinkers — George Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Mario Bava and Dario Argento — people who listened to and observed what was happening. Talk about “Black Lives Matter”; look at Night of the Living Dead as something that is years ahead of its time by reflecting on Vietnam and the civil rights movement. It packed a punch. It’s so easy if you don’t like horror to just dismiss it as schlock — “It’s rubbish, it’s gratuitous” — but making proper statements within genre filmmaking was phenomenal.
Talking about such themes and those wider issues that can often be tapped into, does your Jewish heritage help to define what horror is to you… such as alienation, the outsider, and ‘otherness’?
One hundred percent. The British Jewish experience — and this isn’t for everyone — is strange, because you have no place. Really and truly. I’ve definitely felt my whole life on the outside looking in. Jews constantly being left out of identity politics is a very odd feeling. When I was a kid, it was scary… but it was open, “Oh, I get it, I’ll stay away from those people.” So it’s not couched in a moral high ground; it’s just raw stupid hatred. We nailed the British Jewishness in Ghost Stories and our new book The Warlock Effect. Aside from the latter being a great thriller and interesting book about magic, it’s entirely about identity and the immigrant experience. So, again, to pull it back to film, I think the best of that stuff is Wes Craven. I think that his clear understanding of religious thinking; theology and how that bleeds into his unbelievably populist work is amazing.
That being so repressed for so long was the very thing that shaped his films — the first 18 years of his life completely devoid of popular culture and not even being able to watch films. Then, suddenly, he’s just flooded with stuff. That must have blown his mind. Did you ever see Keith Thomas’ The Vigil from 2019?
Yes, with the Chevra Kadisha. I thought it was terrific even though the film wasn’t wholly for my taste. It was rooted in truth. That’s a real thing.
There’s no way I’d have known about that.
You know the truth? I didn’t know till my dad died. Some of the men from the community do it and it’s exactly what it is in the film.
Cinema is magic, right? It feels like a magic trick.
There are a few things to remember. The first thing is, as you say, cinema is absolutely magic. It was pioneered by Georges Méliès [“A Trip to the Moon”, 1903] who was a magician and those first special effects were magic tricks. Secondly, the reason a great twist works so well is that it’s also a brilliant sleight of hand. That’s all a magic trick is (if a good one); it’s a short story with a great twist ending.
Like the set-up and the reveal?
Choose a card is act one. Put it back in the deck and shuffle it: there’s your mystery and intrigue. Now we deal through the cards… it’s vanished. Have a look in your pocket… “What the fuck!?” It’s a short story but it’s how you disguise that story. The deeper you get into hiding your methodology — and hiding the story so well you don’t even know that the magic is happening — then you have a Deep Red. I think that’s why that film had such a profound effect on me because it’s not cheated. It’s one of the things we tried to do in both the play and the film version of Ghost Stories; that you are experiencing what the protagonist experiences. So Goodman knows (as we do as a viewer) he has seen something that feels wrong and he can’t put his finger on what it is. And we kind of know the same thing because we have bravely (without being cheated) seen exactly what he’s seen. It’s not until that moment at the end when you realise what you and the protagonist have seen (and what you misconstrued it as) gives it that powerful twist. You’ve been tricked.
So magic is one hundred percent inextricably linked to filmmaking. Jeremy and I referred to Ghost Stories as ‘Buster Keaton filmmaking’, because the only CGI in the film is for little thread removals and a set extension. Other than that, everything is practical. All the tricks, all the monsters, all the moments, are happening; they’re for real… and all the ways you’re duped as an audience are the same ways the Goodman character is duped. So, again, they’re all just magic tricks. And we love that.
So what attracts you to Italian cinema? Aside from Deep Red, there are a lot of other examples on your Selects.
Argento, Fulci and Bava… there’s certainly a madness with all three of them that’s intoxicating. The visuals to this day are some of the most amazing stuff I’ve ever seen and just hits you in the most extraordinary place. I think Fulci is the most interesting example of all of them because he’s sort of the sloppiest of the three — he’s the least craftsman-like — his films feel the schlockiest and the most uneven of them. Fuck me, The Beyond; that was one of the first VHS tapes Jeremy and I ever rented together at 15. I’d gone to Leeds to his house, we went to the video rental store and we took out The Exterminator and The Beyond thinking (again) this will be violent. Of course, you’re watching them for all the wrong reasons… and yet, Jesus Christ… the ending of it. Oh. My. God. The boldness. I became obsessed from that point. I even did a play years ago solely because Richard Johnson was in the play. I wanted to ask him what Robert Wise was like on The Haunting — another film that I adore — and what Fulci was like to work with on Zombie Flesh Eaters. So, I thought, be cool, don’t ask him straight away… Literally first lunch break, “All right, Richard, I have to ask you about Fulci, what was it li-?” [interrupts himself in a booming voice] “Oh, bloody madman, loved him.” [laughter]
I also did a mini-series called Uprising for NBC 20 years ago about the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. Good series. I have this action scene where I have the most wicked ending when my character is set on fire. So I’m told: “We need you to go and see about the fire makeup and stuff, so if you could go upstairs and see the makeup guy, Giannetto.” And I suddenly stopped, “Do you mean Giannetto De Rossi?” And they were like, “Yeah… do you know who that is?” [pause] “Are you fucking kidding me?” So I walked in and he was just this beautiful bear of a man who welcomes me straight away… and I couldn’t help myself, “Giannetto, I can’t pretend I don’t know who you are — I fucking love Zombie Flesh Eaters!”
The actor vanishes and you’re 16 again.
He signed my Zombie Flesh Eaters and I’ve got a video of him and me watching the eye-gouging scene as he talks me through how they did it. He wouldn’t tell anybody for years how he did things. When he created my makeup he carved some modelling clay like Michelangelo carving a statue then painted it… and it looked shit… until the last ten seconds when (again, like a magic trick) he put the finishing touches on and it suddenly came to life. What an experience.
It’s one thing working in the industry, but when you’re a genre fan, first and foremost…
John Landis and Tobe Hooper came to see Ghost Stories at the theatre. You then realise when you’re having your picture taken with them that we’re doing this because of their work. To be able to say that and thank them…
You have Cinema Paradiso in there too, which helps sum up your love of Italian cinema, whether art house, cult cinema or the ‘magic’ of it all.
I’ve only ever seen it once. I don’t think I could bring myself to watch it again, because I know it just breaks you. And that’s the thing; I mean the impact it had on me when I saw it. Jesus Christ.
Morricone’s score alone.
Oh, my God, his music.
Unbelievable and one of the best soundtracks; a great film to have on your Selects because there is all the horror and the Giallo, even one of your own with Severance… then Cinema Paradiso.
Bellissimo… but coming back to what you say, I think you’re right; one of the things that struck me with it was just the absolute love of cinema. And also when you get to that ending where he’s kept all the bits that have been censored, there’s just an acknowledgement of how important — and it goes right back to what we were saying at the beginning — that film is not a small thing. And again, that’s the other thing with going back to the idea of cult and personality is that when you watch a film that isn’t made as a product — and I love a big blockbuster — when it’s ‘auteured’ every frame of that is precious. Every decision of it is precious. So to have censorship take stuff out is such a painful thing. And that’s one of the things in Cinema Paradiso that is so moving; that it isn’t just the kindness and the sentimentality of it, but it’s an acknowledgement of how essential it is as art and the impact it has on people’s lives and why that should be honoured. That’s one of the reasons it’s so profound and hits you so hard; that it isn’t just the schmaltz of it… there are just so many emotional layers to the film.
One of the few films that captures the experience of cinema. You would struggle to find anything better.
When faced with difficult circumstances, cinema — the joy of movies — shouldn’t be seen as a frivolous thing. It’s really important and helps you deal with horrible shit. Entertainment — at least in the Western world — got us through COVID.
Of all the films on your list and in the ARROW library, which film would you choose as a gateway to cult cinema?
I’d be hard-pushed not to say Deep Red. It ties all of this conversation together so well. You need a strong stomach but it’s one of the best-plotted thrillers to this day, with some of the most amazing visuals I’d ever fucking seen; some of the most extreme and remarkable violence coupled with the most beautiful visuals and a soundtrack that just picks you up by the throat and doesn’t let go of you. It was like ‘a religious experience’… and it’s not hyperbole to say the film and that period, absolutely changed my life. It’s unbeatable.
Check out Andy Nyman Selects on ARROW for his curation of films. The Warlock Effect is available from all good bookshops. Ghost Stories is available on Blu-ray and Amazon Prime. For more visit www.andynyman.com.