He explains. "We wanted to explore different kinds of horror, and while there'd been a TV movie and a stage play, we recognised a great opportunity in The Woman in Black to combine Susan Hill's gothic ghost story with a modern sensibility to turn it into a feature film."
The production sought a screenwriter capable of overcoming the hurdles experienced by those who had taken on the task in previous years. "We identified Jane Goldman as someone we all wanted to work with," says Jackson. "And she was excited from the outset. She was able to crack it in terms of overcoming the central problems of how to tell this story for film."
Says Oakes: "I'd read about Jane and knew about her work, and I knew she'd be right for it. Her screenplay made everything fall into place. James Watkins, the director, read it and loved it. Daniel Radcliffe read it right after the last day of Harry Potter and loved it. Jane had a huge part to play in getting the right people involved."
Susan Hill says she was thrilled with the result. "When Jane sent me the script it was for me to look at it and say, 'Yeah, this is fine, but…'" she explains. "But I just thought it was terrific. Jane, I think, thought that I might be offended by some of the changes to the story, but that wasn't what worried me. What would have worried me is if she'd turned it into something like a comedy, but she hadn't. She's just so skilled. She's managed to make it her own while still allowing it to be mine."
Goldman was concerned that she strike the right balance of tone in writing her screenplay. "It's a tough one to adapt," she says. "It's a wonderful novel, and there was a brilliant theatre adaptation that was so much designed for the theatre. I think it was always clear, because it's a very economically told story, that to work as a film it needed additional layers."
She continues: "For me it was about introducing The Woman in Black to a cinema-going audience. In a way, I was attempting to do in cinematic language what Stephen Mallatratt had done in the theatre."
Coincidentally, at the same time, Eden Lake director James Watkins had read a story in the trade press about Jane Goldman writing the screenplay, and asked his agent to inquire about the project. "I'd been working on a ghost story myself, but I couldn't make it work for me," Watkins explains. "When I read Jane's script, it spoke to everything that I wanted to achieve with the other project. It just had that sense that it was scary but it also had an emotional element in it. It really moved me, and as soon as I'd read it I knew I wanted to do it."
"James is a very, very smart guy," says Simon Oakes. "He's a great director who understands both how to tell a story and how to get great scares out of it."
Watkins brings a relaxed attitude to the set, according to actress Liz White, who plays the ghostly Woman in Black. "I auditioned for the part about two months before shooting and at that first meeting James was just so generous," she says. "And he's been that generous throughout the shoot. I've always felt welcomed to The Woman in Black family."
Working with Watkins, Jane Goldman began a process of refining the script; a process she believes has helped maintain the spirit of Susan Hill's novel. "In early drafts there were a number of flashbacks involving the Woman," she reveals, "but we were able to work through this process of continually dialling it back. I feel that it's much stronger because of that - there's not some American backstory about how the Woman in Black became the Woman in Black. It's not Freddy Krueger! It's about Arthur's experience of discovering these horrific secrets and our discovering what happened through his eyes."
Important for producer Richard Jackson, too, was that The Woman in Black be accessible to audiences generally disinclined to enjoy genre cinema. "We're trying to ensure that the people who want to go and see a movie will consider The Woman in Black as their first choice because it's sufficiently well made to engage them," he says. "Regardless of whether they'd normally be interested in horror or those genre elements. And that's Daniel Radcliffe's attraction as the star - to encourage a much wider audience to buy their tickets and come and enjoy it
Adapting The Woman in Black - from novel to screen
One of the key changes made to the novel is the earlier introduction of Kipps's son who in the novel isn't born until after Kipps returns to London from Crythin Gifford. Introduced in Goldman's screenplay in the film's opening scenes, Kipps's struggle with being separated from Joseph during his time in Crythin Gifford becomes a key plot point and adds another layer of dread as the young solicitor learns the secrets of this curious village.
"We wanted to track that through the whole film," explains Watkins. "It's fundamental in terms of what drives Arthur. As with the loss of his wife; I wanted to explore the nature of his loss, and not have it simply as an abstraction."
"The novel works beautifully because it's completely in the style of a classic Victorian ghost story, where you don't ask the sort of questions that you ask when you watch a film," explains Jane Goldman. "'Why does Arthur not leave the village immediately? There are certain cinematic conventions that I think we needed to address. It was important to answer questions about what's driving this character and why it's important for him to remain in the village."
Although Susan Hill's novel - and, indeed, Jane Goldman's adaptation of it - tells the story of The Woman in Black in the grand tradition of Victorian ghost stories, for Goldman, finding the world of the film involved researching some unlikely cinematic sources.
"The story is both unashamedly scary and full of this real, emotional depth," she reveals. "And in adapting it I kept coming back to some of the better examples of J-Horror in recent years."
The Japanese Horror genre, dubbed J-Horror and popularised by films such as The Ring and The Grudge, has more than a little in common with classical Victorian ghost stories, Goldman says. "They're often devastating in terms of the emotional themes, but they're also properly scary. The two things don't have to be mutually exclusive. In Japan there's an enormous interest in the Victorian culture anyway, and it was interesting to see those films strike that balance."
For James Watkins, crafting a modern period film was an intriguing contradiction. "Intersecting the period world with the J-Horror world was very interesting and fresh," he explains. "The grammar of the whole film was something I spoke at length to (cinematographer) Tim Maurice-Jones about. I didn't want the film to look like a period piece. I wanted to shoot it with a very modern idiom in the way the camera moves, the way we establish scenes and the mise-en-scène of the whole thing."
In defining the look of Eel Marsh House, the creepy mansion cut off from the village of Crythin Gifford by a causeway that floods at high tide, Watkins was keen not to play to ghost house stereotypes. "I wanted it to have this sense of decay, but I didn't want it to be a monochromatic cliché," he says.
With production designer Kave Quinn, he sought instead to make use of a rich colour palette, resulting in a decidedly more highly saturated look than convention would suggest. "The film has a very rich look," continues Watkins. "We have these kinds of bruised colours. The colours of decay and death: purples and blacks and rich, deep crimsons. I really wanted that sense of the beauty of the house to come through. At the same time, it's a haunted house, it has to have nooks and crannies and crevices and dark spaces. It's as much about the lighting as anything."
Quinn explains that the process of designing Eel Marsh House began with scouting the location for its exterior. "At the beginning of the film, we had a fantastic location manager looking for the right house," she says. "It needed to have its own persona, so that as soon as you saw it you knew it had some character to it. When you look at the house we found, it almost has eyes. It's a Jacobean building and the gable at the front gives it an incredible evil look."
With the location found, Quinn sat down with Watkins to fine tune her designs for the interior of the house, based on the rough blueprint of the exterior. "I gathered together loads of research materials on things like staircases and panelling, and I knew which way I was going to go with the colours. We used bruising purples and mouldy greens to give that sense of decay."
Finding a real life location to play the odd village of Crythin Gifford proved even more challenging. "In the 21st Century, obviously anywhere we'd find would be busy and full of cars and road signs and newer buildings that needed covering up," explains Quinn. "We wanted to try and find somewhere that had almost been untouched by time, and the village we found, Halton Gill, was right in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales, so it isn't anywhere you'd ever pass through. It hadn't been over-developed, so all the houses are original from something like 400 years ago."
The collaboration with director James Watkins has been "unbelievable," says Quinn. "From my first meeting with James, we just really gelled."
"Kave did wonders as a production designer and she's an amazing woman," agrees Watkins. "She really understood what I tried to get at. We designed the long corridors and the depth, so I could have real depth in the frame in the Polanski sense of looking through doorways and half seeing things."
He summarises: "A ghost story is what you can't quite see - what's in the corners of the frame and what's in the margins. That was something we built into the production design."
"We're filming in 2.35:1 instead of 1.85:1," says Jackson, referring to the super wide aspect ratio favoured by epic Hollywood productions. "That's a strange choice, you'd think, to begin with, because when you think of 2.35:1 you think of a big Western, and when you think of a small, claustrophobic ghost story, you think of it in 1.85:1. But it's turned out to be really exciting as a way of shooting the story."
Cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones says that the primary direction he got from Watkins to define the look of the film was one simple word: "contrast". "We've been trying to light the sets with a single source of light only," explains Maurice-Jones. "A lot of films will use a key light to light the face, a fill light to light any shadow that's left, and a backlight to pick them out against the background. We've been trying to use light and shade to achieve that sense of contrast with just one light."
Watkins also chose to play with the basic conventions of filmmaking in order to add to the unsettling sense of dread that hangs over the film. "We used what we could to just throw things slightly off balance," he reveals. "I've shot at multiple frame rates and shutter speeds, we'll have jump cutting, discontinuous editing. You don't want to be tricksy - I can't stand that - but anything that serves to tell the story honestly, and that's the key for me, is valid. No rules necessarily apply, and to have that freedom to explore is interesting."
"We've been very organic in that respect," agrees editor Jon Harris, "James is great at coming up with ideas for things to pop in just to make it a little creepier. It's very back-and-forth with us. We'll put things together and see what works and then if he's still on the same set he can add something to it, or apply the idea to another scene."
He continues: "We're trying to achieve something akin to peripheral vision. Although I don't believe in ghosts, whenever I go into an old house you find things moving in your peripheral vision. We've been talking a lot about how to achieve that on film, because you can try to make the audience look at one thing, but they'll look wherever they want to."
Watkins describes his relationship with Harris as incredibly collaborative. The pair worked together on Watkins's feature debut, Eden Lake, as well as Harris's directorial debut The Descent: Part 2, which Watkins co-wrote. "Jon's been a big part of the constructing of the film pre-edit as well," he reveals. "He shot Second Unit and was very much a part of the script collaboration process with me and Jane."
Says Harris: "Between the two of us we know what we need to make the film work. I work in the edit during production and I keep an eye on what's being shot, and the pickups list, to make sure we've got what we need."