There’s a real charm to Tom Oxenham’s haunting thriller The Nicky Nack. It has the feel of a local folk tale that you’d overhear in quaint village pub. That might, in fact, be because it was inspired by one of those exact stories. It’s a simple premise: man leaves pub and is tormented by a strange sound. But it’s the way in which Oxenham and his crew execute it that is so delightfully terrifying. Everything from the sound to the cinematography is captured with such grace that you feel as though you’re watching an adaptation of of an old tale by M.R James or Daphne Du Maurier. Twelve Cabins was delighted to speak with the Director as The Nicky Nack premieres at FrightFest this weekend to discuss what it was like working with Alun Armstrong, the process of shifting from comedy to horror, and practically capturing the film’s deeply eerie atmosphere.
How did you discover the story of The Nicky Nack and what made you want to adapt it into a short?
One of those very rare moments of productive procrastination! My writing partner, and producer of the film, Hugo Nicholson and I were working to a tight deadline on another script, it got a bit tense so went out for a drink at our local, where he told me this about this pub called The Nicky Nack in County Durham (where he’s from), and the legend of how it got its name. It was so improbable and weird and funny, we knew we had to make a film out of it! I think we wrote the first draft in under an hour there and then. There’s just something so brilliantly unreliable about pub tales, everyone we met up there swore the story was true, but then told us a completely different version! I love that our film will add yet another thread to the story, and to have shot it on location in the pub where this is said to have taken place The Daleside Arms in Croxdale, formerly The Nicky Nack, only makes it feel more a part of it.
Your background is in comedy filmmaking, what drew you to create a film within the horror genre?
I wanted to try something different to the shorts I’d made before, always been obsessed by those great British rural horrors of the 70s and 80s, and The Nicky Nack felt like the perfect chance to pay tribute to them! I remember being so freaked out watching John Landis’ American Werewolf in London that I wouldn’t go outside, let alone a misty moor, but also knowing it was very, very funny. It’s such a delicate tonal balance to get right, and a great challenge. There’s more than a few loving nods to that film in ours!
The film looks incredible! There’s tonnes of atmosphere. What did you shoot on? And what were you looking to evoke visually?
All credit there to Cinematographer Michael Filocamo and Gaffer Paul Choy, who did an incredible job on a tight budget. We shot on the Alexa Mini with a set of Canon K35 primes. Though there’s some hints pointing to our story taking place in the present day, our intention was very much for it to feel timeless, this might have taken place fifty years ago, or yesterday. But we wanted the film to be part of the same world as things like Lawrence Gordon Clark’s A Ghost Story for Christmas, or Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You. Michael and I were keen to capture some of the theatricality of those films, there’s just something a little off, throughout, and our story is ultimately so absurd that it allowed us to try some of those crazier angles and camera moves. We wanted to shoot 4:3 right from the start, which I think helps give the The Nicky Nack more space to form, and doesn’t hurt when you have an actor of the calibre of Alun Armstrong filling the frame!
How did you come to work with Alun Armstrong? What does working with a professional actor like him offer a production?
Through our brilliant Casting Director Anna Dawson (Anna Dawson Casting). With no dialogue in the film, we needed a big performance, and because the story of The Nicky Nack felt so rooted to the folklore of the area, were looking to cast an actor from the North East, and not only is Alun an incredible talent, but also grew up twenty minutes up the road from Croxdale What an opportunity to get to work with an actor like that, and was such a great presence on set. He really set the tone for the shoot.
The sound plays a large part in creating that tone too and the tension that unfolds, how did you create such an unsettling world audibly?
That was by far the most difficult thing to get right, a lot of trial and error, to be honest. Without giving too much away, we don’t see what The Nicky Nack is until the very last shot, so its presence is felt almost entirely through that sound, and The Man’s reaction. We experimented with all sorts of foley, but couldn’t find anything that gave us a clear enough ‘nicky nack’, in the end it was vocal performance and Sound Designer Timo Saila’s wizardry that got us there. The voice work proved massively important in giving it character, sometimes it’s malevolent, playful, lots more levels to play with essentially. This is a film with no dialogue or score, but Timo relished that challenge as soon as we pitched it to him. I think he’s found such great light and shade in his design, playing on our primal, instinctive reaction to the unknown, and then the rational mind coming in to override it, I can’t wait to hear it in the cinema.
The Glen Campbell song works perfectly! Had you always been set on using it? Was it a challenge to obtain?
No, it was actually a really late find. In the script we had Yes Sir, I Can Boogie by Baccara for the opening pub scene (which has since been adopted as the unofficial anthem of the Scottish football team). We loved the backstory of our DJ plugging away with this incredibly sad/under-appreciated disco night in rural County Durham! But we found pretty quickly in the edit that it was fighting against the atmosphere we needed, so decided to go a bit more direct. I had a Glen Campbell track in another script, so had been listening to him quite a bit, and felt Turn Around, Look at Me had that combination of being immediately haunting, but ultimately tongue in cheek. On getting the rights: the producers tell me that ‘it couldn’t have been easier’. If you believe that…
What’s next for you?
More horror, hopefully. I’m working on a cannibal/buddy (cannibuddy?) comedy set in 1820s Tasmania, and a modern adaptation of one of my favourite British ghost stories… hopefully will be back in the Cabins to share before too long!