There’s something about the horror genre that can dig into our consciousness and hit at our basest fears. One of those most terrifying realities that we all face is the threat of not being believed. Inspired partly by the #MeToo movement, writer/director Corinna Faith dove headfirst into tackling this fear with her debut feature, The Power.
Set in East London during the 1970s, as the nation experienced government-mandated nightly blackouts to conserve electricity, Faith’s film centers on Val (Rose Williams), a young trainee nurse who is starting her first day at a new hospital. Little does she know that this building has plenty of secrets ready to come into light as the darkness takes hold.
Taking place over the course of one night, The Power intertwines Val’s personal history of neglect and mistreatment with the hospital’s own past and present terrors, connecting her with the stories of other women who have been abused and ignored.
This story is a deeply meaningful one for Faith, a BAFTA nominee for Best Short Film for her 2006 film Care. Her passion shines through in the attention to detail and focus on character that she fuses into this debut. She demonstrated that deep sense of caring during my recent conversation with her, as we spoke about what films inspired her, how she integrates the ideas of class and institutional abuse into her film, and why she’s always been drawn to the realm of horror.
Read on for my interview with writer/director Corinna Faith:
Mitchell Beaupre: The Power accomplishes what most great horror movies do, which is using the genre as a vessel through which to speak about larger meaningful themes. Is horror a genre that you’ve always been drawn to?
Corinna Faith: Yes, I’m a massive fan of film and story in general, but I have always loved the collective bonding experience of being scared. I can fondly look back on lots of seminal teenage slumber parties. Even just the macabre and uncanny feeling of reading fairy tales from when I was very little, I’ve always loved that space and that feeling of suspense. I was always thinking and hoping that my first film could be something in the world of horror.
MB: Was this specific story one that you’d had on your mind for a while?
CF: I wanted to write a ghost story, and I think it’s quite hard to find something that is rich enough while also not being too general. There are so many great ghost stories out there, so I needed to find one that was really specific to work for me. At the same time that I was seeking that out there were a lot of these big institutional scandals being uncovered in this country, and so all of that was coming into our collective subconsciousness. Then, in my research I saw this image from around this time period of a woman working as a telephonist in the dark during a blackout with this oil lamp. I hadn’t known much about the blackouts at the time, but it was such a gothic ghost story type of image, yet it came from real life. Learning about the blackouts, I became very interested in how hospitals specifically coped with that, and I felt that it was the perfect backdrop.
MB: The period setting draws to mind films like The Innocents and The Orphanage. What were some of the influences on your mind while creating the film?
CF: Absolutely The Innocents was a massive one. I wanted to try and start the story with that classic gothic feel. It’s something that we’re familiar with, yet it still holds so much uncanny appeal to me. A less horror related influence was 3 Women, the Robert Altman film. That was one that myself, the DP [Laura Bellingham], and the production designer [Francesca Massariol] looked at a lot for inspiration as to how to present these women to each other. You can see it in how we use glass and mirrors a lot, and how that works into the possession ideas in the film, while still being very much a character piece. That was a big influence.
MB: Another thing often crucial to horror is location, and you’ve got a great one here. I’m assuming this was a real hospital where you shot the film?
CF: It was, yeah. At one point I thought we might not find what I wanted, but I desperately wanted it to be a real location because I didn’t think we could achieve anything like what I wanted on our budget with a build. I was really hoping to capture some of the real sense of atmosphere that an old building of this scale has, and you don’t really need to do much other than be there, and turn the lights out in order to feel that. We looked for a long time all around the UK, in Scotland, in Ireland, and we couldn’t find anything because the buildings were all either too dilapidated or too dangerous. Then right before the shoot we actually found one in East London, where the film is set, that we had looked at before but most of it hadn’t been available at that time. Thankfully, all of it had shut down since then and suddenly the whole thing was available. It was quite fortuitous.
MB: It’s mentioned in the film how the hospital is located in a poorer neighborhood, and we hear some disparaging comments made about the poor communities living around there, sort of blaming them for being sick. Could you speak about the way that you integrated class commentary into the picture?
CF: I wanted to speak a lot about hierarchy in general. I was thinking about the situations that need to arise for people to fall between the cracks, and for nobody to say anything. It takes that kind of situation where there’s a lot of powerless people, and then some people with a lot of power, so then the powerless people are too afraid to say anything. Of course, that is just as relevant now as it was then, but that is kind of the nature of big institutions quite often. I was also thinking about who it is that gets targeted, who it is that people don’t listen to, and how it’s often people that it’s easy to choose not to believe for one reason or another.
MB: That idea of hierarchy is very present in the film, as the script connects these dots thematically between Val’s backstory and what is happening in the story currently. What was that process like intertwining those threads?
CF: That was probably the thing that changed the most during the writing process. There’s so many different ways that you could approach that, but what worked for me ultimately was that I wanted to present her without her backstory because I felt like that’s where she is at when we first meet her. She’s kind of agreed with herself and with society to be somebody that nothing had ever happened to, and that’s kind of the basis for this whole night of unraveling. So in the end, I didn’t want to know or to express clearly what had happened to her until the story had helped her work it out.
MB: It escalates tremendously well, and part of that is due to the magnificent performance from Rose Williams as Val. Could you speak about casting her in the part, and what she brought to the role?
CF: She brought everything, to be honest. Casting her was very easy. We looked at loads of reads for the part, and Rose just personalized it instantly. Within about 30 seconds of looking at what she did it felt like she was coming from somewhere different and real. I met with her after that because I needed to make sure that she was going to be up for the physical, endurance side of the experience, and that I wasn’t going to be pulling her apart. I wanted to know that she was going to get something out of it as well, and that we would have fun together making the film. This kind of low budget thing could be grueling, but Rose has got so much stamina, and I think she loved the idea of doing something totally against the grain of the “perfect beautiful lead woman” kind of role. She really pushes herself out there, and it’s such a bold physical performance.
MB: The physicality of it is genuinely astonishing. The way that she contorts her body in some of the scenes is so striking. Was she doing all of those movements by herself?
CF: She did all of that! That’s how far she pushed herself. We spent a couple of days on this one particular scene which is extremely physical. We had this idea based on an event that happened to a ghost character in the story, and we worked it out as a sort of dance really. We had all of the movements choreographed, and then Rose memorized it and practiced it, so when she came to the set she had it mastered. She completely knew what she was doing so she was able to really go for it. I think it’s such a brave performance.
MB: Going back to the location, throughout the film you have these signs up on the walls about child abuse, and believing children who speak up. Were you surrounding these characters with the hypocrisy of this institution, a place where you’re told to speak up if you see someone being wronged, and yet time and time again we see how the people who speak up are ignored, and often penalized for doing so?
CF: Absolutely, we were looking for anything in the design that would build the idea that this was a place where nobody would listen, or could listen even if they wanted to. It’s about that lack of power that anyone had. We did a lot of little things like the posters to seed in those ideas. Val’s costume was another one, where the film starts off with it being this fresh white perfect nurse’s costume, and then over the course of the night it gets darker and darker until it’s the same color as the walls. It’s like she gets sucked into the institution. We had about 12 different versions of that costume. We were looking for lots of little ways to say that the building and the people that were running it were bigger than anything else, that it was dog eat dog so it was difficult for anyone to be brave and stand up to it.
MB: What do you have coming up next? Are you going to be working in horror again?
CF: I think this genre is a hugely exciting space to be working in at the moment, especially in this kind of female gothic space, so I’ve got another extremely female centric story I’m working on that’s in a bit more of a demon territory. I’m hoping to be able to push that along. At the moment, I’m also writing for a supernatural show on Netflix that I’m very excited about!
The Power will be available to stream exclusively on Shudder starting April 8th
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]