Axelle Carolyn's new feature film SOULMATE is a poignant, charming, and pretty tale of love and ghosts set in the English countryside. Treading a fragile line between drama, horror, and Gothic romance, SOULMATE resembles her first directing endeavor, the short film THE LAST POST, in which the afterlife intrudes into the natural realm.
SOULMATE is about Audrey (played by Anna Walton), a suicidal woman mourning the recent death of her husband. Isolating herself in an old country cottage away from friends and family, she soon develops a relationship with the ghost (Tom Wisdom) haunting the property. What follows is an atypical genre film in which love is not the untimate cure-all. Carolyn answers some of my questions about the film, her direction, and her choices for SOULMATE in the following interview:
SOULMATE has a decidedly open ending and does not end on a "happy" note the way, say, American films tend to end. Can you tell me why you decided to leave the film ambiguous?
I just tried to make the ending as truthful as possible. An unhappy ending would have made the film too bleak, considering how it starts off; but I don't think a real happy ending would have made sense here. I felt the events in the film pretty much naturally led to that conclusion. Also, that's one of the perks of indie films: I don't have to make it end with rainbows and unicorns!
Do you think SOULMATE is a decidedly British or European film, or do you think that genre films are now blending across borders, culturally?
Mmmh, tough one. I read a few reviews mention me as a 'British director', and as a Belgian living in LA, I found that funny. The landscape and the setting are very typically British, and I suppose there's a tradition in the UK of slow-burn atmospheric ghost stories that I built on. But I also think the themes it deals with – grief, and finding comfort in the supernatural – are universal.
Do you think it is important to place a film in a "genre" in order to market it to audiences? As someone whose films are not easily categorized, do you fear it is a hindrance, or believe it is a benefit?
To market it? Oh, yeah. People tell you they want to see original work, but if you defy their expectations – if you step ever so slightly away from the tropes of the genre you work it -, it becomes a hard sell, because you can't easily pinpoint a target audience. Also for the audience, 'ghost story' comes with all kinds of expectations these days: it has to be scary, it has to have jump scares… Some people love to be surprised; others hate it. I've seen both reactions so far.
SOULMATE reminds me on many levels of a traditional classic Gothic thriller in the vein of JANE EYRE, THE INNOCENTS, or GAS LIGHT. Can you tell me how you used the old house, the solitude, and the countryside to craft a story that is, on the one hand, traditionally Gothic and, on the other hand, updated for modern audiences?
That's some fantastic comparisons! All those stories, in many ways, are hard to classify within a genre… The whole story came from the fact that I knew I'd have a limited budget for my first feature, and I wanted a small amount of characters in a tiny amount of locations. I've always been obsessed with that idea of finding comfort in the supernatural, because if there are ghosts, there's an afterlife, and the people you've lost are not gone forever. So the story was born from that idea – something anybody who's ever lost someone can relate to. The locations, the atmosphere are very much inspired by those Gothic classics, but at the heart of it is a very human story, very real and contemporary. Some people have referred to the movie as a romance, by the way, and I feel it couldn't be further from it. If anything, the love story is between Audrey, the lead girl, and her late husband; but this story is about a bond broken by a premature death, not about romance. She could have lost a son and found the ghost of a little boy, it would have been the same idea.
I'd like to know a little more about your casting choices.
Anna Walton, who plays Audrey, played a part in my short film THE HALLOWEEN KID, and she was so great to work with that I immediately re-wrote the script for her. She was the first one on board and she was extremely focused and prepared. Anna is a wonderfully instinctive actress who knew the character inside out. She also has a fragility which made her character instantly likable, but also an inner strength which was essential to avoid portraying her as a victim. Tom Wisdom, who plays the ghost, brings so much subtlety and layers to the part. Audrey is obviously essential, but the film lives or dies with the performance of the ghost: anything too big would have looked like pantomime, yet we have to understand that he's a lost, tortured soul. Tom brought exactly the right balance. Nick Brimble and Tanya Myers are both wonderful character actors, and they're both at once funny, menacing and sad. Everybody in the story deals with a loss of some kind. And of course Anubis, my dog, is a star in the making.
What have been the most challenging, and most rewarding, aspects of making SOULMATE?
The best part was the shoot, no doubt. I loved being on set, directing the cast, working with our awesome crew. We were sharing cottages around the location so at night, I'd hang out with the DoP and the producer, but also with the editor, who could show me roughly assembled scenes, and that was incredibly exciting. But getting it financed took such a long time, so many ups and downs, and now letting go of my baby, leaving it in the hands of distributors and marketing guys and festivals and audiences, is an odd experience. Love it or hate it, it's hard not to see that it's a very personal movie, and sometimes it feels like a part of my brain is out there on display.
You can watch some interviews with the cast and producer along with Carolyn at London's Film4 FRIGHTFEST screening just a few weeks ago: