Film Director Adapts Lovecraft

Sean Branney returns to Northern Ireland for the premiere of the stylised thriller The Whisperer in the Dark

Based in LA, film director Sean Branney – whose family hail from County Down – adapted the HP Lovecraft short story Call of Cthulhu as a silent film in 2005 to great critical acclaim. The horrid events detailed in the film might have deterred a less determined soul – or a wiser one.

His new film – another adaptation of a Lovecraft story – The Whisperer in the Dark will premiere at the Waterfront Hall on April 1, as part of the Belfast Film Festival. CultureNorthernIreland entered into a correspondence with the director shortly before he returns to Northern Ireland for the screening.

‘I’ve been a Lovecraft fan for 30 years or so,’ Branney says. ‘When I was 14 my weirdest friend came up to me with a book of short stories and said, “You have to read this story by HP Lovecraft – ‘The Rats in the Walls’ – it’s really weird.” He was right.’

Branney’s fascination with the Lovecraftian mythos led him down many dark paths. He even joined the ranks of the HP Lovecraft Historical Society. For elided reasons of their own they helped Branney to capture his visions of Lovecraft's stories on film and release them to the world.

‘We’re incredibly fortunate to be able to conceive and execute our own projects,’ Branney says. ‘Call of Cthulhu exceeded our expectations. We sat down to make a small movie mostly for ourselves. We hoped it might find a small audience and, perhaps, make back all the money we dumped into it. We weren’t prepared to have so many fans ordering DVDs from around the globe or to find it screening at major film festivals worldwide. It was a terrific surprise for all of us.’

The success of Call of Cthulhu spurred Branney and the society on to even greater heights of ambition. Call of Cthulhu was produced as if it had been shot in 1926, the same year the story was written. Branney used the Mythoscope technique for the production, melding old and new styles to achieve the desired effect. He stuck with the conceit for The Whisperer in Darkness (watch a trailer below), a story written in 1931. For Branney the decision to adhere to the aesthetic of the period was an important one.

‘Lovecraft worked really hard to evoke a tone and atmosphere which is effective at creating an emotional response in the reader. An adaptation that completely abandons that atmosphere doesn’t feel very “Lovecraftian”. We hoped that by filming in a manner in keeping with Lovecraft’s era, it would keep the creepy and unsettling atmosphere.’

He thinks they succeeded. ‘It’s not a flawless illusion, but I think the approach worked well as a means to tell this particular story. By employing authentic filmmaking techniques it helped us make a film of rather grand scope with a limited budget.’ He chuckles nervously, paling as he adds, ‘A lot of people seem to enjoy it.’

The Whisperer in Darkness recounts the experiences of literature professor Albert M Wilmarth, a sceptic who becomes embroiled in a series of mysterious alien sightings in Vermont. The most challenging aspect of the film was bringing the creatures to life. Originally the plan was create the aliens using stop-motion techniques from the early 30s. However, that turned out to be a little too complicated.

‘The creatures’ anatomy is quite complex and has lots of moving parts,’ Branney explains. ‘And they have to fly. At night. In the rain. 'Our line producer encouraged us to consider using CGI graphics for the creatures rather than stop-motion. Dilated Pixels, a Hollywood digital effects company, used CGI to replicate the look and movement of the old-time stop motion animation.

'Technically, some of the things the creatures do would have pushed the limits of what could be done in the 1930s, but they still feel like they come from the world of Dracula or the original King Kong.’

Branney will be in Belfast for the premiere of The Whisperer in Darkness. It has been seven years since he returned to Northern Ireland, and he is looking forward to visiting family. ‘We live in Los Angeles: rain is a novelty to us. And your airport – wow – the drive to the Belfast airport is gorgeous. Anyone who doesn’t agree should come with me for a tour of the area around LAX.’

In our final correspondence with Branney he spoke of his plans to continue his investigations into the Great Old Ones. He is working on a series of 1930s-style radio dramas with his fellow society member Andrew Leman and two episodes are scheduled for release late in 2011. He is also working on two more motion picture scripts and a couple of TV projects.

‘If I had some serious financing, then I’d love to make a motion picture of At the Mountain of Madness - move over Guillermo del Toro! We did a radio play adaptation of Mountains, and it's a terrific story. The Shadow Over Innsmouth is another one that would make a great movie, but it would require a fair size budget to do it justice.’

Even Branney, however, can grow wearied of the grotesque things uncovered in these stories. He speaks wearily of retiring to an academic life. ‘If I were a Miskatonic student, I think I'd enroll in their Theatre program. No doubt there's some mind-numbing avant garde work being done on the boards of Miskatonic's auditorium. Maybe I'd adapt The Cask of Amontillado as an opera and stage it there!’

See The Whisperer in Darkness at the Belfast Waterfront on April 1