Inside the troubled dreams of Doctor Sleep
May 2002
By Alan Jones

A new British horror to keep you awake at night!

After exploring the enchanted world of the elfin kingdom in his eerily touching Photographing Fairies, director Nick Willing is now delving into the fantastical universe of 16th Century alchemy with his new psychological chiller Doctor Sleep. Produced by his wife Michele Camarda for her Kismet Films company (which made Born Romantic) and shot on location all over London throughout eight weeks during summer 2001, with interiors filmed at Three Mills Studios in the East End (former home of Big Brother), Willing's horror thriller stars Goran (ER) Visnjic, Shirley (Topsy Turvy) Henderson, Paddy (The Last Resort) Considine, Miranda Otto, who appeared in Lord of the Rings and veteran character actor Corin Redgrave. Special make-up and prosthetics are the work of Image Animation alumnus Neill Gorton and the digital effects are by Men From Mars.

Based on a 1997 book by Madison Smartt Bell, Doctor Sleep tells the story of foreign hypnotherapist Dr. Michael Strother (Visnjic) whose gift for being able to see into his patients' minds leads him into terrifying danger. Whilst trying to help a detective (Henderson) quit smoking, he gets sudden flashes of a young girl floating below the surface of a stream, and this subconscious image helps guide the investigation and pursuit of a ritualistic serial killer who believes he has found the secret to immortality.

Willing and Camarda optioned the Smartt Bell novel four years ago and intended to make it their feature follow-up to Photographing Fairies. But the more Willing tried to adapt the book into a filmable screenplay, the more he found he veered from Smartt Bell's original story as he explained, "The book became such a passion because I adored its mix of psychological thrills and unsettling weirdness. But I found I had to take it into numerous different directions for cinematic purposes. All that really remains is the title and the fact the doctor is a stranger in a strange land. The serial killer in the book was an East End gangster and Strother had to explore the mind of a woman. Now the doctor is using hypnosis to try and get inside the head of a traumatized little girl to unravel this jumble of frightening clues to the whereabouts of a medieval alchemist looking to swap blood with his young victims to extend his life. The book had such an edgy feel to it and tremendous potential for purely visual cinema. I built on that promise and the author has been very cool about the changes and endorsed them wholeheartedly. If he can find the time, I've asked Smartt Bell to play a cameo in the movie."

Willing, together with his director of photography Peter (Donnie Brasco) Sova, devised a specific look for Doctor Sleep based on the plot changes he made too. He says, "Because the girl is only ten years old, some of what's contained in her mind is real and some of it is pure imagination. So you already have a stylistic contrast between the shocking truth and the fantastical, almost psychedelic, world of 16th Century alchemy. It's stark hyper-realism meets make-believe intensity. Strother sees what she's thinking as she's actually thinking about it and must decide what's important and what isn't. For example, at one point she thinks about traveling through the universe, so we have zodiac signs floating around her in the ether. Is this her fantasy or an arcane clue to the killer's identity? And I've planned it so every time you see the world of children depicted -either a classroom drawing, a fairground or an ice cream van - you know something horrible is about to happen. It's at those 'safe' images I want to start alarm bells ringing. At one point Strother brings home a toy dog that barks when you touch its head. When he's woken up by it barking at 3 am, and his daughter is fast asleep, someone else must have touched it, but who?"

There's another stylistic strand to Doctor Sleep too that comes courtesy of the London locations hand-picked by Willing. "London is a mishmash of the old next to the new. The city contains lots of Victorian structures crammed up against modern buildings and London is one of the few cities in the world that transforms old buildings into something else entirely. Churches become luxury apartments, old department stores turn into sleek shopping malls. It's literal possession reflecting the 'past infecting the present' theme of the story. The police operations room is an old pump station - a structure possessed by the authorities - and the climax takes place in a church-turned-penthouse. London has canals next to railway lines up against motorways - all clashing together, all squashed up in a mess of architecture. I wanted to make that look cinematic while underscoring the basic premise of the plot."

Meteoric rise

The delays incurred in getting the Doctor Sleep script absolutely right left Willing free to make two miniseries for Hallmark, the Emmy Award-winning Alice in Wonderland and Jason and the Argonauts. That interim period also saw the meteoric rise of their perfect star for the lead role - Croatian-born Goran Visnjic, best known for his portrayal of Dr. Luka Kovac in the hit American hospital drama ER. Willing points out, "I needed a great actor who was sympathetic, wasn't butch or beefy and wouldn't just beat the killer into submission the moment they met. I wanted someone who was going to walk into a dark room and make the audience scream 'Don't go in there!' because you care what happens to him."

"Goran had the innate compassion I wanted and he was also a foreigner. That was important because part of the trick of the movie is that he's a fish out of water. Goran has the potential to be a very big movie star because he has the look of a young Alain Delon, loads of charismatic sex appeal and is electrifying on screen. He loved Photographing Fairies and loved my screenplay. But then, immodestly I must say, it was one of those scripts that when people read it they went, Uh, uh, fantastic, I get it, cool, I want to do it."

Weirdness from the off

From the very first moments of Doctor Sleep, Willing introduces the occult subject matter from the get-go. He says, "That way you get a very unsettling sense of this arcane world of secret knowledge you are about to enter. But it's not until Strother starts hypnotizing the girl that the audience is thrown into her past experiences, her memory and get a real feeling that she's been exposed to ancient magic. It's a way of telling the audience that there are no lengths we won't stop at to surprise, appall and terrify. I deliberately made the first murder gory and horrifying. It's a scene where Paddy Considine (who play Elliot, an anorak-wearing model train shop owner) crosses the alchemist and is tortured to death by having a rat sewn up inside his stomach. That has to be the key scene, announcing the gloves are off and engendering this fear that absolutely anything can happen."

Edgy Suspense

He added, "I subliminally hint at the horror to come in Paddy's future when Strother and the policewoman first meet him. To create suspense I hardly move the camera, while the characters shift around within the frame. That's in complete contrast to most of the other emotionally grounded scenes where the camera never stops." Nick Willing is resolutely staying in the Fantasy Horror genre. His latest writer/producer credit is once again for Hallmark and is a miniseries adaptation of six short stories by H G Wells. He laughs, "What can I say? I'm drawn to the genre because it offers me the opportunities to play to my visual strengths. I have the ability to grab onto these sorts of subjects and bring them alive. The one thing I've learnt from past experience is that it is very difficult to make - and market - a film that falls between two genres. You must stick to one at all costs. As long as I can indulge my love of creating psychological images of wonder and terror, I'm happy, and that's what I'll do."