‘The Enfield Poltergeist’ Director Jerry Rothwell Talks About Experiences And His Upcoming Project (Exclusive)

The Enfield Poltergeist is a docuseries made up of reenactments and interviews re-investigating probably the most famous poltergeist haunting in history.

The thing that makes this series extra creepy is the lip syncing of the actors to the actual audio from the audio archive. It creates this belief / disbelief effect that is exactly what a documentary should feel like.

THH: When taking a plunge into a project like this, how do you hold yourself back from just putting the entire archive in?

JERRY: No one would commission the 250 hour version sadly. The starting point for me was these tapes made by the investigator Maurice Grosse, in the house and I guess what is enticing about them is how ambiguous the sound is. Maurice would do one of two things, interview people for their witness statements of events that just happened, or after the event, or he would leave the tape running and you would hear this knocks and screams and bangs and rattles but of course you don’t know as a listener quite what’s happening and it struck me that that would be interesting to like… what would happen if we rebuilt the house, filled it with these sounds then worked with actors to lip sync the tapes. You’d end up with a series where the sound was kinda authentic in the moment and the pictures were kind of a layered interpretation on top of that. SO I guess when it came to selecting what we wanted to select from that 200 hours, you know for me it was partly about the escalation of events. Things, as often happens in these reported poltergeist cases, starting with knocks and furniture moving slightly to quite dramatic things like people apparently being thrown around rooms and voices and other paranormal phenomena so partly it was selecting things that showed that escalation and the other side of that was looking at the social and psychological side. What’s happening to that family? Why is this household of people coming to believe in the existence of a poltergeist haunting them? Why might that be? Those were king of our guiding lights in picking bits of tape.

THH: Was it weird as a director to step back and let an audio file direct?

JERRY: (Grining) I mean that definitely happened. Obviously not entirely but there were certainly ways that the audio shaped the series. For the actors, you’re taking away this crucial tool an actor has of how you deliver a line, so instead of working from the psychological insight to the externalization of that, there kind of working the other way from these sounds back into who this person might be and as we played the tape sometimes we had to very well planned. We had to of course have the scene edited in audio before we started working on it in the set situation then you sort of realize once you got into the room a whole set of things you perhaps didn’t realize just for the audio. This person must be over there or someone there must be upstairs or that object must be there. There were loads of times we would do a take and would realize, no this actually doesn’t work, it cannot be how it was, or this person must’ve moved from there to there. There were lots of blocking things you might call them which were determined by the tapes. It’s like a massive constraint but I guess creativity thrives on constraint.

THH: Was this (the blocking as told by the audio tapes) something you knew going into it you would have to take into consideration?

JERRY: Some of it but definitely not all of it. Some things, I think because of the way the actors worked on the audio, the actors would realize and we wouldn’t have realized. I guess that happens in any production. When we embarked on this idea, for me, the form of something like this comes from the content. It’s not like you suddenly go “I wanna make a thing where people lip sync.” You start from the tapes and it feels like an appropriate way to think about ghosts. I certainly didn’t realize what we were getting ourselves in for in terms of the technical challenges of that. You don’t get many takes in a series like this. You gotta get it done in three takes really and of course if you’re missing lip sync, that’s one of your takes used up. It’s a very technical process.

THH: How did you find out about the audio archive?

JERRY: I heard someone talking about it on a radio program and realized there was much more than anyone ever heard before. We set about just finding where were those tapes and it turns out they were in the Archive of the British Psychical Research Society. Myself and my producer Al Morrow, set about creating a series proposal and taking it to potential streamers and broadcasters.

The Enfield Poltergeist, for people who don’t know, was the actual events that the Conjuring 2 was based around. I heard through the grapevine you haven’t seen The Conjuring movies but

THH: Now that you are finished with “The Enfield Poltergeist” will you get into “The Conjuring Cinematic Universe” (The Nun, Annabelle, The Conjuring)

JERRY: Yes, totally I think I will. I deliberately avoided watching other treatments of the story. This has happened before, I’ve sort of always felt like I needed to keep away from the way other people have done with it in case I subconsciously end up sort of copying. What’s interesting I supposed is that “The Conjuring” will still have drawn from the primary resource for stories about the Enfield Poltergeist, Guy Playfairs book “The House Is Haunted” which is kind of written based on these tape recordings we’re going back to. In Playfairs book the dialogue is from the tape and therefore presumably that’s carried into other films. I haven’t seen it so I wouldn’t know. I am actually quite looking forward, when I’ve got a bit of distance on this, looking forward to how other people are working with it. Right now there’s a stage play just starting in the UK which I am going to see next month.

THH: From GreenPeace to Demons you’ve covered a wide variety of topics in your projects, Is there one you’ve always wanted to cover but just haven’t gotten the chance to or is it when you get an opportunity on a topic you take the plunge?

JERRY: I think these projects take so long you have to make sure it’s something you’re happy to live with. For me it’s often doing something, immersing myself in a world that’s different from the one I just been in before. It’s one of the great joys and privileges of documentary making is you can kind of land in a subject matter and talk to people who know most about that thing or mostly experienced it. If I look back at the films I have made it feels like the thing they have in common is they are about the way reality meets the imaginative interpretation of it that we do as human beings and I guess start to ask the question “What’s real?” which is a question in all documentaries. So, I suppose I am interested in material that navigates that line between the real and the imagined.

JERRY: I’ve got in my head at the moment there’s something to be made which takes the science fiction dystopia and tries to explore it in the real world through documentary. I‘m not sure what form that would take but I am excited about that. I am also working on a project pretty different about the Artemis program, the next moon landing from NASA.

THH: The Artemis stuff is really fascinating, I am personally really into that’s something I will be hype to see.

JERRY: Yea, Space is… there’s something inherently interesting about space isn;t there and inherently big in scale because like the poltergeist it’s sort of about the nature of reality I think. I am very excited to get into that.

THH: When it comes to choosing a topic to spend all this time on, do you have a physical or mental tick that goes off that lets you know it is the one?

JERRY: There’s a couple things that happen. One is you start to get the images of what it could look like and for me the first image I had of this was almost like a theatrical one in which a woman comes onto a darkened stage and you’re hearing the voice of Peggy Hodgson explaining what she seen that night on the 31st of October 1977 and gradually the words start to inhabit her. That was for me the first thing I thought about. I think also an idea for me has to have a shape. Film is a medium that unfolds in time, it’s not just about finding a subject matter, it’s about finding something that has a shape, and has contradictions, and will force an audience to think, and for me, is relevant to now in some way. Somehow speaks to the moment we are in.

The Enfield Poltergeist releases on Apple TV+ on October 27

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