Ashley Thorpe talks ‘Borley Rectory’

Borley Rectory
Earlier this year we got the chance to watch Ashley Thorpe’s Borley Rectory at the Paracinema programme at Derby Film Festival.
We got the chance to quiz the Writer/Director about this stunning project, which took years to make.
When did you first decide you wanted to make Borley Rectory?
It was a tale I first discovered back in the late 1970’s via the Usborne book of ghosts actually. Out of all the stories within it Borley really struck a chord with me. I suppose it was because of that moniker “the most haunted house in England’. This was the pinnacle.
Plus it was replete with all these lovely gothic archetypes; the nun, the monk, the headless coachman, spectral writing etc. It was also one of the early cases wherein that gothic imagery collided with the scientific investigative approach, so a fascinating marriage of ideas and wonderfully visual.
The story stuck in the back of my mind for years. After about a decade of working in and around the industry I started making a series of animated films inspired by what I believed to be the neglected aspects of British myth and the notion of doing something about Borley Rectory came to mind.
The initial script came together pretty quickly and then we recorded the narration with Julian Sands. That was back in 2011 when there really wasn’t any Borley related projectsa on the horizon. Of course since the project was announced various Borley related projects started popping up all over the place.

How much patience was involved during the 6 years it took to film?
It took enormous patience and resolve actually. I initially shopped the project around the traditional routes to no avail so it was subsequently crowdfunded and made very much as a project I laboured on part time ‘after hours’ and in between regular freelance work.
The ‘Tales of Halloween’ job landed smack bang in the middle of it for example. It was essentially an animated film that was made evenings and weekends over about 4 years with very little respite, and everything that you can imagine that might scuttle or threaten the things production happened.
I enjoyed the process of animation and the shoots were great fun but the actual  balancing act of maintaining a livelihood and looking after a newborn whilst working on an animated film simultaneously was pretty tough. I crawled to the end. It was very much a passion project.

Did you think it was a joke when Reece Shearsmith contacted you about being involved?
Reece saw the Borley Rectory poster on twitter towards the end of the first crowdfunder and retweeted it saying that he thought it looked great.  I thanked him and we chatted a little about the Borley story and I discovered that Reece had also been fascinated by the tale since he was a child also, even going so far as to make a cardboard replica of the rectory!
I plucked up the courage to ask him if he’d like to be part of it in some way, not really thinking that he’d say yes, but he said that he’d love to. Couldn’t really believe it actually but I was very lucky with all of my cast.
They were all very supportive, patient and trusting in what must have looked like a very odd and esoteric project and it was certainly made in quite an unconventional way.

Was there anything you had to omit from the release that you wish you could have included?
The biggest problem I had, especially with a story like Borley, was knowing when to stop. You could go on forever. I could have easily animated another ten minutes plus of material, perhaps to its benefit perhaps not.
There’s so much material to work from and examine, so many different view points. Although it’s an animated documentary I wanted the film to remain very visual and to maintain a genuine chilling and melancholy mood rather than just function as an assemblage of facts and dates.
It’s an ultrasound of a haunting. It’s really a primer for further investigation really, aswell as an attempt to evoke what it is that fascinates me about the story and ghost stories in general.

What has the reaction been like from festivals so far?
Overwhelmingly positive! I’ve genuinely been amazed by the response to the film, especially as it isn’t your average haunted house film and it’s a deviation from the usual language of documentary aswell so it’s a little difficult to classify. But that hasn’t stopped it being snapped up all over the world and picking up awards in both narrative and documentary categories.  It’s a bit of a Marmite film.
It stands out visually.  It’s definitely a curiosity. It wasn’t made to order and crafted to fit into what’s expected in the marketplace. I came at it from an artistic background so you expect a little fight for acceptance.
But it’s been embraced with open arms. Perhaps it’s because so many people have fond memories of the Usborne book or the fact that pretty much anything about the supernatural in the 70’s and 80’s would feature Borley Rectory, so whilst the style of the film is quite ‘disarming’ the material and the tone feel very much culled from a golden age of horrors.

What is your next project?

You always have to be very careful about wearing new shoes in front of people in this industry, as I came to discover, but apart from a few interesting possibilities I have been working on a portmanteau of Dartmoor ghost stories.

It’s very much in the style of an Amicus horror. A handful of genuine legends bookended by another. I grew up in Devon so these myths are very close to my heart and the material is so good I can’t wait to bring them to wider attention.

If all the unclaimed bodies, scattered in their shallow graves rose from the moor, the dead would outnumber the living. The earth out there is alive with their stories…

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