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Film 2022

John Stimpson
Ghost Light

A dark comedy about a disgruntled summer-stock actor who contemptuously disregards the superstition surrounding Shakespeare's tragedy, Macbeth. By doing so he unleashes the curse of The Scottish Play and wreaks havoc on the company.

Hi John, thanks for talking to The New Current, how is everything going?


Everything is going remarkably well. It’s been a difficult time for sure, but I’m very lucky I’ve been able to stay busy and keep working through the pandemic. I’ve directed two films under COVID protocols and been involved in the post production of several others.


Have you been able to find some inspiration?


I’m always inspired! Ha! Seriously though, I see stories everyday as I walk though the world. It’s a matter of which ones bubble up to the top and keep my attention. Recently I’ve been inspired more and more to make heartwarming films with positive messages that help lift people’s spirits. I figure these days that is something we need more than ever.


Do you have any traditions or superstitions before you start working on a new film?  


That would be fun if I did, wouldn’t it? No, not really. I do like to do a breakdown and an initial schedule before we begin just because I can’t help but put my producer hat on to see how attainable the script is.


What was it about The Scottish Play that inspired you to write such a unique take on the play?


Having spent a lot of time in the theatre when I was younger, I’ve always been intrigued by the superstitions. Actors are amazing, quirky, neurotic, egotistical, wonderfully creative people. I love them, but sometimes they believe some wacky things. It’s hard, however, to argue with the longevity and the demonstrable truth of the curse of the Scottish Play. It goes all the way back to Shakespeare weaving actual black magic incantations into the dialogue of the witches. The Bard himself also had to play the role of Lady Macbeth on opening night because the original actor fell ill. There is something there. Better to take is seriously than be cavalier. 


Did you have any apprehensions about blending the dark, surreal comedic moments with the richness of Shakespeare's text?


No, not at all. We took the text very seriously. It was the actors doing the play and their backstage antics that we poked fun at.


As an aside, it was really interesting to see Joel Coen’s film. First of all, it was so well done, and made the play so accessible. He was true to the text, but took a lot of liberties with his adaptation and particularly the cuts he made. What I enjoyed was seeing all the little moments that we cherry-picked from the play for Ghost Light and how he interpreted them for his version. We were doing a play within a film, which kept some of our staging more traditional. I absolutely loved how Kathryn Hunter handled the Witches, for example. That was inspired!


"We were only able to shoot 20 days which was challenging and we ended up cutting and reworking the entire opening of the movie."

How much did you know about the Macbeth curse before you started writing Ghost Light and what was it about this curse and The Scottish Play in general that interested you as a filmmaker?


I certainly was aware of the curse, but I researched it and really discovered the depth of the superstition and where it came from.


What was the hardest scene for you to film? 


The witches cauldron was complicated. Each of them had a little bag inside their robe with lots of gorey, bloody goodies - a lot of which were real. Pig intestines, turkey giblets, that sort of thing. The actors were very good sports.


There is an amazing atmosphere created in part due to Terrence Hayes stunning cinematography how did you achieve this sleek haunting look?


Terrence did an amazing job! He’s a good friend and we’ve done a few films together and I can’t wait to work with him again. What really helped us and spurred our thinking was the theatrical theme of the film and the look of the barn set, that was incredible. We absolutely used that to our advantage. We played up that theatricality with a lot of strong backlights and heavy haze in that dusty, converted barn. Light leaks through the barn-boards, and not being afraid of the dark also contributed. I also have to give a shout out to our visual effects supervisor John Nugent and his team at Sand Box VFX. They did an incredible job on a relatively modest budget. Everything from witch face replacements to animating bloody baby kings! I especially love the layered silhouettes that created the background to the battle scene. That was tricky!


As an independent film what are some of the main restrictions you faced? 


Of course our budget drove the scope of our creative. We were only able to shoot 20 days which was challenging and we ended up cutting and reworking the entire opening of the movie. I like having to figure out how to make the most out of a script with the budget we have. It’s crafting a creative solution that often times ends up being more interesting than a big budget option. This film was a great example of that.


How did you go about casting Ghost Light?


The casting all began with my old friend Roger Bart. Roger and I sang together in a bar when we were in college. For the rest of the cast I worked with casting director Rick Montgomery. I was absolutely thrilled that so many wonderful actors responded to our script and were interested to come on board. Carol Kane was a dream come true, and I couldn’t believe it when we landed Scott Adsit! He’s a comic genius.


The cast really connected to the spirit of your screenplay, the humour and the theatre company therein, was it easy to keep to your screenplay or was there time/opportunity for the actors to be flexible with their characters?


We stayed pretty true to the screenplay. I’m always open to some improvisation and I love when actors bring new ideas to a scene, but for the most part we stuck to the script. On this film we did have a few rehearsal days which was luxurious. What that allowed us to do was work out any kinks or concerns that the actors had so we could be super efficient when we got on set for blocking. We weren’t tackling the scene for the first time on the day.

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Do you find it easier to stick to your screenplay and to your shooting script or do you allow for some flexibility?


On a tight budget like we had, the most important thing was to make our days. We could not afford to go into OT or certainly add any more days to our schedule. That probably kept us more on script than we might have been otherwise, but Scott and Roger in particular, did add some really funny bits that weren’t scripted.

How has your approach to your films changed since your debut?


Oh, sure. I’ve gotten much more confident. Like with anything, the more you do it, the better you get. But the driving force behind any film is the story. How we shoot and how I direct the talent all comes from the story. I think learning that lesson and embracing that lesson has definitely helped me improve.

Are there any tips or advice you would offer an emerging filmmaker?


I think the thing a lot of emerging filmmakers overlook is the marketability of their film. Is the film something audiences will want to see? How will your story break out in the enormous sea of content that is out there in the world. Having a super powerful story and a unique voice is critical. Try to find originality in the projects you tackle, and don’t be precious about your ideas. If they don’t fly, move on to the next one. And always have a next one and another one after that.


And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from Ghost Light?


I hope audiences get a glimpse into the wonderful wacky world of the summer stock theatre. I hope they are entertained, and I hope they gain a new appreciation of Shakespeare and the timelessness of the stories he crafted hundreds of years ago.


And particularly, The Scottish Play.

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