EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW! Joe Ahearne on Apparitions

Apparitions is a new two-part BBC supernatural mini-series currently due to air at the end of January ’08. It stars Martin Shaw as an exorcist and is written and directed by Joe Ahearne, best known to SFX readers as the creator of cool Channel 4 vampire series Ultraviolet as well the director of five episodes in the first series of the revived Doctor Who. SFX spoke to him about his latest project.

Was it an idea you originated?

“No, it was originated by a writer called Nick Collins and also Martin Shaw, who wanted to play an exorcist.”

Martin Shaw wanted to play an exorcist? That’s surprising.

“He’s quite interested in spirituality and that kind of stuff, actually. Not necessarily supernatural stuff but I think he is interested in all those kind of things. He was interested in doing something along those lines.”

So how did you become involved?

“As I understand it, what happened basically was that Martin Shaw went to the BBC and said, ‘I want to be an exorcist.’ Independently Lime Pictures were working with Nick Collins on an idea about a priest who investigates miracles. So the BBC had the idea of getting Martin Shaw together with Lime. They worked together for a while, there was a script and , for whatever reasons I’m not privy to they decided not to go ahead with that script. I came on and started again, inheriting that basic premise of a priest who is investigating miracles, who gets involved in exorcism.”

Was it a subject you knew much about?

“I had to do a lot of research. I mean, I’ve been baptised but I’m an atheist, so I had to go and hunt down the information like any other subject.”

There have been a lot films about exorcisms. What’s the unique spin with this series?

“As you say, the Exorcist has been done, but nothing quite like this has been done on British TV as far as I know. The trick really, rather like with the vampires in Ultraviolet, was trying to find an inversion that kind of energised it and made it interesting. One of the things that’s different in this, for example, is that it’s a 10 year-old girl who goes to see the priest because she thinks her dad is possessed. Normally, in an exorcist story it’s worried parents who get priests in to sort out their adolescent children. And you have a lot more interesting story possibilities when you’ve got a child asking for help because, of course, you can’t be exorcised without your consent. So it’s not a case where a priest can just go and say, ‘I’m going to exorcise you.’ And also, the guy who the daughter claims is possessed is a militant atheist. Atheism has become very popular and very much part of our culture what with Richard Dawkins, so you’ve got a situation where you’ve got someone who – well, is he really just a militant atheist or is he crossing over into something else?

“Also, he’s a priest who investigates miracles. The way it works with the Catholic Church is that if you want to be a saint, first of all you have to be dead, and you have to have done two miracles. So for your first miracle you get beatified, then for your second miracle you get canonised. And the priests who investigate miracles occasionally come across the presence of Satan because Satan does miracles too.

“So you’ve basically got a show where sanctity and evil are very mixed up. Practically the first scene in the show at the moment – though it may be changed – is Mother Theresa being exorcised in 1997. I didn’t make that up. It’s true. Now, when I say Mother Theresa was exorcised it doesn’t mean that her head was spinning round and she was puking green bile. What it means is that she was being tormented by demons, a subtly different thing. Because basically, lots of saints – if you go into Catholic history or whatever – were tormented by demons. And it’s completely startling that in comparatively recent times – 1997 – we had Mother Theresa being treated for a cardiac complaint in a hospital in Calcutta, and the Archbishop of Calcutta, because she can’t sleep and she’s pulling the tubes out of her arms and so on, decides to call in an exorcist. And this is all true.

“It was all revealed in the papers in 2001 or so, and then the church went into reverse and was saying, ‘Oh no, she wasn’t exorcised, it was just prayers.’ And there’s this kind of strange grey area between what is just saying prayers to someone that you think might be having troubles and what’s an exorcism.

Why is the show called Apparitions?

“An apparition in Catholic parlance basically means the Virgin Mary appearing on a hilltop and giving messages to mankind as has happened over the last 200 years in places like Lourdes. Now some people think that when the Virgin Mary appears it’s not the Virgin Mary, it’s Satan. For example, there’s a lot of apparitions at the moment in a place called Medjugorje in Croatia. They’ve been going on for the last 20 years or so. And despite the fact that the local bishop is saying this is bollocks, don’t listen to them, you’ve got these visionaries still claiming to see the Virgin Mary. And some people think that’s Satan.

“So what you’ve got in the program that’s interesting is what’s holy and what’s Satanic? You never quite know which is which because Satan does very good impersonations.”

Is it similar in tone to Ultraviolet?

“No no no. They’re for very different audiences. Ultraviolet was kind of dark and humourless, in quite a cold, alienating world, and for Channel 4 and a small audience, whereas this is for BBC1 prime time. It’s got Martin Shaw in it, it’s got to play to as big an audience as possible. That means it can’t be unrelentingly dark, and you’ve got to like the characters a little bit more, perhaps. I mean, I love the characters in Ultraviolet but they’re quite cool, you know. There wasn’t a lot of warmth or them smiling an awful lot. And the challenge of this is try to do something that isn’t just going to play to two million people. It’s got to be a bit broader than that.”

Is it a globetrotting show?

“It starts off in Calcutta – though we didn’t go to Calcutta. We did go to Rome, though. We filmed just across from the Vatican. We were a lot closer to the centre of things than Angels and Demons which was filming there at the same time. But they were nowhere near, I think because of their history with the Catholic Church. We were filming within sight of Saint Peters. So we had a couple of days in Rome and the rest of it was filmed in Liverpool, but as London. It’s set in London really.”

Is it an FX spectacular or is it all psychological horror?

“It’s a bit of both. It’s not an extravaganza in the sense that Doctor Who was. We have got some prosthetics, and we’ve got a bit of levitation, so there’s some wire work. There’s a bit of special FX but they’re very… they don’t overawe the piece. A lot of the violence and horror in it is very… It’s verbal violence. There’s a lot of blasphemy and stuff that I hope… well people who have seen it so far say they have been quite unnerved by it, which is what you want for this kind of horror. I don’t want to use the phrase psychological horror because that’s usually used as code for things that aren’t actually very frightening. This is I think very frightening. I hope that when people watch it they’ll have an enjoyable scary experience. Not kind of a cold cerebral experience.”

Which do you enjoy more – writing or directing?

“When I’m directing I enjoy the writing, and when I’m writing I enjoy the directing. Because when you’re writing you get bored and you want to get out and meet people, and when you’re out there directing you think you never want to be near a camera again. The thing I like more than anything I suppose is editing, but in order to have the best fun editing I feel I have to have directed it myself.”

So what kind of character is Martin Shaw playing

“Martin Shaw is Father Jacob and he’s one of the chief investigators at the Congregation for Causes of Saints, which means that his job is to get people like Mother Theresa or whoever canonised. The process is very long and slow. It takes decades. A lot of those figures that are being canonised are quite controversial. People like Pope Pious who was Pope in World War II who a lot of people accused of being anti-Semitic. There’s quite a lot of controversy about making him a saint because allegedly he never spoke out against the holocaust.

“So it’s kind of a controversial job. That’s his kind of day job and very, very occasionally would he become involved in an exorcism, because in a tiny number of occasions the miracles can be the work of Satan. However, he has got a talent for it, and what happens in the first episode is there’s a kind of a battle going on between his mentor – who is the obi-wan Kenobi figure if you like, an Italian priest who’s the chief exorcist of Rome – who wants him to take over from him… And Martin Shaw is reluctant to take over from him. And so that’s part of the basis of the story as well. Is he going to be a full-time exorcist or is he going to stay doing what he does?

“He’s not exactly a quipping priest, but he has got a few gags. I have been allowed to put a few gags in this time. I wasn’t in Ultraviolet. All the jokes had to come out. There’s not a hint of camp, and it’s played absolutely seriously, but you can have a little bit of warmth and a little bit of… I wouldn’t say fun with it, but to have someone who isn’t tortured all the time.”

Would you ever go back to Doctor Who?

“I don’t know. I don’t know. There’s no particular thing behind that. It was a wonderful show and I’m still watching every episode, I think it’s fabulous. I did love working on it. I think what happened with Doctor Who is I did five episodes. I didn’t plan to do five episodes, I was brought on to do two, then they asked me back to do another two, and then a director dropped out and I ended up doing three more. And five episodes was a really big chunk. It wasn’t so much a Doctor Who thing, but after I finished it, I really didn’t want to go near science fiction for a while. It was being away from home for nine months. And after that stint it had been three years of Strange, Space Odyssey and Doctor Who in a row, which were all green screen special FX. I just wanted to spend some time a) back home. and b) just doing people in rooms talking.”

“I’m sort of gradually getting back into fantasy. I’m developing stuff that is more in a Doctor Who vein.”

Such as

“There are a couple of things I’m writing. One is a superhero series for the BBC. It’s early days. I’ve only written the first episode, and they’ve commissioned a second episode. It’s been going on for a year already. The BBC, they take a while to develop stuff. The fact that I’ve written a couple of episodes doesn’t mean it’s going to get made. It’s a Saturday night kind of thing. Brian Hitch is involved in that.”

Joe Ahearne, thank you very much.