After a number of years working for BBC Manchester & London and Athens doing illustration, Ashley returned to his Devon roots in 2005 and focused all his energies upon creating a series of animated short films inspired by English mythology.
The subsequent short films ‘Scarecrow’, ‘The Screaming Skull’ and ‘The Hairy Hands’ have screened internationally and won numerous accolades including ‘Best UK Short Film’ nomination at Rain dance 2009, the ‘Media Innovation Award 2009’ for ‘Best Independent Film’, ‘Best Animation’ at Horror UK 2010 and ‘Best Animated Short Film’ at A Night of Horrors, Sydney Australia 2010. In November 2010 the Director was also presented the ‘Visionary Award’ at the Buried Alive Film Festival in Atlanta USA.
His first animated feature ‘Borley Rectory’ has thus far been nominated ‘Best Director’, ‘Best Score’ and Best Feature’ at the Dead of Night Festival and ‘Best Director’, ‘Best International Horror’ and won ‘Best Animated Feature’ and ‘Special Contribution to Cinema’ at the Buffalo Dreams Festival.
His radio plays ‘The Demon Huntsman’ and ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’ for New York Company Glass Eye Pix were performed live in New York and Colorado and were subsequently featured in the Wall Street Journal. In 2016 Ashley created the stunning opening credit sequence for Saturn award winning anthology film ‘Tales of Halloween’ by Epic Pictures.
“Borley Rectory is a subject that seized my imagination as a child after stumbling across the legend in the Usborne Book of Ghosts at the local Library as a boy. I was very susceptible to frightening material when I was young but there was something especially resonant about this one story. I think it was that moniker ‘The Most Haunted House in England’ that really struck a chord. This wasn’t just ‘a’ haunting; it was ‘THE’ haunting. Additionally the tale was replete with such delicious gothic imagery; a nun bricked up within the walls, a phantom carriage driven by a headless coachman, cold spots and spectral messages scrawled upon the walls. It was wonderful material and as someone fascinated with resurrecting the neglected aspects of British folklore and myth I leapt at the chance to try and do such a story justice.”
“I use a lot of rotoscope animation which I always feel is like a blend of art and reality, ideally suited to stories about myths that dance between fact and fiction. The story of Borley Rectory is replete with myth, exaggeration and contradiction so to use my style to tell this story seemed totally natural. I want essentially to capture the romance of the story rather than reveal any truths as such. Stories wrapped in ambiguities fascinate me. This is more ‘The Innocents’ than ‘Insidious’, more ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ than ‘Amityville’. This is going to be an ultrasound of a haunting, watching a legend grow and a reflection upon why we need ghosts and what their manifestation reveals about us.”
01: How did you first hear about Borley, and what sparked your interest to turn it into a film?
It was all down to the Usborne book of ghosts back in the late 70’s. Although Borley Rectory was very much a staple of paranormal literature in that decade that was certainly where I first encountered it. That moniker ‘the most haunted house in England’ really stuck with me. This wasn’t ‘a’ haunted house it was ‘the’ haunted house and it was replete with such delicious gothic imagery as ghostly nuns, a monk, headless coachmen, spirit writing etc. It was also seemingly the point
Wherein the scientific method was introduced to investigate the paranormal, so you have this wonderful blend of the investigator armed with his ghost hunting kit with what are essentially gothic archetypes. And though the story obviously influenced such things as Shirley Jackson’s ‘Haunting of Hill House’ and Matheson’s ‘Legend of Hell House’ I wondered why no one had tackled this story directly and so when another features production stalled I turned my attentions to this thing that had been quietly fermenting in the back of my mind.
02: The project started out as an Indiegogo project, and I believe was meant to be a short film, what made you turn it into a feature length?
Yes it was originally going to be around 30 minutes. Essentially it developed organically. It’s a huge amount of information to condense into such a running time and although I tried to reduce it to its core elements and events it all felt a little rushed. I felt that it was essential for the film to have a sense of ‘quietness’ about it, a stillness with long slow ponderous takes to allow the film to breathe and develop atmosphere, essentially the opposite of most genre fare these days. But the real reason it bloomed from a short into a feature was down to the quality of the cast. From the moment that people like Reece, Jonathan and Claire came on board I started giving each actor ‘more to do’. It seemed ridiculous to be working with such actors and then give them a few silent scenes. So as each cast member came on board I worked a little bit more of the story back into the script to give them better scenes. Plus because the cast was so good once on set I let the scenes run so many sequences play much more theatrically with natural pacing and few cuts. It was quite clear editing that first cut together that it was not going to be a short anymore.
03: You run Carrion Films, can you tell me a little bit more about the company?
It’s essentially I and a couple of likeminded filmmakers. When it started it was pretty much just me animating the films and Mick Grierson creating all the soundscapes. With ‘Hairy Hands’ in 2009 Tom Atkinson came on board as producer as the workload and logistics increased. Then it really started to blossom. The initial aim was to make films that explored what I perceived to be the neglected aspects of British folklore and myth; specifically Dartmoor myths which I felt had been sorely neglected and were ripe for telling. Apart from exploring the tales on film I also adapted them into radio plays for Glass Eye Pix for their ‘Tales from beyond the pale’ series of radio shows. We essentially come together every now and then to make something interesting and then return to the shadows of our chosen fields.
04: What do you think made Borley Rectory the most haunted house in England?
It was Harry Price that coined the phrase, with his customary talent for a headline. I suppose usually a haunting will have a main spectre haunting the grounds or a small variety at least, but the Rectory seemed to have a wealth of ghosts in residence, everything from disembodied hands to ghostly messages and poltergeist activity. There really was a little of everything. It’s like a gothic ‘best of’. I also think that it’s interesting that the initial reports from the late Victorian era tend to focus more on the phantom nun and the more gothic trappings but by the time you get to Marianne the ghostly activity has become more poltergeist like, physical, dare I say more ‘modern’. The ghosts veer from spectral presences and manifestations roaming lawns to physical interactions and attacks. There does seem to be an element of the phantoms transforming for both the age and the incumbency.
05: What do you make of the accusations that Harry Price was a fraud?
I purposely tried to sit on the fence and let the audience make up their own mind. My film presents Price as both a dedicated paranormal investigator as well as a man who could see the financial benefits of media attention. He yearned for credibility. He wanted to establish both his ventures and his methods. He didn’t come from aristocracy, he knew what it was like to work for a living and the struggle to build a reputation from scratch in an established cynical class based system and all the tensions and contradictions that journey may hold. I’m sure he egged the pudding a little, but who wouldn’t? Was he a fake? I genuinely don’t think so. Was he a showman? Absolutely.
06: The production uses a lot of CGI, how did you create all the beautiful sequences in the film?
It’s essentially rotoscoped photography shot against green screen. The actors are then composited via After Effects within backgrounds made from a combination of contemporary photography of the rectory (supplied by Borley archivists Paul Adams and Eddie Brazil) and compositions built in Photoshop. The film is pretty much a culmination of all the techniques I developed making the short films. There’s a wealth of different techniques in there, everything from 3D animation, model work, painted backgrounds to stop motion. I storyboarded the entire film. Every shot. So when it came to shooting in the studio I knew exactly what needed to be where, how it needed to be lit etc. Saved an enormous amount of time and meant we had the luxury of time to improvise here and there and work with the performances.
07: What was one of the funniest moments to happen when filming?
We had good laugh on set actually. I think because we’d spent a lot of time planning the shoots we had a little breathing space and as a consequence the set felt industrious but relaxed. There were lots of funny moments. I remember having some fun with Reece asking him to pace back and forth as if he was on the phone to his editor whilst improvising a conversation and we just let him carry on pacing to see how long he would keep doing this ad lib. Always the consummate professional he paced for quite a while before realizing it was a wind up.
08: The film has been receiving rave reviews, what next for the film? Will it be released on home entertainment platforms?
That’s the plan. We’re touring the film internationally at festivals both great and small whilst investigating our distribution options. We’ve lots of festivals in the pipeline and hope to have an announcement regarding home entertainment before the end of the year.
09: How did it feel to finally watch your film on the big screen?
After working on it for so long it was incredible. Obviously I was insanely familiar with the images by the time of the initial screenings but the thing that really struck me - as it so often does - is how the sound design and score utterly transformed my work handmade it feel like a completely different animal. Huge kudos to both Mick Grierson and Martin Pavey for exceptional work.
10: The project was a labour of love, how long has it taken from concept to completion?
The first thing to be recorded was the narration by Julian Sands which took place in December 2011. Then after our funding dropped out we were left pretty much in limbo for nigh on two years whilst we hunted for alternate routes. We had a narration for a film but no film. The first crowdfunded in 2013 raised enough to get us on our way and create a statement of intent in many ways and then in 2014 with a solid completed chunk of footage we launched a second Indiegogo and raised the remaining funds to steer us towards completion. But it was tough. That money really didn’t pay wages and I was hit by redundancy smack bang in the middle of it. The film was animated evenings and weekends for 3 years whilst raising my baby daughter. With my wife working late shifts I was pretty much Mr. Mum, as well as trying to establish self-employment and make an animated feature. My students know not to make excuses about time being an issue I think because they know I’d laugh in their face.
11: The film has a great cast, what was it like working with the likes of Reece Shearsmith and Julian Sands?
Both Reece and Julian are wonderful to work with. So were all of our casts in fact. I was fearful to meet them in many ways in case I was disappointed and they turned out to be the usual guarded reptilians one meets in the media. They really seemed to embrace the fact that this was very much a brave - perhaps even lunatic - endeavour and it was being made for love, very much outside the system and all the usual admin and industry restrictions. It was a small crew with no time or money to waste and we had great fun doing it. Both Reece and Julian have been incredibly supportive in terms of seeing it as part of their body of work as well, and not sweeping it under the carpet as some dirty embarrassing indie misadventure! It’s been lovely hearing from people like long time Stephen King collaborator Mick Garris saying that he ran into Julian Sands in L.A and Mick reporting that Julian spoke very highly of it and urged him to see it!
12: I’m a big fan of your other Carrion Films, they have a very distinct (and brilliant) style of live action and animation, why is this?
Thank you. The animation style came about by both accident and necessity really. I’m pretty much a self-taught animator so this style of rotoscoping with live action and a mixed media approach developed organically as I tried to find various ways of creating the types of images I wanted to create. I was often forced to make do with what equipment I had a find new ways of utilizing it. To be honest if Carrion’s work stands out it’s probably because I have no interest in what is the cultural norm or what is fashionable. I also don’t hold much for doing things in the way that is an established way to do it. I’ve worked with corporations and seen how money is wasted and how roles are micro-managed and seen the waste and lethargy and creative redundancy they produce. We’ve had the luxury - thus far - to be able to be a little bit more daring and experimental stylistically because we’re independent. We’re trying to make something popular and approachable whilst coming from a very ‘arthouse’ background.
13: If you could investigate anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I’d like to investigate a place with great restaurants, nice weather and flexible childcare, ha ha. Well, when we were finishing Julian’s narration at Trident studios he suggested that at some point we should go to Borley for an overnight vigil, perhaps as an organized thing in the church. I doubt they’d allow it but can you imagine an overnight vigil in the Borley churchyard with the cast of Borley Rectory?
14: I hear your Father makes amazing Ouija boards, how did he get into making them?
It came about via the Indiegogo campaign. I didn’t want the campaign perks to be the usual run of the mill things so the Carrion team tried to come up with unusual things like a doll of the Borley Nun, original art, that sort of thing. I came up with the idea of a Borley themed Ouija for a top level perk knowing that my Dad Robert - an insanely talented painter and French polisher - could make something really unique and hand crafted. Unbeknownst to me my Dad carried on making them in variety of styles just for fun, so when we’d finished the film I offered these Ouija variations as special release memorabilia. They’ve sold really quickly. The first 4 sold in 36 hours. We only have two left - the coffee table and the Ouija made of marble. They have to be one of the stranger pieces of memorabilia for a film. But wonderful.
15: What next, are there any other classic British hauntings you plan to film?
I had a wealth of ideas lined up for short films. One was going to be about Lady Howard and her bone coach riding to Oakhampton castle. I was going to use the old folk song as the basis for the animation and make it a kind of accompanying film alongside the folk song. I also have plans to do a portmanteau of Dartmoor ghost legends as an Amicus style piece. Lots of ideas. There’s a wealth of stories out there waiting to be told.
16: Have you had a paranormal experience, if so, where and when and what happened?
I’m afraid not. I seemed to grow up surrounded by people who had had paranormal encounters including my Mother. But me, nothing. That said, I did suffer terrible night terrors as a child, literally nightmares that I couldn’t be woken from. They were awful and continued up until I was around 15. I rarely recollected anything the following morning but they did leave a strange residue, a feeling that the skin between the worlds was thin. And venerable.
17: Sorry, obvious question, but we are going to ask it, do you believe in ghosts?
I’m a subscriber to the ‘Stone Tape’ theory. I believe that witnesses see ‘something’. I’m not sure that they are necessarily the dead reaching out for contact with the living but I do believe that it could be a trapped energy or recording via some natural phenomena that we are yet to fully comprehend. I believe the world is full of wonders, mysteries and horrors and that’s good enough for me.
If you have an interest in Harry Price or Borley Rectory, you may be interested in this event in Bristol. You can come along and join in being part of the audiance, or watch it as a live stream from the comfort of your own home.
Borley Rectory and other Hauntings Studio and Live Stream Event 18th February 2018 http://www.kuria.tv/live