An interview with John Tiffany about his production of Let The Right One In.
The interview was conducted in 2014 at the West End Live event in London, staged by the Society of London Theatre and Westminster Council.
An interview with John Tiffany
JOHN TIFFANY: It started life as an amazing novel. It’s by a Swedish writer, John Lindqvist, which was out about 7 years ago. And then the brilliant Swedish film director Tomas Alfredson made it into a film, which I saw probably about 6 years ago and absolutely loved it. It’s the story of two teenagers, 14, 15 year olds, who meet. They both live in the same housing estate in a suburb of Stockholm, like a kind of new town. And they meet, and he’s bullied, and she’s just recently moved into the estate, and [music is playing during the conversation] – that’s quite good music for my story, isn’t it?
INTERVIEWER: It’s quite spooky, isn’t it?
JOHN: No, it’s great. And they meet, and she kind of befriends him, and she helps him with his bullying, and they kind of – they fall in love with each other. Apart from the fact that she’s a vampire. That kind of makes it quite special.
INTERVIEWER: So it’s a bit of a twist there.
JOHN: Which we discover, and that she’s got a guardian, and they’ve been moving around the country. Because every time she gets close to being caught, they have to move on.
INTERVIEWER: From the film, it’s not a kind of film you see and you think, “This will work brilliantly onstage.” It required a bit of imagination. What was it about it that you loved so much and you thought, “This will really work onstage?”
JOHN: Well, I loved that central relationship, and I thought they’d be quite beautiful scenes. They’re all set around a climbing frame – jungle gym, it’s called, in the center of this estate of houses. I thought they could be quite beautiful in quite a Beckettian way. I also loved the challenge of finding a physicality for a vampire onstage, and looking at the vampire kill itself, which we have a few of.
I work a lot with a director and choreographer called Steven Hoggett, who I actually went to school with. We’re from the same town in Yorkshire.
INTERVIEWER: So quite a unique style of movement.
JOHN: Absolutely. I was really excited to work with Steven, to find a language, a kind of physical language for a vampire. So there’s that central relationship between the two of them, and then you get the sense of the townsfolk and how they’re being affected by these kills that are happening. So the tension between those I thought was really exciting.
INTERVIEWER: The story is quite –
JOHN: Oh, and blood.
INTERVIEWER: And blood, obviously. How do you do the blood onstage? What is it really?
JOHN: It’s blood. (laughs) It’s stage blood.
INTERVIEWER: Is that – everyone thinks it’s like corn syrup. Is that what it…
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, okay.
JOHN: It’s very sweet, because you get it in your mouth. “Brief encounter with fangs” is what I call it.
INTERVIEWER: And as you say, it’s a really stunning love story at its center. How important was it to find the right people to play Eli and Oskar?
JOHN: Really important, because although they’re young characters, the material is quite adult, because as you learn more about her relationship with her guardian – and so you couldn’t do it with actors that age. Also, putting actors that age onstage is always a risk, just to get them to be consistent, to get them to take charge of this material.
So we did a lot of auditioning. Rebecca Benson is a trained actress, but she’s got the good fortune of looking about 12. (laughs) About that big. Well, about that big. And then Martin Quinn – I went to Scottish Youth Theatre when we were casting the show in Glasgow and said, “Do you have any young stars?” And Martin was 17 at the time, and from Paisley. And now he’s moved down here.
And what’s lovely is he came down with the show at the Royal Court, and he leads the show in the West End, the two of them do. Incredibly mature. They’re amazing actors. And then he’s going to go off to drama school.
INTERVIEWER: Brilliant. When I saw it, one of the things that was so amazing about it is how it can move from being this incredibly beautiful romantic moment to being something incredibly savage in literally a split second. Was that something that was a challenge for you to do? Was that important for you?
JOHN: Yeah, kind of that love and pain and danger are often very close to each other. So we liked the idea that you’ve got this quite – it’s quite gentle kind of rhythm to start with, and you meet all these characters and you see their lives going on, and then suddenly you realize that there’s a vampire in their midst. It’s not so much a challenge as just really exciting.
INTERVIEWER: And were there any challenges of putting the vampire side of the story onstage? Did you instantly know how you wanted that to work?
JOHN: I knew that I wanted to choose about three or four moments and really, really go to town with them. There’s an amazing special effects designer called Jeremy Chernick who’s based in Brooklyn, and Steven Hoggett said that Jeremy was brilliant with spray of blood and things like that. So we got him over to work on the first production, and there’s a lot of good blood effects in the show.
INTERVIEWER: When you’re watching it, some of it actually looks quite dangerous. I presume that you never do actually put the actors in danger, but there’s bits as an audience member where you really feel like, “Oh my goodness, are they actually in trouble?”
JOHN: I suppose the most challenging scene to stage was there’s a famous scene towards the end of the film – and the novel, obviously – where he finds himself in a swimming pool with the people that have been bullying him and one of their older brothers, and it’s an incredibly nervous, horrible, dangerous situation for him. And they challenge him to a task whereby he has to hold his breath underwater for a long period of time.
INTERVIEWER: As an audience member, you hold your breath, too. It’s quite scary.
JOHN: So does he. There’s a big, big swimming pool onstage full of water, and he gets pushed underneath. So I had to make sure that Martin was comfortable doing that, so I got him both a lifeguard and I sent him for scuba diving lessons as well, so that he got really, really used to holding his breath underwater and just being underwater and having his eyes open underwater and everything. But of course, he’s totally safe I hasten to add, it’s totally safe!
INTERVIEWER: The story is about teenagers. Were you hoping that teenagers would come and see the show? Is that your target audience?
JOHN: My target audience is everybody, because I think it’s a story that anyone can connect with. But I do love the fact that young people – the audience at the Apollo is very, very young. Well, certainly relative to a lot of other shows. And I’m really, really proud of that, that those audiences, the 18 to 30 audience, is coming out. It’s brilliant. It’s really exciting, I think.
INTERVIEWER: Because the other person working on the creative team was Jack Thorne, who is brilliant about writing about teenagers.
INTERVIEWER: Did you instantly think that you wanted him to do the script?
JOHN: Yeah, because Jack had worked on Skins, and also he’d worked with Shane Meadows on This Is England, and then this brilliant BBC Three series called The Fades. I knew that he would – well, he’s a self-confessed expert on bullied nerdy teenagers, and I knew he would connect with that central relationship between Oskar and Eli. I also knew that he’d really relish writing the horror parts of it as well, the vampire, scary parts of it, and he really did.
INTERVIEWER: Would you classify it as a horror show?
JOHN: I’d classify it as a – no, it’s not a horror show. It’s incredibly powerful romance where one of the characters happens to be a vampire. (laughs)
INTERVIEWER: They just happen to be a vampire. But we are fascinated by vampires, especially in the last 5 years. It’s just people are really, really fascinated by them. Why do you think that is?
JOHN: I think there’s something quite attractive about them. They’re very seductive. I mean, it’s always involved some kind of seduction. That’s where vampires came from in literary history. But also, I think people are really, really intrigued by the idea of immortality. And in some ways, Let the Right One In is kind of Peter Pan in reverse, where Eli is Peter, and I suppose Oskar is Wendy’s daughter Jane. You get that kind of cycle happening.
And there’s something incredibly exciting – I mean, Peter Pan was always my favorite story when I was a wee boy, because the idea of someone coming in your window and whisking you away, flying across the skies to Never Never Land, was the scariest – you know, the idea of someone coming in your window is terrifying, and really exciting. You think it’s the most exciting thing ever.
So there’s something about the characters that never grow up, and vampires are immortal, so there’s an incredible sadness, I think, at the heart of that, because they don’t age. They don’t evolve. They can’t ever break the cycle of it. Unless, I suppose, you get a stake through the heart or something like that, but we don’t have any of that. (laughs) No stakes.
INTERVIEWER: You were talking before about Jack Thorne talking about bullying and being nerdy and all that kind of thing. The vampire stuff in it is quite scary, but the bits I found I wanted to shut my eyes in were the bits of emotional cruelty and the teenage bullying. Was that really important to you that that really stand out?
JOHN: Yeah. And it’s interesting, because audiences all along the way, and particularly at the Apollo, have said that they were surprised themselves – that they thought that they would be watching through their fingers at the actual vampire killing moments, when actually, watching the show, they found those quite natural. Almost like a wildlife program or something, because that’s just her, that’s just who Eli is. She has to feed.
Whereas the scenes they found really traumatic were the ones where Oskar gets bullied, because that’s manmade. It’s a kind of relationship that we’ve created, really. So that was really interesting. It’s the bullying that people watch through their fingers.
INTERVIEWER: And for Rebecca playing Eli, her movements are quite animalistic. It must’ve been quite a challenge for her. How did you go about rehearsing that side of it? Was that Steven Hoggett?
JOHN: Yeah, Steven and Becky worked on that together. How Steven works is there’s a lot of improvisation, so he will give the cast tasks and say, “Find a physical way to tell this part of the story” or “Find a way of crawling across the stage together in some exciting way.” So through that, him and Rebecca developed that animalistic kind of choreography.
Just the idea is to have that strength, because the thing about vampires is they’ve got ridiculous super strength. And at one point, she flattens (laughs), in more ways than one, a much bigger, over-6-foot-tall actor onstage, and finishes him off.
INTERVIEWER: It’s quite impressive.
JOHN: (laughs) That’s the scene where the whole audience jumps. In fact, when I watched the show now – I saw it on Friday night, and I can’t help but when that moment comes – because obviously, I’ve seen it, where he finds Eli in her bedchamber, as it were – which isn’t a bedchamber at all, but in that kind of – it’s her version of a coffin, and he thinks that she’s dead, so he kind of turns away from her.
And then there’s a moment where – and you look at the audience, and as one, they all go shoom (jumping up). (laughs) It’s fantastic. In fact, we filmed from the front – it’s really perverse, isn’t it – we filmed the audience in that moment, and it’s like those trailers you get in the cinema for like Paranormal Activity, where the audience go “Aaaah!” (laughs)
INTERVIEWER: As a director, do you enjoy going to watch your shows? Or are you constantly looking at other people for their reaction?
JOHN: As much as possible, I try and see it fresh, because that’s the only way you’re useful to the actors, because that’s what the audience – the audience tend to see the shows only once. So as much as possible, you do that. I don’t often watch the audience watching the show, because you can kind of feel them anyway. But that is an exception. It’s just too enjoyable not to watch everybody. It’s horrible, isn’t it? Scaring everyone senseless and then enjoying it. I should be locked up. (laughs)