THE NUN

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS OWEN WIL­LIAMS

The in­side scoop on how di­rec­tor Corin Hardy plans to scare us all to death with his demon nun movie. Clue: he has a demon nun.

IT WAS ON the dark side of twi­light when we got to Hune­doara. We had been di­rected to go to Corvin Cas­tle, on the edge of the Poiana Ruscă Moun­tains. What sort of grim ad­ven­ture had we em­barked upon? In the gloom the court­yard looked of con­sid­er­able size, and sev­eral dark ways led from it un­der great round arches. We were ev­i­dently ex­pected, for when we got near the door we faced a rum­pled, cheery young man in a dis­tressed leather jacket, jeans, a Mis­fits T-shirt and Con­verse train­ers cus­tomised with sparkling in­verted crosses.

When we came close he grinned and said, “Wel­come to Tran­syl­va­nia. Wel­come to my cas­tle. How of­ten do you get to say that?”

Corin Hardy is not Drac­ula. For one thing, he is not im­mor­tal (that we know of ). Nei­ther, af­ter sun­set, does he crawl ver­ti­cally down­wards from his ver­tig­i­nous bed­room win­dow seek­ing throats to bite (again, as far as we’re aware). But the 43-year-old Bri­tish di­rec­tor does have a pen­chant for shad­owy places, bleak se­crets and mat­ters macabre.

He is, you might say, a child of the night, and the mu­sic he’s mak­ing on this oc­ca­sion is The Nun, the lat­est spin-off from the ultra-prof­itable The Con­jur­ing fran­chise, and quite pos­si­bly the most lurid en­try in the se­ries to date. Tak­ing place in the 1950s — though its an­cient Euro­pean cas­tle-and-abbey set­ting lends it the look of a much ear­lier pe­riod — it fol­lows two peo­ple of the cloth as they head to a Tran­syl­va­nian pri­ory on a Vat­i­can-sanc­tioned mis­sion to in­ves­ti­gate the ap­par­ent sui­cide of a novi­tiate. There, they will en­counter a ter­ri­fy­ing oth­er­worldly nun with a habit of scar­ing peo­ple to death.

The premise is glo­ri­ously pulpy. But Hardy is treat­ing the project with deadly se­ri­ous­ness. The lo­ca­tion of our meet­ing with him is just one ex­am­ple. While pro­ducer James Wan has called The Nun an ode to the films of leg­endary Ital­ian mae­stro Mario Bava and to clas­sic Ham­mer hor­ror, Bava shot his Euro­pean Goth­ics on stu­dio stages such as Ti­tanus Ap­pia in Rome, while Ham­mer’s Tran­syl­va­nia was al­ways coun­try house Moyns Park in Es­sex. No such com­pro­mise for Hardy. Seated in one of the chilly in­ner cham­bers of an ac­tual Transly­va­nian cas­tle while tak­ing a few min­utes out from shoot­ing, he claims he did scout other lo­ca­tions, but you sus­pect that was just due dili­gence. There will be stu­dio work later on. But, he ex­plains, “There’s no sub­sti­tite for the cin­e­matic nat­u­ral light­ing and still­ness and tex­tures and colours of the real cas­tle.”

Hardy is de­ter­mined to scare the hell out of you, and this ex­pres­sion of Vlad taste is only the be­gin­ning.

THE DI­REC­TOR’S UN­LIKELY

jour­ney to this Tran­syl­va­nian cas­tle be­gan in a less grand but not en­tirely un­spooky place. It was a Sus­sex grave­yard, where in 1993 a teenage Hardy shot a short film, Hunters, star­ring his fa­ther Noel as a Van Hels­ing type with an ex­or­cism kit. While most of his peers were play­ing SNES, Hardy was busy with an­i­ma­tion and Su­per-8 ex­per­i­ments, lead­ing in­ex­orably to­wards the ex­tra­or­di­nary half-hour stop-mo­tion But­ter­fly, which took him five years of work in a shed in the gar­den at his par­ents’ home. He calls that dark but mov­ing slice of ur­ban Gothic “my ten­ta­tive an­nounce­ment of what my vibe is”.

From the very be­gin­ning, there was a dark un­der­cur­rent to his work: Hardy has al­ways loved what he calls “the lim­it­less imag­i­na­tion” of hor­ror films. When Hunters made it to a com­pe­ti­tion screen­ing at the Na­tional Mu­seum Of Photography, Film And Tele­vi­sion in Brad­ford, he met his con­tem­po­rary

Edgar Wright for the first time, and the pair bonded over the grisly set-pieces of Sam Raimi. “He said, ‘What’s your favourite film?’ And I went, ‘Evil Dead II.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, mine is as well,’” Hardy smiles. “That’s how we be­came friends.” The pair of wannabe film­mak­ers kept in touch, writ­ing each other let­ters and meet­ing up at film fes­ti­vals. Wright, who hired Hardy to work on cos­tumes for his de­but film Fist­ful Of Fin­gers, re­mains a reg­u­lar cheer­leader, call­ing Hardy’s 2015 fea­ture de­but The Hal­low “the kind of film I’d have been ob­sessed by if I had stayed up late to watch as a kid”.

The films the young Hardy stayed up late to watch, be­sides Evil Dead

II, in­cluded A Night­mare On Elm Street 3: Dream War­riors (he adored the Freddy-snake and string-pup­pet se­quences), John Car­pen­ter’s The Thing (he was mes­merised by Rob Bot­tin’s night­mar­ish cre­ations) and pretty much any­thing that fea­tured a mon­ster. So fas­ci­nated was he by spe­cial ef­fects that he scored an in­ter­view with Ray Har­ry­hausen for an A level art project and ar­ranged a meet­ing with Bri­tish VFX leg­end Bob Keen (Hell­raiser, Night­breed) to dis­cuss ca­reer prospects. “He drummed into me that I needed to take pho­tos and doc­u­ment all my work,” Hardy re­calls.

Af­ter cabin-in-the-woods crea­turefea­ture The Hal­low — the mon­sters from which Hardy got shipped to his house af­ter the shoot, heed­ing Keen’s ad­vice — the di­rec­tor’s first big Hol­ly­wood film was sup­posed to be a spin on The Crow. But de­spite Hardy’s pas­sion for the project (he’d been ob­sessed with the orig­i­nal James O’barr comics and the 1994 Alex Proyas film since his for­ma­tive years), it re­mained mired in de­vel­op­ment hell. So even­tu­ally he switched his fo­cus to The Nun. It was, he says, “a clas­sic, old-school, scary hor­ror movie” that was ready to go into pro­duc­tion with prac­ti­cally no com­pli­ca­tions. “I didn’t write it or de­velop it,” he ex­plains. “I didn’t have all the strain of try­ing to raise the money, as I had on The Hal­low. I read the script, got the job the next day, flew to LA, flew to Ro­ma­nia and sud­denly we were mak­ing it. The only real chal­lenge was set­tling into some­one else’s world.”

Far from just be­ing an iden­tikit di­rec­tor hired to churn out an­other Con­jur­ing film, Hardy has been al­lowed to run the show. And his en­ergy and at­ten­tion to de­tail, ev­i­denced by his ever-present Mole­sk­ine sketch­pads, ap­pears to have won him many fans among the cast and crew. “The guy is like, ‘Let me show you what I mean,’” says The Nun screen­writer and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Gary Dauber­man. “And he’s al­ways got a lit­tle notebook and a pen: he can just draw what he’s think­ing and you’re like, ‘That’s ex­actly it.’ He con­sid­ers what ev­ery­one’s say­ing — he even lis­tens to me oc­ca­sion­ally — but he has a re­ally dis­tinct vi­sion of his own.”

THE UN­CANNY ORI­GINS OF

The Nun can be traced back to 2016’s

The Con­jur­ing 2, in which a ter­ri­fy­ing nun, aka the dread demon Valak, popped up briefly to tor­ment para­nor­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tors Ed and Lor­raine Warren (Pa­trick Wil­son and Vera Farmiga). James Wan, that film’s di­rec­tor and

Con­jur­ing over­lord, saw an op­por­tu­nity to make a spin-off pre­quel which would eke out even more men­ace from the black-clad wraith, mov­ing the se­ries away from its usual world of haunted houses and pos­sessed dolls into a more Gothic, Euro­pean flavour of hor­ror. But it was Hardy who looked at the premise — a road trip taken by Sis­ter Irene (Taissa Farmiga, younger sis­ter of Vera) and the stern Fa­ther Burke (Demian Bichir) to solve a con­vent based mys­tery — and saw a dif­fer­ent in­spi­ra­tion en­tirely.

“I made a list of films the script re­minded me of,” the di­rec­tor says, “and it was things like The Name Of The Rose, Black Nar­cis­sus and The Ex­or­cist… but In­di­ana Jones was top of the list.”

And so The Nun started lean­ing in an­other di­rec­tion: not just a chiller but an ad­ven­ture about de­tec­tives on an in­ter­na­tional mis­sion. “I al­ways liked things like Raiders Of The Lost Ark, where some­one comes in and it’s like, ‘Here’s what’s go­ing to hap­pen and now please go do it,’” Dauber­man notes. “I liked get­ting into the story quickly. Fa­ther Burke gets the call right away, trav­els to Rome and they lay out what’s hap­pen­ing, and I very much had in mind that set-up at the col­lege at the start of Raiders.”

Seem­ingly tak­ing them back in time, Irene and Fa­ther Burke’s quest takes them to Ro­ma­nia via plane, in an an­cient car to a re­mote vil­lage, then fi­nally up by horse and cart to the abbey. When there, all hell breaks loose. Hardy has been un­leashed to in­dulge his dark­est de­sires, with a hefty bud­get at his dis­posal to co-or­di­nate fear­some scares.

When Em­pire first ar­rives on set, there’s lit­tle ev­i­dence of this: a flap of off-duty but fully made-up demon

nuns loi­ter in the sun­shine, wear­ing sneak­ers and sun­glasses, while a bunch of be­mused-look­ing tourists look on. It turns out that the pro­duc­tion was only granted per­mis­sion to use the lo­ca­tion on con­di­tion that they keep the cas­tle open to pay­ing vis­i­tors. But as night falls and Hardy leads us through ar­eas of Corvin Cas­tle (in an el­dritch ex­am­ple of syn­chronic­ity, ‘Corvin’ is, es­sen­tially, Latin for ‘crow’) where Joe Pub­lic is not al­lowed, things ac­quire a more sin­is­ter air. At the back of the cas­tle, lead­ing up to a con­vinc­ing fake en­trance­way with its steps awash with blood, is a hill adorned with wooden crosses, ap­pear­ing ever more eerie as the light dims. Hardy says that what­ever he’s asked for, pro­duc­tion de­signer Jen­nifer Spence has de­liv­ered big­ger. “I thought we’d manage about 20 crosses here,” he laughs, “but they were still go­ing af­ter about 400.”

Cas­tles, cru­ci­fixes, devils, spooky women… With all those ac­cou­trements be­ing par­o­died decades ago (Ab­bott & Costello films, Carry On Scream­ing), there’s an ob­vi­ous dan­ger of tip­ping over into camp. Hardy says the trick to avoid­ing that is sim­ply to treat the sub­ject mat­ter sin­cerely and un­cyn­i­cally. “It’s scary and the ac­tors are tak­ing it se­ri­ously,” he prom­ises. “This isn’t a pas­tiche and no­body’s ham­ming it up. To me it’s ac­tu­ally re­fresh­ingly straight, which, para­dox­i­cally is what makes it fun.”

Hardy ex­cuses him­self to go and di­rect a se­quence in a chapel on the cas­tle’s grounds, in which Sis­ter Irene

finds the afore­men­tioned, deathly silent sis­ter­hood (now sans shades and sneak­ers) pop­u­lat­ing the pews in front of an al­tar adorned with a head­less Christ. Valak her­self is also present to men­ace her in a mirror’s re­flec­tion. De­spite the re­sources at his dis­posal, Hardy is shoot­ing as much as he can in-cam­era. “It’s a big­ger movie in many ways than some­thing like The Hal­low, but it’s also a grounded movie in that we’re do­ing it all for real,” he says. “There’s very lit­tle CGI: ac­tu­ally less CGI even than The Hal­low. We’re con­cen­trat­ing more on com­plex chore­og­ra­phy and mind trick­ery.” When the chore­og­ra­phy doesn’t work — Bonnie Aarons as Valak not ex­it­ing shot quickly enough, for ex­am­ple, and stay­ing in frame to per­form an im­promptu soft-shoe-shuf­fle — he’s re­laxed enough to laugh with ev­ery­one else.

Away from the cam­eras, as­sorted crew are con­fronted with an in­ter­loper: a trapped bat, even­tu­ally re­stored to free­dom thanks to the thick claw-and-fang-proof gloves of one of the grips.

As we watch it flit to­wards the moon above the cas­tle’s tur­rets, we re­flect that res­cu­ing a bat in Tran­syl­va­nia must be some sort of good omen: that or a grave mis­take. But as luck would have it, just to be sure the pro­duc­tion isn’t cursed, the unit pub­li­cist has al­ready ar­ranged for the set to be blessed by an East­ern Ortho­dox priest.

The cer­e­mony takes place the fol­low­ing morn­ing, Hardy on the re­ceiv­ing end of some of the priest’s litur­gi­cal ac­tions. “I’ve got holy wa­ter in my eye,” he blearily con­fides to Em­pire, be­fore ask­ing the holy man if we’re all safe now. He’s as­sured that we are.

It was the eve of the sum­mer sol­stice the fol­low­ing year when we once again en­coun­tered Mr Hardy. He was jolly and cheer­ful, and it was quite ev­i­dent that re­cent events had helped to take some of the brood­ing weight off his mind, the curse of The Crow hav­ing passed away. We found him in a Lon­don hostelry, the prospect of beer hav­ing much ex­cited him.

This time there are no bats, no omi­nous cel­lars, no habit-wear­ing hell-sis­ters; we’re in a Bri­tish pub, and not his lo­cal one in East Sus­sex where, Hardy says, he re­cently found “Valak” mys­te­ri­ously carved into one of the ta­bles. The only edge of other worldi­ness comes in the form of a black cat, which sits on a chair be­side us, asleep for the du­ra­tion of the con­ver­sa­tion.

Still look­ing more dis­ci­ple-of-grunge than prince-of-dark­ness, Hardy is wear­ing the same leather jacket he had on on set. It still sports a but­ton of Bran­don Lee as The Crow’s Eric Draven, de­spite the re­cent news that Hardy’s ver­sion of The Crow has col­lapsed again, this time seem­ingly for­ever, with Hardy and star-to-be Ja­son Mo­moa both leav­ing the project. “It was heart­break­ing,” he ad­mits. “I had ev­ery­thing in place to make the film I wanted to make, and we were only weeks from shoot­ing, but cir­cum­stances con­spired against it. The de­ci­sion be­came that I’d rather not make it than make a bad ver­sion of it.

But af­ter years of frus­tra­tion, you do get the sense it’s now a weight gone from Hardy’s shoul­ders; in many ways it must have been lib­er­at­ing to fi­nally walk away. And mere hours af­ter The Crow died, the trailer for The Nun first man­i­fested on­line, con­clud­ing with the mother su­pe­rior of all jump-scares, elic­it­ing a rau­cously ap­pre­cia­tive re­cep­tion.

For the first time in some years, Hardy finds him­self with­out a def­i­nite ‘next’ film. And it’s ex­cit­ing. Mon­strous projects of his own that he’s been forced to ne­glect have sud­denly loomed back into fo­cus, and Hardy is in Lon­don tak­ing meet­ings to fig­ure out his next op­por­tu­nity. It might be Abom­inable: the “Jaws of Yeti movies” that he’s been lov­ingly plug­ging away at for 16 years. Or it might be one of any num­ber of other ideas in­volv­ing “ar­cane crea­tures, al­ter­na­tive dimensions, hor­ror, noir, crime, sci-fi… all the dark stuff; all the good stuff”. His eyes blaze with in­fer­nal an­tic­i­pa­tion.

When Hunters played that Brad­ford fes­ti­val way back in 1993, the news made Hardy’s lo­cal pa­per. The 18-year-old told the Sus­sex Ar­gus he was “not in­ter­ested in gore; I am more in­ter­ested in con­cepts”.

“I hate that I said that,” he laughs now. “What the fuck was I on about? I think what I meant to say was, ‘I fuck­ing love gore. But I also love good ideas.’” Hardy’s got plenty of those, and with luck they’ll make it to the screen. It can’t, as a moody rocker named Eric once said, rain all the time.

THE NUN IS IN CINE­MAS FROM 7 SEPTEM­BER

Hooded ter­ror: Sis­ter Irene (Taissa Farmiga) is in for a fright­ful night; Di­rec­tor Corin Hardy in a grave on lo­ca­tion at Corvin Cas­tle, Hune­doara, Ro­ma­nia; Hardy tends to de­monic nun Valak, played by Bonnie Aarons.

She’s be­hind you: Fa­ther Burke (Demián Bichir) is a haunted man; Jonas Blo­quet as lo­cal vil­lager Frenchie; Some­thing de­monic lurks in the Ice House.

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