Saturday , January 22 2022
Rory Kinnear as Williams in 'The Mezzotint' (Courtesy of BritBox)

Exclusive Interview: Isibéal Ballance, Producer of ‘The Mezzotint’ Coming to BritBox with Other Christmas Ghost Story Specials

During my travels to the U.K. over the years, I learned early on about some holiday traditions that aren’t prevalent in the United States yet. One tradition is telling ghost stories at Christmas. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is probably the Christmas ghost story audiences in America know the most. If you’ve been a frequent theater goer, perhaps The Woman in Black comes to mind, too. However, that merely skims the surface of Christmas ghost stories.

BritBox, the subscription streaming service from BBC Studios and ITV, released its collection of A Ghost Story for Christmas on December 20. It includes a number of specials from the 1970s, based on the works of M.R. James. Writer and director Mark Gatiss (Sherlock, Doctor Who) added to the series in recent years with The Tractate Middoth, The Dead Room, and Martin’s Close.

Gatiss’ newest installment, The Mezzotint, premieres on BritBox on December 24 just in time for Christmas. It stars Rory Kinnear as Mr. Williams, a museum curator in Cambridge who receives an engraving from a London art dealer. The cast also includes Frances Barber, Robert Bathurst, John Hopkins, Nikesh Patel, Emma Cunniffe, and Tommaso Di Vincenzo.

Williams’ friends point out that the mezzotint — initially depicting a large country house at night — keeps changing. Who is the mysterious shrouded figure starting to creep into the foreground? Williams investigates the history of the engraving to a startling and spooky conclusion.

Photo of Rory Kinnear as Williams sitting in a dark room in 'The Mezzotint'
Rory Kinnear as Williams in ‘The Mezzotint’ (Courtesy of BritBox)

Isibéal Ballance, a producer from Adorable Media, worked closely with Gatiss on The Mezzotint and previous specials. During our conference call, she described at length what it takes to develop an excellent and scary ghost story for a TV movie.

Unfortunately, as with many other productions, the coronavirus pandemic impacted the pre-production work completed by Ballance and Gatiss. While most of the A Ghost Story for Christmas collection is comprised of James’ stories, Gatiss was writing an original script prior to March 2020. With restrictions underway not long after that, it was clear that they needed to try another direction. Gatiss returned to the M.R. James catalog.

As Ballance recalled, “We chose The Mezzotint based on the fact that it’s quite contained like a drawing room piece. There’s four or five characters, and it’s all based around one picture. Also, I think it’s quite hard to do. It’s nice to rise to the challenge of it because the spookiness is all in the still picture.”

These stories are also challenging to capture on film, a visual medium, because they’re intended to be “read like fireside ghost stories.” Why is Gatiss the best choice for the helm of these new holiday hauntings? The adaptations of James’ stories and another original script that Gatiss penned, The Dead Room, garnered wide popularity and praise. Martin’s Close, which stars Peter Capaldi, was the most-watched program on BBC Four at its debut in 2019.

Photo of Peter Capaldi as Dolmen wearing a barrister's wig and sitting at a desk
Peter Capaldi as Dolben in ‘Martin’s Close’ (Courtesy of BritBox)

Ballance praised how Gatiss writes and directs. “The elements of human qualities in his dialogue are beautiful. [There’s] a touch of the horror without making it horrendous.”

Furthermore, she emphasized that Gatiss follows the M.R. James rules for a perfect ghost story. For example, the ghost isn’t fully shown until the end. “I remember when I first worked with him. I was like, ‘Why don’t we cut away here? Then the audience will be more scared.’ He went, ‘No, no, no. There’s rules.'”

Even though I don’t usually watch scary films, I agreed with her next point about why A Ghost Story for Christmas makes for a compelling streaming experience. “Mark is such a fantastic writer, but he’s got that beautiful balance between humor and dark. They call him the dark prince. I actually don’t like scary stories, but I’m always pulled in by these stories because they are ghostly rather than horror.”

While the final product itself can make you jump in your seat, a fun atmosphere pervades behind-the-scenes from planning to filming stages. For The Dead Room, which focuses on a ghost in a recording studio, Ballance and Gatiss had an adventure exploring cupboards and the props room at BBC Maida Vale Studios. “It was a sound recording studio for radio. They are all soundproofed rooms! When you go in, it’s muffled. We were so lucky to film there.”

Photo of Sacha Dhawan as Garrett walking through the library
Sacha Dhawan as Garrett in ‘The Tractate Middoth’ (Courtesy of BritBox)

Coming back to The Mezzotint, Ballance credits the collaborative discussions between Gatiss and their director of photography, Kieran McGuigan, as crucial in planning. They reviewed the psychological state of Williams and hammered out the angles and shots exactly as they wanted. “As we go through the half hour, we’re getting onto Williams, but he’s also slightly moving to edge of frame. There’s an awkwardness in the angle that you start to see. Everything starts to jar, which matches to his psychological state. Is he seeing what he thinks he’s seeing or is he imagining it?”

Complementing the framing was Rory Kinnear’s performance as Williams, the museum curator. Kinnear adeptly modulates his rhythm to suit the pace of The Mezzotint and stir the audience at the right points. He even plays a ragtime tune on the piano himself during a scene. “As we get further into the evenings, and he starts to question the picture, we really believe him. He really takes us along as an audience. There is no doubt in our mind that something is going on. We believe in his subtlety and how he does it. It’s so clever.”

Along with framing and strong performances by the cast, Ballance noted how vital music is with effectively creating the best atmosphere for a supernatural tale. For that piece of the puzzle, she and Gatiss relied upon the talents of Blair Mowat. “The music is more sound. What Blair has done is create these squeaking and eking noises that go through you. It’s like the haunting of this wind comes at you in a squeaking old window or door. You can feel the cold. You feel you need to constantly look behind you.”

The music sets a tone to keep the viewer immersed in the events of the story. “[Blair] didn’t smother any of us. He created an undercurrent that brings you along and keeps pushing you further and further with Williams during these jarring camera angles. He’s a very talented composer.”

Photo of Frances Barber as Mrs. Ambrigail peeking through a curtain
Frances Barber as Mrs. Ambrigail in ‘The Mezzotint’ (Courtesy of BritBox)

While elements of James’ stories hold up rather well today, Gatiss added a new twist to The Mezzotint‘s ending and reworked one of the characters. Since I don’t want to spoil the twist, I’ll move onto the topic of Mrs. Ambrigail, played brilliantly by Frances Barber. Ballance recalled that her first encounter with Barber was a lovely experience. “I absolutely adored her when I met her! She’s literally everything you want her to be, I can’t tell you. She’s sparky and funny, and clever.”

In the original short story, there was a vicar, which was switched out for a female character in the TV adaptation. In addition to wanting more women in the story, Gatiss already had Barber in mind for a role. “He created this person who, although married to a vicar, questions religion and the ideas that her husband has based his life in. She goes on about anthropology and fossils, and queries things. She was a great antidote to Williams’ character, who is quite an uptight academic.”

To match this free-spiritedness of Barber’s character, Ballance and Gatiss incorporated aspects from the forefront of 1920s fashion. “Mrs. Ambrigail already cut her hair short and she’s wearing bright red lipstick, [which] was just starting to turn with the younger people. She grabbed it with open arms. I don’t know the equivalent exactly, but we wanted her like a Zandra Rhodes, who is quite a cool, older woman and very stylish.”

The Mezzotint premieres on BritBox on December 24. Other spooky installments of A Ghost Story for Christmas are already available for streaming on the BritBox website.

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About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros frequently covers theater and television for Blogcritics Magazine. Every quarter, she enjoys putting the spotlight on new voices and emerging talent. Her portfolio includes interviews with Juliette Binoche, Daniel Davis, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi, and Ndaba Mandela.

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