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Hypnotic is set in a London that’s a psychotic urban landscape where nothing is what it seems, its co-writer and director Nick Willing tells Jake Wilson. Not to mention the layers of history in the ancient city, which give it a sense of being possessed.

Dr Michael Strother (Goran Visnjic), the hero of the occult thriller Hypnotic, is a new arrival in London, a European hypnotherapist from America with an American wife and a troubled past. Specialising in helping smokers to beat their addiction, he conducts his business in an upstairs office dominated by a large picture window which shows a panoramic view of half-constructed skyscrapers and cranes vaulting at the sky.

In fact, admits the film's director and co-writer Nicholas Willing, no such office exists anywhere, and the view is a painted backdrop. The city of the film is not the “real” London, but a distorted world that exists within the minds of the characters, what Willing calls a “psychotic urban landscape where nothing is what it seems.”

Willing originally trained as an animator, a background he says may have something to do with his preference for inventing his own cinematic worlds rather than aiming for documentary realism. From the beginning, he says, he was very much a hands-on filmmaker: “I wanted to draw everything, paint everything, do all the special effects myself.” Given such beginnings, it's not surprising that all his longer works to date, from his 1997 debut feature Photographing Fairies to his American TV adaptations of Alice In Wonderland and Jason and the Argonauts, have been grounded in the fantasy genre.

Yet as with the similarly haunted cityscapes of Hitchcock and Roman Polanski, in Hypnotic strangeness is often conveyed using simple, down-to-earth means - subtly distorted versions of everyday sights and sounds. For example, Willing notes that most of the film's exteriors “are completely deserted. One of the things I chose to do was remove all the cars from the streets.” But if signs of human life are often eerily absent, Willing makes the audience constantly aware of London’s vast impersonal energies through his choice of locations. “We tried to have each scene contain a canal or a train or a motorway ... one of the city's arteries thundering past.”

"power of suggestion"

Paradoxically, Willing says, creating a convincingly unreal world required careful observation and research. “Most of the locations we used were in some way possessed,” he claims. What this means, among other things, is that a city like London is a palimpsest where many layers of history are visible simultaneously, with churches and power stations of times long ago taking on new uses in the present. Extensive research also went into the presentation of the occult lore which forms the basis for the plot, as well as the techniques of hypnosis that allow Strother to penetrate these mysteries.

“The interesting fact about hypnosis,” Willing says, “is that there is very little understanding of what it does to you. The scientific explanation for it is 'power of suggestion' but what does that mean, really?” When I suggest that there are some parallels between the hypnotist's “power of suggestion” and the art of filmmaking itself, he agrees enthusiastically. “It's a magic trick, really. What we're doing is trying to show a trance using the tricks of filmmaking and cinema.”

In fact, Willing explains, there are three different kinds of space in Hypnotic: Firstly, there's the “straight” presentation of reality as we know it, “the objective neutral space of everyday life.” Then there's the space of the “subjective world” we share with the characters - as when Strother fears that his daughter has been kidnapped; and, thirdly, the “subconscious world” of fantasies and mysterious evil forces. Willing's job as a filmmaker is to make sure that the audience, along with the characters, are immediately and almost physically aware of the transition between one kind of space and another. “There are theatrical shots where we're watching people moving back and forth and we're not really in anyone's shoes. You feel safe, watching people from outside. And then the shot changes and you're in their shoes, seeing what they see.”

But how can the third, “subconscious” world be depicted on screen? Willing repeatedly uses digital, almost abstract imagery for this purpose - as in one early scene where a little girl zones out while gazing into a TV set. But rather than relying on us to imagine the specifics of horror for ourselves, at certain moments he opts to shock us out of the “trance” state with some judiciously graphic gore. “It's important to let the audience know from very early on that you're prepared to show them unspeakable things. And from the moment they realise that, they start to get very uneasy in their seats.”

"a visceral effect"

Willing chooses a key scene midway through the film to illustrate these carefully managed transitions between reality and fantasy. While counselling a patient at his office, Strother is overcome by the stress of his recent traumatic experiences, allows his mind to wander and falls into a doze. Within a single shot, the scene abruptly changes from day to night, with cars still passing by the window outside. “The room is aswirl with their headlights, and you ask yourself, 'Is this really happening?' And then you realise, yes it is. And then things start to get really nasty.”

They do indeed. Willing chuckles. “It has a visceral effect, I believe. It certainly works in a dark room with an audience.”

Published November 20, 2003

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