We lived inside the dream…


Last night I had a dream. And then I went home, and had a dream.

The Drowned Man is the new production by notorious theatre company Punchdrunk, this time staged with the backing of the National Theatre. Having missed their previous London show, The Masque of the Red Death (now six or seven years ago), I was desperate to see this one. As it happens, Punchdrunk seem to have anticipated this yearning among their London audience by enormously inflating both the number of tickets available and the space in which the production takes place.

There are plenty of reviews online which will give you a flavour of the experience, without spoiling it for those who haven’t been (I do strongly recommend going, though, especially if you’re a Punchdrunk virgin). Critical opinion splits about 80:20 in favour and the show tends to excite opinion to one extreme or the other – those who love it adore it, those who hate it do so with a passion. I want to use this post to explore what the experience meant to me, and to maybe start a discussion about how cinema – especially horror cinema – might learn from what Punchdrunk is doing.


Because I (like the whole audience) had to be masked throughout I couldn’t wear my glasses. My prescription isn’t very strong, so I could manage without. This meant, however, that my vision was slightly obscured, so that everything not up close took on a blur. What made it worse was that every bit of the production space (we’re talking 100 rooms spread across four – or was it five? – floors) was filled with a gentle smoky haze. So the action unfolded in front of me in a mist, people’s expressions vague, their faces indistinguishable, the lights rendered remote yet still blinding at the wrong angle. On top of this, the soundtrack (relayed through speakers in every room, but different depending on where you were) was remorseless, varying from torch songs to half-heard snatches of music to throbbing drones and hums. Every room was fitted out in the richest detail, all of it lovingly and accurately redolent of its 1960s Americana movie setting, whether that be a suburban home, a medical lab, a foley studio, a cinema or a dingy motel. And in every room, surrounding the actor-dancers, pressing in from all quarters, were us: the audience. Masked. Every one of us in a death’s head mask which hid the mouth so not a single expression was visible. In the obscure lighting all I could see was the same face, duplicated across the darkness, its plain, greyish, blank stare confronting me. A crowd of ghosts. And my mask pressed on my face so I couldn’t breathe deeply.


Doesn’t this sound like a nightmare? That’s the idea. Punchdrunk’s trademark is bringing alive the darker, unsettling aspects of the story (and they’ve picked some pretty dark stories to display over the years – Macbeth, Peter Grimes, Woyzeck – so much so that some critics are wondering if they can actually move out of what appears to be settling into a thematic comfort zone). Hammered by the ear-splitting soundtrack, disturbed by the ghostly faces and the darkness, fearful of the unpredictable story and of being caught up against my will in the thick of the action, I felt I was living in someone else’s subconscious brought alive around me. And when I caught sight of my own unblinking, unmoving face in a mirror, it was like a threatening stranger challenging me to do something but giving me no hint what.


Those whose minds are turning to David Lynch aren’t far off the mark. Punchdrunk don’t cite him as an influence, but the shadow of Mulholland Drive, and other films (I thought particularly of Inland Empire with its disjointed, difficult narrative, fragments of scenes being played out before being abandoned) looms large over this production. Many of the details – the woods through which the characters run, the chequered dance floor, the droning hum of white noise punctuated occasionally by stentorian voices, the cabaret singers, the red curtains – are so obviously inspired by Lynch films that perhaps they didn’t feel they needed to cite him. (The title of this post? At one point, I distinctly heard the words “we lived inside the dream” being boomed out from the soundtrack. It’s a slight modification of the line “we live inside a dream” from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Coincidence? Yes, it could be…)

I went home from the production, utterly exhausted from three hours of walking (occasionally running), concentrating, staring into the blur, feeling my ears bleed from the noise, and trembling with fear and anticipation. That night, I had a dream in which the character playing Wendy – with whom I felt I didn’t spend nearly enough time – climbed up to an enormous clock near the ceiling which she somehow folded around herself. She then sang the “In Heaven” song from Lynch’s Eraserhead. Sitting here now, my head still cloudy and spinning, I’m no longer sure which parts of the experience I lived through in real life and which parts I dreamt.


Shouldn’t horror cinema leave you feeling like that? How would we, as horror filmmakers, achieve the same sense of confused reality, the same kind of disturbed mental state, the same blurring of the real and fantastic? Our audience does not move around wearing masks: it sits in padded chairs in a cinema, or in a brightly-lit living room, or in front of a computer or smartphone. That fourth wall – which Punchdrunk breaks so immediately and effectively – is always there in a film, a barrier to full immersion. How do we close that distance between us and the audience, so that they are no longer safely behind the glass looking through it?

I don’t know the answer (although I have a few ideas, which I’ll keep to myself just for now because I might want to use them). But right now there’s a sense amongst aficionados that Punchdrunk has peaked, that this is the culmination of its last ten years or so of activity. Perhaps it’s time for other art forms to think about how to incorporate some of the Punchdrunk experience into what they offer.

[Footnote: all photos on this page are shamelessly cribbed from the National Theatre’s website. I did not take any photos during my visit to the production. It’s not allowed, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone else. You have to experience this for yourself. The production runs until the end of December. Book here.]



Important announcement about The Ditch

Please read this post if you’re one of the people who has kindly donated to our project, or if you’re just interested in where we’ve got to.

As you know we had everything prepared for the next stage of filming in the middle of September, when we were unlucky enough to come up against a particularly bad spell of weather. Because of this, it was impossible to film that weekend. Luckily we were able to cancel most of the things we had booked (location, accommodation, equipment, etc.) so we have not taken too big a financial hit.

After negotiating with the owners of the land, we were hoping to reschedule the shoot for this coming weekend but this has also proved impossible. Not enough people are available, and in any case there would have been less daylight.

Although it would be easy to see all this as a setback, we’re looking on it as an opportunity. We don’t want to wait yet another year, so we’re having a big think about the whole project. We are rewriting the story of The Ditch so at least some of it will take place indoors. The existing footage, which was shot last year, will be incorporated into the new story.

The fundamentals of the story will not change – it will still be a supernatural thriller, it will still be about Donna, it will still be about her knocking down a mysterious pedestrian and the consequences that come from this. And there will still be a ditch! Rewriting the script means we have even more opportunity to think about developing the central character of Donna, and examine her motives and reactions – which should lead to an even more interesting and entertaining film at the end.

The rewrite means we will be spending more time on script development. It’s critical that we get this right to preserve the integrity and the effectiveness of the story. There will almost certainly be no more filming until early 2014.

If you have donated to The Ditch, please be assured that we are very grateful for your support and your money will be spent wisely. We will be examining the new script to make sure we get the best product for the budget we have raised. If you have chosen a perk that can be printed – posters, concept art – these will be delivered soon. Obviously we can’t send out the script yet, as we’re rewriting it! The DVD/digital download will be delivered once the film is ready, but this will be much later than we originally hoped. We’re confident it will be worth the wait.

We would like to thank you for your understanding. If you are unhappy with this arrangement, and would like a refund of your donation, please contact us urgently. Otherwise, please be confident that we are doing our best to make this film every bit as brilliant as originally planned.

Thank you.