“A nurse must sacrifice entirely,” Val (Rose Williams) is told by her matron (Diveen Henry) early in “The Power,” blissfully unaware at the time of just how much she’s going to have to give of herself on her very first day on the job. In Corinna Faith’s creepy supernatural thriller, the orderly finds herself immediately in the midst of a crisis as blackouts have overtaken East London when a battle has commenced between the government and trade unions in 1974, leading to a conservation of the power grid and the necessity for the hospital where Val works to move around patients as need be. This wasn’t Val’s first choice of assignments, hoping instead to be caring for children in Haverford, being an orphan herself that was taken in by the children’s home Our Lady of Grace and knowing what impact it had on her, but she dutifully tends to those on the other end of the age spectrum as daylight turns into unending night, seemingly vast in depth as she traverses unfamiliar hospital halls as well as darkness when nefarious forces appear to be at work.
As “The Power” watches Val help those on those on respirators before she herself could be in danger of being left breathless, writer/director Faith considers how long it’s been since certain inequities could be seen at the hospital even in daylight, with a blind eye cast towards those most at mercy to the system. There’s undoubtedly a parallel in Faith’s own experience of finding herself unable to get a second feature off the ground over a decade after her first (2005’s “Ashes”) by navigating a male-dominated industry, but she makes up for lost time with a film that throws off as many sparks as the lamp Val carries with her, following the nurse as she is exposed to the ugly history that begins creeping out of the shadows and threatens to overtake her. Eerie in any number of traditional ways for the horror genre while offering something new in attaching that feeling to its prescience about the power of institutions to allow egregious attitudes towards race and gender to persist, the film gives strength to traditionally marginalized characters by allowing them to come to the fore and as “The Power” debuts on the streaming service Shudder, Faith spoke about how she found a real-life foundation to make a film both frightening and so close to her heart.
How did this come about?
It was quite a while ago now, about six years and a long road, as it often is. I really was looking for something to write a ghost story about. Often I think that it’s quite tricky to find something to sustain a ghost story because they’re almost like poems. They’re quite simple, fragile things, but at the time, these big stories were breaking here in the UK about hidden institutional abuse on a massive scale across all kinds of institutions. I was really very sad about the thought of all the lost and damaged lives that had been pushed aside for so long and that was a strong starting point for a ghost story, the idea of souls being trapped in these places.
Those particular things that were surfacing were quite often from the 1970s, and obviously, this is content that’s relevant to today in all kinds of ways, but when I started looking into that era a bit more, I came across images from the blackouts. There was one particular one of a telephonist with just doing her normal job by oil lamp, and it was so evocative. I wanted it to start in a very classic mold and take the audience by the hand like the way we go into this quite classically Gothic, which is a setting I personally love, but then I wanted it to move into its own space really in terms of expressing the themes — and [that initial photo] seemed like such a classic ghost story image. I hadn’t really known that much about the blackouts, but I looked into it more and thought that’s a perfect coming together of elements.
A hospital is such an interesting setting because it brings together people from a variety of cultural backgrounds, which is something utilized in the story in terms of how everyone involved reacts to the situation. Was that something you could gravitate towards early?
Yeah, absolutely. Looking at all the archive footage doing the historical research, it was so often the case that you see one version of history, but actually the East End at that point in time was incredibly diverse. A lot of the staff in those hospitals were from all kinds of places, which I wanted to do anyway, but it was exciting to realize on what scale that was how already things were working then. I don’t think you see that reflected very much and also I was thinking really in terms of any kind of any kind of institution, there’s quite often a group of people who are the least likely to be heard for whatever reason or a selection of people who are the most easy to dismiss, so that was in my mind as well.
Did you actually know you’d have a real location to film in during the writing?
I could only hope on that front, really. For a long time, it looked like we weren’t going to find anything like that, but it was exactly like I had imagined. It’s incredibly difficult to find these old buildings, [because they usually] are shut down and turned into apartments, but it just happened before we were going to shoot, we finally found this place that had been closed down by the National Health Service here [in England], and opened up for use, so we suddenly had the run of the building. That was just fantastic luck and it actually is an old time country hospital that is in East London where the story was set, so that was really interesting as well.
Was it exciting to figure out how to light it?
It was a massive challenge for the [cinematographer] Laura Bellingham, but one that she loved and rose to. We did a lot of camera tests and thought about it quite a lot. We certainly wanted the kind of darkness that feels impenetrable and thick and overwhelming with our character as the only light source with her little lamp, but we also wanted to find different types of darkness – darkness where you can perhaps see a little bit more when you’re looking to try and see if there’s anything else you’re missing in the image [where] you can see the edges of the frame a bit more and also to create little islands of light in the story in different areas because we thought it would be relentless. If it was that dark all the time, it would be quite hard on the brain to follow.
Even without the little lamp, you’ve got a ray of light in Rose. What was it like getting her onboard?
Nicely put, and that was pretty much it, actually. When I was watching a bunch of casting tapes, she just instantly leapt out within a couple of lines. She managed to project an enormous amount of empathy and I felt that I would just care about her quickly, which is so important because it’s a very intense timeframe. It happens all over one night and you have very little time to get onto Val’s side before everything starts to get complicated.
You also express the character’s arc through her clothes and other technical aspects – was Rose actually involved at all in that?
That part of it was a real joy because all the departments were really onboard with that. [Costume designer] Holly Smart and I had a fantastic time working out how to suck Val’s character more and more into the institution through her costume changes, which gradually become more and more the colors of the building and the [same] palette of the ghost. The same with the production design of Francesca Massariol, who used the colors of the wards to chime with the costumes and make Val feel like part of the institution to start with and stuck in it. Rose was extremely collaborative and did a lot of research and we worked out all the possession scene, which is a big part of the challenge of that role, together. She choreographed it with me and learned it like a dance really, so when she came to set she was really just able to perform it herself and she also did quite a few of her own stunts, so she really went for it.
You’re quite judicious in your use of sound as well. What was it like to figure out?
Yeah, I don’t really like it when scores are consistently present all the way through because for me it loses its impact, so it’s scored in a specific way. With a film like this, silence is easily as important as the music and sound design, so it’s weaving together of those three in this. The composers Max de Wardener and Elizabeth Bernholz, aka Gazelle Twin, really, really went to town on their efforts. They actually created quite a lot of it from the building itself. They came to set and made a lot of field recordings and found old bits of equipment that made noises and used those as the foundation to create the sound work in the score, so that was fun as well.
It’s such a fun, audience film, but I understand this was a pandemic baby. Did you have to have your own barometer for what worked when you couldn’t have screenings?
We had no audience whatsoever. We were just about to get to the point where we had booked a test screening and had everything lined up and we still had a bit of the edit left to go and then the pandemic hit and everything shut down, so we didn’t get a test screening. We had to pause the edit for me to have COVID for a while and then the industry shut down, so we had to pause like everyone else and then slowly things came back together, so the post-production has been very staggered throughout the year of lockdown really.
It’s all the more impressive what you accomplished. From your director’s note, you alluded to feeling deprived of opportunities as a female director. After making the most of this one, what’s it like seeing it through?
It’s not that I can specifically say I’ve lost opportunities, but more a sense that there were a lot less opportunities. It was hard to make progress and now things feel like they’re shifting somewhat, so it’s just great and cathartic and be able to be on the road with it and just feel progress. It’s good.