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An Interview with Writer-Director Andrew Cull on In the Dark and the Enduring Mystery of Louise Paxton

August 24, 2018

Some time ago, I wrote a review of the internet horror series In the Dark. The story concerns Louise Paxton, a young woman who moves from her hometown of Norwich to a dream home in London. At first everything seems to be going well, with Louise enjoying her newly found freedom and life in the big city. But then, sinister things start to happen. Louise suspects she’s being watched or worse: an intruder may be periodically entering the apartment.

Is Louise paranoid, or is she genuinely being stalked, or is there even something paranormal at work? There are thirty-eight videos in the series, ranging from just a few seconds to around eight minutes in length. You can access them all on this YouTube page. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and watch them in order for the full immersive experience. The vérité horror style of In the Dark was quite different from my usual tastes in crime fiction, but I was floored by the series and felt compelled to write a review. Shortly thereafter, I wrote another piece unveiling Louise Paxton as the actress Zoe Richards. In the Dark was originally presented as a found-footage style elaborate hoax, and many internet viewers believed Louise Paxton was a real person. This may seem difficult to accept, but when you watch the drama, especially the disturbing ending, you’ll understand the fervent grip it had on viewers’ imaginations when the story first unfolded.

Over the years, interest in the Louise Paxton mystery has endured, and the original reviews I wrote of the drama have generated massive web traffic for this blog in locales as far flung as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Russia, Mexico among others. I’m periodically contacted by people who, in all sincerity, are concerned about Louise Paxton and want more information on her. This only made me more intrigued by the drama’s enduring appeal more than ten years after it debuted on YouTube.

I decided to contact the writer and director of In the Dark, Andrew Cull, and was delighted when he agreed to be interviewed by me. Since In the Dark, Andrew has gone on to success as the director of the feature film The Possession of David O’Reillyand is the author of the recent short story collection Bones. He now lives and works in Australia. The following interview was conducted by email:

Interviewer: Could you tell me the genesis of the idea for In the Dark? Were you inspired more by classic horror films or real-life cases in telling the story of Louise Paxton?

Cull: I’d been working in the UK film industry as a screenwriter for some time when I had the idea to create the Louise Paxton mystery. It was driven by two ideas really. At the time, it felt like horror movies had lost touch with character. Most of them seemed to be populated with unlikeable, 2D tropes, and I hated that. I wanted to create a horror story where you’d really come to care about the character at the heart of it. The second reason comes down to my love of found footage horror. At the time, YouTube wasn’t the powerhouse it is now. It was relatively new, but hugely exciting. I felt it’d be the perfect platform to tell an involving found footage horror story. I’d pitched the initial idea to a few producers, but no one was interested in getting behind it, and so I decided to push ahead and attempt the project myself.

I’ve been fascinated by ‘true horror’ from a young age. As a child I always had my head buried in a book. Those books were often about paranormal investigations. I was a huge fan of Maurice Grosse and his work. In the original outline for the Louise Paxton mystery there was going to be a paranormal investigator character based on Maurice Grosse. In the end, I decided against that as I wanted the horror to feel really personal. An experience shared almost solely between Louise and the viewer.

Andrew Cull

Writer-Director Andrew Cull. Photograph by Libby Double-King

Interviewer: In the early videos, a significant amount of time is set aside to show Louise settling into her new London home. Did these vérité sequences worry you, if there was a risk the audience might drift away unless they felt a constant threat level?

Cull: I knew from the beginning, that if the audience were going to connect with Louise they’d have to spend time with her, get to know her and, hopefully, to like her. It was a bit of a risk, but Louise is a very likeable character and I think those sequences really helped to draw our viewers into the film. In feature films you don’t get long to introduce and get to know your central characters. There are all sorts of contrived tricks to get you to like someone in a movie, but I wanted the experience with Louise to feel more organic. Like a real relationship.

I think, because of the way we set up Louise and her situation, some people were genuinely surprised when the horror began. That was wonderful! In just that, they’d had an experience you simply can’t get from watching a movie. Shooting a film for YouTube allowed us to be unpredictable in ways traditional cinema can’t be.

Interviewer: Zoe Richards gives an extraordinary performance as Louise. In terms of directing her, and the rest of the cast, was it a case of following the script exactly or did you allow room for improvisation?

Cull: For me, the highlight of directing any project is working with the actors. I loved that in the theatre, and I love it in filmmaking. In The Possession of David O’Reilly, my favourite scenes aren’t the monster sequences, they’re ones with David and Alex in the kitchen talking. I firmly believe, that for good horror you don’t need a huge budget and special effects, you need a great story with great actors giving engaging and realistic performances.

The script for the Louise Paxton mystery consisted of a series of episode outlines that I wrote and we fleshed out on set. It was important to me that whoever was playing Louise didn’t get too tied up with remembering a script word for word. That would take away from the realism of the performance. We’d talk everything through, make sure we covered the points that were most important to the scene, and then rehearse and do as many takes as we needed to get everything in. When we were ready to shoot I’d often find myself hiding somewhere in the house, staying out of the path of Zoe’s scene, listening to Zoe’s performance and making any notes for further takes.

Interviewer: Louise’s backstory with Joel is intriguing. Was this inspired at all by the Slasher genre where the romantic or sexually active couple tend to be punished, whereas chaste characters survive or live longer?

Cull: I wanted Louise to have lots of friends back in Norwich. For two reasons. It made for a more rounded and believable character. It also allowed us to have other characters interacting with her online via comments and remarks that she’d reference in the videos. I played almost all those characters online; commenting, posting reply edits of videos. With regards to Joel, he was something of a red herring.

Interviewer: As it is not a traditional film or TV show did you find In the Dark a difficult production to mount? Was there a fear that the central hoax could unravel at any time?

Cull: We originally shot the core story in a week, with a plan to play the videos over two weeks. Audience interaction would come from commenting and Louise (me) responding to the comments. Well, about a week into uploading the videos I realised that the production could, and should, run for a longer period of time. The initial interaction from viewers was slow but really exciting. If we increased the number of videos, and stretched out the time the project ran for, we could really create an experience for viewers that they wouldn’t be able to have anywhere else. In the end, the whole thing ran for over three months, and became a much bigger production than I’d originally planned. We shot a lot more reaction material based directly on what viewers had posted. I’d write comments (as Louise) to lead people into discussions, but the user interactions we got definitely helped to shape the extra videos we shot along the way.

As for the hoax unravelling, I thought the whole thing could blow up at any minute! There were definitely times when I thought we’d gone too far. The turning key, or the muddy handprints for example. But, viewers stuck with it. It even seemed that the further we went the more invested some viewers became. I controlled the comments posted on the videos, so we didn’t have too many people crying foul, but I was genuinely surprised with how far people were prepared to follow us.

Interviewer: The final video is quite chilling. Have you ever felt tempted to continue the story from there? There’s a lot of people out there who want to know what happened to Louise!

Cull: Of course! I’ve thought about it on numerous occasions. I don’t think I’d ever directly pick up Louise’s story, but I’m certainly interested in taking the idea in a different direction or creating an offshoot project. It’d be particularly interesting now. YouTube, and streaming, has changed so much since we created Louise Paxton and her story.

Interviewer: The legacy of In the Dark is difficult to quantify. It seems a direct influence on Marble Hornets and also the concept of streaming stories. What do you think is the legacy of the work, and how did it affect your career?

Cull: If I hadn’t gotten fed up with pitching ideas, and decided to do it myself and create Louise Paxton, it’s unlikely I’d have had the chance to direct The Possession of David O’Reilly (UK title: The Torment). In some ways In The Dark was a proof of concept project. I wrote and directed it to prove that I could direct and that my ideas worked. It worked, and I’m very grateful for that.

We were the first YouTube streaming horror series. I think we’ve likely influenced others that have followed. That’s a really wonderful legacy for the project. I’d always hoped that people would talk about In the Dark. That it’d become an urban legend. I think, to an extent, it has.

I still get emails about Louise. Asking if she’s okay, did she really disappear? I’ve always felt a twinge of guilt when I get messages like that, but it means that people are still experiencing the story the way we’d hoped they would ten years after we originally made it. I couldn’t ask for more than that.

It’s been a pleasure to talk about In the Dark with you. Thank you, Steven.

Louise (4)

Zoe Richards as Louise Paxton

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