Director David Farr on adapting The Night Manager and making a film about every parent’s nightmare

Writer/Director David Farr

Writer/Director David Farr - Credit: Archant

Ghosts and ghouls might scare us, but for any parent, true terror is the idea of any harm coming to their child.

Theresa (Laura Birn)

Theresa (Laura Birn) - Credit: Archant

It is this primal fear that writer/director David Farr has drawn upon in his directorial debut, The Ones Below, a psychological thriller about the entwining lives of two couples expecting their first babies, which premiered at the London Film Festival last year ahead of its wider UK release.

And as a father of two teenage children, Farr is all too familiar with the particular worries that only come with the birth of a child.

“The nightmare is clearer to you as a real thing, because the child is so helpless and never have you experienced something so helpless and so valuable,” the 46-year-old says. “No wonder then that some suspense or horror comes out of this environment.

“It’s an unusual moment when primal fears are at play.”

Kate (Clemence Poesy)

Kate (Clemence Poesy) - Credit: Archant

He adds: “I think we all go to movies and read stories to experience terrors that hopefully we will never have to experience, and this would be one of those, where we go through the ordeal in a safe place.”

Unfortunately for the doomed couples who live together in the same converted house in Islington in The Ones Below, many of those fears are realised.

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Initially, it is a fine-brush portrait of the domestic, and generally contented, lives of two middle-class couples: Clémence Poésy and Stephen Campbell-Moore as Kate and Justin, living upstairs; and Laura Birn and David Morrissey playing Theresa and Jon, living below.

But a tragic accident sparks a dramatic shift in the film’s tone and sets off a chain of Polanski-esque psychologically-disturbing events.

The idea came to Farr after his friend’s baby became seriously ill.

“We were talking about how terrifying it was to be in London, in an affluent family, and suddenly this terrible thing happens which no-one else can really understand.

“Suddenly you’re in a position of pure primal fear in the middle of very civilised north London, and we talked about how isolating it was. “It really struck a chord with me, as I have two kids as well, with those early days of feeling very vulnerable. It’s magical, but very vulnerable.”

At the film’s centre is the relationship between two women, one living upstairs and one below, and how that friendship changes as the plot unfolds.

“There’s a creeping unease all the way through,” Farr explains. “But it’s purely psychological, because when the two women meet they get on.”

He adds: “It’s a fairytale. The princess in the tower sees another princess in the garden and goes out to play with her, and then the other princess doesn’t turn out to be everything she seems.”

Farr’s love of writing strong, female characters is also apparent in his six-part adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Night Manager, in which as writer he has changed the sex of Olivia Coleman’s character Angela, who was Leonard in the book.

“Everyone knows that recruitment policy of intelligence services has diversified hugely,” Farr says. “It was also to give an actress of Olivia’s quality an interesting messy compicated role.

“I do like writing women and that’s obvious from the film, and I like writing women who aren’t just an extension of a man.”

It was not only the only change from the book that Farr made.

He has also transported the plot from the 1990s to the 2011 Arab Spring, on the approval of Le Carré, who has a home in Hampstead.

“He loved that. He found that very exciting. And after that, it was a very fruitful collaboration,” Farr says.

The Arab Spring backdrop could not be further from the comfortable north London affluence that the The Ones Below is set against.

Farr said the choice of setting was entirely personal – he spent 10 years between 1993 and 2003 hopping from north London neighbourhood to north London neighbourhood, including Highgate and Kentish Town.

One of his children was born at the Whittington Hospital in Archway.

“They’re a quietly very fashionable couple, the upstairs couple, they do belong in north London,” Farr says. “They’re a liberal kind of couple who would go and see this film, and they are decent, they have quiet sense of style.”

The film is Farr’s first as a writer/director, though he was a screenwriter on 2011’s Hanna. His background is in theatre.

He grew up in Guildford to a German-Jewish mother, and fell into a theatre-directing career after university. In the last 10 years, he has served as artistic director of Hammersmith’s Lyric Theatre and associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. But now, aside from a few pet theatre projects, he says he will be focusing entirely on film and television.

His next film, HHhH, is already in post-production, and in the autumn it was announced that he is to be the writer for an upcoming £20million BBC drama about the Trojan war.

“I am more of a film lover, I always have been,” Farr explains. “I’m not like some other theatre directors who have come over to film and made slightly more theatrical films.

“There’s nothing wrong with those, they’re great, but my great love is existential French movies with very little dialogue.”

His minimalist approach is evident in The Ones Below, which mostly takes place in and around one house. He says: “I don’t think I’ll ever do bombast. I hope not. I suspect I’ll never be a sweeping Revenant style director.”

Adding that he takes influence from Alfred Hitchcock, he continues: “The risk was that it might appear theatrical but we negotiated around that.

“The house is a huge character in the film and it becomes her enemy, though it starts off very much as her friend.

“For that reason, the house was very carefully chosen.”

He took the same approach in casting all his actors, particularly the two female leads.

But Farr says it was also a “huge relief” to cast Highgate actor David Morrissey as Jon – the banker husband who moves into the downstairs flat with heavily-pregnant wife, Theresa, which sets the film’s events in motion.

“Jon is not the biggest part but he is so important,” Farr explains. “He’s like the bedrock of menace that the film needs.

“When I met him about the part, he just got it and said: ‘He really loves her, doesn’t he?’

“Perhaps a sleight of hand of the film is to suggest that he’s completely in charge of that relationship at the beginning, and that she’s slightly terrified of him in almost an abusive way, and then I think you realise as it goes on that nothing could be further from the truth. Her terror is entirely her own terror. He adores her but she’s terrified of letting him down, but really it’s her own fears that drive her to do what she does.”

The Ones Below is released tomorrow (Friday).