Fantasia Fest: Chatting with Martyrs Lane creator Ruth Platt

Martyrs Lane - Courtesy of Sharp House/Fantasia
Martyrs Lane - Courtesy of Sharp House/Fantasia /

We were lucky enough to chat with British filmmaker Ruth Platt, the gifted talent behind films like The Lesson, The Black Forest, and now her third feature film, Martyrs Lane. Martyrs Lane premiered at Fantasia Fest 2021 and we talked to Ruth about how the film came to be and the process of casting such talented lead actors.

The story centers on a young girl named Leah (Kiera Thompson) who lives in a bustling vicarage where people are always coming and going. But during the night, when it’s quiet and no one is around, Leah is haunted by her mother’s cries and unspoken traumas. One evening, Leah meets a spectral child (Sienna Sayer) and strikes up a friendship with her. As their relationship deepens, the child starts giving her nightly tasks and Leah begins discovering dark forgotten things.

Chatting with Ruth Platt, the writer and director of Martyrs Lane

1428 Elm: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like Martyrs Lane was based on a short film.

Ruth Platt: So, what happened is that I developed the script and story with BFI, the British Film Institute because I’d done microbudget shorts before features. They wanted to see a proof of concept and see how the story would work visually with the children, to see how the children were going to work in this kind of genre.

They asked us to make the short. It was quite a challenge because you need to get two children who are the leads, who will support the feature. We were fortunate both times, but we learned a lot in the short about tonally how to pitch it with these two children in the leads, so it was quite the learning curve.

1428 Elm: I was going to say a movie like this one, you really have to have those strong child actors in the forefront. Were you involved with the casting process?

RP: Very much so. It’s weird because you hear Michael Haneke looked at some 5,000 kids for The White Ribbon, and there’s this Norwegian film The Innocents, at the moment where I think they cast a really long time, like two years or something.  We couldn’t see that many kids because we had budget constraints, but we saw as many as we could. We saw about 500 kids, I think. I watched every tape.

We tried to cast from nonactors to kids who may have done a little before. I worked with a fantastic casting director named Jessie Frost. Then it was about, once we saw the kids, who had something interesting? Or something of themselves that would really work?

We then had to put them into pairs because it was about the chemistry between these two, so we had lots of tests and then when we put [Sienna Sayer and Leah Thompson] together, the chemistry was palpable, which was funny because you could put them with someone else. It wouldn’t work, but together they had something.

martyrs lane
Martyrs Lane – Courtesy of Sharp House/Fantasia /

1428 Elm: They were great, both of them! What’s it like directing younger kids like that, especially on the set of a horror film?

RP: I love directing kids. What’s so great about directing kids is that they don’t come with baggage, and they don’t have any preconceived ideas of what acting is. They might come with the idea that they need to perform, but you can tell that in the casting process—the kids that need to perform and the kids that can lose that quite easily.

I think it’s interesting because we all are taught to suppress our feelings from an early age. At school, you go in, and you want to cry, and the adults are like, “don’t cry, be strong, be brave.” If we’re bored at school, we mustn’t look bored. To get kids who can show their feelings and feel their feelings and let them think those thoughts and take the pressure off them, then they get it.

Instead of giving them a big story arc, we just looked at one exchange or a few exchanges and keeping that very free and truthful between them and kept it quite small. They loved it.

1428 Elm: One thing I  really liked about this movie is it reminded me a little of The Haunting of Hill House and the quote “a ghost can be a lot of things.” I thought that fit the tone of Martyrs Lane since grief is this presence in the family. Where did that idea come from? Why did you choose to focus on this mother who has all this grief within her and how it affects her family?

RP: It’s not an autobiographical story, but there are autobiographical elements of my childhood in terms of the setting. I was born into, my siblings were much older, my parents were much older than the average parents, and I felt alone in this very busy household. Stuff was always happening, but I was always watching and not really part of what was happening. I think that affected my telling of this story.

And then ghosts, I always think, are a little like children; they want to be seen. They demand to be seen. Poltergeists are always associated with children and teenagers. They’re like that rebellion: I will be seen, and I will be heard. Ghosts are like that, and because I grew up in a vicarage, I always heard adult things like hauntings and exorcisms. They filtered into my childhood imagination, and I’ve always loved the literary tradition of ghost stories.

1428 Elm: Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever had an encounter?

RP: I have had encounters. I have no idea what they are. I’m generally an atheist. My parents were Christians, but I have a lot of affection for elements of the church. I don’t know what they are, but the supernatural is such an incredibly intoxicating idea for humanity, and I’m definitely open to whatever it is, quantum physics and whatever it is that creates these experiences. It’s something I’ve experienced things.

Martyrs Lane
Martyrs Lane – Courtesy of Sharp House/Fantasia /

1428 Elm: Switching gears a little, can we talk about the ending? It’s so ambiguous. I’m curious why you chose to go in that direction instead of a traditional sad or happy ending?

RP: I guess dealing with emotions and these difficult emotions like trauma and grief and all of these things, it’s like a butterfly that when you pin it down, it kind of loses its power. I wanted to keep it slightly still moving and slightly still held in a possibility. The most interesting films allow you to read into it what you want to read into it.

[The ending] can operate in a way that the viewer can bring in their own experiences, and that’s what I wanted. The Exorcist is one of my favorite films of all time, but it’s a very definitive ending. There are the stairs, the end. The first movie is so wonderful, but it’s a very dead end, and I wanted to create something a little more open phrasing.

1428 Elm: I love ambiguous endings. It usually makes me like the movie more overall because I think what we come up with in our heads is often better than seeing something concrete in front of us.

RP: It allows the viewer to experience that in a more personal way than me telling you something.

1428 Elm: You said you were an atheist but grew up in the church. Is that why you decided that the family would have such a religious connection since the church is such a big presence in Martyrs Lane?

RP: Maybe. I mean, it’s what I grew up in and what I know. Your childhood is so nostalgic, and things are very sharp from one’s memory. I do have a lot of affection for my parent’s ministry because it was a very practical ministry focused on helping people rather than praying.

If you have a house full of strangers and people that need help and you’ve got a child that’s lost in that and alone, and there’s stuff that she is picking up on and trying to make sense of—I thought that was an interesting contrast for the story.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.