You won’t see Niall Greig Fulton’s face in the trailer for The Turning, Canadian maverick Floria Sigismondi’s new Steven Spielberg produced contemporary reboot of Henry James’ gothic thriller, The Turning of the Screw. Sigismondi’s film goes on general release next week after receiving its world premiere at legendary movie emporium the TLC Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. Only then will Fulton will be revealed both onscreen and in person. Keen film and TV watchers will recognise Fulton already, however, whether from a few episodes of Outlander and an appearance in Terence Davies’ version of Sunset Song, to more culty stuff and low-budget horror flicks.
More recently Fulton appeared in David Mackenzie’s Scottish history romp, Outlaw King, and in Muscle, directed by Gerard Johnson. He makes a very special cameo as Satan in Good Omens, Douglas Mackinnon’s mini-series based on Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s apocalyptic comedy. Given that his CGI-constructed appearance is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Fulton’s presence again might not be immediately apparent.
Others might know Fulton from him presenting screenings of lovingly put together retrospectives of some of the world’s lesser known auteurs in his other role as senior programmer of Edinburgh International Film Festival. The likes of Shirley Clarke and Tom McGrath have both been given wider exposure care of Fulton. This year he will be curating The Big Score, a season of soundtrack-based works, with the focus on Ennio Morricone, BBC Radiophonic Workshop pioneer Delia Derbyshire and contemporary composer of Jonathan Glazer’s film version of Michel Faber’s novel, Under the Skin, Mica Levi. There will also be a programme of films with jazz-based soundtracks.
Jazz features again in Planet Wave, the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s three-date revival of saxophonist Tommy Smith’s collaboration with poet, the late Edwin Morgan. With Fulton appearing in the flesh as narrator, Morgan and Smith’s combination of music, verse and theatre takes an epic voyage through time, from 20 billion years B.C. to the dawn of creation and beyond.
As he swoops into the Filmhouse bar in Edinburgh, it’s not hard to see why Fulton was cast in The Turning. Black-clad from head to toe, hair sweeping and casually bearded, he resembles an arcane and dangerously hip raven in human form. Such presence is ideal for Peter Quint, a part that sounds like the embodiment of toxic masculinity at its brutal worst
in James’ already chilling story.
“He’s a very, very dark character to inhabit,” Fulton says of Quint, a character previously played by Marlon Brando in Michael Winner’s prequel to James’ story, The Nightcomers. The other one Fulton mentions is Peter Wyngarde, the groovy star of Jason King who played Quint in Jack Clayton’s 1961 version, released as The Innocents. “I think we’ve created a new Peter Quint, which is fitting, because Floria really has remixed the original into something that’s saying a lot of things that are pertinent today.”
Fulton talks in a measured and gentle voice, contemplating every word as his face frequently lights up with the sense of wonder he clearly feels at his lot. He punctuates sentences with words like ‘extraordinary’ and astonishing’, and his generosity to his many cast-mates, who include child stars Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things and Brooklyyn Prince who appear alongside Terminator and Black Mirror star Mackenzie Davis, sounds positively paternal. When he speaks of Sigismondi, it is with the breathy, wide-eyed ardour of a fan-boy who takes his calling seriously, devoted to his craft.
Peter Quint, he says, “is probably the darkest thing I’ve attempted to do, and the chance to work with an artist such as Floria Sigismondi is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s incredible. Floria is, I think an absolutely extraordinary visual technician. Extraordinary. But she is also a very deep director in terms of the journey that her actors are going on. She’ll sit and talk to you for a long time about how you feel about the character, your ideas about the character, her ideas about the character, and that was just a joy. It was fantastic.”
Sigismondi has an almost thirty-year pedigree as fashion photographer, music video director of songs by Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Sigur Ros, Rihanna and more, as well as director of her first feature, The Runaways, a biopic of Joan Jett’s all-girl band, and episodes of Daredevil, The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods. Given Sigismondi’s background in music video, it should come as no surprise that the film’s soundtrack is already making waves. A lead-off single by Courtney Love, Mother, is trailing an album that also features contributions from Kim Gordon and Warpaint.
The Turning was shot in Kilruddy House in County Wicklow, Ireland over several months. Fulton describes the place as “breathtaking. And once Floria had kind of imposed her vision on it in terms of the art department and the way it was dressed, it was quite a feeling to walk into that set. And the more dark life we all poured into it as we started to film it, the energy in the place grew, and I can’t imagine a better haunted house.”
Fulton was born in Glasgow, just off Byres Road, but moved to Edinburgh with his family when he was still a baby. At high school, he dabbled in music and art, knowing he wanted to be creative, but not sure how. He ended up at the Stockbridge-based Theatre Workshop when the now closed community-based venue was run by Adrian Harris. Fulton became part of the company, appearing in shows and became “a kind of drama teacher, at the same time learning from experts in their field.”
It was a time that shaped his artistic outlook.
“It was hands on theatre. There was an element there to it that was about the actual community with that venue, and it was about real people coming in and experiencing drama. I often look back at that and think to myself that that was one of the most valuable times ever for me, because it was seriously about taking people by the hand into a world of imagination.”
Fulton was approached by film director Morag McKinnon, who cast him in her 1995 feature film, 3. Since then, “It’s been a long and fascinating journey. I’ve had some wonderful good fortune along the way.”
A game changer came when he played Scottish Beat novelist Alexander Trocchi onstage in a one-man theatre show.
“It is a role and an experience I’ll never ever forget,” says Fulton. “To have been playing somebody who was real and very well-known in certain circles, and incredibly distinct in every way, from his intellect to his physicality, what an amazing challenge.”
Fulton met Tom McGrath, the poet, playwright and contemporary of Trocchi in ‘60s London. Later, in a booth in the Traverse Theatre bar across the street, Fulton gestures to the corner. It was here, he says, where he sang in public for the first time with a version of Al Wilson’s northern soul classic, The Snake. It wasn’t the devil that made him do it, but McGrath, who backed him up on piano.
“To have Tom by my side as somebody who’d known Trocchi, and who’d also known the Beat scene in this country so well, was just so magical and special. He had me listening to specific Ravi Shankar albums, and would assign me specific books to read, like Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. That experience changed my life”
The Turning might do something similar. In the meantime, after L.A., Fulton flies straight out to Sundance Film Festival to seek out cinematic gold for Edinburgh. Beyond that, he isn’t sure. What happens with The Turning remains a mystery, though whatever doors it opens for Fulton, one suspects there’ll be a darkness beyond.
“There are some heights of emotion reached in The Turning at points,” he says, “and it’s very interesting to see younger actors being introduced into a slightly darker environment than perhaps the other things they’ve played, but they were all just amazing.”
Fulton sighs, contemplating the magnitude of it all as he praises his cast-mates in a way that others might soon be praising him.
“You have to be good to be able to do that and ring true,” he says.
The Turning is released on January 24. Countdown to The Big Score begins at Filmhouse, Edinburgh on January 31. Planet Wave, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, February 21; City Halls, Glasgow, February 22; The Sanctuary, Queen’s Cross Church, Aberdeen, February 23. The Big Score runs as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2020, June 17-28. www.theturningmovie.com
The Herald, January 18th 2020