Director Interview: Russell Owen

Hugh has a chat with director Russell Owen about his upcoming folk horror Shepherd

Russell, what can you tell us about Shepherd?

I wrote it in 2004 and it was one of my first ever screenplays. I’ve written tons of stuff since, I’m always trying to get things off the ground. I ended up doing other peoples’ projects or other low budget things, then I fell into doing commercials and what not. But the script would keep coming off the shelf and being looked at, hoping to get it developed.

It’s based on a story that I grew up with in Wales, the Smalls Lighthouse, which is exactly the same story that they used in the film The Lighthouse. I had no idea that anyone in America would know that story, and I was making this film at exactly the same time! And I had cast Kate Dickie too, who was in The Witch which was Eggers’ last film.

But I finally got someone to produce it in 2019. The only real similarity it has now to the Smalls Lighthouse story is the idea of isolation. Obviously, that’s a true story about two lighthouse keepers who went mad and the only remnant of that in Shepherd is the lighthouse itself, which we had to build partially to scale on the Isle of Mull and the rest was a superimposed model.

We had to build everything from scratch on the island, and we ended up scrapping one of the characters, so you are just left with his one central character for the duration of the film.

Growing up in Wales, I remember being fascinated by these jobs you would see in the paper looking for people to work in a remote island as a shepherd, which is like my worst nightmare where you are just trapped alone with your thoughts! (laughs).

So, I used that scenario for the start of the horror story. It’s about this guy who loses his wife and comes to a bit of a crossroads where he is considering taking his own life. Then he sees this job advertised being a shepherd where he has to go off and look after several hundred sheep on a remote island on the west coast. So, he takes the job but then isn’t sure of what is real and what is in his head when he gets there. It’s a surreal experience. And there are paranormal activities going on around him that mess with him. His wife’s body went missing and was never found, so he becomes convinced that she might still be alive and on this island somewhere.

Scenic still of Shepherd with a cabin by the hillside.

You filmed on the Isle of Mull? What was that like?

Yeah, originally we were going to shoot in Wales. Pinewood Studios have a little place in Wales that we were going to use, but then His Dark Materials arrived and gazumped us and took over everything. So we kept moving further up the coast looking for space to film and build sets, and eventually we got to Scotland. If I’m honest I knew that’s where we were going to end up anyway.

It was quite expensive to film on an island, but once we got to the Isle of Mull, which was the last place on the list, we got around to the far side of the island and I saw this patch of land that was just stunning. It was fantastic, but it was hard work for the cast and crew to get around to this part of the island every day.

 

Yeah, some of the stills I have seen from the film are absolutely gorgeous. I can only imagine the issues getting to and from the island in winter.

Yeah it was really tough.

Half the time I thought they were going to pull the plug on the project because we had gone over our contingency budget. Things on an island are two or three times more expensive than they are elsewhere, and you’ve got storms and stuff to worry about. We were fortunate enough to stay on schedule, but then you also consider the costs of building all of the sets on location which just adds to the cost of the film.

But the payoff at the end was worth it. We pulled though, just by the skin of our teeth. And while we could have used a bit more on the budget just so things weren’t quite as difficult, the finished film really does look beautiful and I’m really pleased at that.

We were mostly very lucky with the weather, but there were certain times where you were stranded on the mainland as the ferry’s were off. So yeah, it was challenging definitely but its difficult to imagine it any other way given the final film we got.

 

In terms of putting the film together, how has COVID affected things?

We had shot most before Covid, but we had a few scenes left to finish. So, we ended up using second unit to cover it, and we had worked with the BBC a lot so that had helped us in terms of using PPE and masks and certain practices, so we were in a position to do some of the bigger scenes we didn’t have time to do. There was a big underwater scene with the actors that we shot in a tank that we were able to do, so it was a relief to get it done.

The post-production has been really slow due to Covid. Everything is being done remotely, so you can’t sit in with people while doing certain tasks, so you need to feedback work after it has come in. Conversely, the good thing about it is that you have more time and breathing space to think on stuff and be more precise in the editing process. It’s a blessing and a curse.

It’s been slow (laughs).

BTS scene of an actor in the water tank

Serving on the film as both director and writer, did that really help to focus your vision and make the film exactly as you wanted it?

Yeah, I can’t do projects where I’m told what I can and can’t do.

I got into filmmaking because I like telling stories three-dimensionally. I started off as a storyboard artist about ten years ago and I studied screenwriting. I learned filmmaking through working with other directors, and when it came to wanting to make films it’s the entire process I love.

It’s all a very collaborative process. A big part of putting a film together is finding the right people that you want to collaborate with so they can go off and do what you need them to do. I’ve been so lucky with this film, the crew are really, really talented. They overdelivered in every aspect.

Every aspect of the film has to tell the story; what is the frame telling you about the story? What is the sound telling you about the story? What is the choice of lens and movement of the camera telling you? And I need to be in charge of those choices.

On my previous film it wasn’t my script, half the cast weren’t my cast, and I struggled to find my voice in that film. It did really well for the producers, and that is essentially what got this greenlit.

 

How did you go about finding the cast for this film?

It was really tough.

We had an amazing casting director, Gemma Sykes, who put together this list with some amazing names. I wasn’t sure if we could really get some of them due to the low budget of the film, but the response to the script was great.

But then it was hard to line up dates, and there were a few who just didn’t want to shoot in Scotland in winter (laughs).

Understandable (laughs).

But I was really keen on that. The light in Scotland in winter is so different, and while spring is very nice, it didn’t tell the story I wanted to tell.

Tom Hughes was always at the top of Gemma’s list, and I hadn’t seen him in anything I could relate back to our main character. So, she gave me a couple of episodes of a BBC show called Paula that he was in, and you could see how he holds the screen and how much the camera loves him. And I needed someone who could hold the screen like that, as he is in pretty much every frame of the film from beginning to end. It’s largely him and a dog on an island, and then the dog goes missing so he doesn’t even have that to react to. You need someone who can tell a story using body language, and in Paula you can really see him do that.

In the read through he didn’t really give much away, but the minute we started rolling he absolutely had absorbed everything in the script and everything I had told him.

The character Kate Dickie plays was originally meant to be a man. We had a lot of great actors for that role, but the problem I had with it was that as the main antagonist of the film, the main problem with it was all I could see was Captain Birdseye, and we didn’t know how to get around it.

It was Gemma who suggested making the character a woman, and Kate Dickie was the top of that list. When she said yes it was amazing.

And then Greta Scacchi, I had no idea that she would be interested in doing this, but it’s just the sort of roles that she is going for at the moment. She’s barely recognisable under all this makeup and a wig and stuff, and she gives this really remarkable performance where she had been developing this odd accent. She really lost herself in the role.

And Gaia Weiss I didn’t think we would be able to get just because she is so busy right now, she has a big Netflix series starting up and her star is really rising. It was so funny that she just rocked up in Scotland as was like ‘Yep, 100% I’ll do it!’ (laughs).

I was really lucky with the cast, and it goes to show that there is an art to casting. You can cast a great actor but if they are in the wrong role it really sticks out. It’s a big thanks to Gemma that we got the right people for the film.

Still of Kate Dickie in Shepherd.

I’m a big fan of Kate Dickie. You mentioned The Witch earlier, she just seems to radiate this otherworldliness in any role that she’s cast in.

Yeah, she is terrific.

 

As a filmmaker during a pandemic, did you find that all your attention was focussed on Shepherd or were there multiple things that you focussed on?

Alarm bells went off a bit when the producers told me the film had to go on hold, because I’m one of those people who can’t have it on hold. I need to get one thing done in order to move on to the next, I can’t just leave one thing and move on and come back to it later.

I have a small agency with my business partner. We do commercials and work with the BBC and some big brands, so that’s kept us going. But the last six moths or so my focus has been solely on this. And I mean seven days a week, waking up in the middle of the night because I’ve realised I need to shave one frame off of a scene so that it flows better (laughs). There is so much to do on a feature, especially in a time like this when you don’t have the team around you.

It’s been difficult, more so due to the pandemic. That said, technology has moved on so much in the last ten years that you can actually see the guys working on the VFX and CGI in real time rather than just receive a finished product, same with the sound guys.

With cinema’s not being open, it’s horrible for a filmmaker. I think Netflix and Amazon are wonderful and have pumped so much into an industry that had been very insular, presenting opportunities for filmmakers to create films that otherwise wouldn’t get distribution in cinemas as they might not sell well.

I watched The Dig and News of the World recently, they might not have been green lit in the past. Like The Dig people would say ‘oh it’s just a TV drama’ so it wouldn’t get the level of cast Netflix are able to bring.

But I do really miss seeing things with an audience on a big screen. Shepherd is a very cinematic film, and we are having positive talks at the moment about it opening on lots and lots of screens when things return to some level or normality. We would be looking to that for later in the year.

 

Are you delaying the release of the film until later in the year?

It should finish next month and then we will start submissions for a festival run, to build an audience up before it’s released. It’s sad to see so many festivals having to move online, and they have done a fantastic job with that, but its just not the same experience.

Building an audience for a film like this is important, as it is an original piece that isn’t based on a novel or an existing property or franchise. My last film did relatively well, better than I thought it would do, and it got a large cinema release in South America and Asia. I think it got a theatrical release in the US but not the UK. But there was no marketing for that film as such, but it was a zombie film which kind of brings an audience.

I’m not great with zombies, mostly because they don’t really frighten me, but there is a huge zombie audience out there.

It’s the same with this sort of film, the psychological horror as a genre has an enormous fanbase. But it’s still important to build an audience, even without Covid we would be looking to screen it for as many audiences we can over six months before it hits cinema. Hopefully by the time we’ve done that, people will be getting back to the cinema.

Still of Tom Hughes in Shepherd.

Fingers crossed! You mentioned that zombie films don’t really scare you or work for you. What type of film does?

I’m very much a psychological horror fan, with actors who can get under my skin with their performances and directors like Ari Aster and Jordan Peele are doing really different and original things at the minute. Robert Eggers too, producing just really well written films. Like with The Witch, the language alone creates this really weird atmosphere that gets under your skin, its so unusual and out of place.

Zombies, slashers and jump scares don’t really do it for me, and nine times out of ten I can tell when the jump scare is coming. I’m more of a paranormal / psychological guy when it comes to horror.

 

I agree with you regarding jump scares; there is absolutely a place for that in cinema, and when done right are a lot of fun. But the movies that linger tend to be the ones that slowly unfold, and the horror grows and grows.

Yeah, and Shepherd certainly has a few.

I’ve had to leave the sound to someone else, so I am in doing the edit and working on a creepy scene and the sounds they have put in have started to make me jump! (laughs). Even though I know it quite well, the added sound really caught me out.

I quite like that because it wasn’t my intention, but they kind of happen naturally as the guys have created a lot of tension throughout the film.

 

There’s my headline: Director Terrorised By Own Movie

(laughs) Yeah there it is.

I live alone here, and when I was watching it the other night I kept looking behind me (laughs). An odd experience for sure.

 

Russel, thank you so much for your time, hopefully we can catch up for a chat after the film is released.

Absolutely, thanks!

By Hugh McStay

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