Breakout British horror movie Shepherd makes for a striking directorial debut from Russell Owen. We caught up with him to discuss his love of folkloric legend and how he translated this onto the big screen…
Horror movie Shepherd is being praised for its spooky Gothic atmosphere and brooding levels of portent. The movie recently played at the 2021 BFI London Film Festival where it was warmly received as a decidedly old-fashioned horror experience, one that forgoes gore in favour of atmosphere and disquieting suggestion.
British actor Tom Hughes plays the eponymous shepherd Eric Black who is seeking solitude on a remote, wind-battered island. Deposited by Kate Dickie’s sinister pilot Fisher, Eric finds himself preoccupied with the spectre of the nearby lighthouse. Even more significant is the reason for his self-imposed isolation: he is running from a recent tragedy that has marred his life, and the movie does an effective job at swing-balling our sympathies as to the lead character’s state of mind.
The film marks the directorial debut of talented young filmmaker Russell Owen who brings a deep love of folklore and ghostly legend to the project. Owen favours a washed-out colour palette and all manner of arcane, creepy imagery, beginning with the interior of the dilapidated cottage in which Eric finds himself.
We sat down with Russell to talk over the making of the movie and how the power of the sea is embedded in its very fabric.
To get a debut feature film out there in the ether, and playing at the London Film Festival no less, is an incredible achievement. How does that make you feel?
Yeah, particularly with it being a British film. I couldn’t imagine a better launchpad. And to have the premiere at the Curzon Soho, a cinema that’s very close to my heart, was also incredible. I had done a zombie film before, on which I replaced another director at the last minute. I said, I’ll do it for free if you’ll help me make Shepherd next. And they were true to their word and they did! Shepherd is the first thing I’ve directed that I’ve written myself, but I wrote it 16 years ago. To be able to take it off the shelf and rework it is a massive privilege. To be at the BFI London Film Festival was a big deal for me.
I’m a huge fan of ghost stories from the likes of M.R. James and Walter de la Mare. I’m always fascinated to see those principles translated onto the big screen. Were there any touchstones or influences, either literary or cinematic, that went into the making of this film?
Yeah. More than film, it was ghost stories. I’ve always been a fan of ghost stories. When someone tells a ghost story, one’s imagination runs wild. I love horror films. Something like The Shining, which is more psychological than jumpy. I set the movie in something that had a slightly heightened reality to it. There are Hammer horror nods here and there. The film is, for me, about a guy who is, through paranoia and depression, spiralling into madness. The best way to illustrate that is to put the character in a horror film. That’s where those two things collide.
Have you got a particular favourite story from the genre?
Oddly enough, when we filming we were working with Kate Dickie who starred in Robert Eggers’ first film, The Witch. I had told her that I was going to make a film called Shepherd about the Smalls Lighthouse tragedy in Wales. Two guys go mad in a lighthouse, one goes crazy and they can’t be reached because of a storm. Shepherd had its origins in that story, the isolation and the island, although I removed one person and replaced them with a dog and sheep. The lighthouse remained but it had a different role.
I then heard that Robert Eggers was essentially making that story! He did a very literal adaptation of that story, and mine was about those apparently ideal jobs in the paper. ‘One person on an island required to look after sheep – get away from it all.’ I never thought those sounded like ideal jobs; they sounded like horror films in the making. That’s why it starts with the advert he sees in the paper under his cup of tea. That original lighthouse story resonated a lot with me. Isolation is something that I find particularly creepy. Ironically, we then finished shooting and went into lockdown. It was pure coincidence.
When you’re making a film like this, is it a challenge playing on the front foot with the scares and the imagery? How do you decide how much you want to show the audience?
Very often you don’t need a monologue as all the information can be conveyed with a simple look. But you don’t necessarily know what the actor’s going to give you. You want to make sure they’ve got the freedom to work in the space and tell the story that they understand it to be. There was a lot of dialogue and exposition in there originally, but I was able to cut it all out. Removing things from a film makes it creepier because you’re removing information, and that’s what people need to feel secure and grounded. If you can set the tone and the atmosphere right, then the creepier it is.
It must place huge demands on Tom Hughes, your lead actor if you remove the verbal tools on which he relies? How did you work with him to coax out that performance?
When we were casting, Gemma Sykes, our casting director, put exactly the right potion together, the right mix of actors. She pulled a blinder with Tom because I had no idea who would have that capability. Tom also doesn’t give much away until you start rolling the camera. He would do a read-through but no rehearsal, necessarily. All I could do is tell him what I wanted and give him as much information as I could.
With all the pre-production and post-production, that’s reliant on me as a storyteller. But between “action” and “cut”, it’s all Tom. I’ve established everything he needs to work with and he then becomes the storyteller. He is in almost every frame of the film. He’s not just the lead; he is the film. It was a huge responsibility, but from day one, he nailed it. He kept turning round to me after one or two takes and asking if I surely didn’t want another. I kept telling him, “That’s it.” He really got it, and he’s really easy to work with.
There’s a lovely emphasis on folklore and mythology related to water. You’ve also got the central emblem of the lighthouse. Did you find the idea of a coastal landscape appealing when telling this story?
I grew up in Llandudno in north Wales, which is a little peninsula. I grew up surrounded by sea and sheep. That’s definitely in my blood so that was naturally going to come out on the screen. When you spend years walking the dog on the beach, you start developing stories. I’ll see a standing stone and that’ll trigger something off or I’ll see a shipwreck or something like that. I’ll start telling myself stories and imagining little scenarios. All those are trigger points to build scenes, and then you throw them all together into one story.
There is something elemental and mystical about the ocean. The location of your film is very striking. Where did you film it?
It was the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. A few hours drive north to Glasgow, then you get to Oban and then you get a ferry over. It’s quite an isolated part of the island, too. It was a huge challenge to get crew and camera trucks over there. But the landscape is amazing, very Scottish. The further west you go, the more Icelandic it becomes. Some of it’s almost like a moonscape. It holds a whole story in itself.
When I went on my first recce, it was covered in snow. Incredible but it was like the planet Hoth. The next day, everything had melted. And the waterfalls are insane. It’s like being on another planet. I’d gone from south Wales to north Wales and then up to the Lake District, and then through most of the west coast of Scotland. I drove all the way around Mull anti-clockwise and then just turned the corner to see the Benmore Estate from the opposite side of the loch. I thought it was the mainland. It was the most complicated place to film, but the Benmore Estate hasn’t actually been on film that much. People usually go to Skye or Glencoe or Fort William. It was a privilege to film on the Isle of Mull.
Was the cottage a real building on the island or did you have that constructed?
The cottage is something I’d had in my head for years, along with the lighthouse. I presented some images to our production designer, Chris Richmond. He’s amazing and before I knew it, it had been built on location. It was a challenge because it’s one of the windiest parts of Europe. They built on a massive scaffolding and then embedded it into the landscape. You can tell there’s something slightly off about it; think if we’d had a normal house, it would have told a slightly different story. The lighthouse was a model. We built the lighthouse door but the rest of it was a seven-foot model.
In addition to the technical aspects, you’ve got a story that zeroes in on the ambiguous nature of Tom Hughes’ character. Is it a challenge to ask an audience to invest in a character whose allegiances remain uncertain?
Yeah, it can go either way. You have to pace out the information you give like breadcrumbs. It’s a challenge but it’s also the fun of telling a story like this. You don’t want to tell too much or too little. Information will be contained in the performance, and it’s also a question of judging what goes in the flashback scenes. That decision-making process is the fun part for me.
The conception of the central phantom is interesting. Was there a stylistic touchpoint for that?
That was a reference to drowning. I wanted it to look like she was underwater. Originally, there was a bigger backstory, which I took out because I didn’t want to give too much information away. In all the old journals, there were all sorts of ghosts listed as haunting the island. One of them was a shipwrecker, which Eric locked onto.
Hundreds of years ago, shipwreckers would turn the lighthouse off and draw ships into the rocks via the use of a lamp. Once the ship crashed on the rocks, they would pillage the wreck. The imagery of the shipwrecker came from that. It was an amazing costume from Georgiana, our designer. Later on, we decided the shipwrecker should reveal something about Eric. And that story shifted several times before we settled on the ending that we used.
Now that your film is out there, I wanted to ask if you think we’re currently in a purple patch for horror movies?
Yeah, people have become much more open-minded as to different forms of horror. I follow horror groups out of pure interest. Some prefer a traditional slasher, others prefer movies like this one. I keep seeing Ari Aster films popping up and inspiring huge debates. For me, he’s an absolute master. The same with Robert Eggers. They’re changing the genre. They’re giving filmmakers like me an opportunity by carving a new path.
If someone had made an Inception-type movie before Christopher Nolan did it, people would be like, ‘I don’t get it.’ But he opened a debate so beautifully. And with people like Ari Aster following, it opened up to stranger concepts, as long as they’re executed well. That’s opened the minds of audiences. They’re not just expecting the final girl and the traditional horror structure. They’re now expecting to be left with questions and debate. That’s really exciting. You see a new type of horror coming out now.
Are you going to stay within the genre for your next film?
I’m working on the follow-up to Shepherd. It’s not a sequel but it’s in the same realm, which hopefully I’ll be starting next year. I’ve written quite a few. As I said, I love ghost stories. It took 16 years to get Shepherd mine, and in that time, I wrote another 12 scripts. Now Shepherd is coming out on the big screen, I can work on the next one. It’ll keep me busy for a while.
Many thanks to Russell Owen for taking the time for this interview.
Shepherd is released in the UK on November 26th.