Writer/Director Russell Owen brings us Shepherd, a modern ghost story with supernatural seas and an isolating isle.
Haunted by the recent death of his wife, widower Eric Black seeks solitude as a shepherd on a remote Scottish island. As the bleak desolation of the foreboding landscape and terrifying visions begin to overwhelm him, Eric is pushed to the brink of madness. Shepherd is a masterful, stylish, supernatural horror thriller starring Tom Hughes, Gaia Weiss, Kate Dickie, and Greta Scacci.
Check out my interview with Russell!
What inspired the story?
Russell: I grew up in Wales, where I was surrounded by ghost stories and one of the one of the stories that always stuck out was the Smalls Lighthouse. It’s a true story about two men in a lighthouse, one dies and the other one sends a message for help but there’s a massive storm and he goes mad. It’s the same story that Robert Eggers uses for The Lighthouse and his amazing take on it in a much more literal sense. I found out when we were in the middle of filming Shepherd that he was making The Lighthouse and couldn’t believe we were both basing something at the same time on that. But for me, it was always about how I love isolation. I love ghost stories and those psychological slow burn things. We used to always get, in this country anyway, advertisements for shepherds on remote islands and you’d get 10,000 people applying thinking it is the world’s perfect job, it’s gonna be the great escape. I thought, in my head, that it depends on your state of mind. Is that really the best thing to be doing? If you’re going through grief or you’re suffering from depression, you can’t run away from your problems or your grief or your guilt and so this became much more of a character piece exploring somebody’s psyche. So yeah, ghost stories combined with my thoughts on those kinds of jobs you find in papers.
So the movie has a very stylized look to it and there are very creepy images… What inspired this use of imagery and style?
Russell: I think, again, growing up in Wales and growing up in that sort of landscape, Wales is very famous for the sheep. I mean, that’s all we used to do was farm sheep. It spawned from a bit of a nightmarish incident that I had, that sheep scene, where I was climbing the mountain of Snowden, which is famous mainly in Wales, and came across this carcass of a sheep. It had been spread out in some sort of Pentagon on the floor. I thought at first, maybe a fox had it and it was in the middle of nowhere and it was really fresh. My friend and I were so freaked out, and it just stuck in my mind. In those parts of the world it’s a very big issue of paganism going back centuries and millennia and so, you know, to come across things like that… So I wanted to try and incorporate that feeling by doing something quite shocking, particularly in the small amount of time that he’s in the light house, he comes out and he sees something horrible outside.
The baby hand- I always freak out with babies. I mean, I don’t have any children of my own. I’ve got eight nephews and a niece, a lot of godchildren, and I’ll always hold a baby. And if I’m babysitting, I’m always like, ‘don’t go anywhere. Don’t run, don’t hit your head on anything.’ And so from that anxiety, that was a nightmare that I had and when I woke up, I was like, ‘that’s going straight in the script,’ because Eric has had a baby or the opportunity to have a baby and lost it. So yeah, I mean, it is also great in film to have the freedom to do things like that if you can work within the imagery to tell a story where you’re essentially illustrating his state of mind is depression and so things like that. Again, illustrating depression is as somebody said to me, they described it as a horror film. And so, if you’re going to illustrate it, you can go to town on all the horror paraphernalia and the gas lamps and the lightning bolts, you know, not everything is pleasant, because we’re always full of anxiety. So, those kinds of visuals and scenes will stem from that and you just put as much as you can in.
I also loved that there wasn’t a whole lot of dialogue.
Russell: Yeah, I mean, he’s the ultimate introvert. And running away from people which, you know, I’d love to do every so often. But, I am in a much better state of mind. I thoroughly enjoy a little bit of time there, not too long but it is a beautiful part of the world. But yeah, there was very little dialogue. I, obviously, didn’t think about that when I came up with the idea and then when I started writing that, ‘okay, this is mostly description because who’s he going to speak to?’ We had a phone and we had some voiceover and there was more with the dog but then I just removed it all. Instead, I’m going to sort of take up a bigger challenge of, ‘how do I tell a story with him not saying much throughout it?’And that comes down to casting and finding somebody who can interpret it visually with their body language, and then you build everything else around that performance with the sound design, the music, the lighting, and it becomes a much more exciting challenge for me because I have to then tell the story almost purely visually.
What was it like working with Tom Hughes?
Russell: It was amazing. I mean, he’s a classically trained actor and knows exactly what he needs to do. He has his methods and I was, as I always am, extremely nervous about these things. ‘Oh, my God, are you sure about this? You sure you got it?’And he’d say, ‘no, no, I got it, I know what I’m doing.’ It’s a huge challenge for him as well, which is exactly why he took it on because he’s like, this is going to be something much different and he hadn’t really done a horror before. And it was a huge relief when we started rolling. It was really enjoyable. We knew exactly what we were doing before the take. Three takes, done, move on. Yeah, he nailed it. He knew exactly what I was trying to achieve with it, which was a relief because I wasn’t sure what he thought of my script writing, but he totally got what I wanted to do.
What was it like working with the dog and the sheep?
Russell: I love working with animals. Everyone says don’t work with animals but I’ve worked with animals quite a lot in commercials and I enjoy it. They don’t need one or two takes, they need like 10-15, and the editor has to go through and find those performances. But again, I think planning the shots and story with everything frame for frame, shot for shot, I knew exactly what I needed them to do. And so it was quite easy to sort of relay that to the animal handlers and the farmers and the shepherds, the real life ones and they’d say, ‘Okay, I think I’ve got an idea. I know how to make them do that and I know how the dog will do that.’ You know, corned beef is amazing, what you can do with that with an animal and some shouting. Yeah, and Shuggie, it was a girl who played Baxter. She was absolutely incredible and she’s just got such a personality. She’s got a lovely, very quiet, calm, spooky personality. She is the ideal horror film dog.
Where did you film this? Was the house and the lighthouse all there already?
Russell: This is the West Coast of the Isle of Mull, which is a really remote and difficult location to get to particularly for a film crew because it’s it’s a good I’d say 11 hour drive from London and then you take probably a five minute ferry then it’s a good hour drive across the island to the location. And that’s in a car or truck. The roads are tiny on that side with tiny little hobbit stone bridges over brooks and stuff, so you can’t take a big truck. You have to take things in bits. We built the house on the location and we built the base of a lighthouse and then the lighthouse itself is a seven foot model that we took on location and did some Lord of the Rings tracking If you try and find those kinds of locations today in Scotland, everywhere is like an Airbnb and they’re all beautifully done up and amazing and so like, ‘okay can I come and trash your Airbnb to make it look like a derelict house?’ And all the interiors were done in a studio in Glasgow because I was really quite particular about how it looked. I mean, if you pause the film and explore the set, there’s a lot of storytelling in the pictures, in the books that are on the shelves and what’s in the sink, every prop has a story to tell. And so to be able to do that in a real location would have been really difficult. And then the location itself, the reason we shot there, I mean it has such a personality, so much character to it, which is difficult to find anywhere else that hadn’t been filmed before. I didn’t want it to be associated with another film. I needed something which you hadn’t quite seen before. That part of Scotland reaches out to Iceland which has its own unique, kind of a hybrid landscape of this volcanic bizarre sort which gives another worldly, almost like another planet feel to it which blended in nicely with Eric’s dream state.
What do you hope your audience takes away from watching the movie?
Russell: I hope they can take away their own theories. I came up with several different storylines: is Eric dead, is Eric mad, is Eric a subject of witchcraft and a spell has been put on him, you know, who really is Rachel? We never really hear from her, we only see his dreams and his mother’s perspective, and she gets a bad rap, like hold on, who is Rachel really? She’s probably this amazing person. Who is the fisherwoman? Is she really there or is she a figment of his imagination? You create all that mystery and then you add all the clues visually through symbols, and I did a lot of research on paganism and pagan symbols and all the rest of it. And then what I’d hope an audience comes away is with their own theories, ‘oh, it’s clear that it was this,’ or ‘it’s clear it was that.’ There’s only two people that know the answer, myself and Tom. I hope that people will be able to come out and debate it with their friends. That’d be amazing.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add about Shepard?
Russell: If you can go out and see it in the cinemas next week, that would be incredible. It was made for the big screen experience. And now that we’re coming out of the pandemic and people are venturing out to the cinemas again, I really hope you are able to catch it on the big screen and enjoy the atmosphere.