Shepherd is a new horror movie from writer-director Russell Owen, who recently spoke with The Illuminerdi about his intense, disturbing and visceral cinematic nightmare.
This interview sheds light on the shocking conclusion of the film, teases what’s next to come, and offers insight on the incredible true story of Shepherd’s production. Reader discretion is advised.
SHEPHERD: EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH RUSSELL OWEN, WRITER/DIRECTOR
“Shepherd is a story about one man’s spiral into madness after he takes a job as a shepherd on a remote island, alone, just him and his sheepdog, not long after his wife passes away. So he’s running away from his grief, but he’s also running away from guilt, and you’re not sure at the beginning what exactly he’s guilty of, and that slowly unravels itself through his supernatural experiences on the island.” -Russell Owen, Writer-Director of Shepherd
Shepherd features a tight, small cast of very unique characters. What was your casting process like?
“Even though it was a small cast, I really wanted to go for well seasoned, professional, amazing actors because we really had to create a strong vibe for each character and a strong identity, based sometimes on real people or on experiences. And they had to make that their own, and work with the costume designers and the makeup to get the feel. The casting process was, even though it was just four people, it was tough. Gemma Sykes, who is an amazing casting director in the UK, she immediately came back with that list and they were all on top of it.
Originally Kate Dickie’s character, The Fisherman, was originally going to be a “Fisher-Man”, and we were always stuck on that being a little bit too pirate-y. So we thought, how can we mix it up, and how can we change it? So we changed the gender, and Kate Dickie’s name came to the top. And it really worked and helped embody the story and the psychology which Eric is struggling with in the process.
Tom Hughes has been an emerging actor, one of the top emerging actors in the UK for a long time and he’s well sought after so I wasn’t sure if I would get him. He’s one of those actors who has done it and he’s nailed it, because he really does absorb every word you say to him and then just acts it out. That’s a gift.”
SHEPHERD & THE GHOSTS OF GUILT AND SUNKEN SHIPS
Could you tell me more about the ghostly apparition that Eric Black sees throughout the film?
“That was based on shipwreckers, so there is a lot of history, particularly where I grew up in Wales, further south in Cornwall and of course on the west coast of Scotland. People would put out the lights on a lighthouse so that ship captains couldn’t see the coastline, then they would draw ships in with a lantern on the other side so that they would wreck the ship. Then they would kill the crew, and they would plunder whatever’s on the ship as it washes up onshore. And that was quite common practice, so the [ghost] started out as that.
That character in the film is a metaphor for something. Eric sees one thing as it develops from within his dreams, and then it comes into his reality. It’s his guilt, it’s bugging him in his life, he’s done something, and so that’s essentially where the costume idea came from. And then that story developed into it manifesting as his actual guilty conscience. And that costume was made out of all sorts of things. Seaweed, fishing net, it was rigged up with water that came out, it was great. It was a really good costume. But we had to throw it away in the end because it got moldy in a bag.”
I heard that you shot the film in Scotland, Wales and that area. What was it like shooting in those locations?
“A lot of the film was filmed on the Isle of Mull, which is far west in the Hebrides. Far west of the Isle of Mull is a really really remote location. No one had, apart from a couple of wildlife documentaries, no one had filmed in that part of the Isle of Mull before, because it was so difficult to get to, with the small roads. But it is one of the beautiful parts of the work.
It is stunning, in a verk bleak, eerie way. It was a huge challenge, it’s the middle of winter, you’ve got wind blowing off the atlantic, and we had to build the cottage set there, we had to build the lighthouse, the base of the lighthouse, and then we had to put models up and all sorts of things.
It was a real challenge, because it was so important, the island is a character in the film, it’s not just a location, it is what surrounds and illustrates what’s going on in Eric’s mind. It was so important, so I had gone up and down, as there are lots of beautiful landscapes in Britain. But a lot of them also get used in a lot of films, from James Bond, where it’s China or Russia, or in a Marvel film or a Christopher Nolan film.
I didn’t want to use anywhere where people would go “Oh! They filmed that there.”. But then I found that island with the three peaks, that maw mountain. It was really Icelandic, volcanic, because it goes off to Iceland, so it turns into this bizarre volcanic landscape. It just had a very dreamy, nightmarish vibe, and that was it. We worked really hard to get everything out there and shoot.”
Speaking to how the Island is a character in Shepherd, how is the water surrounding it a part of that. Furthermore, what was it like filming the underwater sequences?
“Having it be an island, it’s a huge island. It’s like a mini-Britain. It was massive, but it was…I love the sea and I love water, though recently I lost a friend to the sea in Wales, who was a fisherman. And there were so many parallels with his loss and the film, it freaked me out a little bit. We always, growing up as kids…it was terrifying.
In Scotland there are these huge, almost like Norwegian fjords, the lochs that go in. And they are very deep, old and glacial, verk dark. Very clear, very clean water, and crisp, and that was always a big part of the film, because it’s supposed to symbolize like a moat on a castle. You won’t be able to get in, and you won’t be able to swim off.
We came back a year later, to a studio outside London to film the underwater scenes and try and recreate that inky dark black of a Scottish Loch. I’ve filmed underwater a couple times for commercials and things, so I was quite clear on the scope of exactly what I wanted to do. The biggest challenge was that one of the characters has to drag another down under the water, and once you start swimming down to a certain depth, your ears are like “aarrghh” with the pressure. So for that actor, complete hats off, an incredible job.
And I know Gaia [Weiss]was there and thoroughly enjoyed her time in the underwater tank. Tom [Hughes] was happy but he’s not a huge fan of all the underwater, because you have to get up all the time and breathe, and no one really wants the apparatus. But some of his stuff was really tricky, and we had to get a double in to do the deeper stuff, because we didn’t really want to drown our star. That would be horrible.”
SHEPHERD TAKES A PAGE OUT OF DANTE’S INFERNO…LITERALLY
Could you talk about the significance of Dante’s Inferno in relation to Shepherd?
“Dante’s Inferno…I love the circles of Hell, and Shepherd for me represents several circles of Hell, and Purgatory. This is a guy whose suffered from grief, who does a suicide attempt at the beginning, and we are left to guess, “Where is his mental state at?”. For me it was always Purgatory, and Dante’s Inferno was something that was a big part of that inspiration.
I remember after writing the story, I literally flipped through and I put my finger on a quote, which is the quote at the beginning of the film. And it embodied the film so perfectly it freaked me out, and I threw the book across the room. Then I had to try and find the quote again, because I knew it had to be in [Shepherd]. We all are in our own personal hell, and so it was almost tricky to try and make the film without referencing that. Because [Dante’s Inferno] had had such an influence on lots of storytelling, films and books over the centuries. It’s essentially the element of Purgatory and Hell.”
What was it like working with the animals in the film, such as Baxter the dog and the sheep?
“I love working with animals. They say don’t work with kids or animals on film, and I’ve done both at the same time. I have a lot of patience for kids and animals on film, we always make sure to schedule enough time. It was great.
Shuggie was actually a girl, who plays Baxter. She had a great animal handler, Joyce. [Shuggie] had a very very quiet, creepy sort of demeanor about her, sort of disturbed, so she really reflects Eric’s state of mind. So she was perfect, she wasn’t some over the top happy, jumping, bouncy dog. She was always thinking, and so she was great. Didn’t have to do that many takes with her to get the performance we needed.
And the sheep, the sheep are very different. The second you‘ve got food, they do anything, and the second you bring a dog, they’ll freeze. There were a few tricks of the trade as shared by real-life shepherds on the Isle of Mull who came over and did all the sheep scenes.
I love working with animals, I’ve done it a few times before, and I always prep a little bit differently when I know I’m going to shoot an animal. You can’t rely on an animal to do exactly what you want, but if you can get something close, you’re on a good track. I always watch Harry Potter with all of them bloody owls. I go, Those guys nailed it. They were good.” And the squirrels in Charlie & The Chocolate Factory.”
Could a sequel, spinoff, or another story in the world of Shepherd ever come to fruition?
“I wrote a lot of different paths, that as an audience, might leave you with a theory that he died, that it was witchcraft, or that he’s crazy. And those stories set the basis for another script I set in the same universe, the same dimension if you like. While it is not directly related to [Shepherd], there is a reference to it.
I love the idea that you watch something like Shepherd, and you know it’s not quite the real world. There’s a heightened reality to it. That cottage isn’t quite right, that lighthouse isn’t quite right, this costume isn’t quite right. There’s always something off. It’s another dimension, a parallel dimension, which is something I built out of old pagan and ghost stories and such. So yeah, there’s something else I’ve set up in that, and I’m in talks hopefully to make it next year. So fingers crossed. Well see how Shepherd does.”
SHEPHERD OFFICIAL SYNOPSIS
“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 (“Victoria”, CemeteryJunction) and Emmy winner Greta Scacci.”
Shepherd arrives in theaters domestically on May 6, and is available digitally and on demand May 10th. What did you think of our conversation with Russell Owen, writer-director of Shepherd? What do you think really happened to Eric Black? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on our social media!