Folk-horror has had somewhat of a cinematic revival of late. With big-budget, studio-backed folk terrors like The Witch, Midsommar and Apostle all resonating well with audiences and critics alike, it comes as no surprise that up-and-coming independent filmmakers are being inspired by these fables and gravitating towards similar projects of their own.
William McGregor, most known for his contributions to British television, makes his feature-length debut with Gwen, a film I hailed as a ‘slow-burning, candle-lit exploration of an implosive family unit set in rural, 19th Century Snowdonia’. I sat down with the Norfolk-born director about his new film and how he sees the folk-horror sub-genre going in the years to come.
Congratulations on Gwen. For a feature-length debut I found it so confident. I wanted to ask how you found the leap from making short films and television episodes to a feature-length film?
Making Gwen felt more like making my short films, my student films. You make it with your friends and you’re in total control. You’re able to tell your own story in your own way.
So would you say that there is more creative freedom with an independent film like this as opposed to television?
Yeah. It’s a different audience with different expectations. You sit down to watch Poldark on a Sunday night, your family is gathered together, chilling out with some tea and cake in front of the TV. It’s a lot different from sitting in a dark room for 80-odd minutes with an intense, dread-filled, and slightly scary film.
So Gwen premiered at TIFF. How was that experience for you? To be at a big film festival like that promoting your own film, it must have been exciting.
Yeah, you never know what festival you are going to go to and you have this experience of submitting your film and finding out where your world premiere is going to be. We were all so excited to go out there, especially because films like Beast and Lady Macbeth were trying to get noticed amongst all of that buzz of your Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper films. But I’ve realised the festival journey is a journey, you have your first big premiere and you hope that people will find out about your film. This film has been described, during that festival journey, as ‘under the radar’, and people were asking ‘what is this film?’ and ‘where does it come from?’
You just hope you make it easier for people to discover your film.
With this film and the short film that this is inspired by, there seems to be an amalgamated source of inspiration from gothic, Jane Eyre-esque literature and folk-horror. Would that be an accurate assumption?
Definitely. Getting the opportunity to make my first film, I just thought wanted to think that I’d never be able to get this chance again. So I wanted to make the film that I wanted to make. I love gothic literature, I love folk horror, and I love pastoral literature as well, you know Thomas Hardy. And I love folklore. Stories inform our everyday lives and there are belief systems that have existed for years and years. All of those things just found their way into Gwen, really.
And as a ‘farm boy now film boy’, as you call it, this is somewhat of a personal project for you. There must be an element of your own personal experiences making their way into this story?
Definitely. There was a quarry on the farm that I grew up on, and the landscape around me began to change. Woodlands that I remember playing in are now gravel pits. I was 19 when I made the short film (Who’s Afraid of the Water Sprite?) so this has been in my brain for a long time. Originally, it wasn’t the industrial revolution either. Looking at the birth of ‘the industry’ and capitalism felt relevant even today.
As a Welshman, it’s always nice to see Wales being depicted on the big screen, even if it is in the 19th Century. I’m interested as to why you gravitated towards North Wales?
Yeah, and this is written by someone from Norfolk (laughs). It really comes from being inspired by the landscape. Just spending time in Snowdonia. I actually wrote a lot of the scenes based on the space. I think as a first time filmmaker you think ‘where’s the production value, where’s the spectacle coming from?’ and I just love mountainous, sublime landscapes.
Oh, absolutely. I’ve been up there a few times and I always wonder why nobody has picked up on this. It’s been almost neglected by cinema, really.
I don’t think people really understand quite how epic it is. Standing there is a different experience from seeing it on a cinema screen.
There’s a line in the film that really struck a chord with me. “Steal a sheep and they’ll take your hand. Steal a mountain and they’ll make you a road”. I was hoping you could elaborate on that?
The funny thing is I can’t take credit for that. It’s literally in the introduction video to a museum (laughs). It seems to be a saying that pretty much epitomises the film, really. It’s even in the trailer.
Talking of locations, you’ve got the breathtaking, sweeping landscapes of Snowdonia but there’s something so claustrophobic about it. Was this something that you consciously wanted to achieve?
You know, this is one of the reasons we shot on location and not in a studio. The same exact home that the three girls live in was used in a TV series about 10 years ago so they had already slightly renovated the house. So we just went in and finished it off. That adds to the claustrophobic nature of it as well. And there’s claustrophobia with these tiny characters being lost against huge mountains, the danger in the nature and the landscape around you.
And I think it’s the paranoia of it all, as well. The use of sound in the film is so heightened.
I just remember lying in bed and hearing the sound of foxes outside, and as a kid on a pig farm that I grew up on, it was always so spooky. The smallest thing could really spook you out. Gwen is such a still and sparse film so there’s space in the sound design to do a lot to your imagination.
With the theme of motherhood and family being so prevalent in your film, how important was it for you to establish a genuine family dynamic amongst the three girls?
It was really important. We didn’t really rehearse together. We had a bit of time together but we didn’t run lines or go over any scenes, we just had the cast spending time together. Going rock climbing, baking and all sorts of things. For Eleanor [Worthington-Cox] and Jodie [Innes], I wanted them to get comfortable together.
They really feel like sisters, too.
On their last day of filming when they wrapped, they were literally in tears. They are still in touch a lot. And that’s one of the hardest things with filming with kids, you become a big part of their lives, and vice versa. And then the shoot ends after five weeks and everyone goes their separate ways.
They will remember that experience for the rest of their lives.
Yeah. Jodie, in particular, was so excited to do it. And Eleanor, she’s more experienced than I am. With everything she’s done in her career it’s not like we discovered her. She’s a serious talent.
You must have felt lucky to bag her and Maxine Peake, as well.
Because this film relies on these two central characters the film doesn’t work without them. All the great cinematography is going nowhere if you don’t believe in them two.
What I liked about it is that even though Gwen is the titular character, those two are symbiotic.
I always find that whenever you see Maxine Peake in something you always want to have seen more Maxine Peake, which I feel is also the case with this. But that’s a good thing. For a lot of the film it’s just Gwen’s experience, we even found that in the edit. There are scenes where you do go away from her, but if you do that too often or for too long the film stops working. You just have to be so strict and keep it with the perspective of this young girl. It’s all about how she understands the world, it’s her interpretation of it.
So, to finish, we are seeing more and more thought-provoking folk-horror films being released over the last decade or so – The Witch, Midsommar – where do you see this sub-genre going from a filmmakers point of view? Why do audiences react so well to these stories?
I think it’s a reaction. Why is a 30-year old man fascinated with folklore and folk horror? It’s because we are living in an increasingly more modern and film-screen world, and I as an individual, just want to get back to the landscape and understand where we have come from. I don’t think that’s just me, all different people feel like that. Even groups like ‘Folk Horror Revival’, who I’ve been following for the last few years, you can see that there is a national spread, almost. We all live with a lot of worry at the moment, nobody really knows what is happening, it is embarrassingly bleak out there. If you live in a scary world, you’re going to make scary films.
By the time the interview came to an end, I came to realise that the future of horror is in good hands. If this age-old genre has the likes of McGregor at the helm, we could be much worse off. It’s an exciting time, really.
Gwen is released on July 15th.