New British horror Shepherd is about a grief-stricken widow (played by Tom Hughes) who applies for a job as a shepherd on an isolated Scottish island. Once there, he experiences nightmares, visions and loses touch with reality.

We spoke to director Russell Owen about filming on the island of Mull, working with acting legends Greta Scacchi and Kate Dickie and how the cinematography, music and sound combined to create the required atmosphere for this slow-burn horror film.

What was the initial inspiration for the script? Why did you want to write it?

It was two reasons. Growing up in Wales, it was ghost stories more than films, so I wanted to do a ghost story. And the Small’s Lighthouse story was one we used to tell a lot in Wales. And whilst I was filming, obviously Robert Eggers was making The Lighthouse, which was based on the same story, so I had a bit of a heart attack when I found out. But luckily, they’re obviously chalk-and-cheese. It’s a very different film and he’s amazing at what he does. It’s a much more literal version of it, albeit set in America.

Writer’s note: The Small’s Lighthouse tragedy is a real-life story which brought about a change in lighthouse policy in 1801 after a gruesome episode. Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith, the two-person team that managed the lighthouse, were publicly known to quarrel. 
When Griffith died in a freak accident, Howell feared that if he discarded the body into the sea, authorities might accuse him of murder. As Griffith’s body began to decompose, Howell built a makeshift coffin for the corpse and lashed it to an outside shelf. Stiff winds blew the box apart, and the body’s arm fell within view of the hut’s window. As the winds would blow, gusts would catch the arm and move it in a way that made the appendage appear to beckon. 
In spite of his former partner’s decaying corpse and working the lighthouse alone, Howell was able to keep the house’s lamp lit. When Howell was finally relieved of duty, the impact of the situation was so emotionally taxing that his friends did not recognise him. As a result, the governing body changed the lighthouse policy to make lighthouse teams rosters of three people, which continued until the automation of British lighthouses in the 1980s.

And the second reason is those adverts that you sometimes get in the back pages of magazines that get 10,000 applicants because it’s the ideal job, on an island. There’s a handful of islands in Wales which have similar jobs, like Bardsey Island and a few others and they always have 10,000 applicants from all over the world [for people to come to live and work on an isolated island]. But I always thought that was quite a tricky job because my imagination goes wild. So, if I was trapped on an island, I’d go mad. So, that was the starting point.

I mean, this was 16 years ago to start off with and then, further down the line, I lost a couple of friends to depression and they had explained how it felt to them, before they died, what they were going through. So, I took it back off the shelf and reworked the character. I had the place, I had the situation, I had the story itself, but I didn’t really have anything which drove the character to be there, properly. So, I restructured everything, based on that and it became more of a psychological drama-thriller over a horror in that way.

Russell Owen on the set of Shepherd

I’ve got to ask about the location – where did you film, how did you find it and what was it like – filming there?

We looked everywhere, we started in South Wales, because we were originally going to film it there, at Pinewood Studios in South Wales, so we were looking in locations there. We went all the way up the West Coast, North Wales, everywhere that I knew from growing up, but couldn’t find anywhere. There were lots of appropriate and easily accessible places, but they didn’t quite have all the right elements. Eventually, after going up the Northwest Coast of England, we started on the Scottish islands and Mull was the first island we came to. 

I drove all the way round, the wrong way, couldn’t find anywhere suitable, then turned a corner and saw the Benmore Estate in Mull, which was on the opposite shore of a loch and that was it. I saw the opening shot with the three mountains. But, it was one of the most difficult places to access because it takes a long time to get everyone there by trains and ferries and boats and planes and all sorts of things. Then, to get camera trucks over there, the roads and little stone bridges in particular are really narrow, so everything had to be ferried over and we had to build a set over there and everything. So, it was complicated, but once I’d seen it, that was it. I remember getting into trouble with location managers shouting at me saying; “why did you choose this location?” 

But when you see the final film, that’s why, it’s got a life of its own and there are not many places, unless they’ve been filmed a million times, eg. on the Isle of Skye, that have that vibe. It was really important because it was a character in the film and casting is so important, but the island is also a member of the cast. We were very lucky, with the weather and things like that, it did pay off in the end. The one thing everyone has walked away from the film saying is “that island was fantastic, it was perfect.”

Cinematographer Richard Stoddard on the set of Shepherd (2021)

What kind of conversations did you have with Richard Stoddard, your cinematographer, about how you wanted to capture that landscape?

Initially, we wanted that sense of isolation, so we referenced a lot of films – obviously things like The Shining and so on, and films that had worked on location a lot before, like The Revenant, those kind of things. But then, once we’d had those conversations, we threw them all in the bin. I storyboard everything anyway, every frame. That was my job before directing, I used to storyboard for other directors on scripts. 

Once we’d discussed the vibe, the look and thrown a few ideas around, he spent a lot of time at Pinewood Studios testing cameras and lenses. He eventually came up with the right combination. One of the things I really wanted, was to make sure there was always a sense of movement in the film, whether it’s through the camera, the sound and so on. So, you always feel a little bit unsettled, we’re not always pausing and sitting down for breath, we’re always moving along. So that was one of the main things. The camera was always, if it wasn’t on a track or on a Steadicam, it was on a little slider, there always something happening. It just started from there, Stoddard is an incredibly talented guy with a really beautiful eye, so he lapped up those conversations and did exactly what I was after, which was great.

The casting of Tom Hughes, who hadn’t done a horror film before, is an interesting one. What made you think of him, what was that casting process like?

It was Gemma Sykes, the casting director, who put Tom at the top of her list. There were some huge names on the list, we went out for availabilities and sent the script out. I was gobsmacked that all these really famous people wanted to do it. I couldn’t believe it, because I didn’t have much of a portfolio, I’d done lots of commercials but not really done features. 

But Gemma kept pushing Tom and I knew Tom’s work, but not in-depth because I don’t watch a lot of TV and he does a lot of TV, so he was famous in that area. He does a lot of costume dramas and ‘gentleman’ roles, he plays Prince Albert and that’s how I knew him. And she said, “no you need to watch Paula, which was a BBC drama he was in” so I watched ten minutes of an episode and went “oh OK that’s a completely different person” and he hit all the right points. I thought “well, he’s amazing, if we can get him.” Because lots of people really wanted to do it, but they wanted to do it in spring, they didn’t want to be on a Scottish island in winter, which is when I really wanted to film it. 

But he was available and he said yes after reading the script and that was amazing. Once we’d settled on him, it was difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. He has a very quiet, internal dialogue always going on. So, when the camera goes into him, he’s telling lots of stories through his face, which goes beyond just sort of acting, he had a lot of conflict inside him that he developed and the camera could read that, even in the quiet moments. He was incredible, it’s difficult to imagine anybody else doing anything similar, so he was great.

Tom Hughes as Eric Black in Shepherd (2021)

I really liked the score, what was the collaboration with Callum Donaldson (who did both the music and the sound design) like? What kind of conversations did you have with him?

I started on the sound design with Edwin Matthews and Edwin and Callum work together a lot, they have a company. So, Edwin was pushing Callum and I said “right OK fine” because I was still looking for music separately, but I did want the music to be integrated into the sound. So, at times, for example, in the cottage where it seems quite quiet and there’s a wind blowing, that’s actually a music score, because it’s a choir – a very low Welsh male choir doing the sound of the wind. So, there’s elements like that, although you know its wind, it’s a little bit off, that’s something not quite right about it and vice-versa. Edwin will use engines and machines for the ferry for beats and that kind of thing, so that the sound would then go into the music and they’d be a crossover there. The strings were recorded separately, there’s a very talented string section that did that. So, it was about melding all that together to try and create an atmosphere rather than “the sound does that” and “the music does that” so it was a collaboration between both.

Greta Scacchi and Kate Dickie in Shepherd (2021)

You have two slightly older woman characters who are played by acting legends – Greta Scacchi and Kate Dickie – how did you get them involved and what was it like, working with them?

Again, it was thanks to Gemma Sykes, who did the casting. Originally, Kate Dickie’s character was a man, but I struggled with that character, all I could ever see was Captain Birdseye. I wanted to do something a bit more interesting with that character and not just be some savant of a horror film, but be almost like a prison-keeper and have a lot more mystery about them. Once we brushed aside any preconceptions about what that character was, Kate Dickie came up on top, which would be amazing but I didn’t think I’d be able to get her. 

Then, out of the blue, I got a phone call on my mobile and it was Kate Dickie and we must have spent three hours on the phone talking about the character until my battery ran out. It was great and she was on board. It was a very difficult character to play, so we tried lots of different things and Kate came up with this very straight-down-the-line, cold, stony performance, which was perfect because it followed the line of film, we tried to take away as much exposition as possible, so it became creepier.

And with Greta Scacchi, again she was there on top of the list. But you’ve got in your mind the very glamorous roles that she used to play in the 90s and she’s still very glamorous today. But, she wanted to do something where you wouldn’t recognise her, with make up and wigs and very dowdy clothing. Quite a few people said to me; “I thought Greta Scacchi was in the film?” and I said “she plays the mother” and they were like; “what?!” And I think that quite pleased her, to escape into that role.

Working with them (Dickie and Scacchi), they’re just so easy because they give you so much, they’re very generous actors. They’re so quick to work with because they’ve got that wealth of experience behind them. So they come in and give you exactly what you need, in the time-frame you’ve got. My background, working a lot with models, for example, that are great in stills but not so great in commercials and you’ve got to rework things. It’s a completely different experience to then work with these amazing professionals – who just listen to what you have to say and know what you mean and then do it. That’s refreshing for me, anyway (laughs).

I wonder when you’re writing a horror script, how you decide what to withhold and what to reveal when. You’ve mentioned that it’s a slow-burn psychological drama, but you have elements of horror and you have to choose precisely when to punctuate them throughout and how much you’re going to ramp up to horror at the end. How much redrafting did that take and how did you decide where you would have those horror elements?

Initially, there was a lot of explanation and background to the island, there was a whole first act where we met his wife and it built up to the accident. When I structured the story, she’s the hero of the film, even though what we’re actually watching is the last two acts where she’s died (this isn’t a spoiler, the film opens with her funeral!). Now we’re only seeing flashbacks, based on what her paranoid husband imagines her to be and his mother imagines her to be, who’s the hateful, bitter, religious person. 

[OK – this next bit is more spoilery] So, although she might appear as a villain, she is actually the hero, because at the end of the day, she’s the only one that wins. Because the mother is dead and the husband is condemned to a life of purgatory, or whatever.

I think if we’d kept that first act with the wife, we wouldn’t have then followed Eric (Hughes) because we’d have thought – he’s not a violent person, but he’s just a bit of a drip and we wouldn’t really want to follow him. But once you remove the hero, you’re trying to figure out who these characters are, so that was a big major thing that I cut out.

Then, Kate Dickie’s character did a lot of explanation of the island, the history, including the wraith-like figure with the lamp – that’s a shipwrecker, which is referenced in the journals. There was a whole background about shipwrecking on the islands, based on true stories in Wales and Scotland. It was a common practice where they’d turn the lighthouse out, bring a ship into the rocks, wreck it, kill the crew, plunder the ship. I started removing all those elements and just let the visuals speak for themselves, without it being too confusing. Once the audience could see it for what it is, you didn’t need to explain anything, they could make their own mind’s up. 

Going back to it being inspired by ghost stories, your imagination does most of the work, so I was trying to do a film version of that in a sense. Eric wouldn’t know what a shipwrecker was, so let’s put the audience in Eric’s position and remove that information. Sometimes you can go too far with it, but Stanley Kubrick did it in The Shining, removed a book and newspaper cuttings with the history of the hotel – that was all cut out. You can see it in a couple of shots. But the film is stronger as a result, because you keep that level of mystery going.

Shepherd is out now in UK cinemas.