INTERVIEW: Matthew & Tori Butler-Hart Chat With Fiona About Their Scottish Ghostly Folklore Film ‘The Isle’
Based loosely on Scottish ghostly folklore with inspiration from Greek sirens, The Isle is set in 1846 on a remote island off the west coast of Scotland, where three survivors from a mysterious sinking of their merchant ship find themselves stranded on a small misty isle. The isle’s four sole secretive residents, an old harbor man, a farmer, his niece and a young mad woman, are anything but welcoming and reluctant to aid the sailors back to the mainland. The promise of a boat never materializes leading one of the sailors to question why people have abandoned the island. Through his investigation, he discovers that every year around the same date a tragedy at sea would occur and young men from the island would perish. When his two shipmates meet with fatal accidents, the myth of a ghostly siren haunting the island leads him to try and uncover the truth.
I spoke with filmmakers Matthew Butler-Hart (director and co-writer) and Tori Butler-Hart (actor and co-writer) while they were in Los Angeles for the US opening of the film.
What drew you to the legend of the sirens and why did you want to tell this story now?
MBH: It started with the location, really. We were invited to go look at the island by someone who worked on our last film Two Down. His family owned an island and they always wanted a film to be made up there. It’s a beautiful island, it took a very long time to get to up in Scotland. We weren’t expecting that amazing island. So we started from there. We started looking at the history of the island and it was a thriving community up until the mid-1800s and then, within the space of a few years, due to famine, the whole place was just utterly deserted for about a hundred years or so. The more we started looking into that, that was really the kernel of the story – why would an island be deserted? So we started delving deeper and there was a story of a woman who’d been found murdered in the old schoolhouse, no one knew who she was or where she’d come from. We really wanted to feature the island almost as a character, I know that sounds a bit of a cliche. I’ve always been obsessed with the Greek myths and with Persephone and the sirens – Persephone’s mother Demeter plummeted the world into famine for six months of the year, as she was looking for her daughter. So that was the kernel of that idea and also looking at Scottish myths as well and we combined the two ideas, so we started from the island to get to the sirens.
TBH: And the location of the island being just off the Atlantic, as soon as you got up there we were like “OK – this has to be something to do with the theme, to do with the water and to do with isolation” and I think that’s where we were really drawn towards the idea of the sirens and that whole myth.
MBH: As soon as we saw the island – it’s beautiful, but as soon as it gets dark, it gets pretty spooky pretty quickly. So it lends itself to that sort of spooky film. We didn’t want to do it as a classic horror, we wanted to do something a little bit different and more subtle, more of a drama with supernatural elements. I think people are enjoying this kind of film more, rather than having jumpscares, we wanted to do something a little bit different and I think there’s a trend for that at the moment, perhaps it’s a coincidence (eg. My Cousin Rachel, Crimson Peak, The Little Stranger) – so that maybe answers the “why now?” part of the question.
How did you go about combining the Greek mythology with the Scottish folklore?
MBH: When we were looking at Scottish myths as well, there’s the selkies – where women be turned into seals. It’s similar to the Greek part of the sirens myth, there are also various different strands and stories about sirens. So we dabbled here and there and then we looked at the Scottish bit and the seal part of it might have been a little bit strange.
TBH: We also wanted to incorporate, because of the period of the houses and the few buildings that are on the island, we knew we wanted to set it in Victorian times and we knew we wanted to include merchant sailors. We wanted to incorporate, as well as the siren story, the story of these sailors on merchant ships who made that treacherous journey up to New York. And would quite often pass by Ireland or Scotland. That idea of being lost in that No Man’s Land of not knowing where you are. That was a draw to us.
Do you think there’s any present-day relevance to the fact that the men on the island dismiss the women as mad and also are very insistent on keeping the two women apart so they’re not allowed to talk to one another?
TBH: Yeah – a big part of when we started doing our research into writing about women in Victorian times, what really I was drawn to particularly was this idea of madness and where was the line between possession and madness and in fact being ill and suffering from epilepsy. In the Victorian period, women were quite often locked up for suffering from illnesses such as epilepsy. So that was a really interesting thing to explore and that aspect of “what is real? what are we seeing? and what is Persephone?” and from that, the hysteria that built within the women. Even though they are constantly contained and suppressed by the men and with that, comes that element of fear, I think actually the fear is much greater of the men around them and fear of that control. But actually it’s fear that they have of their own power which when it’s released, is unstoppable. I think that’s the interesting thing that we wanted to investigate.
MBH: Mental health during the Victorian times wasn’t exactly well dealt with. That was always a big part of one of the original starting points. We wanted to have more of those elements. But it was trying to find the balance of exploring mental health on a Scottish island in the 1840s and allying that with these myths and at the end of the day, trying to have a supernatural folk horror as well. So, it’s quite subtly in there but we originally we were exploring that much more actually.
You’ve mentioned the location – what is the name of the island and what was the scouting process like?
MBH: So it’s called Eilean Shona, it’s off the West Coast of Scotland. It’s directly west from Fort William, about three hours west of Fort William. We just went up and spent a few days wandering around the island. Obviously we were writing as well, so we would adapt things that we’d already worked on to these very specific locations. The first time we went up was in June and it was baking hot, we had these beautiful scrolling sea mists come in.
TBH: Yes! That was what we wanted! Those amazing mists that kind of hung just off the water.
MBH: But then we went up and filmed in September/October and the weather – every ten minutes it would utterly change. So we had all these beautiful plans to film on certain beaches at certain times and you’d go to set things up and ten minutes later it would have disappeared – the tide would come in. Or they’d be a Force 9 gale. So we would spend a lot of time planning, it was not an easy island on work on anyway, so we’d have to plan to shift locations pretty much every day really.
TBH: The owner of the island, Richard Branson’s sister Vanessa – they’d always wanted to film something on there and I think they had the BBC go up before us and they’d looked and said “no this is impossible” because there are no roads on the island, you have to basically boat everything across.
MBH: There are still the old tracks from the 1800s, it’s pretty much as it was.
TBH: So it’s either quad bike or on foot – that’s your option. Or by boat, around the outer edges. So that made it incredibly challenging.
MBH: The end of the film is where JM Barrie wrote a lot of Peter Pan. So the bit where the women are standing on the cliffs at the end, one of the rocks is known as Wendy’s Rock. So a lot of it is the actual inspiration for Neverland, which is fun as well.
The costumes and production design were one of my favourite elements. Why was the specific year of 1846 important to you, what research did you have to do and how did you go about evoking that era?
MBH: The island dictated when we wanted to do it. Tori and I love period films, our last film was set in the 1970s, the one before that was 18th century. We’ve always enjoyed history. We both come from theatre originally as well and I think we both like the research part of it. It lends itself to a lot of interesting stories.
TBH: I think what both Mel the costume designer and Gini and Sofia the production designers were particularly brilliant at was looking at the year in which it was set but also taking into account that we’re on an very remote Scottish island and that things like fashion and furniture and all those elements would be that much earlier. Because word hadn’t got up there.
MBH: We went to another island which had an incredible museum, with incredible photographs of people of the island in those times, so we used those kind of references…
TBH: What you’re actually looking at is more along the lines of the early 1800s rather than the mid-1800s which I think adds that extra element of authenticity to it.
MBH: We also only had just under 4 weeks from getting the money to filming. The whole thing – all of the pre-production was put together in four weeks. They really wanted us to work with Conleth Hill and Alex Hassell again. Conleth was about to go off to Game of Thrones and Alex was about to go and do Suburbicon with George Clooney. So – it was OK, you’ve got the money, that’s when you’ve got to film. So those guys did an incredible job putting it all together in that amount of time and making it historically accurate.
TBH: We actually filmed the interiors in Suffolk. So we went down to Suffolk to film the interiors for the first couple of weeks and then we went up to Scotland to get the rest of it. But we were very lucky with the local people in and around the island who really helped us on things like boats. They were all sourced from around the island so we were very lucky in that respect.
MBH: And also the island has barely been touched since the 1800s, they’re slowly renovating it and it’s still a big conservation area but for the most part it’s still as was.
There is some stunning cinematography (which has already won an award at Manchester International Film Festival) – what did you shoot on and why was it so important to you to showcase the beauty of the island in the way that you did?
MBH: We shot on Arri Alexa Mini. We had so little space on the boat going over, we had to keep the equipment as small as possible. When you go up there it is a beautiful island but we did want to juxtapose what they’re saying with what we’re seeing. It was the case of wanting the island, the location to be a character and a part of the film as well. It’s beautiful but those islands are dangerous. They say if you row out too far, you’re probably never coming back and that was incredibly true. When we were up there it was absolutely stunning but every location was dangerous in real life but for the characters as well. Talking to islanders, you have such respect for that stunning, stunning place but you can’t take any of it for granted at all. We really wanted to bring the island into the heart of it, we were not just filming on it.
TBH: It was about the pacing as well. So, we had Will our editor on set with us, so daily we’d look back at how the pace was going and ask has it got enough space?
MBH: We both really like the slow-burn film, very much like the films of the 60s and 70s. Where they give the character and the story time to grow. It’s bit of a gamble sometimes these days to do that. So we’d be cutting things together…right at the beginning, storyboard-wise, I’d be drawing pictures of trees and rocks and things, so I always thought it had to be so precise, so that was part of that reason as well, to interweave those sorts of visuals. It’s about giving the audience time and giving depth to the characters which is very important to us, rather than the jumpscares, the horror.
TBH: It helped with the creepiness…
MBH: Yeah the whole point is that it’s a very slow, creepiness which goes to the bones rather than jump, jump, jump.
The score is very beautiful, how did you collaborate with the composer, what was the process like?
TBH: Our composer Tom Kane we had worked with on both of our previous features. He’s just brilliant, he’s so talented. He comes on from quite an early stage, Matthew shares a lot of the mood-boards and the visuals with him. So he straight from the get-go has a clear idea of the look and the feel that we’re going for. I think you shared a lot of paintings, pictorial things?
MBH: Yeah instead of film references, I shared a lot of paintings of the time. And we did a lot of research into Scottish music of the period, but we tried to avoid classic bagpipe stuff. The siren song – the lyrics are part of an old Celtic song about drowned sailors basically.
TBH: Yeah it’s about a woman waiting for her husband to come back and he never does.
MBH: The singer is a Faroese singer. The composer’s engineer who works on things like The Last Kingdom and Game of Thrones he’d worked with her and straight away, he said if you’re doing a song about sirens, you have to get her. And with the first pass, she sang it and we went skipping back and she was in the Faroe Islands and we were just blown away. Tom rearranged and rewrote music for it. It’s such a massive part of the story, it had to be pretty good.
Lastly, I would like to ask about you being a married couple co-writing a script. How did the process of writing go?
MBH: It’s different every time. We’re writing at the moment and every time we do something, it’s never the same. We always sit down and just chat about the entire story together, we’ll spend a long time then shuffling things around.
TBH: We do a kind of skeletal – the bare bones of the story – almost like a book version – plot points that need to happen.
MBH: I might go off and write notes, then send them off to Tori, we’ll work on themes and vice versa. Then we’ll come together and work on things. A lot of the time, I will work on the visual side and Tori will work on the dialogue, then we’ll swap over. It’s pretty much the only time we argue as a married couple. A lot of the time, it’s over punctuation.
TBH: I love a comma.
MBH: We’re both obsessed with punctuation, the pacing.
TBH: It helps that we’re both actors so we always come at it from a very character-driven point-of-view, so that really dictates the story.
MBH: Yeah we spend a long time on our characters and then that sort of tells the story for us. That sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud. I think because we both trained as actors, we almost act it out and see the whole thing through their eyes. So we start with that, then we add on the lens and the creepiness.
THE ISLE is opening on February 8th in Los Angeles, select cities and VOD (in the US). Matthew and Tori Butler-Hart will also be doing a Q&A on February 8th following the 9:55pm showing at Laemmle’s Glendale theater. The UK theatrical release will be in April, followed by UK VOD release about 4 weeks later.
Full review on JUMPCUT ONLINE to follow shortly.