By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
SHEPHERD, the latest feature from Welsh filmmaker Russell Owen (Inmate Zero) is an old-fashioned British ghost story with a modern edge. Harkening back to the atmospheric style of Hammer horror classics, Owen flirts with the understated terror of M.R. James’ celebrated tales while being unafraid to bring moments of unexpected and shocking violence to bear in the service of his folk horror-tinged script. Quintessentially British, SHEPHERD delivers its scary goods with a palpable sense of inevitable doom.
Tom Hughes, best known for his portrayal of Prince Albert in ITV’s historical drama series, Victoria, stars as Eric Black, a young widower wracked with grief over the sudden deaths of his wife, Rachel, portrayed by Gaia Weiss of Vikings, and their unborn child. Although Rachel was unfaithful, a fact his domineering mother, Glynnis (Greta Scacchi), is unwilling to let him forget, Eric is nonetheless incapable of moving on from his grief. Seeking a break from his past, Eric takes a job as a shepherd on a remote Scottish island. Haunted by an ancient malevolent entity, Eric must face the sins of his past alone.
SHEPHERD is very much rooted in Russell Owen’s upbringing in Wales where he grew up in the shadow of centuries of folklore. “It’s a very ancient landscape,” Owen tells RUE MORGUE. “It’s got of lots of traditional ghost stories from medieval folklore going back to the Celts and through paganism and all the rest of it over millennia, including the Smalls lighthouse in Wales, which is the story that Robert Eggers based The Lighthouse on.” Welsh folklore permeates SHEPHERD, and Owen strived to make it an integral and authentic part of the film. With its ominous standing stones and the repeated image of a mysterious pagan rune, the ancient past looms over SHEPHERD. “I did a lot of research, and I came up with that [rune], based on other pagan symbols that have been found in Wales and Scotland and on the west coast of France to represent a man on an island,” Owen says. “In Wales, where I grew up, there were a lot of standing stones. They’re supposed to represent people and kings and all the rest of it. There are some standing stones that represent the severed head of a giant. And there’s lots of famous Welsh and Celtic folk tales based around stones, so I definitely wanted to get that in as a tool to guide Eric’s character through the question of whether he is going mad.”
With that rich history as his guide, Owen sees himself as a storyteller first, filmmaking merely serving as an evolution of his chosen craft. “I’ve always loved filming and the idea of being in film,” explains Owen, “but it was always storytelling that I loved. And it was always those stories that stayed with me over anything else … I used to go wild hearing ghost stories.”
The idea behind SHEPHERD became an obsession for the director. Although the haunting tale would have to take a backseat to other projects such as Owen’s 2020 zombie thriller, Inmate Zero, the lonely shepherd and his cottage never escaped his mind. “[SHEPHERD] was the first screenplay I’d written. In about 2005, I’d done a first draft of it. [I thought] I have to make this. I need to get this out of my head. I had the cottage in my head. I had the lighthouse. I had the dog. I had the sheet scene, everything.” Yet, Owen wouldn’t rely solely on folklore and his imagination for inspiration. Real-life horrors also figured into SHEPHERD’s plot. “Over the years, obviously, I had friends who had lost friends. I had friends who suffered a lot from depression, and their experiences informed the character, and it helped shape the film. … [The film] is sort of an atmospheric chiller with an underlying deep drama about grief in there.”
Despite his love of ghost stories and folklore, Russell Owen is no musty antiquarian. He’s also very much a horror fan with a particular love for the genre films and television shows of his homeland. “BBC Two on a Friday night, when I was a teenager, it was just Hammer horrors back to back. I used to love sitting there and watching them.” Moving to London to work at the famous Pinewood Studios, Owen had a revelation about his horror-filled Friday nights. “All those kinds of areas outside London in those old houses have always got the same kind of gardens and things like that. So with a Hammer horror, you know, they’ve just done it on someone’s back yard, and I love that. You could just go out and shoot something. And I was obsessed with that. I think that they really got me into filmmaking.”
However, SHEPHERD’s star, Tom Hughes doesn’t have the visceral connection to the genre that Owen has. “To be honest, to say I’m not a fan, would not be true … I’m not encyclopedic when it comes to horror films. It’s definitely a genre of movies I didn’t know when I was growing up,” Hughes states. Nevertheless, the actor is a willing student and SHEPHERD has been a crash course in the genre. “I didn’t really watch a lot of films. I was kind of more exposed to music and sport, I guess. For whatever reason, I was never a student of film. I kind of got into acting from the inside out, so through my education in films, which has predominantly been in my adult life, horror as a genre has been a bit like jazz in music. I can kind of appreciate it from afar, but I don’t feel like I’ve really dived into the pool of it. So to expose myself to it from the inside was a real thrill. I want to learn the idiosyncrasies of it and the language of it. A new world has opened up. That’s been amazing.”
With its themes of grief, guilt, and depression, SHEPHERD relies largely on the 37-year-old actor’s talents. Although Hughes shoulders much of the film’s thematic weight alone, shedding Eric’s life of sadness and solitude wasn’t a problem for him at the end of a working day. “I didn’t fully want to. I think I signed up more to the Michael Chekov ideology when it comes to acting than I do the Stanislavsky,” he says. “So for me, it was more about having an avenue into Eric, and then actually trying to stay in his rhythm, stay in his vibration. I didn’t really want to step out of it.”
Hughes went to great lengths to maintain Eric’s sense of isolation behind the scenes. “I was actually in a hotel, initially, that was where all the crew was staying in the same little town. I took myself and moved into a different hotel that was right on the other side of the island that we were shooting on. I was the only person in the hotel apart from one of the guests that came for like two nights. I really tried to stay in that feeling of isolation and what that does to the human being and what that does to the animal. I didn’t really want to escape from it. In terms of when we finished, I don’t know, man, I kind of felt like he left me pretty quickly. You’d have to ask my mates. You’d have to ask my family. But like, it felt like there was definitely an element of relief at the end of filming it … So I was exhausted at the end, but I think like any character, you know, as long as you remember who you are, you kind of put your coat on at the end of it and walk off. It’s coming home.”
With nothing but praise for his director, Hughes found inspiration for his character in Russell Owen. “Well, as a director, Russell was great. I don’t think he would mind me saying this. I don’t think Eric is Russell, but I feel there are definitely elements of Russell in Eric. Therefore, for me, he was the centerpiece of what I was trying to build. It’s also his world in terms of his imagining that’s created this as well. So everything for me was passed through the prism of Russell and picked up again. And therefore, you have to build a dialogue very quickly. I felt that we did do that. And we were able to communicate on a level that sometimes was just quite kinetic,” Hughes says.
In the intimate confines of SHEPHERD’s isolated set on Scotland’s Isle of Mull, it was important for Hughes and Russell to build a framework of trust. To that end, Hughes, Russell, and cinematographer Richard Stoddard formed what the actor describes as a “triangle of support.” “I was the only actor on the island for 90 percent of the time; Russell was the only director, and Stoddy was the only cinematographer. So that structure between us was really helpful, Hughes says.
Over the course of the shoot, Owen and Hughes developed a deep mutual respect for each other. However, the popular British actor’s casting as SHEPHERD’s lead wasn’t assured. According to Owen, Hughes had his work cut out for him as Eric. “Tom Hughes is a very serious actor. He is brilliant. He is traditionally trained and well known in the UK, but I only came across him after he was famous over here for playing Prince Albert on Victoria,” says Owen. “I had no idea who could bring that to life because it’s a very demanding role for an actor to do all that he does and carry a film with very little dialogue. Gemma Sykes, our casting director, kept putting him on the top of the list. ‘This guy could do it!’ And eventually, I saw him in an episode of Paula, which is a BBC drama he did. He plays this psychotic guy. I think I only watch 10 minutes. [I thought] ‘Oh, wow. Yeah. Okay, that’s it. He can pull it off.’ And I met him. He’s very quiet. He listens to you all the time and always absorbs stories and doesn’t ask too many questions. One or two takes and he nailed it. So all my worries and everything sort of evaporated. If we hadn’t had the right cast, it wouldn’t have worked at all. But he absolutely took the role on 101 percent.”
With his lead in place, Owen’s greatest challenge proved to be the harsh conditions of his chosen location on the isolated Isle of Mull in the Scottish Hebrides. Despite the difficulties it presented, the bleak, desolate landscape was essential to establishing SHEPHERD’s mood. Both breathtaking and oppressive, the island is virtually a character itself. Owen describes the challenges of the shoot as “massive.” “You have to get the whole film unit over to the island, which is fine in principle when you get to the east side of the island. But we were filming on the west side, which has this one thin road — very, very tiny with little bridges. You can’t get trucks over there. It’s one of the most remote places in the country. And exactly where I wanted to film was not just one of the most remote, it is also one of the windiest places in Europe. We’re building like these sets of a cottage and things like that, so you know, one angry gust and it all comes falling down. So it was a huge challenge, but it was such an important one to embrace because it is just one guy and the island. Those are the two main characters in that sense; The island representing what he’s going through. So although it was a huge challenge, and it was the middle of winter in the north of Scotland, it was absolutely worth it because it was important to get that on camera. At that time of year, the light is very low up there, and you get this very creepy sort of blue atmosphere.”
Hughes agrees that the island and its inherent challenges were a necessary evil in bringing SHEPHERD to life. “Russell’s vision was absolutely bang on, and we needed the character of the island to really be the character in the film that I hope it is,” Hughes says. “So to achieve that, we had to shoot in parts of that island that were really tricky to get to and hard to film. You turn up without knowing where you’re going to be. And the crew had to just go with that, filming horrendous weather. You’d be knee-deep in water sometimes for hours on end. Actually, I owe a lot to the crew because selfishly, for me, being on the island was the most important thing – being trapped in the middle of nowhere, really exposed to the power of nature like we were was a gift for me – the fact that they went there, and they committed to it. That we got it made, I think, is incredible. And the crew was incredible. And I just feel very fortunate that the film’s had a life because, for everything we put into it, we all deserve this film to fly. And hopefully, it continues to really be seen because that’s what you make time for at the end of the day, isn’t it?
SHEPHERD from Saban Films is now playing in theaters and available for digital rental and purchase.