"We couldn't just pull someone from the street, there's so much heavy lifting..." - The director and star of new horror Gwen open up
Anyone who has ever set foot in Snowdonia will testify to the power and beauty of the landscape. It’s the stuff of tour guide front covers and lush commercials for the Welsh tourist board, but that wondrous sprawl has a dark side too and it’s that which new folk horror Gwen brings to life.
Newcomer Eleanor Worthington-Cox takes the title role, working alongside Maxine Peake, Richard Harrington and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.
Worthington-Cox’s Gwen is front and centre. We find her in 19th century Snowdonia and desperately struggling to keep everything together. Her mother is bedridden with a mysterious illness, her father is absent and a ruthless mining company encroaching on their land. Throw into this a growing and supernatural darkness stalking the land and a suspicious local community and you’ve got a recipe for a potent and ethereal horror fantasy.
William McGregor is on writing and directing duties, it marks the director, who has previously been behind the camera on episodes of Poldark, Misfits and the forthcoming His Dark Materials, making his feature film bow.
With the film now out on DVD, we spoke to McGregor and Worthington-Cox about how they made this chilling thriller and why shooting up a Welsh mountain in November was not the faint of heart...
Could you talk me through the genesis of the film? How did it get from idea to the first day on set?
William: “I’d made a short film, back when I was a student, called Who’s Afraid Of The Water Sprite? A producer called Hilary Bevan-Jones saw that and liked it. She has a number of family from North Wales, and, before making Gwen, had done three productions in Snowdonia. She saw the short and she said to me: ‘You would love the Welsh landscape, I think it would really resonate with you, would you like to make a feature film there?’ I started travelling up there in 2009 to work on it.”
Did you have a genre in mind when you started?
William: “I thought I would make a kind of Pan’s Labyrinth/Company Of Wolves style fairy tale. That’s what the short was. But the more I learned about the landscape and all these open cast quarries and the scars they left on the land, how it all affected the people. That totally changed the story. It went from being a medieval fairy to a very specific story about that landscape.”
Eleanor, how did you get involved? Was it a long audition?
Eleanor: “It was quite short. I got the script, I liked it, we had two meetings, we talked it all through and it went from there.”
What attracted you to the film?
Eleanor: “What didn’t? I was so attached to it from the second I read it. I knew it would challenge me. I know it would push me, and I feel in love with the character. I spent a long time getting to understand Gwen and it was such a rich experience.”
How was casting? Did you get everyone you wanted?
William: “Maxine was key. She brought so much. She's this very grounded presence, but she's also so ethereal and brings something supernatural. Her political views are tied her closely to the film too. Looking for Eleanor's character was harder and we met different people, but I realised that I needed someone with experience."
"I couldn't just pull someone from the street, there's so much heavy lifting. I needed someone with depth and a profound skillset. Eleanor actually has more experience than I do. She won an Olivier award at 10 and was BAFTA-nominated for The Enfield Haunting. She brought so much and she has to carry this film."
How was Maxine to work with?
Eleanor: "She was incredible. From the moment she signed up, I was overwhelmed, it was an incredible opportunity. I learned so much from her, off the screen and on it."
The shoot sounded very intense, Snowdonia in November, was it a war?
William: "It was brutal. We had 70 mile-an-hour winds, so no lights, that meant shooting in natural light. We had snow and we had to go inside for two days. That completely changed the schedule. We had flooding, that wrote off a whole period of time. We were all cold, all the time. We were always wet, all the time. But it's an important part of the film. If you're making a film about the landscape percolating through into people, you can't fake it. We couldn't have shot it in July."
Did it get pretty grim though? Did you wish you'd just gone to Budapest or something?
Eleanor: "There were days that were very grim, days where we had to trudge to set, with mud up to your knees. It puts you in that landscape though. You get the physicals trials of the character and that can only help your performance."
William: "Even in the house, we had to put on heated blankets to the bed, just to stop everyone getting ill. But of course, that's what it was like. Freezing houses with slate floors. The weather followed us inside."
Eleanor: "The house was colder if anything. I think the stone trapped it inside. It looks brilliant though. I'm pleased it was that way. Now."
Did that give the cast a real sense of camaraderie?
Eleanor: "It was really lovely. Cast and crew had to band together and be in it together. I've never worked on a production where everybody was so involved and so caring about the rest of the crew and cast. If you needed help, you got it."
William: "I found all the changes quite freeing. When you direct TV, you stick to the schedule. You have to shoot those lines, there's a producer behind you making sure you do. So I turned up on day one with that mindset and I had to lose it. It teaches you to be flexible, to be responsive and to work with what you have around you. You need to get something done."
"The weather meant I could riff a bit more, and that improvisation and asking that bit more of your actors was the weather's fault, not mine. Don't get me wrong, there were days when I felt physically sick. We started having two sets of costumes and we'd change when they got too wet. I went to get the change and it was still wet from the day before. That was grim."
You pepper bits of Welsh in the dialogue, why did you decide to do that? And how was learning Welsh?
William: "The Welsh landscape is so evocative. I didn't want native Welsh speakers seeing those first shot and hearing English. It would have been very jarring. I wished, kind of, that the whole thing was in Welsh. The language was a real barrier. You had English venture capitalists arriving and shutting out the natives. It was a political tool. But to do the whole thing would have been impossible for me. I'd love to have had more of it and it does enhance the film."
Eleanor: "I love language. It fascinates me. I've got used to hearing multi-lingual actors and when I saw it in the script, I was determined to have a go. What you think it sounds like is always wrong so I took a lot of advice. We had a great support crew and they really helped me through it."
William, you've got His Dark Materials coming out, what can you tell us about that?
William: "I'm in the edit with that and that'll be where I'm at for a while. The budget was another thing entirely. You are going from a small and nimble crew to a juggernaut with very different expectations. This is a Sunday night drama, not an arthouse folk story. I've loved it, it's been a favourite book since I was a teenager. But I've got Gun Dog too. It's a revenge thriller which is inspired by badger baiting, so another cheery story. I'm writing that now with a view to direct."
And you're back to Britannia...
Eleanor: "It's out this autumn and it's pretty out there. It's the original punk rock of TV and I'm really excited for everyone to see the second season."
Gwen is out now on DVD.