During the Edinburgh Film Festival, film critic Calum Cooper sat down with director William McGregor and actress Eleanor Worthington-Cox to discuss their new film Gwen, which screened at the film festival and is scheduled to release in cinemas this week, on 19 July.
Calum: I’m here with Eleanor Worthington-Cox and William McGregor to talk about their new film, Gwen. How are you guys?
Eleanor: I’m good.
William: Good. Thank you.
Calum: I saw the film two days ago, and I thought it was great. I really liked it. For those who haven’t heard of it, tell us what the film is about?
William: It’s a kind of slow-burn, anti-capitalist folk horror. It’s setting up the expectation of the antagonist being a monster or a witch, but is it really a monster? I’ve always loved folk horror, and it’s massively inspired by landscapes. So those things found themselves into this North Walian dark gothic drama.
Calum: Whereabouts did, I guess, the idea spawn from? It was very unsettling for me, and it’s obviously quite a disturbing idea.
William: Yeah. I’ve just been fascinated by dread, and the uncanny. I love going to the cinema and just feeling on the edge of my seat and tense. I think it’s one of those things that folk horror does: To take the landscape and to portray that landscape in a way that understands that there’s danger in nature. There’s danger in the land, and that’s something that we’ve lost touch with. It can be incredibly scary really.
Calum: Is that the same for you Eleanor?
Eleanor: Yeah. Completely. And, when I came on board, that was one of the first things that really took me. I’ve never read a script like it. So when you really immerse yourself into that landscape, it really just brings you closer to the character.
Calum: So what was the decision making behind having it specifically set in Wales? I’ve seen plenty of folk horror set in like North America or Scotland. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen one set in Wales before.
William: Actually, the short film that it was based on – Who’s Afraid of the Water Sprite? – was made in Slovenia. Hilary Bevan Jones, the producer of Gwen, I think saw that film in about 2011, and we got talking during a student film festival. She said “would you consider developing this short fairy tale student film that I made into a feature film. I think you’d really react well and respond well to the Snowdonian landscape”. It’s somewhere that she has a great affinity with, and has a great love for, and she wanted me to explore that area in Betws-Y-Coed. I instantly fell in love with the landscape. It was sublime and awe-inspiring. The terrain was dangerous yet beautiful. We really just stayed in Betws-Y-Coed and went walking and discovered these incredible landscapes, including this monolithic rock in the middle of this valley that inspired the opening of the film. It all became quite a natural process really.
Calum: Eleanor, I think you’re terrific in the film.
Eleanor: Aw, thank you so much.
Calum: It’s a very hard kind of role to pull off, so I was wondering what influenced your performance?
Eleanor: From the moment I read the script I knew it was the kind of role that I wanted to do, because I’ve always been very invested in portraying strong characters: People who go through a lot. I’ve never been a girly girl, so I’d always rather be covered in mud than in a pretty dress. Reading the script and seeing the hardship that this young woman goes through – keeping her family together in such horror from both the landscape and the people around her – I knew immediately that it was something I wanted to do. I’ve always loved a challenge, and so I thought, yeah this is definitely going to push me. It’s going to challenge me. I knew from the minute I read the first draft that it was something that I’d love to do.
Calum: It’s interesting that you mention it because, as well as an anti-capitalism film, I read it as an anti-patriarchy piece. Was that intended?
William: I guess you can tie anti-capitalism into a subgenre of anti-patriarchalism.
William: I think if you’re making a film where you’re saying look witches and witchcraft are basically people’s beliefs – I believe you can use this herb in this way, and make it work in this way to help me. If you manipulate that you create a character of suspicion and fear. Often a witch was a midwife, and that was men trying to gain control. You look at a film like The Witch, which was basically saying witches are real and scary.
Calum: That’s a terrific film isn’t it?
William: It’s fantastic. Well we’re actually almost doing the opposite. We’re saying that someone a community can turn against isn’t a witch, but just someone with different beliefs. She’s just a woman working in a certain way, and has a different connection to the land. If you’re saying that she’s actually not the evil character in the film – these men are – then you naturally end up in this film which is saying that the evil forces are the mine owners or that the community is being misled by the leaders of that community.
Calum: You’ve mentioned it, but something I really did appreciate about the film was how well it blurs the line between what could potentially be paranormal horror and genuine human horror. How important was that in making the film?
William: We were given quite a lot of freedom. We didn’t have to tick any boxes or conform to any specific genre.
William: But it does make the film quite hard to define, because it’s idiosyncratic. Is it a dark drama? Is it a gothic drama? Is it a folk horror? But it blurs the line between all of those things because that’s the film we wanted to make. If your film is about ‘is horror real’ or ‘is fear real or is it manipulated’, why are you afraid of something? If this dread of the unknown is coming from the manipulation of your fear then you’re going to make a film which is inherently a dark drama that flirts with horror and then becomes a horror because that’s baked into the concept of the film. If it was a horror from the beginning then the concept of the film doesn’t work. Kind of makes it hard to place.
Calum: Well in my opinion it works for the best. How important was it to tell this really quite sinister story from Gwen’s perspective?
Eleanor: It’s such an interesting thing because I’ve never really read a story where it’s so based in folk lore and the landscape, and it’s all told from a young woman’s point of view. That was what drew me to the script. It really is about a young woman’s journey through all this horror happening around her, but it’s not based in one certain box. You can’t limit it. So to tell that through the eyes of a young woman is something that’s quite rare. That was what really drew me to it in the first place.
Calum: Something that I quite liked too was the love-hate relationship between Gwen and her mother. Do you both think that we’re now seeing more films that focus on the mother daughter relationship? For myself, I feel like that’s a relationship that’s only now being more explored with films like Lady Bird or Wild Rose.
Eleanor: It’s interesting because it is such a complex relationship. It’s not just the typical mother daughter. There’s so many layers to it and there’s so much depth. Gwen is essentially scared of her mother, and very angry, and she’s so confused as to what’s going on around her. But there’s so much love and safety amid all the chaos and the fear. You’ve got this complex balance. Maxine [Peake] is just such a legend to work with, and obviously there was a lot of love between us, so it was fantastic that we had the layers of the mother daughter. At the end of the film you see that deep love, and that trust, come into place. But obviously, you know, their entire relationship is built on a single lie, so you have to explore that too. It’s very complex. It’s interesting that you’ve compared it to Lady Bird or Wild Rose, as it’s nice to see that more complex relationships between women are being explored.
READ CALUM’S FILMSPACE REVIEW FOR GWEN
William: That’s the thing. I don’t know what the stats are, but if you have more female led stories, and presumably one of the central themes of female stories are relationships between women, then there’s no stronger or more complicated incarnation of that then a mother and daughter.
William: You know, every woman that’s ever been born has a mother.
Eleanor: That’s true.
William: I couldn’t say whether there’s any more or any less, but it is an incredible fascinating story to explore.
Calum: There’s a lot of Pagan influences that I was picking up on as I was watching the film. Was it fun to just explore its association with folk lore, what you could include and what you couldn’t?
William: It’s where my interests come from. I’m fascinated by folk traditions and folk beliefs. Pagan rituals and pagan beliefs. And a lot of that comes from a love of the landscape and how the landscape forms our beliefs. In actual fact, I took a few liberties with the film. It’s set in the Industrial Revolution. You weren’t really having witch hunts in that time. In fact, the Welsh community were much more open minded about witchcraft. It’s more Scotland and England where witch hunting would’ve been more prevalent. I did take some liberties, but it was just a melting pot of various things that I’m fascinated by that I wanted to put on screen.
Calum: Aye. What would you say is the most crucial thing when it comes to making a horror film? Gwen might not be a horror in the conventional sense, but to me it is still a horror film.
William: Yeah. It is a horror film. It’s a slow-burn horror film – it’s more about dread and the potential uncanny – but it is still a horror film. It is difficult because you do have to come at it thinking ‘what type of horror is this’. There’s many different types of drama, and there’s many different types of comedy. But if you go in expecting a jump scare in the first scene, then that’s not what you’re in for here. You’re in for a tense experience that grows and grows and grows, and develops into a horror film. But I think the horror has to come from something real. The horror has to come from something subconscious that we all fear. I feel that if your horror is purely technical then it’s like a fast food version of horror. You want your horror to be a gourmet meal of organic food where every mouthful is full of nutrients and dense with protein.
Calum: Aye. That’s the difference between horrors like Truth or Dare or Carrie.
Calum: For both of you, what was the hardest part about making this film? For myself just watching it, it was incredibly unsettling, so I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like making it.
Eleanor: Gosh, I mean, I always pride myself on being able to step away from a scene and know that you’re leaving it behind you. So even in the most traumatic scenes or in the most difficult of times, it’s brilliant to just leave work at the office, and take a step back. I have so much respect for people who can go method and really truly immerse themselves in it. But for me, the most challenging thing is to just do it all in the scene, really get into it, and then walk away.
William: There were times on set when I felt physically sick. Trying to make a film is difficult. It’s the start of the day and you have no idea how you’re going to achieve the day. Until you’ve got that first shot out of the way, everything feels impossible. You’ve got this huge movie machine of 60 people working together to put the camera in the right place, to turn it on, and to film something. And that gives me anxiety. If you’re doing that, and also it’s pelting it down with rain and you can’t even see more than 10 metres in front of you, then you’re just stood there. You want to tell this story and do it in the best way that you can, and you’re just being pounded by the elements. It was actually when we were doing the scene with you [Eleanor] trying to get back in the house.
Eleanor: Oh my gosh, yes.
William: I’ve never felt physically sick on set before until that day. Fortunately it all came together. And then you have that huge adrenaline rush at the end, because you’ve told the story that we’ve set out to do.
William: I actually find going to the film screenings when the credits roll and you’re going to a Q&A…
Eleanor: That’s the difficult part!
Eleanor: The making of the film was a piece of cake, and then you get to a Q&A or you have to introduce the film and you think ‘I want to say please enjoy, but that’s totally the wrong thing to say’.
William: I like that you’ve coined this phrase ‘Gwen-Face’.
Eleanor: Oh yeah, the ‘Gwen-Face’.
Calum: What is the ‘Gwen-Face?’
Eleanor: It’s just…
Calum: Oh god.
William: It’s just despair.
Eleanor: It says “umm… what? What did I just watch?”
Calum: I’m getting flashbacks to the movie now.
Eleanor: Yeah, exactly.
William: I love that it resonates with people, and people are still thinking about it days later. But walking in front of people and having to talk about it, after they’ve just watched that film. It’s like, the audience don’t need it. We don’t need it. Let’s all just go home.
Eleanor: Let’s all just go home, have a cry into our pillow, and leave it behind us.
Calum: It’s already dwelling on the subconscious and now we have to talk about it.
Eleanor: Yeah. The best way is to just crack a joke. Get it over and done with.
Calum: Yeah. So, after Gwen, what can we see you both in next?
Eleanor: Well there’s a big project that I’ll be filming next year, which I have to keep hush hush about. But yeah I’m very excited about it.
William: When’s the next Britannia out?
Eleanor: Oh yeah. Season 2 of Britannia is coming out this Autumn.
William: That’s very Pagan.
Eleanor: Oh yeah. Very Pagan. It’s all druids and romans. It was great because we had the freedom to explore who the druids were and what they did. We’ve got barely anything recorded. I guess I really like Paganism. Doing Gwen. Doing Britannia. It’s fantastic. I guess you could just say it’s the original form of storytelling.
Calum: Aye. And coming off of Matilda, and Action Point as well.
Eleanor: Gosh yeah. I’ve always liked to do a range of things. I don’t like to pigeon-hole myself. I’m up for anything. I’ll always tell myself I’d love to try this or I’d love to do this. I’ve always tried to keep a balance as there’s so many different forms to try. Actors are storytellers. As long as you’re invested in that story and you really connect with that character, then that’s all I’m interested in.
Calum: That’s great.
William: You’ve been working professionally longer than I have really.
Eleanor: Yeah. Whether I’m more professional or not is another story really.
Calum: Well I’m not really a professional interviewer or critic, so what do I know?
William: Actually, we’ll soon be on my second week of shooting for HBO’s and BBC’s His Dark Materials.
Calum: Aw, brilliant.
William: That was a book I read as a teenager in 2001 and just fell in love with it and these characters. Obviously there’s The Golden Compass and there’s The Northern Lights. But the bit that I’m doing has never been put on screen before. It was something I read as a teenager, and was just fascinated by it. It invaded my head. That and the Potter books was what I grew up on, and I’m the director privileged with bringing this certain character to the screen. And I’m filming scenes that for me are iconic. Scenes from my teenage years, and I’m the director putting that together, telling this story, and introducing this character. I’m back on set on Monday. That I’m really enjoying, but at the same time I am there as a director, not as a writer-director. I’m serving not only Philip Pullman’s material, but Jack Thorne’s material. I’m loving that experience. It’s an absolute privilege, but what I really want to do is continue to make my own strange stories like Gwen. I’ve just finished the latest draft of a script with BFI and Film4, which is a revenge story about a gamekeeper. It’s like John Wick meets Kes.
Calum: Well, I’m looking forward to both of those. You can catch Gwen on July 19th, and thank you both for talking to me.
William: Cool. Cheers mate.
Eleanor: Thank you so much.
Gwen opens in theatres July 19th. You can see it at the Glasgow Film Theatre between July 22 and 24. Book tickets here.