Desperate for a remedy to his grief after the loss of his wife, Eric Black finds solitude in the form of a newspaper advert: Remote west-coast island seeks sole resident shepherd. As well as his new flock, he must also tend to his own sanity before the island claims it.
We caught up with writer and director Russell Owen to discuss his psychological horror movie Shepherd.
Skye: For those who haven’t seen it, could you give us a brief insight into what Shepherd is about?
Russell: Shepherd follows a man who has fallen into a rabbit hole of depression after the loss of his wife – we’re not quite sure how she has died. It starts with a dream about her funeral, and afterwards he ends up with a choice between suicide and taking a job as a shepherd on an island that he comes across. He ends up taking the latter, which turns out to be one big metaphor for what he’s going through mentally, as we see him spiralling into panic, loss and paranoia.
Skye: Where did the idea for this film come from?
Russell: I grew up in North Wales with lots of ghost stories, and it was these that I was more fascinated by than film at the time. I wanted to be a comic book artist initially, but I ended up finding film, as it was much more exciting for me.
There was this famous story in Wales, the Small’s Lighthouse story, which is exactly the same one that Robert Eggers ended up using for The Lighthouse. Although he set it in America, it’s originally a Welsh true story about two guys who end up looking after the Small’s Lighthouse off the coast of Wales. One of them dies in an accident and the other ends up going mad with the isolation after no one could reach him because of a storm. It led to there being a rule that you had to have three lighthouse keepers in remote lighthouses like that. I loved the idea of that isolation story as a horror.
There are also these adverts you see in the back of papers, which go viral with tens of thousands of applications because it’s the ideal job. It’s the whole ‘drop it all and escape to a remote island’ thing, which in my head would be the worst thing you could possibly do because you’d be alone.
It was a combination of those two things. I’d originally written it in 2005/2006 and I was too young at the time, so no one would take me seriously. I kept reworking it, re-pitching it, putting it back on the shelf, and ended up going away for years and making commercials and short films. When a friend of mine died from depression in 2016 after losing his fight with bipolar, I remember speaking to him about how that felt, and I reworked the script again based on his experiences. After that, I ended up getting a really good cast attached, and it finally came along.
Skye: It’s also really fitting with the pandemic, at a time when everyone was really isolated. I feel as though the film touched on how a lot of people were feeling.
Russell: Yeah, it was quite timely. We shot it in 2019 just before COVID hit, and then had a few pick-ups to do in the middle of COVID. We were one of the first productions to start shooting again in the middle of the pandemic, so that was odd timing to be making a film like that with everything going on.
Skye: I notice that the film is set on the Isle of Mull. What drew you to this location?
Russell: I’d travelled up the whole length of the west coast from South Wales through to North Wales as I originally wanted to set it there. We then needed a lighthouse in the film, so we decided to go to all the locations on the west coast that had lighthouses. The Lighthouse Association were really accommodating. Half of them, however, if they’re not automated with large LED lights and unreachable, are instead like Airbnb’s with nothing decrepit or horror-film-like about them.
I’d been everywhere, and the last lighthouse we went to visit was on the Isle of Mull, which was beautiful except you could only get to it by boat. For this reason, I didn’t think we’d be able to shoot there as we wouldn’t have been able to get the crew to it.
I decided to look around and see if there was somewhere else. I remember driving the wrong way around the island for about three hours and not coming across anything, then rounding a corner and seeing the three mountains that you can see in the film. This was a massive ‘wow’ moment, and I assumed I was back on the mainland but found out that it was still part of the island.
It was difficult to get to as the road was very narrow with tiny little hobbit bridges. No-one has ever really filmed there because it’s impractical, and instead they prefer to use the more accessible side of the island where the castles are. But I was obsessed with that area, so we ended up throwing everything and choosing it. There was something not quite Scotland about it – it felt almost Icelandic and otherworldly. It was brilliant to find it by chance when rounding a corner and spotting it from over the bay.
Skye: Was the cottage there as well?
Russell: No, only the mum’s farm. Weirdly, this was the last house we saw before we rounded that corner. Everything else was a set; there was a lighthouse in Anglesey that I based the lighthouse set in the film on. I had the cottage in my head for ages, and we’d gone to see a couple of others. One was nice and clean, however there was nothing abandoned or falling-apart about it. The one that we did find was more expensive to alter, and it would have been cheaper to build a complete new set. We’d sketched out what it would look like –I’d had the interior and exterior in my head for years. It was really weird to turn up to a difficult filming location and see them building this cottage that was exactly how I had envisioned.
Skye: With there being minimal dialogue, did you or the cast find this a challenge?
Russell: It was a challenge, especially for the actors, and I knew it would be coming into the project. It was why we needed a good actor, so I was really pleased that I got Tom Hughes to play Eric Black. He was always on the top of Gemma Sykes’s list, who was our casting director for the film. Tom found it difficult but wanted to do it because he was excited about the challenge.
The film was always an exercise in atmosphere and tension. My job was to think about how to cut from one shot to another, how the camera was going to move, and the lens choices we were going to make. I remember one conversation regarding the script where someone asked, “Can’t we have a bit more fun? Can’t the dog do some funny things or stay in the film for a little bit longer?”. They wanted something to attach to, and I found it interesting that people were gravitating towards safe corners. It was great to keep pulling away from that and to double down on the isolation.
Overall, it was a huge challenge, but in my head I knew what I wanted to do. The sound, design and music were going to play a huge part – it’s a visual medium. The other things that I’ve been writing contain a lot of dialogue, which will be refreshing for actors as they’ll have someone to bounce off.
I had a choice between a couple of things that I’d written, and that was the first thing I wanted to make. Firstly, because it was the first thing I’d written, and secondly, because it was a challenge which, if pulled off, meant it would be easier getting great actors to bounce off each other in the future.
Skye: I thought it was a very visually tactile movie.
Russell: When I’m watching a film, I like to read too much into what’s in the background. For example, there is a shot in the film where Eric is reading an old diary and there is a taxidermy goat in the background. The way that the shot was composed, when you hold onto it for long enough, makes you think that the goat’s head is going to move.
It’s that silence that creates tension. So ultimately, once you’ve put that in, you can let the imagination of the audience get to work. It was all very deliberate, particularly on the production design and the costume design. There are lots of little stories in all those things.
Skye: What was it like working with the cast? Obviously you’ve got Tom Hughes as the lead, Kate Dickie and Greta Scacchi.
Russell: They were amazing! I’d just come off a zombie film that I’d made where it wasn’t my script. It was essentially a gore-fest, and we’d shot it beautifully, but I’d jumped into it last-minute with an unfinished script. I found it a real challenge to try and tear it apart and build some background for the characters. There were around twenty characters in it, while in Shepherd you have the three main characters and then Gaia Weiss playing Rachel as projected by everybody’s imagination.
To come out of that experience and then go into something that I’d known very well after writing it for years was great. I knew that I would be able to impart everything I knew about the characters to these actors who’d been doing it for a long time. They could rock up on set and get involved, using their experiences of bringing characters to life. Between action and cut, they did exactly what was needed. It really was amazing to be working with people giving 110% and bringing their A-game.
Skye: I must ask, what was it like working with Baxter the dog on set? Was he good?
Russell: It was actually a she! Her name was Shuggie, although she plays a he in the film. She was well trained as a sheepdog and was about eight or nine years old at the time of the shoot. She was fantastic. We had a really good animal handler too –Joyce – who would do things like hide a bit of corned beef somewhere and then tell the dog to stay to spark a reaction.
I’d worked with animals and children before, and I really enjoy it. You may have to do ten takes or so to get the right thing, but you schedule it because you expect it.
For Shepherd, I needed a really calm, quiet and sedate dog. In the script, the dog barked and would do lots of things. Shuggie did none of that, but it worked out that the performance was actually better. Even Tom, who usually doesn’t like to watch himself in playbacks, watched the performances and said, “Bloody hell, I’ve been upstaged by the dog again!”. Everybody fell in love with that dog.
Skye: Who would you say are some of your biggest influences, such as film directors or films you’ve seen?
Russell: A lot of the things I have done are quite genre-focused and psychological.
In terms of filmmakers, obviously the classics like Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg and that generation have been a giant influence, getting me into the film industry. Now, however, I look to people like Jordan Peele. I remember watching Get Out and thinking “Oh, I enjoyed that” and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. When I went back and watched it again, I realised how beautifully crafted it is, both structure and story-wise.
I’ve always been a massive fan of Jane Campion, too, but she only makes films about once every ten years or so! She’s just done The Power of the Dog, and again it’s a movie I can’t stop thinking about. She can make something beautifully crafted while also managing to work well with actors so that they bring their best. A lot of the time you either get one or the other, and it’s rare for a filmmaker to be able to do both. I definitely look to her when it comes to building atmosphere, sense of space and presence on screen.
Ari Aster, with Hereditary and Midsommar, are also some of the best horror films that have been out in years. What I love about them is that they’re so divisive. There’s lots of visual symbolism in the narrative, which is great. Although I wrote Shepherd years before those films came out, in a way they paved the way for it to get made. With directors doing films like those, I was able to as well.
Again, Christopher Nolan, with the ending of Inception, allowed me to have the ending that I did with Shepherd. People didn’t push for a rounding off because I’d cited the spinning top at the end of Inception. I wanted a talking point at the end. Was he mad? Is he on the island? Is he dead?
I’ve probably got a list of about 40 or 50 others that I could reel off! What I love about film and filmmaking is that everyone has completely different approaches and techniques.
Oh yeah – there’s also The Goonies. I was completely obsessed with that.
Skye: I saw that again a few weeks ago. It’s such a throwback and a nostalgic watch!
Russell: Yeah, it’s brilliant, still sharp as ever.
Skye: Do you yourself believe in the supernatural or have you had any encounters with ghosts?
Russell: I don’t want to relate because people usually respond with ‘Oh my god, that’s terrifying!”, but I remember when I was growing up and my dad would tell me stories about a house that I lived in in North Wales.
There’d be objects that would move, and he’d check on me at night when I was a baby and would notice that things would be out of my cot. That absolutely terrified me. There was this one day while I was at University, I’d come home and my parents were away at the time. I was in their house and I could hear this banging. It turned out to be the shower door in the bathroom that was at the end of the corridor. It stopped when I went in, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. “It can’t bang by itself” I thought, as there wasn’t any breeze. I stood there for a while and nothing happened, so I left the room. When I left, I could hear it open and it slammed really loud. I was terrified and ran out of the house!
I told my dad, to which he replied, “Oh yeah, that thing that used to move teddies out of your cot when you were a baby? It still follows you!”. I was like, “Oh god, no it’s not, it isn’t real!”. But now I’ve always got that in my head. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and wonder if it’s because of what’s following me.
So really, I do think there is something to be said about the supernatural. We don’t know everything. I’m not some sort of ghost advocate, but there is something, whether it be psychological or a bizarre experience. Let’s just say I’d like to believe that I believe.
Skye: Is there anything else you’re working on currently?
Russell: I do lots of commercials in between. I’ve just finished a TV advert for McArthurGlenn designer outlet and another for skin cream.
I’ll hopefully be getting my next film off the ground – it’s called Paper. Then there is another called Anglesey Road that I’ve been writing. It’s actually based on the story I just told you about where the teddies came out of the cot – or at least that’s the spark of influence. Anglesey Road is also the name of the old street where I grew up. They’re my two main projects. I also run a production company, and every so often we go off and shoot a short film in a few days, so we’re planning that for April.
Skye: If you had to sum up Shepherd in three words, what would they be?
Russell: Atmosphere, suspense and cowardice. Tom is constantly running away from things – which weirdly is the polar opposite of my next film, which is about a girl who has lost all of her memories and goes out to discover them. She is going towards danger rather than running from it.
Skye: Thank you, Russell! It was great getting a chance to hear more about your film!
We’d like to say a massive thank you to Russell Owen for taking the time to talk to us and wish him the best of luck with Shepherd, which is now available to watch on VOD.