Things often come in circles. Several decades after Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man, it seems that horror filmmakers are returning to curious, quiet villages somewhere in England to once again tell strange and macabre stories. The locals are suspicious (and often superstitious), and an eerie feeling of unspoken threat is in the air. These are some of common themes of ‘folk horror’, a subgenre that relies heavily on haunting rural landscape, folkloric beliefs, and the rites and rituals of sinister locals. Folk horror does seem to be having a bit of a revival. In recent years, audiences have seen Ben Wheatley’s disturbing Kill List, Robert Eggers’s award-winning The Witch, Hammer’s Wake Wood and the recent folk horror hit, The Ritual. This month, however, we visit Farthing Island, where the chilling folk tale of Dogged unfolds. Diabolique had pleasure to talk to Richard Rowntree, the director and writer of this new independent feature.
Diabolique: Hi Richard, thank you for taking a time to chat to us. Your first feature, Dogged, is out on DVD and VOD on 9 July and is receiving a lot of positive reviews from the horror community. Tell us a bit about how it feels to finally have the film out there for people to see?
Richard Rowntree: Thanks for having me! Yes, I’ve been really pleased with the reviews the film has been getting and the audience reactions at the different festivals where the film’s played. It’s a huge thrill and honour to have a physical release for Dogged – something I never envisaged when we set out on the journey to make it. It’s such a tough marketplace that to find our niche is a great feeling.
Diabolique: Folk horror seems to be having a revival these days. Was it always a conscious decision to make Dogged a folk horror film? During your recent panel at MCM Comic Con, you said that it is actually based on your short film.
RR: Yes, I think what The Guardian described as ‘post horror’ (although I don’t like the phrase), which partially includes the folk-horror revival, is undergoing a period of real popularity at the moment. The thought that horror can evolve into a new kind of beast is encouraging, and means it gets seen by audiences who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves to be avid horror fans.
Dogged started life as a micro-short, and both Matt (Davies, co-writer) and myself are huge fans of folk-horror. We knew that we wanted to stick within the parameters set out for that, and made conscious decisions on a lot of levels to try and be as true as possible to the roots and ethos of it. Although the short is the very loose basis of the feature, it spreads its wings considerably further.
Diabolique: Can you tell us more about your influences? You can see The Wicker Man and The Blood on Satan’s Claw references, for sure.
RR: Those two for definite but also the films of Ben Wheatley influenced me as well. I loved Kill List and A Field in England – for different reasons – but also his decision to make those films and be bold with the choice of subject matter was a real encouragement. I adore horror and have grown up watching it regularly, but I found a few years ago that I just wasn’t particularly engaging with the majority of the films being made. I wanted to do something different and out of the ordinary, particularly for my first feature. The atmosphere created by Kubrick in The Shining was also a big influence, and there’s several Easter eggs in Dogged which point to that – the eagle eyed (and eared) viewer will spot them, I hope!
Diabolique: Your cast is excellent – Sam Saunders as the protagonist, and Toby Wynn-Davies as the villainous priest. How did you come about casting these guys and how was your relationship on the set?
RR: Yes, those guys certainly give stand out performances! Sam we already knew as he’d been in a couple of our short films so it was a no brainer to cast him as we’d written the role with him firmly in mind. Toby was one of those joyous finds from an open casting call – he sent us a self-tape first of all, and we all instantly knew he had the role nailed! It was tremendous fun on set with all of the cast – they’re all very generous actors without ego – and seeing their interpretations of the characters we’d written on a page was fabulous. As an ensemble cast, I couldn’t have asked to work with better or nicer people.
Diabolique: Dogged was made possible thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. How was it like – awaiting to hit the target, then working within a tight budget?
RR: The Kickstarter campaign was really very hard (as they always are). We weren’t sure if we would reach the target, and when we did it was a case of being slightly panicked initially at the idea of now having the responsibility of having to make a feature film! But we found our way through thanks to a lot of support from family, friends and people we know in the industry who are more experienced than we are so we owe a lot to many people who helped us along the way. I think the fact that we were trying to do something outside the box appealed to a lot of people who backed us all through the Kickstarter campaign and the shoot. Although the budget was tight on paper, every head of department absolutely maximised what we got for it – our costume designer, for example, worked wonders and came up with 72 individual costumes for the film as well as hand stitching all of the animal masks. When you have a solid team and everyone’s working towards a common goal, it’s remarkable what you can achieve!
Diabolique: I’ve heard Haribos were quite popular on set?
RR: Haha very much so! We somehow managed to get through 1-2 large boxes of them every shoot day. Some crew members were more culpable than others – they would open them sometimes at 5am on a shoot day which to me seemed nauseating – but it kept them going, so I can’t complain!
Diabolique: Can you tell us where you shot the film? The setting definitely has the eerie English vibe so essential to folk horror.
RR: Thank you! Yes, we tried to shoot in semi-rural areas and villages and edit everything together to make it cohesive, and I think largely that works. The establishing shots of the island were done at a real tidal island in the Blackwater Estuary in Essex called Osea Island (where they shot The Woman in Black), then we also shot in Bishops Stortford in Essex, Worthing in Sussex, a woodland just outside Oxford and in and around the village of Iver in Bucks (home of Pinewood Studios). It was a logistical nightmare on the whole, but one or two hiccups aside, it ran like clockwork.
Diabolique: As well as directing your own films, you’ve also worked on some of the biggest blockbusters from recent years like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World: Lost Kingdom. Could you tell us a bit about your work on these films? And what’s it like going from working on a studio film to a low budget horror picture?
RR: So I have worked as a greensman on big budget movies – which usually entails re-creating natural scenery for studio shoots – but also enhancing location work too. It’s a fun role within the industry as you get to see your work on screen a lot. But it does mean I find it difficult to enjoy movies without thinking “that plant wouldn’t grow in that environment” or “they didn’t have those plants in 1200 BC” or whatever! The gulf between the big budget studio movies and small indie horror movies couldn’t be wider in terms of the behind the scenes elements. I find it incredibly frustrating when you see the luxuries afforded to big budget films and you’re scraping around to find the money to cover your crews’ Haribo addiction!
Diabolique: You’ve made short films, and you’ve now made your first full feature. Could you tell us more about your next film, Nefarious?
RR: Yes, so I’ve decided to branch out a bit with Nefarious – this one will be in the home invasion sub-genre – another one that I love and has the ability to disturb audiences simply because of the setting and atmosphere. Nefarious, in some ways, is something of an opposite to Dogged, in that it’s set primarily in one location, over a 24-hour period, and with a very small cast. I wanted to try things that I hadn’t with my first film and focus heavily again on characterisation as I believe that horror films are best when audiences really engage with the characters. It’s shaping up to be a lot of fun, and will offer something very different from Dogged.
Diabolique: Sounds great! Richard, thank you so much for your time and chatting to us. Good luck and we can’t wait to see what you do next!
RR: Thank you for having me!
Left Films presents Dogged on UK DVD and VOD, and US VOD on 9 July. US DVD coming 4 September.