Russell Owen • Director of Shepherd
"There is no better magician than a good casting director"
by Kaleem Aftab
- The British director’s take on the same Welsh legend that inspired Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse gives the story a new, unique twist
Shepherd [+see also:
interview: Russell Owen
film profile], which had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, is loosely based on the same Welsh legend that inspired Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse. Russell Owen's interpretation gives the story a new, unique twist, swapping the gender of one of the main characters and setting the action on a remote Scottish island.
North Wales-born Owen studied illustrating and screenwriting, working as a storyboard artist and concept artist before becoming a set director and art director on popular TV shows in the UK. He has made dozens of adverts, and Shepherd is his third feature.
Cineuropa: What themes did you want to explore in Shepherd?
Russell Owen: Shepherd is about one man's spiral into paranoia and depression after the loss of his wife and the deterioration of his family around him. So he decides to become independent and go it alone by taking the ideal job as a shepherd. Obviously, he's not in the right psychological place to be doing anything like that. So it's about his decision making and where that leads.
And that idea of aloneness seems to fit our present-day pandemic lives perfectly.
Well, it was not deliberate, but it was very apt to be making a film about isolation and how it can drive us crazy. Obviously, my character doesn't have Zoom or any of that other paraphernalia – he has gas lamps and a phone that works very occasionally – but yes, it probably prepared me more for being locked in my tiny flat in London than anything else. I actually had a nice time because, in hindsight, I know how much worse it could have been.
You managed to put a great cast together for this film. How did you get Kate Dickie and Greta Scacchi on board?
There's no better magician than a good casting director. Gemma Sykes put the actors together, and I didn't think I would get them. Tom Hughes is outstanding, and if we had got that casting wrong, the film would not have worked, as it's very much his film. Kate Dickie is the greatest character actor of all time. When she said yes, we had a three-hour conversation on the phone. Her character was a man in the script.
How was it shooting in Scotland?
I thought shooting in Scotland for six weeks in the winter would be a nightmare, but it was amazing. It's one of the most beautiful places in the world, particularly that far side of Mull. However, the island was supposed to be birdless, so in post, we spent a lot of time getting rid of the birds. The location was a character in the film, so we had to go somewhere special.
How hard was it for you to get Shepherd made?
Really hard. It took me 17 years. When I went out to finance it, people were like, “What have you done?” I could have done 400 commercials; it doesn't matter. I haven't got an Oscar, and there was no point going for public funding, as I didn't have the credentials to do it. In the end, I got the finance from a company that needed a director to take over on a feature that wasn't very me, and I said that I would make it look fantastic and that I would do it for free, on one condition: that they finance Shepherd. And that's how it was done.
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