It’s a hot, sunny day in London when I meet William McGregor, writer-director of the 1850s-set gothic folk horror Gwen, and its star Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who plays the title character.
Although Gwen has parallels with UK society today, it could only be set in the environment in which it takes place, its rain and snow-lashed landscapes more than mere backdrops for characters and action.
Gwen lives with her mother Elen (Maxine Peak) and young sister Mari on an isolated farm in a Welsh valley; their father is away fighting, and the local mine owners are ratcheting up the pressure on Elen to make her hand over the farm so they can mine the land. (You can read my 4-star review and watch the trailer here. Gwen is released in UK cinemas on 19 July.)
McGregor weaves folk history, capitalism and coming-of-age themes into his darkly beautiful, haunting movie – much of which hangs on the extraordinary Worthington-Cox (who was previously TV BAFTA-nominated for her role as Janet in The Enfield Haunting).
I began by asking William about those landscapes.
William McGregor: I think we’re in a time when we’re surrounded by concrete. We’re surrounded by screens, and we’re trying to get back to who are we as individuals and as a nation. Then I think you do look to our landscape: stories from the landscape and our relationship with the landscape. It’s important. I think people want to see more stories.
Sarah: And how people are connected to it. Quite often in horror films, particularly in Britain, the landscape is quite threatening. But it isn’t in your film, it’s another character. It’s the people who are the threat.
William: It’s actually the abuse of the landscape. It’s more of an environmental issue. How are we just going to tear this landscape apart and leave scars across it and remove people from their homes? Which is where the horror comes from, really.
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I must talk to you about the weather, because, at first, it almost seems like the weather is the soundtrack. I was quite surprised at the end when there was proper music.
William: Eleanor’s voice doing a lullaby is actually the wind at the beginning. It’s manipulated to sound like the wind. If you listen to it back, you can hear it’s not actually wind. It’s the lullaby slowed down.
There’s a lot of putting the score and the texture of the sound into the sonic landscape of the film, because especially growing up in a rural community, I realized that I would lay in bed at night and you could hear the wind and you could hear foxes outside, or even the pig farms, pigs making strange noises in the distance.
Actually, there’s both the sound effect of a pig and the sound effect of foxes in the sound of the film.
I always found it very uncanny and creepy.
As soon as it gets dark…
William: …the imagination takes over.
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Did you have to go and look for bad weather? Or did you get there and find it was actually much worse than you expected? Because you had everything, didn’t you!
William: Yeah the weather came to us. We had a scene when Eleanor was supposed to walk out with this lantern, to see that the sheep were spooked, but it just started snowing.
Watching that, I was like, don’t go out, Christ.
William: And then it snowed for the wide, but by the close-up, it had stopped snowing – so that was goose down.
Eleanor Worthington-Cox: I could feel it in the back of my throat and I was like, oh god. But that was amazing just being able to go, right, scrap that, we’re going outside.
William: Responding to the weather – it’s part of the film, so you have to embrace that.
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I liked the isolation. For this family of women and girls which makes them more vulnerable. They isolate themselves, which is a protective thing, but it’s also quite dangerous isn’t it?
William: Yeah, and also on the farm where I grew up, there’s a quarry growing up, a gravel quarry going around the farm. So the landscape that I grew up in and played in, these woodlands were changing as I grew up. But I also think there’s an interesting parallel between witchcraft and fear of powerful women.
Yes, the woman who lives on the edge of the village, that’s what I thought when I was watching it.
William: And it’s the person who can control and help with birth, so it would be that skill that almost would, men would then fear them. So a part of this is actually men just being afraid. The patriarchy actually being afraid of these independent women.
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And who are attached to the land. That’s what I felt watching it, because it’s very easy for men to other a woman who is naturally on the outskirts.
William: If a film like The Witch is trying to say that witches are real and you should be afraid of them, this is just saying that witchcraft is being misused to just describe someone with different beliefs as you, in order to persecute them.
When you were writing this, was it always going to be about a family of women and girls?
William: It started from a short film I made called Who’s Afraid of the Water Sprite, which is actually about a young girl and her mother, but it was shot in Slovenia and it was really a fairytale.
This film, once I started exploring the history of North Wales, it was more about actually how these fairytales, how do these stories come about?
And how could a young girl maybe see the world in a way that could be a fairytale but actually find out that it’s not fantasy, it’s reality? It’s real things that you should be afraid of.
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Something that really struck me was the way that, because so many safety nets are being removed now, something can set up a chain of events a bit like in the film. So there’s always going to be parallels with the modern day.
But for you Eleanor, how do you get into the head of this girl, a teenage girl from 1855?
Eleanor: I think it’s quite sad that there are quite a lot of similarities that come from somebody my age now and somebody from the 19th century.
I shouldn’t be able to relate to that feeling of uncertainty within society and feeling like you are being oppressed by somebody who is trying to take away your power and your power of speech, and trying to put blame on you. It’s quite scary that that can still happen.
Getting into the head space as an actor, that was just reading the script and trying to understand the similarities, the differences, and taking it away from me and understanding who Gwen was as a person.
And while we were on set, I think that’s when we really created Gwen. She came about as we filmed. We tried a lot of different stuff, and we were very free with the way we filmed scenes. So it wasn’t a set decision from the start. She grew as a character as we filmed, which was really rewarding.
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I like that she kept her girlishness as well, when she’s playing with her little sister Mari. Mari hardly says anything but it’s just lovely, isn’t she?
Eleanor: Jodie [Innes, who plays Mari] is an absolute angel. She’s eight now, and she was six when we filmed, so she put up with a lot of dark material and took it all in stride.
William: She would always come up to me and say “It’s not real, Will.” It’s like she had been told by her family, don’t worry, none of it’s real. Even when you were plucking a chicken in front of her, she was like “It’s not real.” She loved to reassure us not to get too upset by things.
Eleanor: Which is just so nice to have that childish innocence where, it’s not real, you don’t need to worry about that when you’re getting so into it.
At the end of the day you could choose to go home and think “Wow, what did I just do today?” and collapse on the bed. But she was just a little ray of sunshine that would be doing splits in between takes and teaching me to do a cartwheel, which was her way of trying to stay positive.
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It must have been cold, with that awful weather. Was there quite a lot of camaraderie on the set?
William, to Eleanor: You and Maxine [Peake] and Jodie [Innes] would just hang out on the set, rather than go back to your green room.
Eleanor: I think being able to stick with each other and having the crew around you as well, it was a huge team effort. Everybody was working together. Everybody was going through these same extreme conditions. Somebody needs a cup of tea, you just get them a cup of tea, it doesn’t matter who you are, just help somebody out.
I think that was probably one of my favourite experiences about the making of this film because something that could’ve been quite dark and demanding actually became one of the most fun projects I ever worked on, just because everybody was so lovely and so welcoming.
William: There’s a great image of all the people huddled under an umbrella and you’ve got loads of layers on, but your furry hoodie’s got a bear on it.
Eleanor: Oh yeah the sheep bear, the classic sheep bear. We had matching dressing gowns. The whole family was the next level of tight knit.
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So was it freezing? Sorry, I’m obsessed with weather.
Eleanor: It was very cold, I will be honest, but I would definitely rather be cold than hot. So equally, you just get on with it. Everybody else is going through the same thing and worse, because the crew, you guys were all stood there.
William: We were in weather gear, though.
Eleanor: Yes but we had 15 minutes here and there to sit down by a heater. You guys were stood outside, you were getting drenched. You were getting pelted with snow.
Yes it was cold but that adds to your performance, and it attaches you to the landscape, and it makes you feel part of the film, even more than you could’ve wished for to begin with.
I was transported the minute it started snowing. It inspires you, whether that’s behind the camera or in front of it. It does affect you and the way you work, so I loved the fact that it was really challenging weather and that it was really demanding and quite scary sometimes.
That just adds to your performance and I think it helped me a lot, personally.
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And working with Maxine as well – you’ve had a quite stellar career already, but do you ever get nervous before meeting someone like her?
Eleanor: Oh definitely, when you do meet somebody that you look up to and you think, “Wow what an incredible person.”
From the minute that you find out that they’ve come on board, you’re like, “What are they going to be like?”. You’re just really hoping that they’re going to be as incredible as you think they are, and that is exactly what Maxine is. She is the most incredible person that I could’ve wished to have worked with, to spend such an intense period of time going through such challenging stuff.
It’s dark material, and to be able to bond with somebody like that, that’s quite special to get that relationship.
I thought Elen was a really intriguing character. There’s a certain way mothers normally get played and she’s different. You feel she’s separating herself to protect the girls and the farm, so she’s not always likeable.
William: You’re doing this for the greater good, and you’re protecting your family. It might mean that sometimes they misunderstand. They think you’re being horrible, but actually it’s tough love.
I think that was really important to show, especially a coming-of-age story about a young girl realising that her mother does love her, it’s just about looking out for the family, and then she takes on that responsibility.
[Maxine]’s got something very grounded and earthy and authentic, but could be believably ethereal and could play something supernatural, in a way.
She could be off making a lot more money shooting something a lot more glamorous, but she decided to come and traipse around in the mud with us because she has a shared love of folk stories, and also I think her political kind was in line with the film.
So I really am grateful and respect her for her creative choices, and the type of projects she chooses. I felt very lucky to be working with her.
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It’s a very ambiguous film, isn’t it? After watching it I wanted to watch it all over again.
William: There’s things that are in there that are just folk traditions, like the breaking of the skull to release bad luck [Elen smashes and scatters a sheep’s skull]. If misfortune had occurred, let’s say if sheep had died, you then break the skull open to release the bad luck. These little traditions and beliefs which, if I was shooting television, I’d be made to do a load of exposition about why they’re doing it. But I like having the control of being able to let the audience decide themselves.
If your narrative is ambiguous to the point where you lose people’s attention, then I understand that’s a problem. But if it’s a detail like that, it’s the same reason why the Welsh isn’t translated when there’s a small amount of it. It should just be textural.
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When Gwen is screaming in the field, I liked the catharsis of it.
Eleanor: It is cathartic for Gwen and honestly on a personal level as well. If somebody says to you “Go and scream in a field” it’s like oh great, I can take out all the frustrations in life, whatever’s going on.
It’s such an important scene because it’s this whole build of lying and trust being slowly taken away in all aspects of her life, her relationship with her mother, her relationship with the land, the community, everyone. It’s just that moment of realising it’s just too much.
When you realise adulthood is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Eleanor: To be able to perform that is quite special because it is a coming-of-age story and it is a young woman that you can draw lots of similarities from. To be able to add that into the film, that was really important to me. We only did two takes, because otherwise I would’ve sounded a little croaky.
William: Yeah when you’ve got it, you don’t even want to rehearse it too many times. But also I’d say that it is different. Eleanor used her maturity and her storytelling ability as an actress to change the script.
The script was, she threw this locket and the scene was slightly more complicated in terms of the props. But she just did something much simpler, and much more powerful, and much more direct. And I think it’s better for it.
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In terms of of storytelling, whether within film or not, who are your storytelling influences?
William: Thomas Hardy.
Part of the pitch for me was, it starts out like a Thomas Hardy novel and becomes a folk horror, a folk story. I think for some people they’re like “Well, am I watching a period drama by the guy that directed Poldark, or am I watching a horror from a guy that made a horror short film?” And I think it’s sort of a merge of the two.
When I was in my teens, I was a massive Thomas Hardy fan. His books start off quite sad and then just get more sad. I think it was in Far From The Madding Crowd that a flock of sheep goes over a cliff, but he’s very strong on women as well, like your film.
William: That’s the thing with him and Angela Carter, who wrote a lot of fairytales. They’re two quite big influences, very different influences.
There’s a scene near the beginning, when Gwen goes out with the lamp. And a shadow goes across the camera – I had to rewind that, did I just see that?
William: That was actually me.
Was it? That was very creepy
William: And that’s part of the ambiguity as well. Is there someone there? Is she being watched? I know the tension. If you went into this as a horror fan going “Oh I’m going to watch a horror movie.” You’re probably going to be waiting awhile for it to slow burn, but I think it makes the delivery of the terror at the end more impactful to just sort of tease, and tease, and tease like a very long build.
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Eleanor, I’m trying to remember back to my teenage years, a long time ago. It seems to be even harder now, and you’re working. Do you feel pressure? This is a film that hangs on you. Or can you put it to one side?
Eleanor: I would be completely ignorant to say that I didn’t feel any responsibility for it whatsoever. Obviously there’s a huge weight on your shoulders of knowing that this is a pivotal role and it’s the first time that I’ve been in feature film where I’ve had that kind of role. And it’s a script that I care about so deeply, that I wanted to do it justice and do the people justice as well.
This is telling the story of people’s ancestors, this is telling the story of what Wales was at that time. It’s not just about me and my character, it’s about community, so there are all kinds of responses layered on.
I think that instead of getting caught up in it and feeling “Oh my God, I can’t do this” I had to just continually tell myself I have been trusted by an entire team of people that I trust, and that I enjoy working with – to go with the flow and create this character – then I’ve got to be doing something right.
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There’s a reason they offered it to you!
Eleanor: I’m always the first person to criticise myself or deflect a compliment. I think I’m the champion of telling people “Oh no, not at all.” But I’ve been working on trying to be more confident and understanding that if you’ve been trusted with that, then you need to accept it and do your best with it.
Yeah, it took me until I was about 40 to accept compliments and I always say to young women, if someone says something nice, it’s ok to just say “Thanks.”
Eleanor: It’s like you’ve been conditioned to feel sorry for being, existing.
And taking up space.
Eleanor: Yeah, exactly like, I’m so sorry that you think I’m wearing a nice top.
I had adults talking to me: “What do you want to be, do you want to be a princess?” Well actually no. [When] I was reading To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time, if anything, I wanted to play Scout. Girls can be whatever they want to be, they can be a princess, they can be Scout. I am very much an advocate for being whatever you want to be and having a huge variety. You can’t be labelled as just one thing.
But equally, it’s quite sad if a girl does want to go down a certain path, they feel like a certain aspect of their personality is being commented on instead. I read To Kill A Mockingbird when I was 7 years old. I adored it and yet I was taken aback because I told my teacher I read that book, and they were like “Well just go and sit down because it’s story time now, and we want to read The Cat in the Hat” or something.
Okay, that’s fine, but you know if you have somebody enriching you, then that might help things a bit.
William: And you prefer to be called an actor not an actress, as well, which I think is an interesting thing.
Eleanor: Yes it’s always been important to me, and I think that came from doing an interview when I was very young. It was the first time I had ever done anything over the telephone, I had never done an interview before, and they said “Have you always wanted to be an actress?” It was when we had to repeat the question, I said “I think I’ve always wanted to be an actor” and they went “No, no, darling. You’re an actress, you need to repeat that back.”
And I went, “What’s the difference?” and they went “Well one is a boy and one is a girl.” really patronisingly. And I said, “Well you wouldn’t call a dentist a dentress.”
We don’t have directresses.
Eleanor: Yeah! Obviously for certain things, it’s interesting to have that label, but I don’t think it’s applicable here. I don’t think it’s necessary.
As a child to be constantly told, “No, no, this is what you’re going to do.” So to have the freedom on Gwen was hugely rewarding. To feel like I have this really freeing coming-of-age story, where I was allowed to express opinions, and to feel like I had a say.
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Finally, what are you both doing next?
Eleanor: Next year is busy…
Are you allowed to tell us?
Eleanor: I can’t!
William: I’m currently in the process of adapting one of the series of books for TV for BBC and HBO, bringing to life a character that I first read as a teenager, and I’m very excited to be bringing to screen, and that’s Dark Materials, which is a lot of fun and very different to Gwen.
Also I’m writing Gundog with the BFI and the same producers as Gwen, which is basically another landscape-set story about a gamekeeper finding himself in the middle of this bloodsport, badger baiting. It becomes a revenge story. Contemporary, still a bit shades of Thomas Hardy but in a contemporary setting. Still not the jolliest of subject matters!
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You can read my 4-star review and watch the trailer here. Gwen is released in UK cinemas on 19 July