Three sailors, the sole survivors of a shipwreck on the rocks, find their way to shore through the mist. This is an island that shouldn’t even be there – it’s not on any charts – though it feels solid enough. Something is wrong though: it only has four inhabitants, there are mysterious sightings in the woods, and supposedly mythical sirens prevent anyone from leaving…
Made by Tori and Matthew Butler-Hart from Fizz and Ginger Films, The Isle, set on a remote Scottish island in the 19th century, is one of those films that really gets under your skin – its gorgeous setting offset by a growing sense of melancholy and menace.
I spoke to director and co-writer Matthew and star, co-writer and producer Tori, about the origins of their film, how to create atmosphere, budget compromises, and spooky goings-on experienced by cast and crew during filming….
Tell me about the story behind The Isle – the sirens are from legend but is your story based on a folktale or entirely made up?
The story came about after we were invited to go and look at the island [Eilean Shona] as a potential location for something in the future, but we weren’t sure what at that point. It’s an amazing place, utterly remote and stunningly beautiful, at least by day. At night, which happens within a few minutes on the island, it takes on a very different feel altogether. It is probably the darkest place we have ever been too, and with no modern roads or street lights it immediately throws you back to the 1800s when it actually was a thriving community.
We were told that within a very short space of time the island was deserted because of famine, and the remains of those lives can be seen everywhere around the island; empty cottages and crumbled moss-covered walls. There was also the story of a mysterious woman, not from the island, that had been found murdered at the old school house, and various stories surrounding her and who had done it and why.
We were quickly getting a vibe for the kind of film we wanted to make and the island was providing us with great source material. Loving all sorts of myths, the real famine reminded us of the Greek story of Persephone, who had been kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld, and whose mother, Demeter, would ravage the world for six months of every year with a food plight until her daughter would be returned. The Sirens were originally women sent by Demeter to find Persephone; when they failed they were turned into Sirens as punishment.
We played around with some Scottish myths whilst we were writing it too, like the Selkies who are seal-like creatures which become human on land, but we had a feeling that it would have proved tricky with our limited budget!
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I always think the best British independent films maximise their locations, and you’ve done that with The Isle, but it’s also more than that. This is almost an impossible question, but how do you create atmosphere? That sense of melancholy and weirdness. Does it just happen?
That’s a great question and it was something we worked very hard on from various angles. We always wanted the island to be a very important part of film, almost a character if that isn’t too much of a cliché. At the writing stage, because we knew the locations beforehand, we could write with specific places in mind and could start the process of creating that atmosphere from quite early on.
We always wanted to make a slow-burn film that would creep into people whilst they were watching rather than rely wholly on jump scares. And the pacing was very important to us to build the creepy atmosphere, so when we were writing, and later when I [Matt], was storyboarding, we knew that we needed certain precise shots to begin the visual side of this slowly menacing feeling.
We also wanted to have the feeling that the sailors and islanders were always being watched by something, just subtly, as if the island itself was alive; so there are shots that are maybe framed slightly differently to what would be expected, which adds another layer, perhaps subconsciously in that feeling that something just isn’t right.
Of course sound is a huge part of it because of the Sirens, and again at script level we were playing around ideas for that – having our editor and sound designer, Will Honeyball, on set was fantastic as we could talk about things when in situ. We actually stripped out all the sound in the edit and re-recorded what we wanted, so there are no natural sounds unless we wanted them.
There are no animal sounds at all in the film, and as soon as you start taking things like that out it makes a real difference to what you’re watching. We could then be very specific with other sounds, winds and waves for example, and exactly what they are doing to us and when.
The music was always going to be a main element to this, with the siren song drifting along in the wind and out of the fog, and also to add to the feeling of loneliness and isolation with simple string pieces. We talked to the composer, Tom Kane, from the very beginning of the process, when we were still writing, and would send him artwork and pictures from the period so he could start to have an idea of the world we were creating. There would be paintings of desolate Scottish moors with lone characters and early photographs of island life, all which he managed amazingly to write into the soundtrack. And having Faroese singer Eivor sing our siren song took it to another ethereal level, and immediately takes you somewhere else.
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If you have any spooky stories from the shoot I’d like to hear them now!
After being on that island for long enough I think most people had stories! A lot of the cast and crew would report strange noises in the night, which makes sense in an old house on an island, but one that kept coming up was the sound of a crying baby when you reached the top of the house where some of the bedrooms were.
We never heard that ourselves, but when we had to go back for some pick-ups of more exterior shots of the island, we were staying in one of the old servants rooms in what the crew called ‘the spooky bit’ of the house. I [Matt] woke up in the middle of the night convinced someone was standing at the end of the bed watching me. I was fully awake and it felt like it was there for a long time. I just lay there staring to see if it would move, eventually grabbing my phone to shine a light but, of course, there was nothing there. It was enough for me to spend the rest of the night awake though!
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How did you get the film off the ground, particularly your finance – and Game of Thrones‘ Lord Varys! [Conleth Hill plays Douglas Innis, one of the island’s inhabitants in The Isle]
We had made a film called Two Down, which was released in 2018, and it had had a one-off screening at the London Screenings that Film London do at the BFI. Laura Macara from Great Point Media was in the audience and loved it and invited us to go and talk about other projects we had. We actually pitched something else but they were looking for something a little more “genre” at the time so we mentioned that we’d started working on The Isle.
They loved the idea and the script, although it was a very early draft, and said they could give us most of the finance, as long as we had two of the actors from Two Down in it, Conleth Hill, and Alex Hassell.
Conleth was about to go and film Game of Thrones and Alex was whizzing off to shoot Suburbicon directed by George Clooney, which meant we had very little time to raise the rest of the money otherwise we’d have no time at all for any kind of pre-production.
Tori, co-producer Gareth Jones, and myself had a day actually running around Soho in London from meeting to meeting trying to get the last bit of finance before the cut-off point at the end of the day. If we didn’t have things in place by then, then it was not going to happen. We got in touch with some of the executive producers from Two Down, and although they hadn’t seen any money back at that point, we asked for them to once again gamble on us.
They did, thankfully, and with about ten minutes to spare we let Laura know that it was a go.
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What does working with a low budget and on location mean in practical terms? What compromises did you have to make once you were filming?
With the low budget comes a lack of time. Added to that the time-pressure of knowing we would be losing two of our main actors very soon meant we had to work harder and quicker than we ever had done. We ended up with three weeks from being greenlit to our first day on set, whereas you would normally have months.
In those three weeks we had to not just work through all the legal and financial paperwork, but finish the script, finish casting (we’d written the parts for various people we knew, so that helped at least), get a crew together, costumes made, props bought, and work out the insane logistics of working on a remote island with no roads and a speed boat as the only way of getting there.
And with a low budget also means a lack of people to do all this, so we had a very small team helping us put it all together. It also meant there was no time for panic, which was interesting. Things had to be done, so people just got them done and the usual wondering about what to do about this or that just didn’t happen because it couldn’t!
Three weeks to put an entire feature film together is not a lot of time. This meant having to compromise right from the beginning as there were certain things that we would have liked to have done, especially on the ghostly side of things, that we just couldn’t do without extensive rehearsals and trial and error of special effects.
It also meant that when we were on the island – which had ridiculously unpredictable weather – when something like a force nine gale hit, or a beach disappeared due to a storm, we couldn’t just stop filming, we didn’t have the luxury of time. We had to think quickly, re-write the scene to make it work somewhere else, and carry on. In some cases this added some lovely moments to the film, when the storms are brewing and all the chat of it being too dangerous to try and row to the mainland, you can see that it genuinely is. Any boat that leaves the safety of the coves would not last long in the North Atlantic in a storm, as we discovered in our leaky little boats when we tested them!
Being so remote and having a modest budget meant that when things went wrong, sinking boats full of actors and some of our ghost moments for example, there was no sending someone to the shops to get whatever we needed to fix the problem; it was a seven-hour round trip!
We had to rethink it, sometimes in the middle of a scene, and make sure that the story beat was being served, even if the practical effect wasn’t what we had planned for. In some cases I think some of what we did helped us create a very different kind of folk horror film. Lots of the audience who have watched it at the cinema said that they’re not usually into horror and had been brought by a partner wanting to watch it, and had found that they absolutely loved it because there aren’t any of those typical gore-fest moments, and it’s much more of a cerebral slow-creep film.
In the end I think the lack of funds and time added to it on the whole. Of course I wished we could have had more money for the SFX afterwards for things like some of the fog, which was meant to have been all in-camera, but which proved hard with the fine Scottish wind blowing our fog machines from all directions at once!
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Stephen Fry loved it! How did you get it in front of him?
Stephen was an executive producer on our last film, Two Down, and has always been hugely supportive of Fizz and Ginger Films, so we sent him a copy of the film as he’s rather an expert on all things myth-based, and he sent us a lovely review of The Isle.
You’re a husband and wife filmmaking team. Is that stressful? Do you ever do different projects?
To be honest I think because we started working together before we became a couple it’s no more stressful than any other relationship. The only thing we tend to argue about are silly things like specific lines in a script or if there are too many shots of trees and rocks in the film! (Matt thinks there are just the right amount, Tori isn’t sure!). And it’s a genuine partnership where we both have the things that we’re good at in the whole process, so it wouldn’t work if it was just one of us doing it. That means we both get on with our thing, working towards the same goal.
We sometimes work on other people’s projects, either as producers or just with help in putting things in place, but we always work together.
We usually write together but we’re both beginning to work on scripts separately, partly to have an extensive and varied slate, but also because we both have so many ideas and there’s only limited hours in the day to get the ideas down on paper.
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Tori, you were working with Matthew on the production side and acting in the movie. Was it hard covering both sides? Did you try to maintain any boundaries around your roles?
A lot of the producing role during the pre-production stages obviously didn’t affect my acting and I try to make sure as much as possible is in place prior to principal photography starting. It can be a tricky balance when it comes to being on the shoot, especially when I had particularly challenging and demanding performance days.
On our previous film, Two Down, I was again the producer and played one of the leads, but I didn’t have a strong production manager and so a lot of the day to day production managing and line producing all fell to me. I definitely feel that my performance suffered slightly from me being too finely stretched.
However, on The Isle we had Louis Devereux who was an incredible associate producer and production manager. He oversaw a lot of the daily producing challenges and location moves which enabled me to be much more available to focus on my performance. It really made a massive difference to be able to take off the producing hat while I was acting; I could concentrate totally on that and it meant the whole experience was so much more enjoyable and relaxing.
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There’s a lot of chatter about franchises vs original content, superhero movies, cinematic universes, what constitutes horror. I felt The Isle fitted into the “thoughtful adult drama” space that we keep hearing is being squeezed. Have you found that? Where do you think it fits?
That’s a very interesting question as we were always very clear in what sort of film we wanted to make, but had no idea what sort of genre box it would fit into when trying to sell it. It was never going to be a bog-standard horror with things chasing people through houses, unnecessary jump scares and gore, in fact we wanted to make something that people were unsure of as to exactly what it was – is it a period drama? is it a ghost story? – which was a big gamble for the people giving us the money.
It’s simply easier to sell something if it fits in a box; thankfully it’s paid off far more than we would have expected. But that’s partly due to the fact that through festivals and the cinema release we’ve gained a group of people who have really gotten behind it exactly because it’s not all the things you’d expect.
Reviews from critics and audience members were very often of the “I’m so glad these-kind-of films still exist” variety, which was amazing. Yes these sort of films are being squeezed, but not because the audience isn’t out there and wanting them, they just need a bit more thought into how you get them in front of people.
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You made it into UK cinemas earlier this year, and you’ve now got a DVD / download distribution deal with Lionsgate UK. How did that come about? Have you enjoyed that part of the post movie-making process or is it a necessary evil?
It was first picked up by an American distributor so was in cinemas over there in February, and then onto DVD, VOD and now TV, and I think that gave people over here a better idea that there was indeed an audience for the film.
We’ve been very involved with the distributor for the cinema release as we wanted to learn more about that side of the industry, so we could see all the ins and outs of what should be done, what to avoid and how we can improve for next time.
Once we started getting good reviews over here too the distributor, DC Releasing, could take it to Lionsgate and show that there was a real audience appetite for it. They then came on board pretty quickly to get it out on as many platforms as they could. Again we’re being quite involved on that side, far more than on our previous films, and it’s been a great, if not exhausting, process to see the cogs of how it all works.
It’s far more involved than we would have imagined, but now we know this we can start building in ideas about distribution into the next project before we’ve even started filming.
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If I gave you an unlimited budget AND the capacity to bring back dead people, what film would you make (new or a remake) and who would be in it?
We’ll start by saying we wouldn’t do a remake! There are too many of those out there at the moment, and although we understand they’re for a new audience, there are so many original ideas being written it’d be a shame just to rehash the same movie over and over again.
We have various scripts we’d love to make, but one that would take a rather large budget is The Curse of The Buxom Strumpet. It’s an 18thcentury comedy with zombies and there are some amazing characters in there as they’re loosely based on ideas and archetypes from 18thcentury theatre, so would be an absolute blast to play.
It’s more about an illness that perhaps could have been the start of the myth of zombies, which sweeps through a little seaside town after arriving on the ship The Buxom Strumpet. A small team of survivors have to make their way through the town to the perceived safety of the ship that brought the plague in the first place.
Denzel Washington, or Peter O’Toole would be a fantastic Lord Fortitude. Taron Egerton would be perfect for William Filthé and a young Alan Rickman as William’s brother, Richard; or Andrew Scott! Betsy Foxer, Lord Fortitude’s mistress could be Elizabeth Taylor, and Margaret Rutherford or Judi Dench, as Mrs. Halfpint who owns the local tavern.
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What was the last great film you saw and what movies are you looking forward to this year?
Tori: Secret Life of Pets 2! I absolutely loved it, and I’m a big fan of the first one as well. I just think that the observation is so clever and accurate. Like most comedy, it’s funniest when its closest to the truth.
Matt: Like talking cats and dogs?!
Booksmart was brilliant, we both really enjoyed it and thought the writing was refreshingly sharp and quick-witted. The performances were great and Olivia Wilde’s direction worked so beautifully with the clever soundtrack and edit.
Find out more about Fizz and Ginger Films