Dark Victorian ghost story, The Isle, has drawn high praise from the likes of Stephen Fry and critic Peter Bradshaw. Set against stunning Scottish scenery, the film harnesses haunting visuals and an evocative score to creep unnervingly into your bones and leave you full of atmospheric unease.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with the couple behind The Isle – Matthew and Tori Butler-Hart – to learn more ahead of the film’s release on EST (15 July) and TVOD & DVD (22 July).
Q: Peter Bradshaw commented that there are ‘hints of Shakespeare and classical and Scots mythology’ in ‘The Isle’. Where did you draw inspiration from when constructing this story?
Matthew: The main inspiration came from the island itself. We were approached by Louis Devereux who explained that his family owned this magical island in Scotland and they’d always wanted to film something there but the BBC had deemed it too difficult to shoot on, due to the incredibly difficult access and non-existent roads. We went up to Eileen Shona for a recce and immediately feel in love with it, it’s hard not to.
Inspiration when staying on the island came easily, from the spectacular dramatic landscape, the dark mysterious woodland and the miles of solitary Atlantic Ocean out to the west. Being on the island you can’t help but think of the community that used to live and thrive in this isolation.
From there we researched into the reasons behind its abandonment in the mid 1800’s and discovered it was due to a food plight. This reminded us of the Greek myth of Persephone and when she was abducted by Hades her mother, Demeter, cursed the land bringing famine for six months of the year until her daughter was returned to her. Her friends were sent to find Persephone and when they failed, their punishment was to be transformed into sirens, luring sailors to their death with their spell binding song.
Q: From ‘The Shining’ to ‘Midsommar’, isolation is often such an important and effective tool of the horror genre. Can you tell us more about the setting and the role it plays in this film?
Tori: The isolation of the location played a huge role in the initial inspiration of the film as well as the story and the atmosphere of it. We wanted to investigate the effects that isolation can have on a community and the psyche of the individual. From the very beginning our sailors are stranded in the middle of the ocean on a sinking boat, no land to be seen in every direction. Those feeling of despair and desperation felt by our sailors, immediately set a tone of fear and unease that continues throughout the film.
We wanted to introduce the sense of being watched, the paranoia that someone or something else is there when you feel intense isolation. Even when Fingal is first seen quietly spying on the new arrivals there’s a real feeling that these outsiders come as a surprise and that when they meet Douglas it’s clear their presence is not entirely welcome. However, there is excitement from Korrigan and Lanthe that at last their loneliness and solitude is relieved and hope sparks that the curse might have been broken.
Q: This is a talented British cast with Conleth Hill (‘Game of Thrones’), Fisayo Akinade (‘Girl With All The Gifts’), Alix Wilton Regan (‘The Wife’), Alex Hassell (‘Suburbicon’) and – of course – Tori. What was the shoot like and how did the cast react to the nature of this story?
Tori: We were incredibly lucky with our cast. We’d worked with Conleth, Alex, Graham (Butler) and Emma (King) before in our feature film, Two Down, so when it came to writing The Isle we had those guys in mind already for some of the roles. It did mean that our pre-production period was extremely short, just three weeks, because of the availability of Conleth, he was contracted to return to GOT and Alex was flying off to shoot Suburbicon with George Clooney.
We’d seen Fisayo and Dickon (Tyrell) in plays and had loved their performances so approached them about the film as soon as the finance was in place. Matt had worked with Alix many years ago and when we lost another actress due to schedule conflict, we called her up while she was on holiday and sent her over the script. In fact, I think all three of them were on holiday when we offered the roles to them, so it was obviously good timing as we managed to sell it to them on the basis that it was almost like another holiday on a remote Scottish island!
Matthew: We did make sure that all the cast and crew were prepared for a physically demanding and tough shoot. The fact that there are no roads on the island and access to locations were only by foot or boat meant that everyone had to muck in and help carry stuff. There were no trailers to keep warm in and our crew was very small because of having limited accommodation on the island.
Everyone very much approached the project an as adventure and really bought into the whole feeling of being isolated and removed from normal life. There was very little internet, no TV and we were all staying in the same two houses, both cast and crew, so every evening we all ate together and then talked or played games. It was a really wonderful and special experience and meant that the team had a strong sense of unity and that we were all in it together to create the very best film we could.
Q: I’ve read lots of praise for the film’s visual style. What was your approach with cinematographer Pete Wallington? Did you have any references for this Victorian tale?
Matthew: As the story mostly came after being inspired by the island itself, we wanted to have the same approach when thinking about the visual side of the storytelling as well. We didn’t send lots of film references over to Pete as we didn’t want to emulate anything from that point of view, but instead looked at art of the time, especially from Scottish artists working in the area.
We found paintings that reflected the lonely isolated life and looked at the colours that they used, and even some of the framing as an indication of how to start our thinking. We also found photographs of Scottish island life around the same time, and although black and white, gave us the feeling of what we were trying to create.
And this was the approach on the whole and what we said to all the crew; we wanted to focus on the emotional beats when thinking about the visuals and not let us be bogged down by absolute realism.
I have always loved films of the 60’s and 70’s so, like our last film Two Down, there again was a general influence from that period of filmmaking. A lot of this was pacing, but also the shot choice, framing and editing. After we spoke to Pete about all these ideas he then brought in books of modern photography rather than film references so we could discuss the lighting.
I think doing it this way round and not the usual of looking at films gone before has given it the particular look and vibe that people are really getting behind. I think being influenced by art has definitely given it an ‘arty’ feel, but not just for sake of being arty, it was always such an important aspect of the storytelling to have our island a huge presence in itself.
Q: The two of you assumed multiple roles while working on this project. What is the dynamic like between the two of you? Does it shift when Matthew is directing and Tori is acting?
Tori: We both started as actors which is why Matt has such a great understanding of how an actor works and what they require from a director. It was from the frustration of being an actor with very little control over your career that Fizz and Ginger Films was born.
We fill many roles throughout the process, partly because we didn’t know what we were doing at the beginning and so kind of learnt as we went along and it was also a way of keeping budgets down.
By doing we’ve learnt more and it turns out that we enjoy a lot of the other aspects of filmmaking. Throughout the development and pre-production periods we cover a lot of the production roles; while we’re both producers and work together to raise the finance and cast, Matt will act as a location and production manager at the beginning of pre-production and I tend to take on a line producer’s role, budgeting, contracts, crewing up etc.
When it comes to being on set together and Matt is directing of course the balance shifts slightly. An actor has to trust a director and listen to them. They are holding the vision for the entire film, not just a single line or scene or shot. Sometimes as an actor we can get lost in our own importance of our role and lose sight of the bigger picture. But that’s why there’s a director there! I have to remind myself sometimes that I can’t boss the director on set, but I think that’s more a husband and wife thing! And I think Matt has learnt that sometimes when I’m asking for another take, that’s a totally reasonable request coming from an actor and not from his bossy wife!
Q: The film has received a lot of praise from critics and audiences, including Stephen Fry branding the film ‘astonishing’. How have you enjoyed the response to the ‘The Isle’? Any notable reactions to share with us?
Matthew: We thought it might be a bit of a marmite film to be honest. Because it isn’t your classic jump scare or thrasher horror we weren’t quite sure how to pitch it to an audience at first. The pace is by all accounts a slow-burn which has been highlighted in a lot of reviews and it is very much a character driven piece. But people seem to have loved that about it. We had a brilliant cast so the performances are compelling, an incredible editor and composer so the pace and score unites the film beautifully and only adds to its uniqueness. Many reviews have compared it to The Witch or the original 1973 The Wicker Man which we were absolutely delighted by.
It was released in America first at the beginning of the year and the distributor sold it much more as a horror, which definitely led to a few audience members being disappointed when the blood and gore never flows. The only horribly negative response was from a few trolls on sites like YouTube, when they would write comments under the trailer that were racial attacks about one of our actors being black. We’ve never experienced anything like this before and it’s really opened our eyes to how incredibly vile and cruel some ill-educated individuals can be.
Q: You have two further feature films in production. Can you reveal anything about them?
Tori: Mr. Parker is a drama that we’re working on. It’s set in the 1990’s and present day and follows a documentary filmmaker as he heads back to the small Northern town he grew up in after receiving a call from a police detective about his old drama teacher. An old school friend has filed a sexual abuse case against the teacher, claiming that they’d had an affair when she was only fifteen. Twenty years after the event the reunited group are forced to look back and recall their childhood. The film flicks between old VHS footage shot in the 90’s, present day and fractured, ever changing memories.
The next feature that we’re moving towards pre-production on is Dragpies, a comedy heist about a drag troupe who have to teach a town planner how to be a drag queen in order to seek revenge on a businessman who is ruining their lives. It’ll be a lot of fun with some amazing characters and fantastic costumes.
Both are totally different to The Isle, but we like to mix things up and keep ourselves on our toes!
Q: How did the two of you meet? And why do you make a creative fit?
Tori: We met doing a play, The Rivals, when Matt was still acting. I ran a small theatre company that specialised in 18th century plays and we played lovers in that first production, very cliched! It was during an open-air performance in the pouring rain, when we were all standing soaked in our elaborate but bedraggled 18th century wigs and dresses that Matt had the idea of us all being zombies, and that’s where the idea for our first short film E’gad Zombies! was born.
From then we’ve always worked as a team, it’s so much easier to encourage the other to keep going and keep working away than to encourage yourself. We drive each other forwards and even if we’re writing separate projects or working on different things, we’ll always ask the others opinion or pass something over for a final check. Sometimes we don’t agree, but usually we do and that makes for an enjoyable working partnership and a good creative fit. We respect each other and our opinions genuinely matter to the other.
Q: What are your hopes and ambitions for the future (individually and as a team)?
Matthew: I think my hopes are at the same time pretty simple and yet very hard!
I want to carry on being able to make interesting films that might seem like a bit of a gamble but will, with any luck, get a dedicated audience behind them; an audience that are maybe looking for something a little different from the onslaught of CGI filled films (nothing wrong with those, but they’re not for everyone, and we want to make films for those people).
I love telling stories and being able to do that on a large canvas is an absolute dream come true, so fingers crossed it continues.
Tori: I want to spend some time concentrating on my acting. As much as I love writing and producing the whole reason I ever began doing it was to create more work for myself as an actor. It’s what I want and have to do above everything else, so I find it frustrating when people refer to me as just a producer. Not because I’m offended or that it’s not a compliment, I’m very proud of my producing achievements, but because it’s difficult to apply an equal amount of focus and energy to all aspects of your career and at some point one thing will slightly over take the other.
Because writing is very time consuming and trying to raise the finance for a project is near-on impossible, it takes up a lot of your creative energy. There’s only so many hours in the day and by the time they’ve been used up, you’ve got nothing left to email out to casting directors and pursue acting opportunities. But that’s what I need to do!
For Fizz and Ginger, we are looking forward to starting production on Dragpies, it’s always about looking to the future, it has to be otherwise you get stuck. After that we have a whole slate of projects that we’re working on, both films and TV series. The aim and ambition: to win lots BAFTAS and Oscars and Golden Globes of course!
The Isle will be available to watch on EST from 15 July and TVOD & DVD from 22 July.