A man, a dog, and a dilapidated lighthouse. For the majority of Shepherd, these are the only things that fill the screen, and yet the film is one of the most claustrophobic horror movies ever made. Much of the credit goes to director Russell Owen and lead actor Tom Hughes, who both create a chilling portrait of a man slowly going out of his mind … or slowly realizing he’s actually dead.
In a conversation with Digital Trends, Owen and Hughes talk about what drew them to the horror genre, how shooting on a remote island in Scotland was key to conveying the film’s moody atmosphere, and how the film operates on multiple levels as both a scary film, a psychological thriller, and a compelling character study.
Digital Trends: Russell, what made you write and direct Shepherd?
Russell Owen: I love storytelling. It’s one of the traits that make us human. And I love ghost stories. I grew up in North Wales with a lot of traditional ghost stories, local ghost stories being handed down from one generation to another, and this is one of them. And it’s a very simple, traditional tale, which I have had an obsession with for about 20 years.
But it’s so difficult making films that there was no way I could bring it to the screen right away. I finally managed a sneaky way to encourage somebody to invest in it and got it made. Sometimes, when you come across something and you love telling stories and you want to do something more with it, it just nags at you until you will do anything to try and get it made, which I did.
Tom, how did you become involved with Shepherd?
Tom Hughes: The script came from my agent, and I was really drawn to it and attracted by the story. I felt that Russell really mapped out a transition and a movement with his character’s psyche that resonated and felt very truthful.
I was wildly excited about the challenges of trying to convey the complexity of emotions without any of the usual things you rely on like dialogue. Reading the script got my creative juices flowing. And then I met with Russell and we had a long conversation about the plot and the character of Eric. And about four weeks later, we were there shooting on a remote island. It was a real thrill.
Russell, would you classify this film as belonging to the “elevated horror” sub-genre like Lamb or The Witch?
Owen: It’s certainly within the elevated horror’s parameters. Shepherd is more about the psychology of the characters and, specifically, about one man’s descent into madness. It’s not your traditional slasher film, and there are not a lot of jumps in it. It’s very much about atmosphere, which is an illustration of his depression and grief and how it lures him down a rabbit hole into madness.
What were some of the most challenging aspects of shooting Shepherd?
Owen: It was probably deciding to actually shoot on a remote Scottish island instead of the mainland. That was tough. We built all the sets — the cottage, the lighthouse, and everything — on location. And it was one of the most remote locations in Europe, certainly in the U.K. It very difficult, very small, with very tiny little hobbit bridges. You can’t get trucks or anything out there. But it was important to shoot there because the biggest character other than Eric is the island itself.
I remember somebody said, “Oh, there’s a lake just north of Glasgow. You could just film it near there and you can do it all there. You don’t need to be there.” But I think without actually being in that location on the far end of the Isle of Mull, the film wouldn’t have worked because, again, the film is about atmosphere and it’s about a sense of place. So it was very important to be on a remote, 360-degree island with bad weather.
What was it like working with each other?
Owen: Tom’s fantastic. Tom is a very serious actor who is very well trained and puts in 110%. And for a character like Eric Black, who is alone and going mad on an island, that is a big investment for an actor psychologically. He was fantastic and, you know, it was perfect casting.
Hughes: It was great, man. Ninety percent of the filming was just me on my own, so my support network was myself, Russell, and the cinematographer, Richard Stoddard, who was exceptional. We became a tripod, I guess, so we’d lean on each other. There was definitely an intimacy because our experience was very shared on this film.
With Russell, I’ve definitely made a friend for a long time. With the script, I felt like Russell had really put the work in to try and genuinely show this man’s psyche disintegrating. It felt very real to me when I read it. Hopefully, that resonates with people who watch it
What do you want viewers to take away from your film?
Owen: I hope that they can come out and have their own theories about Eric. I created four storylines for the film: One going down a witchcraft route, one going down an existential path that makes the viewer ask “Is he dead?,” one storyline that questions if all of the movie is just a dream, and one that questions whether or not he killed his mother and if the fisherwoman is real. There are lots of different layers that we built up, so I hope that when people leave, it’s the sort of film that will stay with them and they can discuss it afterward with their own theories. I think that would be great.
Hughes: I want other people to feel like I felt the first time I read the script. I felt very empathetic towards Eric, but also discombobulated by everything. I felt like I had been thrust around by what he was going through because I was dragged into his shoes a bit. The experience made me step back and look at my own world for a moment and take a breath and consider everything. It kind of made me relook at my life and appreciate things. There was this weird kind of euphoria and yet calmness after reading it.
I hope that people on some level feel like it’s just worthy of their time. If people are going to go and watch it because it’s a horror movie, fantastic. But for my money, Shepherd is actually a character study and a psychological thriller. We’re trying our best to be as healthy and the best version of ourselves as we can be. And that’s something I hope resonates with the audience to see someone struggling with that, even in a horror genre picture like this one.
Shepherd is now playing in theaters and is available to stream digitally.