On Saturday 31st March, the Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh played host to Robin Hardy, best known for his landmark 1973 film The Wicker Man, as he attended a screening of his new film The Wicker Tree, a thematic sequel to that work, which features a cameo from Christopher Lee, who starred in the original as Lord Summerisle. After the screening, he participated in a Q &A session with the audience, some comments from which are included below, and in the bar afterwards he was kind enough to talk to Geek Chocolate. He begins by explaining why he has revisited this story after almost forty years.
Robin Hardy – I do a lot of other things besides make films, I paint, I write novels, and so on, but I always wondered why no-one had ever decided to make a film which is mixture. As Christopher Lee said of the Cowboys for Christ novel on which this is based, he did a review of it for me very kindly, and he said “it’s erotic, it’s comic, it’s romantic, and it’s horrific enough to stir the bowels of a bronze statue,” and that describes the genre of the film.
And no-one that I’ve seen had done, apart from Monty Python, who do a wonderful mixture of genres, but always with a view to the fun, whereas both The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree have quite serious moments. I hope that came across, even moments of pathos between the two young people, who I think pulled that off quite well.
Geek Chocolate – I presume some moments in there were played for comedy, for example he scene with the cat.
RH – Oh, lots of comedy! But that doesn’t exclude pathos. It doesn’t mean you can’t have romance, or that you can’t have really frightening moments when you see through the walls of the castle what’s happening to poor Steve. And so I like mixing the genres like that, and I wanted to make another film in which I did it again.
I also noticed in the meantime that the remake of the film throws out all the things like the fun and the music – well it does have music, but it’s like wall to wall elevator music. Its approach to sex is bizarre, because the genders are simply swapped, the male figures in the first film are now female figures, that’s just a gender change, it doesn’t have much to do with sex, but it doesn’t make any sense.
I have a theory that my partner in the first film, Tony Shaffer, who wrote the screenplay, and who is now in Valhallla or some nice place like that, cursed the very talented people who made that film, because the director, Neil Labute, is a very talented man, he’s produced a number of very, very good plays, and Nicholas Cage is a talented actor. But for me he’s a very talented character actor, I don’t so much admire him as a romantic lead, but I’ve seen him do very good things. How he could have put himself through rolling downhill in a bearskin…
GC –The Wicker Tree is beautifully filmed, the cinematography is excellent. I know you struggled on The Wicker Man to make ends meet. Did you have a significantly higher budget, or is it just modern equipment allows you
RH –The Wicker Man wasn’t really such a struggle financially to make. It was a struggle afterwards to distribute it. That was the problem. Once we got it to America it was a triumphant distribution. The problems were here, really. The budget on this film, good though Jan Pester, the cameraman, is, and good though the cameras were, it was a tremendous struggle to get the money. It is a much more ambitious film in terms of production than The Wicker Man.
GC – I was astonished when the cast and credits went up on The Wicker Tree that it was actually filmed in Scotland, especially after your experiences of the weather when you were filming The Wicker Man. That was far more gorgeous weather than any of us ever get. How did you manage that?
RH – It’s a well-known saying, if you wait all day, you’ll get every kind of weather in this country. And we did. I was very happy with the weather. We had lovely cloudscapes, we had all that weather coming in off the North Sea, and every now and then the sun would shine, and we used it when it did. It’s just a question of being flexible and ready for it. There is a third film planned, it’s called The Wrath of the Gods, and I hope, touch wood, to shoot it in Shetland.
GC – Brave man! I noticed that Lolly’s necklace is the symbol of Summerisle. Was that your little touch to link them together.
RH – Yes, yes. One of them.
GC – Are there others?
RH – Probably. You’ll have to look for them. It’s a treasure hunt.
GC – Authors are often frustrated seeing their novels adapted on screen, but when you’re adapting your own work, what arguments and compromises did you have to make with yourself.
RH – Not with myself, my problem was that a lot of people that I was working with always wanted it to be a horror film. You know, horror, horror, horror. They kept on saying, “couldn’t there be blood there?” that sort of thing. The problems were external, not myself. The film is a black comedy. Until we’d made it, I think most people except for myself didn’t fully realise that was the case. There were battles to keep the quirky bits, and there are still quirky bits which we have cut out which I think the DVD distributors and the blu-ray distributors will show in the extra features.
GC – And the DVD release is very soon. This tour is just to promote the DVD release.
RH – Yes, I am, this is actually one of the first events.
GC – Are you happy with that? Because it’s a couple of years since the film was actually made, isn’t it?
RH – Eighteen months, I think, since it was finished. We were a long time in the editing process.
GC – Has the delay been distribution again, because it is more thoughtful than ghastly?
RH – Well it’s a black comedy, it’s not a horror film, and that’s the real difference. But the moment we got it to the Fantasia festival in Canada, Montreal, we had people who absolutely loved the film. The British film industry weren’t that keen on it.
GC – Which is strange because you are a name of British cinema. Although you may not have been prominent recently, video and DVD have ensured that certain films never go away.
RH – It certainly does. And I think that you have to remember that people who sell films are not the same people who make films. And they’re not even really part of the critical fraternity. And for them, what pigeonhole do you put it in? And my films are really rather difficult from that point of view, is it going to be pigeonholed as a comedy, is it going to be pigeonholed as a horror film? They will say, for instance, things like “There’s not any room for black comedy in the Walmart store,” which is where half the DVDs in America are sold. There’s horror, there’s comedy, there’s nothing for black comedy.
GC – About fifteen years ago, Clive Barker was doing a book signing, and he said computers are to blame, because on a computer ordering system it must be categorised, it must have a number, and if it doesn’t have a number, the computer won’t accept it.
RH – It’s even worse than that because they’re on shelves like books, and if there’s not a category for the punter who comes into the Walmart store, it doesn’t get its place, and that’s difficult for the distributors, because they want it to be something different to what it is, if you see what I mean, they want it to be something marketable, and from their point of view they’re quite right. From my point of view, I want it to be what I want it to be.
GC – Two weeks ago I was in Birmingham with some of the cast of Game of Thrones, and one of them, Rory McCann, worked with Edward Woodward on his last film, Hot Fuzz, and although they shared no scenes onscreen, they were on set together, and he said he was the loveliest man you can imagine, and I wanted to ask you about your memories of him.
RH – I think he was one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. He was never going to be a film star, but he was an extremely good actor, and when you see him in The Wicker Man with Christopher Lee, you tend to look at Christopher Lee rather than Edward. Although Edward is a great stage actor, whereas Christopher is a film star because of his presence. That’s the difference between them. You couldn’t find a better actor than Edward. He’s marvellous.
GC – I knew him from Callan from when Channel 4 repeated it in the late eighties. All the colour episodes are now available on DVD, only a handful of black and white episodes still exist, but they’re also available. For its time, it was such a strong show.
RH – Well, I cast him from Callan.
GC – And Christopher Lee, the scene in The Wicker Man, when he is in drag, in the wig, with the twigs, for an actor of his stature and reputation, to be so serious and yet to send himself up at the same time, he’s game for anything.
RH – Yes, yes. And you really look at the foreign films he has done, he has done anything and everything. I mean, 160 films or something, and in half a dozen languages.
GC – He’s amazing. And between Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, to be again a household name, at his age, it must be fantastic for him.
RH – No, he’ll never stop working. He was originally to play Lachlan, but when we were preppingThe Wicker Tree, he went off to Mexico to make a film, and he had a very nasty accident to his spine, as a result of which, when we shot, he was waiting to have an operation, which most of us rather urged him not to have, because operations on spines, as you probably know, are extremely dicey, and frequently you end up paralysed. But in fact he was taking some other medication, and he was able to stand for about three or four minutes at a time. Obviously he couldn’t have done the film, so I wrote that special little vignette for him, and I think it works very well. In case you have a supplementary question, who is he supposed to be, the answer is, I don’t know.
GC – Robin Hardy, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
RH – Well, I look forward to seeing the piece. Thank you very much.
The Wicker Tree is currently on limited cinema release, and will be available on DVD and blu-ray from 30th April; the film was recently reviewed by Geek Chocolate