Robin Hardy: A Chat with the wicker man

Fantasia, July 21, 2011

by Donato Totaro Volume 16, Issue 5 / May 2012 17 minutes (4138 words)

The presence of British director Robin Hardy at the 2011 edition of Fantasia was a special treat for connoisseurs of fantastic cinema. Over a career spanning almost forty years Hardy has made only three films but at least one of them, The Wicker Man (1973), has gone down in history as one of the most important and unique horror films ever made. I am tempted to say one of the “most influential” films but that would not be entirely true. The Wicker Man, which Cinefantastique magazine in a special edition dedicated to it called “the Citizen Kane of horror movies,” has never become influential in the sense of Dracula (1930), The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978), or Blair Witch Project (1990). But its underground status as a film to see has accorded it a phenomenal cult status that has garnered more than its share of scholarly and academic interest (much of it to the bemusement of Hardy, as you’ll read in the interview). It is a horror film that ALL knowing horror fans (and filmmakers) talk about with hushed reverence, as much for its unique aesthetic design that goes counter to the British gothic sensibility or Germanic expressionism common to so much horror. That it is shot in broad daytime sunlight, in an idyllic rural setting, with folkloric music and dancing, and yet still works as a horror film, has garnered it the ultimate respect from fellow filmmakers. Hardy’s three films are, The Wicker Man (1973), The Fantasist (1986), and the sequel to The Wicker Man, The Wicker Tree (2011). Not much is said about his middle film, which I think is a shame, and is why I spend considerable time discussing it. The critical dismissal of The Fantasist is surprising, given that it has considerable thematic similarity to The Wicker Man; namely “a stranger in a strangeland” story, in this case a young woman named Moira Harris (played by Patricia Teeling) leaves her family farm outside Dublin for a teaching post in Dublin, setting up a country vs. city dichotomy. Dublin has been hit by a “phone call” serial killer and Moira’s openness to a flux of willing male suitors places her in the possible jaws of the killer. The Wicker Tree also deals with a “stranger in a strange land” scenario, in this case a young, Texas born-again Christian couple, Beth (Brittania Nicol) and her fiancée Steve (Henry Garrett), who are asked to go to a rural community in Scotland to help spread the gospel. The Wicker Tree assumes knowledge of the first, hence when Steve and Beth arrive in Scotland, the audience already knows what is in store for them, and can quickly read the Sir Lachlan Morrison character (Graham McTavish) as the Christopher Lee (Lord Summerisle) surrogate. Hence the narrative dynamic is altogether different, relying more on the audience getting to know a whole new set of interesting and whacky characters, some playing surrogates of the original (Lachlan Morrison and his wife Delia Morrison, seductress Lolly) others being entirely new (like the eccentric Beame, played by great character actor Clive Russell, and his maid side-kick Daisy) rather than the final twist. There are still narrative twists, but the fun of the film is in watching the way the two new sacrificial lambs experience their exposure to this new world and respond in surprising ways. Steve’s promiscuous past and Beth’s previous-life turn as a racy country singing star, prior to their religious conversion, leads to some hilarious scenarios, like the stark contrast between Beth’s video “Trailer Trash Slut” and her post new-born Christian folksy religious hymns. Again the film’s style is off-center of usual horror film visuals, and the script attempts to mix genres in a similar way to the original (music, dance, dark humour, frank sexuality, strong female characters, etc.). Although the film will probably not have the lasting impact of The Wicker Man (and who would have thought it could, really?) it remains a unique and thoroughly engaging film. Granted this may not be the sequel that some fans had expected, but fans should realize by now that Hardy has never been one to do the predictable. Born in 1929, the sprightly octogenarian blessed the Festival with his gentleman’s demeanor, grace, affable nature and good humor. I was pleased to spend time discussing his work with him, and that Hardy took the time to do so during his busy schedule of activities during the Festival.

Steve and Beth

Horror in idyllic setting

[Warning: Spoilers for the Hardy films discussed]

Offscreen: People tend not to talk about The Fantasist so I wanted to spend a bit of time discussing that one.

Moira Harris in The Fantasist

Robin Hardy: Have you got a copy it?

Offscreen: Yes, I got a copy off TV.

RH: Oh, well it is on DVD, it came out about 4 years ago.

Offscreen: I didn’t realize that. [ed. Since the interview I researched and came up with the following British DVD release from Network company, which I subsequently ordered!]

Offscreen: Even though it is very different from your other films it also has much in common. It is comical, thwarts horror film conventions, and has strong female characters; and religion is represented [as in all three of his films]. The Fantasist also has the theme of the ‘stranger in a strange land’, even though the theme is different in the three films. In The Fantasist it is the city woman coming to the rural area, like in The Wicker Man, and in The Wicker Tree it is set up as the new world vs. old world, US v. Europe. I just want to hear your thoughts of The Fantasist in relation to the other two films.

RH: I don’t think I had any particular intention with the theme of religion. Although it is set in modern Ireland, what one might call European community Ireland, after it became a prosperous country –I know it is in the doldrums now– but for a time it was a very prosperous little country; and because it is a highly educated country. By the way, people rightly condemn the Roman Catholic Church for the all the excesses of the school masters, and so on, the fact remains it has the best educated secondary students in Europe.

Offscreen: And the lead character in The Fantasist is a teacher!

RH: Yes exactly! It a strange dichotomy. Just this past week the Irish government, which is almost incredible, if you think of Ireland 30 years ago, actually sent a protest to the Vatican demanding that they discipline their bishops and stop them harboring notorious pedophiles. It went straight to the Pope. So it is a country that is undergoing enormous change, pretty fast. And some of that is in the film. It is also in some ways my favorite film….I’ll tell you why. I think it is my favorite film from one particular point of view, not so much the story, although I like the story. But because the ending, the last 20 minutes is the most successful thing I’ve ever done. I am most proud of those 20 minutes. So I am very fond of it. And the actress is very good.

Offscreen: Yes, Moira Sinise (formerly Harris, Moira married Gary Sinise) as Patricia Teeling. What was Timothy Bottoms like to work with?

RH: Wonderful, I really liked him.

Offscreen: He had made a lot of films by then already.

RH: Yes I remember The Last Picture Show, wonderful. Great guy.

Offscreen: The Fantasist had come after all these slasher films and you send that up a bit at the beginning by having that comical cross-cutting between Patricia’s father cutting the roast and the woman in Ireland being stabbed to death by the killer. It is maybe your most graphically ‘horror’ film moment of all your films. But you set up a false expectation of a slasher film, which it isn’t. It is more a study in the woman and different male psychosis’, with all these different men she ends up meeting …. and then the detective ends up being the killer.

RH: Well I don’t really like that transition. I found it a bit corny. But the scene when she finally gets trapped and escapes, and she turns the tables on him, on the rapist, is good. It was not an easy feat and not an easy feat to film either, without it being pornographic, which it isn’t.

Offscreen: The detective character Inspector McMyler (Christopher Cazenove) has this side hobby of nude photography, and poses Moira like the oil painting we see at the beginning…

RH: Yes, the painting by François Boucher, I think of the mistress of Henry the 15th. [ed. “Portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy,” 1752]

Offscreen: It has a frank, adult treatment of sex, from the female perspective, that you don’t get in slasher films of that era, and is also relates to your other films.

RH: It is a slasher film I suppose in the sense that you see all the victims. But there are no big slasher scenes.

Offscreen: Yes it is a slasher film like The Wicker Man is a horror film. In name only. It is a category. You have the detective character Inspector McMyler who ends up being the killer. A case of another negative authority figure, but which is also just a nice twist to have a character you least suspect as the killer [Timothy Bottoms is the obvious red herring].

RH: Well again it is fun, like the literary games that he plays which is a game we play a little bit with the poor demented guy Jack, in The Wicker Tree. Every now and then he would have this little gem of English literature come out of his mouth because he only talks in rhyme, while with the policeman he is eloquent on the telephone.

Offscreen: The character in The Wicker Tree with the raven reminded me, as did the opening song, of the Powell and Pressburger film I Know Where I’m Going, and the General in who trains eagles and is an eccentric.

RH: Well the song is from there, it is the same song. It also fits well. It has a very Scottish lilt to it, sung with a Scottish accent, I think it is very nice. And it fits the story perfectly, about the girl, Beth Boothby, and where she is going, especially if you carry it on, we hope, with them going to heaven together. It really works.

Offscreen: I had seen an earlier version of the film that did not have the ending with the baby, and now having seen it I think it works well.

RH: It could have been after the reveal of Beth being staffed. We had tried that once, but I don’t think that works as well as where it is now. Because now, you think, ah yes the pagans are happy now, but then you have the banality of the carpet sweeper, and then the shock of her.

Offscreen: Yes with that nice tracking shot into her. Both films are very unique for their time. I think The Wicker Man is still unique today, while I think The Wicker Tree is unique in reference to other films being made today.

RH: Yes. You know I’ve never deliberately played games with the period. Obviously nuclear power stations have been around for fifty or sixty years so that could be earlier if you like, and we see a car from 1929, and then suddenly you see the Ferrari, which brings you up to date.

Offscreen: I also I like your sleight of hand at setting something up and then taking the viewer somewhere else, like in The Fantasist where you have the violent crosscut scene at the beginning, or the beginning of the Wicker Tree, where you have what is quite unique to your films, that steadicam shot that starts from outside the grounds of the estate, tracks through the door, down into the basement and to the door of Beame’s taxidermy shop, and the blood from the outside. This sets up a visual dynamic in terms of the steadicam that never returns.

RG: Yes. In the latter case, the shot is to introduce Beame the taxidermist. And the stuffed animal that is looking down at him that he talks to.

Offscreen: Beame is a wonderful character.

RH: Yes and Clive Russell is a wonderful character actor. I’d love to do something else with him and Lesley Mackie, who plays Daisy, because Russell is about 7 feet high and she is about 4 feet high. Well, Russell must be 6 foot 6!

Offscreen: I guess he can see eye to eye with Chris Lee.

RH: Well Lee is not as tall as that!

Offscreen: There is another strange symbiosis I see between these two films, which might be a coincidence: these two representative stills are very similar, you have these two low angle shots of Summerisle/Morrison in the foreground with the wicker effigy behind them; is that just a coincidence or was it conscious marketing choice?

RH: No probably subconscious!

Offscreen: I had you sign this book which was the proceedings of an academic conference on The Wicker Man held at the University of Glasgow’s Crichton Campus in Dumfries in July 2003 (reviewed here). Why do you think The Wicker Man has gained such a cult status? And scholarly attention, with many scholars interested for its heritage value, the way it has influenced Scottish tourism, Scottish identity. Why do you think that is so?

RH: I was going to say, don’t ask me! I was asked to preside at that conference so I was sent all the papers. When I was reading them I was absolutely god smacked. Wittgenstein and The Wicker Man Please! What possible connection can there be!

Offscreen: Yes academics have that tendency.

RH: Feminism and The Wicker Man ?

Offscreen: Well I don’t think that is such a stretch.

R: Well maybe if you are asking someone who only just read The Female Eunuch. Feminism marches on. But at the time we weren’t particularly conscious of feminism. I like to think that we respected women and gave them good jobs if there were good jobs to be had but it hadn’t become a movement; well I guess with the 60s it had to some extent.

Offscreen: Yes by the 70s for sure.

RH: Well actually certainly, yes because I was living in America at the time. But it was so inadvisably linked to the lesbian movement; very stupidly. Because the lesbian movement belonged to the gay movement generally and that was fine, but they hijacked the feminist movement. It was a grave mistake at least in the US. It lost them the equal rights amendment, which was an important political step. Not that it would have ever passed anyway but it didn’t help. But to get back to the book you mention, the arcane conference papers that were provided and written in such an impenetrable English, such academicese. Ghastly. How is it that our educators have gotten to writing gibberish! I’m afraid I mentioned it more than once.

Offscreen: Well, one of the papers at least had likened it to a revenge against the witch hunters. In the sense that it is the women who hunt down the single male character, but it may be a bit of a stretch. Feminist readings see it as a form of payback for the witch hunts, where the women lure, trap and kill Howie; and the male characters (even Summerisle) are weak. The women are leading the game of the hunter/hunted. What I do find interesting in terms of the feminist discourse in cinema is this famous article by Laura Mulvey were she argues that in most classical conventional Hollywood films the woman is the passive receptacle for the male gaze, the pleasure is always for the men. But in the Britt Ekland dancing scene, in your edit, not the theatrical, where she is dancing alone, there is that moment, or twice actually, where she looks directly at the camera. And there is no one in the room with her. I find it a very disconcerting moment to have that look at the camera, that is a direct look to us the viewer. Was that planned or intentional?

RH: Well the point is she is dancing for Howie who is in the room next door.

Offscreen: Yes, right but he can’t see her. And she looks at the camera. Who is she looking at?

RH: But her voice, carries through to the other side. And when she bangs on the wall he can hear her, and he is up against the wall of his room adjoining hers.

Offscreen: Yes that is a wonderful scene.

RH: It is like the Casanova scenes when he goes to the nunnery and he can’t get in and they can only see each other through a hole and you know he is masturbating on the door. That sort of thing. It is very seductive and he is obviously seduced.

Offscreen: I think that is what makes the Edward Woodward character’s dynamic with the female characters more interesting than the Steve character in The Wicker Tree. When Steve sees the sexuality around him he is not non-plussed because he is not really a virgin but a born again virgin.

RH: He is also a much simpler man. Howie is quite a complex man and a highly disciplined man, and with Steve he says that he is just a cowboy. This is not me. He recognizes that he has given in to this bizarre situation, where many normal people wouldn’t.

Offscreen: The female character, Lolly, is kind of like the Willow equivalent.

Lolly seduces Steve (without much coaxing!)

RH: Yes she is. The goddess of love.

Offscreen: And now that I think of it physically she reminds me of Ekland, her hair, her lithe body.

RH: Maybe but as a person she is much more cerebral.

Offscreen: A question about Britt Ekland (Willow). Her voice must have been dubbed, since she had a strong Scandinavian accent. In later roles she did use her own voice but I guess you could not have had that accent in that role. Ingrid Pitt though, that was her voice right?

RH: Yes it was her own voice. She was German actually, East German.

Woodward with Ingrid Pitt

Offscreen: She unfortunately just recently passed away.

RH: Did you like Honeysuckle Weeks, the Lolly character?

Offscreen: Yes I thought she was very good. I had some fun with her scenes with the Orlando character, the guy with the Italian heritage. And his sexual prowess, which she takes good advantage of.

RH: Did you like the sub-titles (sexual expressions during sex)?

Offscreen: Yes I thought they were very clever and an original use of them.

RH: Weeks is British and the star of a long running television series [ed. Later note, Foyle’s War, from 2002-2010)]. In the show Weeks is extremely proper, a goodie two shoes, so she loved playing that role because it was the absolute reverse of everything she is well known for. Most actors and actresses like doing that.

Offscreen: I only received your novel The Wicker Tree (formerly Cowboys for Christ) book last night, but how faithful is your own adaptation?

RH: I think it is pretty faithful. In the book we do more of putting Scotland in the context of its times, which you would not have time to do in the film. The policeman Orlando is quite a character whereas in the film he is just an object. That’s a big difference.

Offscreen: I thought the young Brittania Nicol as the lead Beth Boothby is very good. How did you find her?

Brittania Nicol

RH: Actually my casting director was in Los Angeles. We were looking for an American. It is very hard to get entry permits or work permits for roles like that if the person isn’t an established star, which we could not afford, and so we had to cast a British actor who would play an American and be believable. So she is British but her father had been working in America since she was about six so she spoke with an American accent naturally. We auditioned her and she was very good for the role. We thought we would have to dub her singing scenes but she was taught to sing, from scratch, in about a week. Our singing coach said that had she been trained as a singer he would never have been able to do it, but the fact that she had no training, that her was voice completely virgin, he was able to teach her to sing bluegrass. Of course she had an ear.

Offscreen: Even the country song we hear her sing in the video in the film is quite convincing.

RH: Yes. Her song “Trash Trailer Slut.”

Offscreen: I love that line that Sir Lachlan Morrison gives when she asks him, “What do you believe,” and he gives this little spiel. His response is actually quoted on the back cover of your novel, so I can quote it accurately, “If I am a Rabbi, Jehovah is my God. If I am a Mullah, Allah the merciful is He. If a Christian, Jesus is my Lord. Millions of people worldwide worship the sun. Here in Tressock I believe the old religion of the Celts fits our needs at this time. Isn’t that all you can ask of a religion?

Offscreen: This relates to what you said at the top about religion having done some good, and the question, can religion ever do positive, it is meant as a criticism in the sense it is what people do with religion, to suit their own purposes, like the Morrison character using the cult of the religion to cover up for his plant’s nuclear spill.

Offscreen: How did the idea of the sequel come to mind?

RH: It never came into mind really. As the cult grew and grew, to the point where I was being asked to attend festivals, preside over conventions, and so forth, it occurred to me that it would be fun to try to do it again in a slightly different way. The surprise to me was that no one used the genre, the mixture of all those things. Maybe they did but they were always turned down by the distributors who hated it.

Offscreen: Well it is quite a mix, whimsy, comedy, music, horror, political subtext, so it is always going to be hard. It is a shame that it has to be that way, for marketing purposes, you can’t mix genres in that heady way…

RH: Yes it is a real pot pourri. The only good thing from my point of view, is that it has allowed me to make another film with the same resolve and have it be very original, still. That was my motivation. To have another go at that genre. Particularly now that the remake has been made, that they hadn’t even tried to introduce these other elements. All they used was the plot and as a result they had nothing.

Offscreen: Last year I interviewed Ken Russell, and when I saw The Devils again I noticed this interesting parallel between The Devils and The Wicker Man where you have these two main characters that are burned at the end, in a sacrifice for corrupted religious beliefs. I actually asked him about the parallel (see link here) and I’ll ask you the same.

RH: Well I must admit I didn’t like it. I thought it was too graphic. I didn’t like the burning sequences. I read the book, I thought they were gratuitous. I like some of his other films. I think The Music Lovers is a terrific film. His television films on all those composers are absolutely marvelous.

Offscreen: Well, there you have it, a strange synchronicity all the same between two films that had difficult histories as well.

Offscreen: We’ll end with a general question, one that I’ve never heard you discuss. Who are some filmmakers you admire, past or present?

RH: Oh, a difficult one. I wouldn’t call myself a film buff. More a discriminating amateur. I suppose one of my favorite filmmakers is Billy Wilder. Some Like it Hot I loved. I rather like up films, even though I make horror films.

Offscreen: Wilder was such a cynic!

RH: Yes that’s true.

Author with Hardy

Offscreen: Well thank you for your time Robin, it was a pleasure.

Robin Hardy: A Chat with the wicker man

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 16, Issue 5 / May 2012 Festival Reports   Interviews   british cinema   cult cinema