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Interview: Matthew Butler-Hart discusses The Isle, Halloween & the legacy of Horror

We go on a deep dive with the director & co-writer of the ghost chiller about all things horror.

The Isle
Credit: Fizz & Ginger Films/DC Releasing Limited

If you are looking for a Halloween treat this week, check out The Isle by director Matthew Butler-Hart. Available on DVD and streaming platforms now, The Isle is a classic throwback ghost story which features an impressive ensemble including Alex Hassell, Conleth Hill, Fisayo Akinade and Tori Butler-Hart (who not only stars in The Isle but co-wrote the movie with her husband Matthew).

Buy The Isle on Amazon now

The Isle tells the chilling tale of three men who are shipwrecked, and land on a remote island. The land seems abandoned but for a few souls who reluctantly take them in to recouperate. But before long the men realise that there’s an untold story to be unearthed about their new environment and that they could be targeted next.

As it’s almost Halloween, we thought it would be a great time to catch up with Matthew to get an in-depth look at the making of The Isle. We also chat about horror in general, how tough it is to get a film made these days, where he sees the genre at the moment and we also delve into the past for some of his horror memories.

What first inspired you and your partner Tori Butler-Hart to write the chilling story of The Isle?

We were actually asked to go and have a look at the island by the owners as the family had always wanted something filmed up there but previously people from the BBC and Channel 4 had said it was too hard to practically do anything on it as there were no roads and it was in a very remote part of Scotland to even get to. We went up and fell in love with the place instantly and knew we wanted to find a way of doing something on it. It’s a beautiful island but there is something about it, especially at night, that takes you back to another time and brings up stories that you’d tell around a fire at Halloween of myths and monsters.

We looked into the history of the island and it was a thriving community until the mid 1800’s when there was a food plight and the place was very quickly deserted. Some of the cottages are now refurbished but there are plenty of places that have stayed as they were for the past couple of hundred years and they all have tales to tell. It was this idea of a food plight that got us thinking about the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, which ended with the creation of the Sirens, that started to give us a template of the kind of film we wanted to make. We didn’t want to write a jump scare, gory horror, but something more along the lines of the films that I love from the 60’s and 70’s, the slow-burn chiller where you’re not sure exactly what is real or not, and what is in the character’s mind. It was quite a gamble to create something like that to be honest and we were very lucky to be given the chance to make it.

What’s the film’s premise?

There is a shipwreck and three sailors make it to shore to find that only a handful of people live there but that it was once a thriving community until a food plight hit the island. As the sailors wait for a boat to take them back to the mainland they begin to suspect that not all is well and that the people have something to hide. As the days go by strange things start to happen and they discover that the island’s past is troubled to say the least, and that the troubles may be happening all over again.

https://youtu.be/iqn2JGZt2dg

Tell us about the film’s journey to screen? Was this a tough project to initially get off the ground?

We were lucky enough to be invited in to talk to the finance company after they saw our last film, Two Down, at the BFI in London one early Tuesday morning and we went in and pitched a very different film but they said they were looking for something specifically genre based.

We’d been working on The Isle on and off for a year but it was only on about draft 4 of the script, but the finance company loved the idea and said that if we could get two of our previous actors from Two Down, Alex Hassell and Conleth Hill, they would finance most of the film. Alex was about to go and shoot Surburbicon for George Clooney and Conleth was about to go back to Game of Thrones where he plays Lord Varys and we had a deadline to be able to raise the rest of the finance otherwise it wasn’t going to work so we actually had a day where Tori and I, along with our co-producer Gareth Jones, literally ran around London from meeting to meeting to find the last pot of money before 6pm on that day. And we miraculously did it.

That meant that we basically had three weeks from being green lit to when we would lose those two Alex and Conleth until the year after. We hadn’t finished the script, cast the film, found a crew, had costumes made, made equipment deals and I hadn’t even started to work out how on earth we’d shoot it! And we were quickly finding out why no one had filmed there before as it was a logistical nightmare to get things on to the island and then move around with equipment and actors.

So, the getting off the ground was actually relatively easy, it was the scramble of doing months’ worth of work in a few weeks that was the tough part.

The Isle

Credit: Fizz & Ginger Films/DC Releasing Limited

The environment plays such an important role in the film; it’s one of the most beautiful looking films I’ve seen for awhile. What were the location shoots like and what challenges did they present to you?

For a start thank you so much for that, we’re very pleased how it turned out visually and it was something we worked hard on to achieve as it was so important to the story. Most of the interiors were actually in an old farmhouse in Suffolk and we had to do all those first because of actor availability before moving up to the island for the majority of the shoot. This wasn’t an ideal way of doing it because we had to try and match lighting states to an unpredictable island weather and when we were shooting in Suffolk it was glorious sunshine and we had a feeling it wouldn’t be on when we got to the West coast of Scotland! So, the DOP, Pete Wallington, had to try and light for something utterly unknown and a lot of the scenes in the farmhouse involve windows, just to make our life even harder.

There were a couple of days off in between moving up to the island but there was a core group of us that went up straight away and were greeted by a force nine gale sweeping in and we just managed to get us and the food across on the boats before it hit. For a start that was the first time I think it properly hit us that what we were trying to achieve was a little insane. Fortunately, it had dropped by the time the cast and crew arrived and it was actually beautiful weather for the first day, which matched up perfectly, but as they day went on the wind picked up again, you can see it in the funeral scene when those huge trees are bending in a rather scary (scary to film under!) way, and then at night when we filmed the scene with the bonfire, which is flailing around and whipping at the actor’s costumes. Both of those scenes work brilliantly for the film and we were so lucky as just as we said “cut” for the last time on that day the wind became gale force again and ripped one of our Ez-Ups (a gazebo), from its ropes and threw it on to the roof of a cottage.

That sort of luck held for the entire shoot thankfully. Almost every day we came up against something which could have utterly scuppered us, and as we were up against time because we would lose two of our leads, we had no room for pausing if something went too wrong. This included a row boat that the sailors use which genuinely started to fill with water if you didn’t bail it out, and us having to actually film in the North Atlantic in the middle of the night as it slowly sank!

But the island is an utterly stunning place and we all loved every minute of being up there and be lucky enough to have the whole place to ourselves to go and create this film. We all stayed on the island and as there was no television and very little WIFI we quickly became a little community and even the hard, cold, days when our locations had been swept away by the sea seemed an adventure. It was a gift of a place to film because everywhere you pointed the camera revealed more amazing things and it all added to the eerie spectacle of it. On that note, although it was beautiful, I’m glad there were a few of us there because at night, and night came very quickly, it was a very different place. It was the darkest dark I’ve ever seen and there’s a very different feel to it, especially if you’re walking from the main house to another cottage by yourself! Crew told stories of hearing babies crying at night at the top of the house and there were a few weird things going on, which I’m not going to go into here!

Is it true that (those brave enough) can visit The Isle for themselves?

And that’s why I’m not going to be specific about what happened! Yes, you can indeed go on holiday there and rent some of the original cottages that have now been refurbished, and if you want somewhere utterly stunning that is very much off the grid it’s the place for you. Tori and I are going to go back and write because there are just no distractions at all. It’s actually Kate Winslet’s favourite place to go because of exactly that. Have a look at Eilean Shona and all the info will come up.

The Isle

Credit: Fizz & Ginger Films/DC Releasing Limited

You’ve assembled a very impressive cast for The Isle. Talk us through the talent, and what they brought to the project?

I thought we had an amazing cast and I’m very proud of what they all brought to the film. A lot of the parts were written for those actors as we’d worked with a lot of them before so we knew exactly the qualities they could bring. One of the main things we look for in an actor, apart from the talent and technical know-how of how to get the best from a camera, is that they will be fun to work with and also know the kind of set that we run and will fit into it. There are no places for egos on our set and we run things almost like a theatre company and expect actors to bring a lot of ideas to the table and not be expected to just sit back and be given everything, but also know that the most important thing is the bigger story, not just the character that they’re playing.

Conleth Hill is an absolute joy to work with. He brings so much to the table and is great with less experienced actors in helping them learn. Watching him on set is an absolute masterclass in not just acting, but in being an actor and how to behave on set. Although he can be very naughty, but that’s part of why he’s great to work with, he reminds you that what we’re doing is meant to be fun. It’s a hard job filmmaking and if you’re not having fun what on earth is the point.

Having Alex Hassel, Tori, Graham Butler, Ben Lee and Emma King back on the team was great as we’d all worked together in theatre and two other features so we could quickly get to the root of an idea and start to layer things pretty fast because we had a shorthand in how we worked and knew what to expect from each other, and me as a director how to get the best from them. And I’d worked with Alix Wilton Regan back in my acting days on the first feature I produced so it was fun to reconnect with her, and she brings a very different energy to the group, and a different way of working, which was perfect for Korrigan.

Dickon Tyrell, Fisayo Akinade and Joe Bannister were all knew additions to the team and we’d seen them all on stage in different plays. We like to collect people and approach them when something might be right for them, and we’d had assurances from people that knew them all separately that they were the kind of people that would fit in to a Fizz and Ginger Films’ set. And having them all come from a theatre background as well meant that I knew how to work with them having come from that world myself.

It’s a terrific group of people and we were incredibly lucky to get them to come up to a remote Scottish island and have such fun with them.

Do you have a particular favourite scene in the movie?

I have lots of moments that I love in this movie, but one scene, or two scenes that run into each other, is about half way through when Lanthe confronts Oliver about trying to go out in the boat at night. So, little is said between them as Oliver tries to find out why Lanthe is so scared so it’s entirely up to the actors’ visual storytelling that makes the scene so beautiful. And then when she runs to her room with Oliver in hot pursuit only to find she has locked the door and then slides the key under it so she can’t get out, is a lovely moment when audiences start to work out what is going on and great to hear the realisation in a cinema!

The Isle

Credit: Fizz & Ginger Films/DC Releasing Limited

Why do you think the classic ghost story still resonates with audiences?

I think it’s in our DNA to respond to the unknown and spirits wandering the earth. We’ve been telling stories about it for tens of thousands of years so it’s natural that we want to carry that on, even if it’s not something you believe in. We just can’t help ourselves! In the Victorian times it was even a tradition to tell them at Christmas, which has sadly stopped now. But I think that’s all part of people enjoying these stories together and having that shared cultural experience and why they’re such a joy to watch in the cinema still, to all gasp and be scared together, like we used to be around the fireplace telling spooky tales.

What do you hope people will take away with them after witnessing The Isle?

The intention was to make a film that left people asking questions about why certain things happened, about how much was real or in the character’s minds, but most importantly that they felt they knew these people and had been on the island with them. We wanted to leave them feeling unsettled on different levels after what happens at the end, and although it’s not a jump scare kind of movie feel that the creepiness had seeped into the bones.
But we also wanted them to realise what it was like for women living in those times under the rule of men who would rather have them stay quiet and out of the way rather than dealing with issues, and what the consequences were when they spoke up. Of course, that’s the underlying layer to the main story, but most people have cottoned on to what we were up to!

Tell us about your working relationship with Tori (Butler Hart) and how your creative process works?

We always write together and it’s been a different process for each script but no matter how it works we always start by creating the characters and letting them inform us how the story is going to work and what paths we will follow in the story. I tend to work more on the visual side of things, which makes sense as I then have to go off and direct, but we both decided on the feel of the film and both talk about music and sound design too. We’re both there when talking to production designers and costume designers about the look of the film too, so it’s very much a collaboration on that side of things. As we get closer to shooting I go off and start to work on the minute details of shooting with storyboards and Tori will then do the heavy lifting part of producing.

We then both work on the post production side equally, being there with Will the editor and working through all the sound side as well and into grading and it’s really nice to have two of us on that side of things to be able to bounce ideas around.

The Isle

Credit: Fizz & Ginger Films/DC Releasing Limited

Wearing two hats on the film as a writer and a director, do you have a preference?

Ever since I started making short films as a teen I’ve always done both, it’s just part of the storytelling for me. I’m sure I’ll write things that I don’t direct and vice versa but at the moment, and what I love, is being involved in all aspects of the story so it’s hard for me to disentangle one from the other. Both writing and directing are steps where you get to add more to the blueprint of a film but are from very different approaches, but if I had to choose I’d always pick being on set with a great cast and crew creating something together and working with people from all sorts of disciplines towards a common goal. I love writing and am lucky enough to be able to do it with Tori most of the time, but it can be quite a lonely process by yourself and I’m definitely someone who needs others to bounce things off and play with ideas.

Can you name three seminal moments (from the world of horror) that have gone on to influence your career?

These really are excellent questions, and not easy ones! I think the final scene in The Wicker Man as Edward Woodward is led to his death has stayed with me for most of my life ever since I saw it as a child (my father had been showing us these kinds of films since we were young), and the realisation of what was happening just hit me like a hammer. As I got older I think it added to my love of leading an audience to certain places and drip feeding them information to see if they can work out what’s going on, which we tried to do with The Isle and our previous film Two Down.

American Werewolf in London has too many moments for me to choose one over another really, it’s just a masterpiece of horror filmmaking but it’s the last scene that often pops into my head when (spoiler alert), David is finally cornered and shot. The film, which is a lot funnier than I know John Landis intended and is where I get my love of comedy horror from, has taken you on this incredible journey, often very funny with precision-timed jokes, and then you realise there’s only one way this can end and it’s at once very scary and incredibly sad.

A moment that terrified me as a child is in Poltergeist when the young girl Carol, played by Heather O’Rourke, is sitting in front of the television with her back to us talking to it. Even typing that has given me shivers, and it was the simplicity of the shot and the moment being so reliant on the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks as to what was in the TV that made it so powerful. That’s definitely the kind of moment that I favour from horror films, where the audience is made to do the work as I think whatever we as filmmakers put on screen will never be as scary as what the human mind can imagine.

The Isle

Credit: Fizz & Ginger Films/DC Releasing Limited

It seems to have taken the UK a long time to really embrace Halloween. With more and more events happening across the country to mark the occasion, I was wondering how you used to celebrate Halloween in your youth?

I have always loved Halloween but you’re right it’s taken a while to get here to the extent it has. As kids me and my two brothers would decorate the entire house, making spiders and trying to get hold of as many spooky things as we could from the few shops that sold them and we’d carve pumpkins and watch films that we were definitely too young to watch! I think because we’d watched so many films growing up we always wanted to have that American Halloween so did our best to recreate it as best we could in the rainy North of England.

What’s your favourite scary movie?

Wow that’s a question. I’m not a huge fan of the gory type of horror to be honest and it really depends on the mood but I love the original The Wicker Man (I couldn’t bring myself to watch the remake!), and I love and American Werewolf in London and The Thing.

The film got great word of mouth on the festival circuit before a successful run in cinemas and now on home entertainment platforms. How difficult is it to get your project out into the world, especially given how crowded the horror market can be?

There’s the question! In a way it’s easier to get films made nowadays, especially genre films because that’s what distributors are after at the moment, but getting them into the world and then for the world to see them is a huge job, and getting harder because of how much content is out there on so many platforms. It’s great if your film is put on one or all of them, but if no one knows they exist then what is the point. The Isle doesn’t fit into a straight horror box either so we spent the time going to festivals to get reviewed so we could then give the sales people some ammo to give to distributors to prove that there was an audience out there. Even then it wasn’t easy, but eventually an American distributor took it on and we were lucky enough to be put in cinemas over there before going on to VOD, DVD and later TV. It wasn’t a huge release but it was enough to kickstart people wanting to watch it over here.

But we wanted to have a bit more control over what happened as we saw that maybe the advertising budget wasn’t exactly spent in the way we would have liked and it was also sold as a horror in the U.S. They changed the poster and re-edited the trailer to make it look a lot scarier and more like a bog-standard horror than it actually is, which meant the pure horror kids did not enjoy it! But we had a lot of people, thankfully more than the angry kids, who aren’t fans of that type of slasher horror love it and be very vocal.

Because of this we wanted to make sure the UK release was handled more carefully so we weren’t trying to trick people into watching it. So, we actually handled the cinema release ourselves, which is so much work it’s unreal, but it meant that it was in 14 cinemas over here around the country, which might not seem like a lot but for the size of film and the fact that it’s not your normal horror was a real success. This meant that we could get some great reviews and the fact Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian loved it made everyone sit up and want to watch it. So as the cinema run was happening, and it ended up playing over a space of three months, Lionsgate got hold of it and loved the positive reviews that were coming in and took it for VOD and their sister company Elevation took it for DVD.

It ended up on pretty much every platform in the UK and all the supermarkets, which might not seem that big a deal but supermarkets are a great place to sell DVDs and therefore not easy to get into, but we did and it’s still in there selling now. That might all sound easy but we had to fight and work every single day, working on artwork, and reworking it, spending our entire lives on social media generating an interested audience and letting reviewers and journalists know we existed.

And months after it came out in cinemas we’re still getting requests for screenings from venues so it’s still out there to be seen on the big screen. But we did that ourselves, talking to cinemas, convincing them we could get an audience and then working night and day to make sure we did!

The Isle

Credit: Fizz & Ginger Films/DC Releasing Limited

Can you tell us about the first time you showed the film to an audience and the reception you got?

The first time was at the Manchester International Film Festival in the UK and I was terrified. The organisers had saved us seats right at the front so we had a couple of hundred sitting behind us judging it! I was also worried because it’s not exactly easy to put into a box when you’re trying to categorise it, so I had no idea if they were going to get what we were trying to do. As certain points of the film hit and the creepiness started to get under people’s skin, you could hear little noises and far more yelps than I was expecting. You can feel when you’ve got an audience or if they’re restless and after a while I knew we had them. It was a worrying experience though because it wasn’t going to work at a festival, and festival audiences are often more forgiving than the average cinema-goer, we would have been in serious trouble.

What advice would you have given your younger self starting out in film?

That no one will ever work as hard for your project as you will, or should, so you need to take a lot more responsibility for it than you think. I’m talking more about putting a film together in the first place and especially to what happens to it afterwards rather than just the on-set stuff. We spent a lot of time on this film and the previous ones trusting that other people had the film’s best interests at heart when it comes to getting it out into the world, but discovered most people just want to have as easy a life as possible and make a quick buck; so, you need to take control and work harder than everyone else!

Many believe we are in a golden age of TV and that it has overtaken Film. What do you think?

A lot of the TV we have at the moment is just excellent; I was never a huge fan of the medium but seeing what can be accomplished from a writing point of view added to this new almost cinematic way of telling longer stories really lets you explore so much.

But I don’t think it will stop people wanting to watch or make film (although yes, a lot of investor’s money is being diverted that way), because not every story works in the TV medium and there are absolutely ideas that I don’t want to see stretched out over episode after episode. I think we’ll see less films in the cinema that aren’t the huge budget beasts unless something changes, but all these new online platforms are also giving filmmakers a chance to tell some great stories via film albeit on a smaller screen, and in fact allow people to be bolder because they know they won’t have the extraordinary costs that go along with a cinema release. And that’s part of the problem, getting the cinemas to back smaller budgeted films as well as distributors being confident enough to put some money behind the release to let people know that a film exists. It won’t happen, but here’s hoping.

At the end of the day though the shared experience of going to a cinema and watching a film with other people will never die because those other people, and that screen and sound is part of an experience you can’t recreate at home. And there will always be people like me who would rather watch a film than a TV episode, as much as I love a lot of the excellent series that are out there at the moment!

Where do you think modern horror is going now?

I’m really excited about modern horror I have to say. There was a period when it seemed like the only horror films which were being made, the slasher, screaming woman being chopped up type, and I personally couldn’t get behind them. I know they still get made and there’s a huge audience out there for them, which is great; as long as films are being made I’m happy! But I always loved the subtler stories that slowly brought you into the world, where you got to know and care about the characters and that they weren’t just there to have an arm ripped off.

There are now lots of really interesting horror films, some like The Isle which hover around the horror/drama/thriller category instead of being full-on horror, and filmmakers are being far more inventive and caring about the characters in them and the stories themselves. It’s much more like the films that my father showed me, when I was far too young! of the 60’s and 70’s in that respect. And it’s the first time in a long time that horrors are getting mainstream audiences and awards chatter that isn’t from a horror festival.

The Isle

Credit: Fizz & Ginger Films/DC Releasing Limited

How has the industry changed since you’ve started? Do you think it’s easier to break into the industry now?

I really do think it’s a lot easier now, yes. That’s not to say it’s still not incredibly hard! But with the technology we have, the cameras on our phones that can shoot 4k (not that most cinemas can play 4K yet), and the ability to edit on a laptop, it’s so much easier to at least create something that looks great. The thing is that you still have to have a great story, even if you’re still learning how to tell things visually, even if your communication with getting actors to serve the story adequately needs work, with a great story you can shine. And that’s what the industry is looking for; great stories and the potential of the filmmaker/writer/producer. So, if you go out and make your film, and be clever on how to get people to notice it, which is much harder than making the thing in the first place, there’s every chance you’ll be able to break into it. With the creation of all these platforms, and I’m not even talking about the huge ones we all know about, there are dozens of ways of having your story being seen by people, and not just at festivals (although they’re a great way of getting the ball rolling and there are more and more of those appearing every year).

I’m not saying they’re going to make you loads of money, that’s a whole other thing and people should not try and do this if that’s what they’re after! There are a lot of far easier ways of making money than being a filmmaker; you have to love it more than anything else, and then you’ve got a chance of succeeding. But yes, there’s a lot more hope for filmmakers actually doing things these days, especially as in the UK the entertainment industry is now I think the second biggest contributor to the economy recently overtaking agriculture; we’d rather watch cool stuff than eat, which I’m all for (responsibly obviously, I’m just not a bog foodie! Stay healthy guys, you’ll need the energy when you’re on set.).

What/who were your biggest influences growing up?

As I said my dad was a big film fan and loved all things genre and we watched a lot of old films on rainy Sundays. I remember him showing me Hammer Horror films from about the age of four or five and films like the Wicker Man, Dune, Blade Runner, Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey when I around ten or eleven (which means my two brothers, who are a writer and actor and respectively, must have been 9 and 6!).

We would also watch a lot of black and white films as Channel 4, in those days, used to have some cracking stuff on a Sunday. I think this was all the beginning of my film education and those films have stayed with me all my life.
As I got older I became obsessed with a lot of David Lean’s work. It was just the sheer scope of the story, visually and otherwise, that made me realise how large you could be in the world of film and his work has definitely influenced me. Not that I could eve compare our stuff to his, we haven’t been given the budget to be able to wait a week for the right cloud just yet, just that the idea that film can, and for us should, be bigger than the lives we lead, that it can be elevated and therefore elevate us. That’s personal taste of course, but where I like to work.
As you can see though none of the films I watched, or at least fell in love with, were particularly action packed even if they were huge ideas, which has absolutely fed into the kind of films we make.

Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?

We’re going in a very different direction for the next one (although I have a great idea for a sequel to The Isle which I’d love to do), which is a film called Dragheist. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a heist film with drag queens, which we started writing before we made The Isle and are now back on and is getting a load of interest from investors so we should be filming next summer. Basically, a young family and a troupe of drag queens get screwed over by the same businessman so they team up to get their revenge; simple as that.

We’ve also been asked to write a book on indie filmmaking for a big U.S publisher, which we’ve just found out comes out in March 2021, which seems like such a long way away but I’m sure will fly by! So that’s taking up a lot of time especially as it has interviews with people like Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry and Margaret Matheson to name a few, but its fun writing it.

Finally, what will you be doing on Halloween this year?

Well we going to have a big party where people had to come as old school horror film characters but we’re now off to LA a couple of days after for AFM, the American Film Market, to talk about various things so we’ll have to be a bit sensible, but our house is known as the Haunted House where we live in Crouch End, North London, which I absolutely relish in, so we’ll go all out on that on the night.

We started decorating it when we first moved here, carrying on my childhood obsession with it, and Tori and I steadily up it each year and do the entire house inside and out and now more and more houses in the area are catching on. Not to the extent we do though!

We have smoke machines and sound effects going, build coffins with demons and headless people in rocking chairs, and we’re always the first stop (and then the last after they’ve been around!), for the local kids who have started bringing us thank you cards!

The Isle is available to buy and rent now on DVD & streaming platforms.

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