This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 435 – How Pagan Lore Inspired the Movie Shepherd (2021) .
Welcome to Episode 435 of the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter, blogger with sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing another UK writer director Russell Owen, who just did a really cool thriller feature film called Shepherd. We talked through his career, he started out as a storyboard artist, and then did a few short films, a super low budget feature film, and now he’s here to present his newest work, the feature film Shepherd starring Tom Hughes, so stay tuned for that interview.
SYS’s a six-figure screenplay contest is open for submissions just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. Our final deadline is July 31st. So, if your script is ready, definitely submit now, we’re looking for low budget shorts and features. I’m defining low budget as less than six figures. In other words, less than 1 million US dollars. We’ve got lots of industry judges reading the scripts in the later rounds, we’re giving away 1000s in cash and prizes. This year we have a short film script category 30 pages or less. So, if you have a low budget short script, by all means, submit that as well. I’ve got a number of industry judge producers who are looking to produce some short scripts, hopefully we can find a home for some short scripts. If you want to submit to the contest or learn more about it, just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. Also, this year, we are running an in-person Film Festival in tandem with our screenplay contest. It’s for low budget films produced for less than 1 million US dollars. Again, we have a featured category and a shorts category. Lots of industry judges will be helping with the judging just like the screenplay contest, the festival is going to take place in Hollywood, California from October 7th to October 9th. If you have a finished film and would like to submit to the festival, you can go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/festival, and also you will see the Film Freeway link. We are actually taking our film festival submissions through Film Freeway. So, you can find us there as well. If you have a finished film or you’re already on Film Freeway, just look us up there SYS’s six-figure Film Festival and screenplay contest, and you can submit through Film Freeway. But if you’d like to learn more about it again, just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/festival, and we have a whole right up there as well as the link to film a freeway. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast, so they’re very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mentioned in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on, you can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast and then just look for episode number 435. So, now let’s get into the main segment. Today, I am interviewing UK writer director Russell Owen, here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Russell to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Russell: Thanks so much for having me, sir. Thanks for your time.
Ashley: Sure, sure. So, to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where do you grow up? And how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Russell: I grew up in North Wales which is in a pretty sort of remote part of a peninsula going out into the sea, very beautiful part of the world. But very quiet and it was full of ghost stories, my childhood. It’s an area very famous for go so including the smalls Lighthouse ghost story, which is sort of Mid Wales, which is what Robert Eggers is based the lighthouse on. Lots of Celtic history, pagan history, lots of mediaeval folktales. And that’s what got me interested in not so much show business or film, but certainly the business of storytelling, which I think is one of these is what makes us human our ability to tell stories and so to be able to sort of jump ship and leave Wales and move to London and try and get involved in storytelling. I went to art college, to study illustration. And then I studied screenwriting, became a storyboard and concept artist, thinking I might be a comic book artist, but it was two dimensional for me. I want to create something bigger with other people as well, who were great at what they did. And the answer to that was film.
Ashley: Gotcha, gotcha. So, I noticed on your IMDb page, you wrote and directed a number of short films. Can you talk about that a little bit? How did those help you prepare you to doing features? And you know, what were some of the lessons you learned and carry forward to these feature films that you’re doing now?
Russell: I mean, I’ve always been obsessed with storytelling. And I love short form storytelling where you just have a moral or something like that, and you just have to get it across. It’s an amazing discipline when you can really narrow something down into a word and be able to work backwards from that. I mean, I remember, my first lesson in screenwriting was, you know, what’s Jaws about? Oh, it’s a shark. And a shark eats people. And it’s describes it. Well, it’s about this about that. And the guy just went; No, shut up. You are all wrong. It’s about fear. One word, it’s about fear. Now that shark can be a truck, it could be a dinosaur, it could be. It’s about fear. And that was an amazing lesson. So, everything I started, when I started doing short films was; okay, what’s one the word, the one word that describes this? And what’s the one word that describes that? And that’s how I started doing stuff. And it’s so difficult to get things made. I mean, I’d write short scripts, and you weren’t able to collaborate or work with anyone, you had to finance yourself. And I sold my car to make my first short film. And what was amazing about that is it got me a job directing commercials, which really does need to sell something in 10 seconds, or 15 seconds, whatever. And that was an amazing learning curve for me. So, when I went back into writing, like features and things like that, every scene, I learned more of a discipline of getting to the point, whether it be visual, whether it be with dialogue, whether it be music, and it just taught me much more about the craft that way, but which meant my scripts could really be far more focused, and without as much explanation.
Ashley: Yeah, so let’s dig into your latest feature film Shepherd. I always ask the guests to start out with a logline. And I’d love to hear the logline you have for Shepherd but maybe start out with your one word, what is the one word for Shepherd that you sort of started out and then maybe a fuller logline.
Russell: The one word I started out with was Grief. And it was a film about grief and exploring that and then we work backwards from there. I can’t remember the logline. We did so many loglines. I think it was ‘red sky in mourning’ which is as you know, your mourning for somebody that was the tagline. The logline… I mean, I could say, one man who tries his best to escape grief by taking a job as a shepherd on a remote island thinking is the best idea to escape. Suddenly, his past catches up with him and he ends up falling down a rabbit hole into madness.
Ashley: Gotcha. So, where did this idea come from? What was sort of the genesis of this story?
Russell: Well, funnily enough, the smalls lighthouse. Again, Robert Eggers based The Lighthouse on I love the isolation. That’s a local ghost story in Wales, a true story that happened in things the late 1700s, early 1800s. And it changed Lighthouse law in the UK ever since and I love the isolation of that story. And I took that idea, because I wanted to create something atmospheric, and I wanted to create a sense of place and I replaced the job of lighthouse to shepherd because I always just see adverts of shepherds on remote islands, which I thought if you’re suffering from depression or grief, although it sounds great to run away is probably the worst thing you could do. So replace one of the characters with a dog, so it’s one man and his dog and then from that, I integrated a lot of other ghost stories that I had heard and grown up with over the years from sort of old ancient pagan ghost stories to the, there’s a Welsh tradition, I forget the name of it now, but it’s Mary something where you know, every year someone comes around with a nine foot stick with a horse’s skull on it and wrapped up in, it is a terrifying pagan tradition and they knock on your door and you need to invite them in for a drink. And all these elements over the years had built up into this as essentially a debut screenplay for me which I obviously I’ve written 15 years ago. I developed it over the years because growing up I’d experienced not just work and how to create the with writing and commercials, but I’d lost friends to depression. And I learned a lot from their experiences, went back, took the screenplay off the shelf, reworked it from their perspective, and eventually ended up with a script that I was really pleased with and I knew, although it’s a very delicate script. I think if I just handed it to another director and then just went to turn it out, depending on who they were, there needs to be an understanding of the visuals and the atmosphere. So, it’s a very sparse script, there’s not much dialogue. But there’s a lot of description in there of the landscape, what Eric’s going through. And that description was the more to advise a director of photography or to advise an actor, so that they could get a deep sense of what I’m trying to achieve. I think if we haven’t found the right cast, or the right location, or the right crew, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. So, it’s a very difficult screenplay to pull off. Unless you know, you’re quite disciplined and making sure that you’re at the best of everything you can even for a tough budget.
Ashley: So, let’s just talk quickly about your writing process a little bit. How do you write, you write in the morning? Do you write at night? Do you do a lot of outline index cards? Do you have a home office? Do you go out, you need the ambient noise at a Starbucks? What is your writing process look like?
Russell: I have a notebook per film, something I spend a bit of money on and make something nice. It doesn’t have lines in it. I like blank pages, I like to draw and do all sorts of things. And I always turn it up sideways. And I will do a timeline. And I will block out on that timeline where I want certain things to happen. And then I sort of flesh it out rather. And once I’ve made those and I never go over two pages, because if I’m starting to put tons of notes and characters, I think, I just get, it’s a mess, I need to keep it within those two pages on that timeline. And if I can keep to it to that, and I can keep it simple and sharp. And each point is worth being on those pages. Then I’ve got to film and then I will go out to a Starbucks and I will get my laptop up because then I can focus, and I’ll just start writing. I can’t do it at home. I’m rubbish. I get distracted at home. When I’m out, I don’t get distracted.
Ashley: How do you revise that? If you’re using pen and paper, if you want to make changes, you just start you open up and just redo another timeline? Or how do you actually revise the one as you’re going through?
Russell: I stretch something out and I write much more, smaller writing underneath. Yeah, I always let an idea brewing in my head for quite a while before I do that process. So, I know that the things I definitely want in the film are down there. And then when I get a great idea that, oh, this will be great for that, I can do it in, and I and some of them, they go very, very small. I think I have the one for Shepherd here. Just as a quick example, but it’s a very… Here we go. That’s an example of one.
Ashley: Okay, wow, yeah.
Russell: Yeah. And they’re all in there. And that’s all the details like. And that’s a film and I can’t, you know, if I want to change it, I’ll change it in the script. Because I’ll know in my head, I’ll just make a little star next to that point that you’ve got a different idea for this.
Ashley: Gotcha. So, once you had a version that you really liked, you felt confident, what were those next steps to actually getting this into production?
Russell: It’s a nightmare to get anything made. I managed to get this made by saying I wouldn’t take a fee for one film if they would pay for this film to get made. To which they agreed because they like the script. But it’s casting, cast is everything. I mean, once I got the money, it’s like who can I get? I mean, for a film like this, it’s, once you’ve got the script that you’re really happy with, if you don’t have, you’re no longer the storyteller between action and cut, that’s the actor. And everything else that people have put into it from the cinematography to the production design. So, you have to let them tell the story. And so, it’s I think, once we landed with the right Eric Black, which was my lead, not just someone who carries the film, he is the film. You know, it’s very much a lead in an extreme sense. Then I was ready to go off. And the other character, the other main character, although an incredible supporting cast is the island itself. I mean, the film is about atmosphere, it’s about a sense of place. That was you know, he suffering from grief. I had to illustrate that visually. So, it was the location scouting, which was the second biggest. And I chose a location which was so difficult to build sets on and everyone was really angry with me, but we managed to pull it off in the end. But yeah, it was tough. But I think it just like with that you know that one bit you just keep going and you keep plodding along and as long as you reach, you keep reaching a milestone. And before you know it, you’ve said wrap.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah, for sure. So, is there anything you’ve seen recently that you could recommend to screenwriters, anything you’ve seen Netflix, Hulu, anything out there that you thought was really great, maybe a little under the radar?
Russell: I don’t know if you guys have got Censor over there, I think you do have, that’s by fellow Welshman filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond. She’s brilliant. That was her debut based on a short film that she’d made.
Ashley: What’s it called, again?
Russell: Censor and it’s about video nasties. They were called in the UK where censors would in the 80s ban all sorts of horror films coming in from around the world all the time. And it’s about one woman whose job is to censor these films or decide whether they are going to get banned or not. And she goes crazy watching them, it’s a great work, great writing, great character development and a brilliant debut from Prano Baily-Bond.
Ashley: Perfect, perfect. Yeah, that’s a great recommendation. This is not something I’ve heard of. So, I’ll try and check that out as well. How can people see Shepherd? Do you know what the release schedule is going to be like and where it’s going to be available?
Russell: So it’s coming out in theatres, I think that list the theatres through Sivan films on May 6th in the US, and it will be on VOD, May 10th, and Amazon and iTunes all the usual platforms, Apple.
Ashley: Perfect, perfect. And what’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing, I will round up for the show notes.
Russell: Usually, Twitter or Instagram I’m on, which is @russowen.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. Perfect. Yeah, I’ll grab those for the show notes. Russell, I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me. Good luck with this film. And good luck with all your future films as well.
Russell: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
Ashley: Hey, thank you. We’ll talk to you later. Bye.
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As a bonus, if your screenplay gets a recommend or a consider from one of our readers, you get to list the screenplay in the SYS select database, which is a database for producers to find screenplays and a big part of our SYS select program. Producers are in the database searching for material on a daily basis. So, it’s another great way to get your material in front of them. As a further bonus, if your script gets a recommend from one of our readers, your screenplay will get included in our monthly best of newsletter. Each month we send out a newsletter that highlights the best screenplays that have come through our script analysis service. This is monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of over 400 producers who are actively looking for material. So again, this is another great way to get your material out there. So, if you want a professional evaluation of your screenplay at a very reasonable price, check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants. Again, that’s sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants. That’s the show. Thank you for listening.