William McGregor’s Gwen has come a long way. Originally a colourful fairy tale short, Who’s Afraid Of The Water Sprite, which was shown at a student film festival, it’s grown into his first full length feature combining folklore, history and good old fashioned chills. And it arrives in UK cinemas this Friday, by way of Toronto last year and this year’s EIFF – all of which has taken over ten years.
Growing up on a farm meant McGregor always had – and still has – an affinity with folk stories and pastoral tales, finding inspiration by the landscape surrounding him as a young boy. The North Wales setting for the film was the idea of its eventual producer, Hilary Bevan Jones – a stark contrast to McGregor’s home county of Norfolk but one that resonated immediately. “Initially I went there with the idea of re-telling the same fairy tale [Who’s Afraid Of The Water Sprite] but on the broader canvas of Snowdonia,” he recalls. “But seeing the landscape, studying the period and seeing how the [slate] quarries had torn into the mountainsides of the area, the fairy tale evolved into a story about the region and its history, tied in with the folklore, and became a story about North Wales.”
The result is a film dominated by its setting and environment – the mountains, the wind, the rain, the mud, the glowering skies – making it the source of the gloomily grey atmosphere, which is reflected in the characters. At the heart of the film is the relationship between young Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) and her mother Elen (Maxine Peake). It’s not an easy one. Like everything in the film, it’s seen through Gwen’s eyes and, as McGregor describes it, “it’s about realising that her parent isn’t infallible and that her tough love is for her own good. Her mother isn’t a monster: what she’s doing is out of love in an effort to protect her daughter.”
But those unforgiving surroundings are always there. The sombre interiors were created by double and triple wick candles, with a little supplementary light, to give a natural effect. The atmospheric soundtrack comes mainly from the landscape as well – the howling wind, the squelching mud, the sounds of the animals, all of which McGregor remembers from his upbringing. And the colour palette is subdued browns and greys, with just one splash of colour when Gwen goes to market to sell vegetables. Bright green leeks and orange carrots explode on the screen – and McGregor admits they had to “grey down” the carrots because they were in danger of stealing the moment.
That, however, was the least of the problems when it came to shooting in Snowdonia in November. Filming ground to a halt several times because the weather was so bad, snow meant the filming schedule had to be changed completely, the set was evacuated because of flooding and there was a day when the wind hit 70 mph, making it impossible to erect any lighting – so the crew simply filmed in natural light instead. “We had to improvise so much because the weather was destroying the set around us, yet responding to that actually helped the film in some ways,” recalls McGregor. “It brought everybody closer together, even if there were times when we were standing in the pouring rain and freezing cold and feeling physically sick.”
Eighteen year old Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who plays the title role, describes the filming conditions as “going Method”, but also found she needed to improvise in different ways when it came to acting alongside co-star Jodie Innes, who plays her little sister. “When you’re working with somebody who’s just six years old, the best stuff you’re going to get is when she doesn’t realise the camera is on her. So we could be playing a game or chatting or even tickling each other and she wouldn’t know when the camera was switched on.” That kind of improvisation produced natural, artless scenes between the two, but also presented more contemporary issues in the shape of Jodie’s Beyonce impressions or her love of flossing!
Like her director, Worthington-Cox felt a close, personal connection to the film, one that took her back into her own family history. Her grandmother’s family hails from North Wales and back in the mists of time, there was an actual Gwen – her great, great, great auntie, she believes. One photograph remains of her, as does a family heirloom. “Her kettle has been passed down the family for generations,” says Eleanor. “Little things like that tie you to not just the film but the landscape around you.”
William McGregor and Eleanor Worthington-Cox were talking to Freda Cooper.
Gwen is released in cinemas on Friday, 19 July.