The Wicker Tree
"Scottish Screen hated it with a passion. The BBC said it was profoundly anti-Scottish. I pointed out that in The Wicker Man a whole island conspires to kill a man and nobody said that was un-Scottish."
Following up a film as remarkable as The Wicker Man was never going to be easy - not even for its creator, Robin Hardy. Battles with the funders - eventually he had to depend on Canadians and Americans, with not a penny coming from the UK - were only part of it. But though it may have missed out on a big screen appearance, The Wicker Tree is out on DVD this week, and Hardy is delighted with the final product. So delighted, in fact, that he has already started work on the third part of the trilogy.
In person, Hardy perfectly encapsulates the contradictions of his films. His smart dress, graceful bearing and received pronunciation accent make him appear a natural darling of the British establishment, yet his ebullient personality, in combination with a pronounced mischievous streak, quickly reveals him to be a more complex figure. He talks about his work with a rare passion and a charming openness, not merely promoting but eagerly conversing. Everything seems to fascinate him. He approaches life as a constant process of discovery, clearly thrilled to have the opportunity to do creative work.
"With the original film, we wanted to explore the idea of what would happen if we all woke up one days and Christianity was no longer the dominant religion, and instead there was a Pagan shrine down the road," he says. "That was the game we were playing. It was a game for all of us. It was a game for the writer, Anthony Shaffer, who had also written Sleuth. We thought a game involving these two religions would be fun for us and for the audience because they'd see clues as we went through the story and through the island. In this film we went much further in exploring what the Pagan rite was about."
The rites in The Wicker Tree, he explains, are strongly rooted in real tradition. "It's still very real in Scotland!" he declares, talking about the Border Ridings, where he followed the real hunt for a man and then had a very nice picnic. He also enjoyed a visit to Edinburgh's Beltane celebrations where he was impressed to see 17,000 people in attendance. "It was quite magical and more than erotic."
The big thing, I suggest, is in the little details that surround us in day to day life. I recall the maypole dances of my own childhood and the well dressings we would make from flower petals, which local children believed kept an evil spirit at bay. He nods enthusiastically: "It's everywhere." It's clear he sees Britain as a country whose ancient religious conflicts have never really been resolved, even if we've largely learned to live with them. The perfect foil for this, then, was a form of Christianity itself a little alien to the British temperament. Where The Wicker Man featured a staid protestant policeman (whom Hardy describes in distinctly unflattering terms), the heroes of The Wicker Tree are two young evangelists from a Texan church called Cowboys For Christ.
"It really exists!" he insists. "It's actually quite widespread - wherever there are cattle, really. It's part of the Baptist church and it's not particularly extreme. I spent a week with them. Texas has always intrigued me."
I note that Edward Woodward's Wicker Man character was valued by the Pagan characters for the particular personal commitments he had made. What were they looking for in this young couple, specially invited to preach to their flock?
"Innocence," he says firmly. "But also people who are extremely good at what they do. He excels at horse riding, she has a remarkable voice, he's handsome, she's pretty. The gods were looking for perfection. And of course they were also a bit sheltered from normal life."
Hardy has a way of smiling that can send a shiver down your spine after comments like that. It speaks to his enthusiasm for blending genres - mixing horror with comedy, romance and eroticism. Of course, mixing it up like this makes a film hard to sell and probably added to his difficulties with fundraising. And in addendum, there's the small matter of the musical elements.
Some filmmakers are primarily visual; for others, the story is led by dialogue. For Hardy, the underlying language is music. It was key to how he structured The Wicker Man, so he was very pleased to find the right musical team this time around.
There can't be many people in the UK who've never seen The Wicker Man, but Keith Easdale was one of them. "I saw a programme on TV about it and I hadn't a bloody clue what is was," says the Glaswegian musician, joining Hardy and me for drinks. "But I was intrigued, so I phoned the BBC and got Robin's phone number. We met up and he asked if I'd like to write the music for his new film. The really great thing was to be able to use genuine traditional music, folk music. It's not trendy but it fits with what Robin does. There are some fantastic musicians in the film and we all put our time in because we all believed in the same thing."
Easdale had the particular challenge of working with young actress Brittania Nicol, who seemed perfect for the central role except for the fact she couldn't sing. Could she be made into a singer? At first he wasn't sure, so he tested her. What convinced him it would be worth the effort, he says, is when she fought back. "She was really determined. She wanted it so much, she's probably one of the finest singers I've ever worked with."
A failure to recognise the importance of music is, Hardy suggests, part of what doomed the 2006 Wicker Man remake. "It had no songs and the score sounded like wall to wall elevator music." He clearly doesn't want to be unfair, adding with a wink "Nicolas Cage is a perfectly good actor. Neil LaBute is a perfectly good director. I have a feeling that they were cursed."
So what about the third film, now in pre-production? Hardy says he is planning to start shooting this spring. "It won't be set in Scotland but in Iceland, which as we all know is where the gods live."