News

Exclusive Interview: Wicker Tree’s Robin Hardy

On the Wicker Man sequel, plus, Wrath of the Gods

“Years ago, when I was writing novels and short stories, my editor was Jacqueline (Kennedy) Onassis,” Robin Hardy recalls. “Jackie once said to me, ‘You will never be a really successful writer, Robin, unless you take your tongue out of your cheek.’”

“Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to do that because, as you know, my tongue has always been planted rather firmly in my cheek,” confesses the writer/director of the cult classic The Wicker Man. After receiving a standing ovation from the enthusiastic Fantasia audience, Hardy introduced his wildly wicked new horror/fantasy/comedy The Wicker Tree at its world premiere, saying, “Feel free to laugh.”

“The Wicker Man genre was kind of invented with the first film – in which we deliberately tried to create a really joyous community – the kind of community that wasn’t puritan and obsessed with fearing God and feeling guilty about sin the whole time,” he says. “When that film was made in the early 1970s, Scotland was still very Presbyterian. No drinking was allowed on Sundays and a strict morality prevailed. So the policeman in that film represented not only himself but the Christian community at large. When he arrived on a Scottish island where people were singing and having a good time, where people danced around the Maypole in an obviously sexual way, celebrating the renewal of life, it was to him, an essentially alien society. That furnished us, as the filmmakers with songs, jokes and a good deal of decorative sex. However, that all goes along with an increasingly dangerous, creepy situation because something else is going on behind all this. We try to suggest that by putting a whole series of clues – rather like the objects in a treasure hunt – in plain sight. But you don’t immediately see them because they blend with the background. That made for a very quirky film, I think. It was a film that could not be defined as just a comedy or just a thriller or just a tragedy or just a love story. It was all of those things, which put it in the ‘genre’ category. Genre films are not designed to fit into one particular category.”

“Earlier this week at the Fantasia Festival, there was a film called A Lonely Place to Die in which the director created a marvelous atmosphere, a heightened sense of suspense by having his protagonist involved in terrifying mountaineering during the first part of the film. It looked almost like a documentary, and you really had your heart in your mouth watching it. Otherwise, it was a thriller, set on Alpine crags. That’s a very original idea and the mixture of those two elements made it a ‘genre’ film.”

“The Wicker Tree is a chiller because the two protagonists – a genuine, regular-guy Texas cowboy and his pop-star bride-to-be – are Born Again Christians. She’s probably made $50-60 million, working since she was 14 (think Britney Spears), and is now determined to lead her own life. She’s discovered that her own voice doesn’t have to be electronically amplified. She can actually sing. A devoted church-goer, she’s selected by her Texas-based minister to be an evangelist ambassador to Scotland, which is one of the many European countries where the churches of all denominations are rather empty these days. Virtually all of this is based on truth, by the way. Churches have been steadily losing congregants for years. That’s quite unlike the United States, where – by our standards – religion is incredibly important: “In God We Trust” Religion here permeates politics too. Take abortion, for example. Some people in Europe are for it and some are against it – but that doesn’t make them a socialist or a conservative. They could be either. Those issues are un-politicized. Yet, while Scottish churches are happy to receive young evangelists from the United States, they’re not very happy to have them knocking door-to-door like the Mormons do.”

“Structurally, there are definite similarities between The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree. There are clues hidden everywhere in plain sight, and there’s quite a definite sense that a lot of the characters are not who they seem to be – because all of them are acting a role, at least when they’re in the presence of our two young evangelists.”

“There’s also a similar play on innocence. In The Wicker Man, the policeman was obviously a good, bright detective but his reading on the island was that these people are giving in to immorality. It didn’t occur to him that he had arrived in a society that had a completely different religion. In The Wicker Tree, the young Americans are cordially welcomed into a completely different society. As a pop star, she has always traveled in a kind of cocoon, protected by managers, handlers and assistants. So she thinks that it’s very quaint and picturesque. When she’s asked to be May Queen, she enjoys the whole idea tremendously. And that naiveté is not unusual for a young person from the United States, where only about 5% of the population has passports. Until recently, owning a passport wasn’t even necessary for Americans traveling to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean.”

As for the young cowboy, he becomes the Laddie. That reaches back to a tradition in which the little towns along the border with England choose the most honorable young man, perhaps the best horseman, to honor in various ways. According to Hardy, the origin of this custom lies in the distant past.

“One version has it that a King of Scotland was killed by the English in battle about 300-400 years ago. He was actually the father of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was born posthumously. Back in those days, the King had a Royal Standard Bearer and, after the King fell, this young Standard Bearer rode through the English lines all the way back to Scotland and lay the banner at the feet of the widowed Queen. For his bravery in this feat, he’s remembered by having a Laddie represent him, often carrying a symbolic banner.”

“I don’t really believe that sanitized version, and many people don’t. The one I prefer is far older, reaching back into Greek mythology. In it, this worthy young man was, perhaps, the lover of the Queen. Back then, the principal god was female, the Earth Mother, and female gods wielded great power, as we see in Knossos in Crete. Her lover was sacrificed to the gods as the most valuable person or creature, and the Queen would then grieve for him.”

“The Queen of the May is also a sacrifice in her own way. And both are offered up to the gods in supplication for the resurgence of the crops and the regeneration of life. In countries off the northwest coast of Europe, much of the year is spent in darkness with the sun barely rising off the horizon. Ancient peoples feared the sun might never up come again, and that was a powerful reason to propitiate the gods. When spring occurred, that blessing was attributed to the gods. In both these stories – and a third one to come – I use pagan beliefs rather feely, playing games with the various myths, mixing and matching to some extent.”

The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree are the same genre. (Actor) Christopher Lee’s review of Hardy’s novel, Cowboys for Christ, on which his new film is based, reads: “It’s erotic, comic, romantic and horrific enough to melt the bowels of a bronze statue.”

Looking to the future, Robin Hardy is preparing his next film The Wrath of the Gods.

“This next film is divided into two parts. There’s a story about a Hollywood studio executive who decides to create a theme park based on the Norse sagas which, as we all know, originated in Iceland. That mythology is based on certain historical facts familiar to all Scandinavian peoples, along with the Germans, Austrians, Swiss and Dutch. These sagas inspired (German composer) Wilhelm Richard Wagner’s great operatic Ring Cycle, the last entitled The Twilight of the Gods.”

“That’s what I have adapted – very, very loosely – as the final story in this trilogy because, ultimately, it’s what happens to the gods, not just to the people who are offering sacrifices to them. The gods themselves get sucked into the melee in the third film. I looked for a suitable carapace to put that in and the last act of the Ring cycle seems to work very well – and it allows me to mix full-blast Wagner.”

“In The Wrath of the Gods, the one-eyed president of this Hollywood company arrives in a cataclysmic thunderstorm which is mostly Wagnerian music, the prelude to The Twilight of the Gods. Inspired by the Wagnerian score, all the characters then have their own theme. The young heroine, a Brunhilde, called Brynne, has a light melody motif. Think of what Leonard Bernstein did in West Side Story. He took one melody and transformed it into many different songs. If you really listen carefully, it’s the same piece of music. Siegfried, the hero figure, is incredibly stupid, so I’ve modeled him into a young man who is overtaken by his own hubris and ability in sports. Brunhilde, who is in love with him for his beauty and his sporting prowess, is trying to teach him how to make love, something he’s been unable to do with any great success. Of course, she eventually does succeed – and that’s a very triumphal moment.”

“Throughout the film, there is black comedy. What I’ve tried to do is create an intriguing mystery which is a genuine romance. Integrating the two elements is the challenge, because one of the most important protagonists in the entire film is Brunhilde’s father, the Reykjavik chief of police. Their romance, which is very nearly a tragedy, uses the extraordinary geography of Iceland itself: the volcanoes and the other-worldliness of the landscape. That underlines the relationship between this middle-aged woman who is under terrible pressure because she’s been accused of murder in Canada and the local police chief who falls in love with her. Of course, he will have to turn her in because he’s an honorable man.”

While Robin has not completed casting, he’s thinking of the murder suspect as a woman like Juliette Binoche. But he hasn’t approached that French actress yet.

“She is being tried for murder in a country like Scotland and/or some of the Canadian provinces where, in a jury trial, you can be judged by your peers to be guilty, not guilty or not proven of the crime. In other words, the doubt has been left in the open. In countries which have that third alternative – not proven of the crime – if more evidence appears, the suspect can always be called back to be re-tried. There’s no provision for double-jeopardy. So anyone who is in that particular position, who has been released after being on trial for murder, carries the burden that he or she can be summoned back at any moment for another trial.”

“This holds even more weight in places where the death penalty is involved. Think of OJ Simpson, who was declared innocent in his criminal trial and can never be re-tried for that same crime, even if additional evidence is unearthed. In this film, that burden also falls on the police chief of Iceland because he comes to loves her and he will be obliged to send her back when and if that happens. It’s an interesting situation.”

“The connection with the other story is that – over all this – hang the decisions of the fickle gods. These myths in various forms were believed by peoples all over what is considered Northern Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries. When the Norwegians invaded Iceland, which was quite a big island, about the size of Wales, almost exactly a thousand years ago; they made only a small settlement because the amount of arable land is extremely limited. There were no trees, so finding fuel was very difficult. On the other hand, there was unlimited steam from the lava and hot magnum just below the surface of the 32 volcanoes. Much of that was under glaciers which melted and then recreated themselves, an absolutely unique terrain.”

“About 150 years after the creation of that first Icelandic settlement, a young chieftain, Snorri Sturluson desired more education, so he sailed all the way to France, where he studied in Paris under Peter Abelard (as in Abelard and Heloise). When he got back from that long journey, Sturluson wanted to write a primer on verse but he needed a story. So he began with the Genesis story of the Norse people and went on and on with the sagas.”

“The park that the Hollywood mogul creates in Iceland embodies the Genesis saga. In the Judeo/Christian tradition, that begins with Adam, Eve, the serpent and the apple. In the Norse sagas, it begins with a cow, perhaps because these were cattle-driving people. So the first figure created is this huge, amazing cow.”

Robin Hardy is no stranger to designing theme parks based on film and audio/visual illusion. While he’s created about six, only two are nearing completion.. In this case, the sets created for Wrath of the Gods can be transferred into a special building which will then become a Reykjavik tourist attraction. But that’s still a glint in his eye, along with future parks he’d like to build in Scotland, Germany, Italy and Texas, that one called The Once and Future West. .

When asked about what would be a good preparation for a young filmmaker who wants to enter the industry, Robin Hardy suggests that the best background can be found in the military:

“Film-making has to be planned like a military campaign in terms of cost and efficiency. You can’t find all your locations in Thailand and then, as was the cast in Apocalypse Now, suddenly decide it would be better if you shot them someplace else. You have to make really hard decisions based on the creative imperatives of the director, leavened by the financial imperatives of the producer, who is charge of the budget. Everything flows from that, because each department has to have a very rigid budget. Experienced costing in minute detail has to go into the preparation, and that takes quite a lot of time and effort. It’s the sort of thing that one does if you’re in the army, which I once was. I remember when we were moving part of our forces from Syria across the Sinai desert to what is now Eliat in Israel. Because the British were allied to Egypt and Jordan at the time, the intention was to stop the Israeli Army from getting to Eliat and, thereby, splitting the Arab world. So a huge plan was made – of which I was only a tiny, junior cog. There were elaborate strategies for every conceivable contingency, we thought, to have our troops in place when the Israeli army arrived in Eliat. The hope was a stalemate of sorts, blocking Israel’s access to the Red Sea. The plan was made very well, but a number of mistakes happened. The supplies for our troops were dropped too early and landed behind Israeli lines. Our soldiers in landing crafts, rather like you saw in the Normandy landings, ran aground. So, by the time we all got there, the Israelis had already taken Eliat. Bad planning on our part.”

“Filmmakers face the same daunting challenges, and they must devise various contingencies. There are also caveats, like you must double-check everything. Still things can go wrong. For The Wicker Tree world premiere at Fantasia Festival, we’d planned to have my books sold in the lobby. To that end, the publishers gave cartons of books to DHL, designating delivery to the theater. But no one was at the theater to receive them, so the cartons went back to the airport where we had to retrieve them. That was one illustration of bad planning, and I am not much impressed with DHL delivery service.”

“There’s also the issue that the director’s decision is final, like the editor of a magazine. There can be discussions about how to handle various things but it all comes down to the director’s decision about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it. Everyone has to respect that. Otherwise, there’s chaos…and that’s also like the military. It would be a disaster if the colonel of the regiment orders charge up that hill and someone suddenly counters, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if you went ‘round the back?’ He might be right or he might be wrong, but the colonel must be obeyed. In the same way, the final decision rests on the director’s shoulders.”

Robin Hardy has just written an article about ‘droit morale’ (moral right) for the October issue of Empire magazine, which comes out on the 25th of August, the day before The Wicker Tree opens in London.

“If you are, as I am in the film we just made and always will be in the future, what is rather pretentiously called an ‘auteur,’ meaning one is both writer and director, that means that in European law, which covers British law these days, because we are part of the European Union, it’s my ‘droit morale’ and nobody can interfere and say, ‘I don’t like what you’re doing in that scene’ or ‘I don’t like the music you’re putting there.’”

“For an auteur, the film is your creation. In the article, I make comparisons. For instance, if you’re an art dealer handling a Picasso painting and the artist was in his blue period, and the wife of the gallery owner’s favorite color was pink, if he had all Picasso’s work repainted in pink, that would be a severe violation of Picasso’s ‘droit morale.’ That’s a very simple, silly example but it shows what I mean.”

“On the whole, that is usually respected. But, right now, in the UK, the English film industry is somewhat of a subsidiary of the American film industry and, in America, no lawyer in his right mind would allow a director to have a ‘droit morale’ clause in his contract. But, having said that, I supposed he could and some do. Woody Allen, perhaps, and he is certainly entitled to do that. Robert Altman did that. But it may be under a different legal category.”

In the meantime, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Tree will be distributed by Anchor Bay.

Source: Susan Granger