Our Wicker Man obsessive Rowan Morrison was lucky enough to speak to Robin Hardy, director of 1973 classic The Wicker Man. Here he tells her about the Final Cut, the Nic Cage remake, his plans for a third film in the trilogy, and The Wicker Man’s enduring appeal.
Love Horror: How close is the final cut to the film you intended to make from the outset?
Robin Hardy: It would be very close now indeed because all the original material, albeit not in the same state, is back in the film. The people from British Lion or the EMI originally cut 5 minutes out of the film thereby affecting the time scale of it. The whole story was supposed to take place in 72 hours and when they cut five minutes out, it came down to about 36 hours. But the first night that Sergeant Howie is on the island was cut out of the English version of the film. That meant that, for 30 years or so, no-one ever saw the full film.
It made a big difference because you never got to see Christopher Lee until two-thirds of the way through and you didn’t get the full impact of the fact that he was a kind of magus running this little society, like a conductor. The scene where he first appears that was cut out gave the effect of his character, Lord Summerisle, being in control of what was going on. We demonstrated that control by the fact that Lord Summerisle had brought a young man along to present him to Willow, who was sort of the local goddess of love, to be initiated. We then saw this young man pass through the pub with people knowing what was going on and going up to her room which was next door to the cop’s room. Being the puritan Howie was he had the highly uncomfortable experience of having to listen to these people next door making love. We also hear a wonderful song called Gently Johnny based on a Robert Burns poem often used as a song.
Love Horror: It’s a really beautiful song; it’s fantastic that it’s been reinstated.
Robin Hardy: It was cut by the EMI people, who hated the film, in order to make it into a second feature that they could distribute as the second feature to Don’t Look Now, which had been very successful. Quite deservedly so, it’s a very good film. It was the other film that they’d made that year so they were able to put the two out together. The way double features worked was that the second one had to be shorter than the first and that’s why they took these five minutes out regardless of whether it made the film make sense or not.
Love Horror: It seems to be enormously popular in America which in a way is surprising because it’s such a peculiarly kind of British film. It’s quite interesting that that has translated and that it’s so popular over there.
Robin Hardy: I have slightly to contradict you there. I don’t think it is a peculiarly British film. What it is is a film unlike any British or American film for the time it was made. And maybe it was particularly British because we tended to make things that were out of the mainstream – in that sense, perhaps it was. But what it was was a film, which I’ve concluded, because there’s no other way to describe it, very much its own genre.
It used music – songs – as dialogue, really, to drive forward the narrative and to add to the atmosphere. The other thing was it was, for a film which purported to be a black comedy, which is really what it was, people thought of it as a horror film. It was a film where there was a good deal of eroticism and a lot of music and rather beautiful scenes with quite a lot of charm. This was far away from the way horror films in Britain or America had ever been made before. So the genre that we created wasn’t really ever copied, even when the remake came. The remake was mainly centred on making the men into women and the women into men! Have you seen the remake?
Love Horror: Yes. I can’t say I thought very much of it
Robin Hardy: As far as the genre’s concerned, it hasn’t taken anything from the first one at all. It’s Nicolas Cage larking about in a bear suit…Well, I’ve always thought that Sleuth, which the screenwriter Tony Shaffer wrote for the stage, made quite a good film but the failure of the 2007 remake was the result of Tony cursing the film! A lot of really talented people got involved in the remake of The Wicker Man. Nicolas Cage is a talented character actor, I don’t feel he’s a leading man, but as a character actor he’s done very good work and as a writer-director Neil LaBute has done very good work, particularly in the theatre. How they misjudged the material I don’t know unless it had been cursed!
Love Horror: It’s perceived as a horror but it isn’t really a horror film at all. I understand that you cast Ingrid Pitt and Christopher Lee because they were known for Hammer films at that time. Was that to make audiences expect something specific, only to have their expectations subverted?
Robin Hardy: Yes, that was. It was to in a way acknowledge the fact that people who had been typecast in a certain kind of film really enjoy playing against type. Of course, Christopher Lee took full advantage of that. You could say that Ingrid Pitt was there pretty much in a role that she could have played in a horror film too. But Christopher played a kind of magus, the person pulling the strings and writing the script, as it were, for his people, his subjects. That was a much more specific role than the slightly jokey role that he’d always played. It has to be said that British horror films up until then always had their tongue in their cheek and obviously when we made the Wicker Man we had our tongue in our cheek too, to a considerable degree. That, I think, is another thing that makes you right when you say that it was very British – doing that was something that on the whole the Americans never did.
Love Horror: It seems that the American remake completely bypassed all the humour, the whole tongue-in-cheek element of it.
Robin Hardy: Yes it was. Particularly the music, the music was sort of elevator music.
Love Horror: That’s another thing actually, that I wanted to talk about. The music in the Wicker Man – the soundtrack has become really popular and influential. I’d just like to ask you about how the soundtrack came to be and how Paul Giovanni went about putting it together.
Robin Hardy: Tony Shaffer and I who really conceived of the film, we’d worked together for about 14 years in a film company which we owned, he producing, I directing. When we sat down and worked out the plot we felt that if we were going to recreate a Celtic, pre-Christian society but in a modern context, which is what Summerisle is about, we should try and create a feeling of joy rather than dread. How could you do that most effectively, except for with music? Particularly singing.
The Welsh people – they are the last of the race of our ancestors who actually had this as a full-blooded religion, and as you know they’re great singers. They had these bards who write music and sing it and part singing was I think invented by the Welsh. So all of that made us feel that one of the ways to establish the atmosphere of the pagan society was to use the songs. As it so happens being Scots, they have the advantage of having the wonderful poems of Robbie Burns, the great Scottish poet, many of which have been put to music. I’m not really aware of how many he expected to be used as songs as well as poems but in the film Corn Rigs is one of the first, then Gently Johnny and so on.
Finally of course, which isn’t Robbie Burns, is Summer Is I-Cumen In which they sing at the very end and it’s one of the oldest songs in the English language. There was a body of music which existed outside the church in Britain, and carried the message of sex being a joy rather than a curse – all that would contribute to the feeling that we were in a special kind of society. Of course the audience wouldn’t at once realise what kind of society although we strewed the clues all over the place in full sight, but I think not everybody realised immediately that they were in a pagan society and particularly not if the first night had been taken out. That would establish it pretty quickly and the dialogue between Christopher and Britt certainly indicated what was going on.
Another reason, as it were, for the restitution of the film as far as the British are concerned, which to tell the truth, all that had been seen in America for forty years on television and on videos and DVDs, there were other little things missing which we put back in to give clues. Actually, in what you have seen, I took out a lot of what happens on the mainland – the police station scenes. Sergeant Howie establishes what kind of man he is perfectly well without those. Those are dated scenes I think, they’re like a sort of police series of the 70’s and that doesn’t work in what we hope we’ve made into a contemporary film. The religious moment, when he takes the sacrament, is very important because it is repeated with the pagans at the end of the film. It starts with the Christian sacrament and we end with a pagan one.
To be fair to the EMI people who butchered the film all those years ago they did use that scene but they put it in as a flashback later in the film to support the fact that Howie was a proper practising Christian. And also they had a very, very brief shot of his fiancée so then we knew that he was an absolutely proper chap.
Love Horror: I’d like to ask about the pagan elements of the story. The beliefs of the residents of Summerisle are obviously Celtic in origin – there are things like “the Salmon of Knowledge” which goes back to the druidic interpretations of animals. Lord Summerisle has mistletoe and a sickle towards the end which is very clearly a druidic thing as well, and also the islanders’ tree-related names seems to reflect druidic tree-lore. How did you research all this?
Robin Hardy: In a word, from Frazer, from The Golden Bough. I did the research. I mean, we obviously knew quite a lot of that stuff, things that people interested in history and religious history would have known. I was actually in a hospital for a month or so after we decided to make the film so I did the research by reading the whole oeuvre, I think it was 12 volumes. It was certainly very long. But fascinating, absolutely fascinating. When I wrote the book of the Wicker Man I put a lot of stuff that isn’t in the film into the book and it takes the story rather farther. You can do it in a book but there’s a limit to the patience of a film audience.
Love Horror: I think it’s the opening chapter of the Golden Bough talks about the kind of ritual killing of the king, killing of the priest figure. Towards the end when Howie points out that if the sacrifice fails next year they’ll have no choice but to offer up Lord Summerisle himself. Was Lord Summerisle intended to be that kind of archetypal king / priest figure?
Robin Hardy: Yes. When you go back through all this, it’s like a huge detective story, back to the beginning of time, almost – all the mythologies which have informed religion and religion was born of mythologies. Have you seen Apocalypse Now? At the very end Marlon Brando is sitting there like the king waiting to be replaced. And he’s got The Golden Bough in front of him! I must say, as much as I respect Coppola, it’s not something I would’ve done, you know, it’s sort of point-point, “see what I’ve done”.
Love Horror: It seems that pagan ritual and sacrificial offerings to the gods are at the centre of both The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree and I gather that the Twilight of the Gods is to be about the gods themselves rather than those propitiating them?
Robin Hardy: I’m changing the name; I’m calling it The Wrath of the Gods. But it will be related to The Twilight of the Gods. In other words, such Wagnerian music as we will use in the final film will be from part of The Ring Cycle. I don’t know if you agree, perhaps you’re a Wagner fan, which I can’t say that I am really – I think some of the music is marvellous but I think some of the plot is absolutely ridiculous. So I’ve used a rather different story with the same effect. The gods get their comeuppance in the end of The Ring Cycle, they all slink back to Valhalla having failed to influence events, or having made a mess of influencing events on earth with Brunnhilde and Siegfried. That’s pretty much what happens in this last film.
Love Horror: What stage are you at with it now?
Robin Hardy: We are in the midst of financing it, by far the most difficult part of making an independent film as you may guess. We’re busy doing that at the moment. I hope we’ll actually shoot it next spring and it’ll be released not this Christmas but the following one.
Love Horror: I hear that you’re planning a graphic novel as well, is that correct?
Robin Hardy: I have actually drawn the entire film and that can be turned into a graphic novel. I would like to do that but I don’t think I would do the drawings for that myself. I will hand that over to somebody to do – the trouble is, although I was trained as an artist, it’s very difficult if you’re a figurative artist to keep on drawing the same face. If you can imagine Peanuts, Lucy always looks the same and Peanuts always looks the same and whichever situation the characters are in it’s the bubbles that show the narrative. I couldn’t do that – I wouldn’t know how to do that. A graphic novel based on this film means that the artist who does the final work will have to get the faces of Brunnhilde and Siegfried and so on and so forth to always be the same every page, from whatever angle. It’s remarkably hard to do. So that is why I don’t think I’ll do the final drawings.
Love Horror: When you made The Wicker Man, did you have any idea that it would be the phenomenon that it has become?
Robin Hardy: Funnily enough I didn’t, but Christopher Lee did. I remember him saying to me, “You know, we’re creating a really unique film here and I think it’s going to be seen as a really unique film”. That didn’t seem likely for the next two years because we faced such obstacles as I’ve already rehearsed with you. He was remarkably prescient in saying that.
Love Horror: What is it, in your view, about The Wicker Man that invites such devotion from fans?
Robin Hardy: It is very difficult to say because I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was amazed that it’s lasted as strongly and as long as it has. I think it’s a combination of creating a completely unique little society and basing it on music and myth which makes people feel that it would be rather wonderful to be able to live in that or to emulate that. It has that feeling of “let’s join in all of this” which I think makes a cult, because it is a cult.
The remarkable thing is that it took as strongly in the United States as it did here. I suppose in a way because they just accepted the strangeness of that as being foreign. The fact remains that those songs or some of them, are alive and well in the Appalachian, sort of hillbilly area in the United States. Of course they came over with original settlers and to a wonderful degree Cecil Sharp, who was a great collector of folk songs in the 19th century, did quite a lot of his research in the United States and found these folk songs, had survived, sometimes in a slightly different form. Its longevity is based on quite a lot of existing reminiscence in people’s lives about their pasts; I think they’re fascinated by all that.
Love Horror: There are folkloric elements in it which are still part of the fabric of our culture, things like the pub being called the Green Man – there’s so many pubs called the Green Man to this day. There are all these things that people find just slightly familiar but kind of unsettling at the same time. There’s that quality that’s really appealing.
Robin Hardy: I think you’re right.
Love Horror: Things like the maypole – still to this day children dance around maypoles in school, not really aware of the history of it.
Robin Hardy: Putting sexuality at the heart of your religion is what that does, doesn’t it? It’s something that for some reason, it would be interesting to me to know what reason, was rejected by the early church. Why they chose to reject and somehow make taboo almost, all the aspects of sex that could have informed religion but didn’t. I find it all rather fascinating which is one of the reasons I liked making The Wicker Man – the way all these religions have come down containing bits and pieces of their pagan past all over the place. That’s another reason for the music, the music does evoke that I think.
Love Horror: Did you kind of intend it to have a sort of a message or a moral? The beliefs of Howie and the islanders seem to be diametrically opposed to one another – it seems it’s about the dangers of adhering zealously to dogma and failing to understand other people’s beliefs and see the world from any other perspective.
Robin Hardy: That’s perfectly true. In the early 70’s, Scotland was a place where the Presbyterian, particularly, version of Christianity was very dogmatic and sex and drinking and all those things were frowned upon. You had all sorts of prohibitions about drinking. Although Glasgow was one of the more seriously alcoholic places! Robbie Burns celebrated drinking. He really was a tremendous cheerleader for the national life, and I think that’s why he’s so loved by the Scots. He spoke for something in the back of their minds, as it were, that they loved but couldn’t practise, at least as long as the protestant ethic reigned.
Now of course, the churches are all empty and it’s largely gone. When we made the film it was possible for us to see the Christian cop as a typical figure. In order to use the sacrament with the wafer and the wine, which we do, we had to make him an Episcopalian. I don’t think many people noticed that, at least not these days.
Love Horror: Finally I just wanted to say that The Wicker Man is my absolute favourite film so it’s been a real honour to talk to you. I first saw it when I was 14 and I’ve seen it countless times since and it’s wonderful that it’s been re-released.
Robin Hardy: Did it frighten you when you were 14?
Love Horror: It didn’t really frighten me – I found the ending quite harrowing but it completely got under my skin. Even though I’ve seen it so many times since then I do find that every time I watch it I notice the odd thing here and there that I haven’t picked up on before.
Robin Hardy: I’m glad you feel that about the plot. In many ways, the whole thing is a game. Have you ever seen Sleuth? You should, you can get the film on DVD. It’s Lawrence Olivier and Michael Caine. It shows the mind of Tony Shaffer who wrote the screenplay for The Wicker Man, and you see the connection. Right at the end of The Wicker Man, on the cliff tops Christopher Lee is saying the game is over. “What game?” says Edward Woodward, not having recognised it as a game. “The game of the hunted leading the hunter”, says Christopher. You can think of the whole film as a game. Lord Summerisle is a very ambiguous figure, I think we’re entitled to say that we’re never really quite sure what he believes except that it’s very convenient for him to believe, or appear to believe, what he does.
Love Horror: Thank you for your time Mr Hardy, it’s been lovely to talk to you.
The Wicker Man: The Final Cut is in cinemas now and released on DVD and Blu-ray 14th October and read Rowan’s review of the new version Here