Wolves in Sheep Clothing (Genre as Sartorial Satire): Robin Hardy talks the Legacy of The Wicker Man the Timing of The Wicker Tree, and 40 years of History

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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Wolves in Sheep Clothing (Genre as Sartorial Satire):  Robin Hardy talks the Legacy of The Wicker Man the Timing of The Wicker Tree, and 40 years of History

It has indeed been nearly 40 years since the release of the British cult film about cults: The Wicker Man.  Director Robin Hardy has a fairly sparse resume in the ensuing years, only a single film, and a single TV show in the 1980s.  But the legacy of The Wicker Man is a lasting one.  After the publication of his new novel, Cowboys for Christ, and the rights to the property became available, Hardy set to work making a thematically connected sequel, using his novel as the basis (and the title).  While Hardy's new film did not have quite the number of bumps and stalls on the road to North American screens as did The Wicker Man, it does have its fair share, including a title change.  Getting a domestic release this weekend after a brief festival tour last year, it seemed like the time to go back to my audio recording taken from a lengthy (nearly an hour) interview with Mr. Hardy with both myself and Michael Guillen  during the 2011 edition of the Fantasia Film Festival where The Wicker Tree made its world premiere.  Hardy is not shy about his views on the world, the film business, or his sense of humour about all such things.  Here is a transcript of that breakfast conversation over coffee and croissants:

Kurt Halfyard:  I'll start with the obvious question:  It has been 38 years since The Wicker Man and it has sort of grown into this mythic film that permeated culture in so many different ways,  and not just film culture, but also, pagan festival culture.  What does the legacy of the original film mean to you at this moment in time.

Robin Hardy:  Well it is an astonishing thing, because this sort of thing grows without you doing anything about it.  I have nothing to do with encouraging it.  After we made the picture and released it.  We personally distributed it in this country, with a bunch of students.  We opened it in San Francisco and broke the house record in the Lumiere Theatre there.

Michael Guillen:  I remember that.  I was there.

RH:  Then we went across the country to Boston, and then so on and so forth.  And that bunch of students went on to do great things in their various areas of film distribution.  They were all in the business of film rather than simply in filmmaking (I don't think that was particularly their bag).   So, after that, one of them somehow got the rights, and he had those rights for the next ten years in the United States.  The actual cut of the film which I consider to be my cut, as the director, was never shown in the UK at all.  They only showed a sort of butchered cut which for some reason became quite popular.

KH:  We all fell in love with the shorter cut...

RH:  In the UK?

KH:  No, in Canada, the first time I saw the film was the short version.

RH:  However many minutes it runs, my cut has both nights [of Howie on Summer Isle]. 

MG:  What was your reason for opening the film in San Francisco and rolling it out from there?

RH:  The feeling was that because it was that it was a film that started out almost as a cult film - The magazine Cinefantastique had done an entire issue on it - It had won the Grand Prix de Film Fantastique in Paris in the teeth of every kind of opposition from the London Film Company.  The point is, they had needed it to bury it because they used it as an excuse to sell British Lion to EMI and all make a lot of money on their shares, and since [Producer] Peter Snell had made two successful movies that year, it is rather difficult to say you did a lousy job and fire him and sell the company, but they did it.  Don't Look Now, Nicholas Roeg's film, had already been released to great critical acclaim, and when Christopher Lee had come back from having won the Grand Prix, it was shown to critics, but by that time it was too late, they had sold the company.  The British critics liked it but it was more or less buried in terms of distribution in the UK.

KH:  Didn't Don't Look Now and The Wicker Man travel as a double bill for some time?

RH:  Yes they did, for a brief time, on about half a dozen screens.  It was a compromise really, because they couldn't completely defy the critics.  The Financial Times gave us a pretty good review, the whole Cinefantastique theme had spread across the Atlantic a bit.  But the management at British Lion were embarrassed, they'd butchered it, and pretty much buried it. They obviously gave me no help in the US they sold it a tax shelter group.  At the time the US had a federal tax shelter group - at that time the US had a federal tax law that allowed you to write off at 10-to-1, so, if you acquired a film like The Wicker Man, or any film, frankly, and you wanted to distribute it, you could raise the money on a 10-to-1 write-off.  And in practice, the shyster lawyers who did this never distributed the film, and the money spent was supposed to be spent on the film, advertising, prints, public relations and so forth.  In our case, they probably did more than most.  They got Warners to put it out on two separate nights, around midnight.  One in an Atlanta drive-in and the other one in a San Diego drive-in and the report they got back - remember most people at drive-ins in the middle of the night are not looking at the screen, they are in the back seat - was that the film won't have legs.  I saw the reports.  The 10-to-1 write off of took 10 thousand dollars to write off 3 Million dollars.  The lawyers in New York had piles of these films, any old European film and do this, because people wanted to shelter their tax at incredible rates.  So, you'll have to excuse me about this, because I'm going be very frank:  One of the most active of the students was a very very bright young woman, who ended up with a major public company with animation, back at the time, she went to this lawyer who was holding all these films and said, "we want to buy the rights for distributing this film."  And he said sure (she was a pretty girl) if you go down on me, I'll arrange it.  I had him sent to prison.  Not so much for that, that was her business.

KH:  Why did he go to prison then?

RH:  He was cheating the federal government out of millions and millions of dollars.  And not just him, there were a whole group of them.  It was a huge scandal.  So the answer is.  The students and I worked together.  I had the means to bring Christopher Lee over and tour the film.  They got the bookings and they went to the distributors in the US.

MG:  So, why focus in San Francisco?

RH:  Well, San Francisco is not Los Angeles and is not New York.  A little foreign film, however well reviewed, does not go very far in Los Angeles and does not go far in New York.  On the other had, San Francisco was very pleased to see us and so was Boston, and Chicago.  It has to do with Los Angeles being the home of big American film companies, and if you open a little film, however much you got reviews, you get buried.  Well, not so much buried, but that you are put in a little cinema half way to Sherman Oaks somewhere.  You are not going to get the press.

MG: I remember that cultural trend at the time. Lina Wertmüller's Swept Away had a similar strategy, and opened in San Francisco.  And it would really do well.

RH:  There was a lot of support there.  We stayed with Mr. [John Paul] Getty at the time, and he gave us huge press.  We opened at the Haight Ashbury, in the Castro Theatre, and Getty arranged this as a homage to the American Cinematheque.  Anyway, that's why we went to San Francisco.  It was a very good choice for an opening city, just as this one [Montreal] is for us now.

KH:  Do you think that The Wicker Man - this film is an incredible act of myth-making, the final scene and all emphasis on ritual over the course of the film.  And even in the 1970s, it increased the number of people taking this sort of the cultural/historical aspects seriously, and bringing back pagan festivals?

RH:   Well, obviously, the mythology, well actually history:  When Julius Caesar landed in Britain in 55B.C. his enemies, the Iceni British tribes were offering a sacrifice of their enemies, or heros.  Germanicus, Claudius' older brother, reports back from the Legion Wars in Germany, that German tribes were doing the exact same thing.  Even to this day, in Brussels, there is a huge man that is carried through the streets or the Mouriscos Dance;  It is all over Europe in its way.  None of this is invented, It's all real.  It is the the juxtaposition, and location that is out of ones imagination.  

KH:  Certainly it was already existing and going on.  But The Wicker Man integrated things with popular culture in a way that it hadn't been quite done before.

RH:  That is probably true.  Historians had written extensively about it, but it was not particularly known to the general public.  Why should it be?  I think it probably did inspire an interest with some people, in the fact that an enormous amount of or pagan past, we are talking about North West Europe.  Asia has an obviously very different Pagan past, and some would say that Hinduism is very close, apart from there are no human sacrifices, there still were when British India first started, and it was one of the things that we banned.  It's all there.  One of the games that we wanted to play, my business parter Tony Shaffer and I were very interested in games, we played games on each other all the time, sometimes very morbid games.  [laughs] You can take a lot of these old but still present customs.   In the Wicker Tree, when they turn "Power of the Blood" from a Christian Hymn to a pagan one, that is one example.  Because the sacrifice issue is millennia older than Christianity.  

MG:  As long as there has been agriculture.

RH:  I'm sure that is right.  All the monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all the same, really.  I think that we if we can awaken people to the idea that...  Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Sunday is the day you worship the Sun, Monday is the Moon.  Thursday is the God Thor.  To the months of years:  January is the god Janus who looks both ways.  We haven't gotten away from it, we just take it for granted, you know.  There it is.  

MG:  Being a little older than Kurt and having been in the Bay Area when The Wicker Man premiered there, I am keen to what he is trying to cull out here.  The specific time the film hit, and it hit the culture in a specific way.  At the time, I remember I was taking courses with Joseph Campbell, who was also introducing into the American public this idea of these mythic templates, on which so much of what we took for granted was based.  That being the case then, I think Kurt wants to lead a little bit into the timing of your follow-up film now.

RH:  The timing is a lot accidental.  Some of it, I think, to do with the cult which grew and grew and grew.  After the expiry date of the guy who had the American rights, and it was being shown a lot on UK television and Australia, and so on, a video and then closely followed DVD and Blu-ray, and each one grabbed this piece of film and did major promotions on and did very, very well selling it.  And also because it is a film that has been enormously popular over all those years, in colleges and universities.  I'll give you an example, this is only four or five years ago, I was asked to go and preside over a pagan festival in Croydon of all places, which is kind of like Poughkeepsie in New York State.  A pagan festival in Poughkeepsie sounds pretty ridiculous and it sounds pretty ridiculous in Croydon.  I was greeted by this very nice group of people dressed entirely in black, and piercing in every orifice which was available.  The were very serious about it, and they had quite a lot of young people, and there were people there down from the contemporaries of you gentlemen, all the way down to teenagers.  And the teenagers kept coming up with books and things for signatures.  I asked one of the guys, he was a school teacher actually, "This is really wonderful, a complete new generation of people, not just in their sixties and seventies."  And he said, well it is A-Level studies, this is sort of a baccalaureate in Britain, like one of the set books Pride & Prejudice,  is The Wicker Man, and The Man With The Golden Gun [laughs].  

KH:  When the original was made, the new film, has a much more overt satirical tone...

RH:  It is interesting you say that, when the Cinafantastique thing came out, and of course, I was amazed and completely flattered for the magazine at the time for this type of filmmaking, it's main tagline, as I remember it, "The Citizen Kane of Horror Films."  I was extremely pleased about the Citizen Kane, of course, but was less pleased with the 'horror film' because I hadn't thought of it as a horror film, and  none of us who made it thought of it as a horror film.  It is horrific at the end, but not a horror film.  It's got jokes, it's got songs it's got sex, it has virtually got romance.  In effect it was a genre of its own, and that has always been its big problem.  From my point of view, the new film, nobody wanted to know about this new script.  What is it?  Is it a comedy, is it a sex picture, what is it?  It's not very horrific.  I mean there isn't an ounce of blood until the third or fourth reel.  And so, having no idea how to market it, I mean you could say look out for the Wicker Man, that was then, this is now...  But nobody was interested.  Anchor Bay was interested because they've done a brilliant job of marketing the original on DVD - with those cigar boxes and things - I mean they really understood the film, and they understand the new film, which is a big relief!   The question of what to call it arose.   Now what I was interested in doing when we got to this stage, the stage where it was a big success on DVD.  I knew that nobody had attempted to do the same thing.  To mix the genres like that and end up with a one-of-a-kind.  There are all sorts of famous movie formulae, there was the cowboy film, the black hat and the white hat, and the well known cliches that were almost tapped out when they came in.  And the well known cliche came back because that was the accustomed thing.  And you shall see that in so many genres now.  But, by this time I had a feeling, which I feel very strongly, actually, that feature films are short stories, only 90-100 minutes.  Television at its best is a novel, because you can develop character as it goes on and on, and you end up with a complete piece of life.  Something like The West Wing to use a very good example, it is just marvelously written.  Whereas, with a feature film, you can tell a very good short story, but you haven't really got time to develop character.  People cannot start the story, lets say, as an absolute bastard, but by 13th episode you can see that he reformed himself and is a much more interesting person.  You can do that in television, but not so much in movies.  And some of the best of that is American.  We haven't in the UK been able to do.  Again we do wonderful satirical things like Yes Minister and that sort of thing; like myself we are to prone to have our tongue in our cheek.  

MG:  This is fascinating what you are saying here, since it is kind of indeterminate genre, I would like to know what genre you have created here.

RH:  The Wicker Man genre.  I don't know what else to say. [pause]

MG:  It is not a horror film, Kurt & I were talking about this last night, actually.  I've never thought of the Wicker Man as a horror film.  It had horrific elements, but it was something, I think at the time, because I was studying so much cross comparative mythology, that it struck me as a mythic text. 

RH:  Well, I think it is.  All that is there. But we play not very respectful games with it.  We are not academics.

MG:  And perhaps even more-so with the new film, wouldn't you say?

RH:  I think we take bigger liberties with the new film than we did with the previous one.  But the basics are all there, and the interesting thing about the new one, I think, and I'm hoping that this turns out to be the reaction in Scotland (where it is set) is it contains at least three themes which are totally real and relevant.  One is the hunting of the laddie.  WHich is done in seven towns along the border every year, for real.  But they are not fox-hunts, because there are no dogs.  They are hunting a man.  The feminists are very keen that they should hunt a woman, but at the moment it hasn't happened.  [Laughs]  They want equal time on that one.  The traditions are different in these little towns, about 20000 people, not tiny, but most people own a horse or a pony or the fathers own a horse-cart.  When you see them gathered in the main square before the hunt starts, they are on all these congress of horses.  And then the laddie comes in and everyone cheers and he is presented with a flag.  And again, like The Wicker Man, the women went out first, and then the men followed.  That is really done.  And while obviously, I say obviously, but as far as I know, nobody gets eaten at the end.

MG:  Well there is no evidence! [Laughs]

RH:  That's right.  Nothing left!  So that is one absolutely real theme.  The other is the Beltane Festival which is done every year right in the middle of Edinburgh, on a hill which is similar to Central Park in New York, in terms of its importance in the city.  And last time I went to see them, there were a group of maybe 150 young people.  Most of them professionals, solicitors, clerks, people who work in architects offices, students, a few actors, a few dancers - none of them professional performers - and they all get together sometime in January and they rehearse and create their idea of what the Beltane Festival should be.  Homage to fire, water, and so forth.  Most of them dress in costumes even less modest than the ones in [The Wicker Tree.]  It is much more phallic.  It is a celebration of the rebirth so you would expect it to be phallic.  Seventeen thousand people were watching it, when I saw it.  Seventeen thousand.  And there were a couple Americans standing beside me watching it, and one of them said, "They're pretty naked!" And I said, "Yea, but you know something, it's not pornographic"  And I hope that was the effect of seeing it on the screen.  It isn't pornographic, it's actually kind of beautiful, actually.  That is what I wanted with The Wicker Tree.  It is a beautiful metaphor, for sex and the wicker tree, it is a joyous one.  The guy who built it for me, I did a rudimentary sketch, and he built it for me, a marvelous energetic thing. 

KH:  It's like a waltz.

RH:  Not quite as sedate, however.  The third theme is nuclear, which is, God knows, certainly of our time.  We have had two accidents in the UK, miniscule compared to what happened in Japan.  One in Liverpool which affected the water table.  The trouble with nuclear, as you know, it requires so much water for the cooling, that it is almost inevitable that some of the radioactive material gets in the water.  The water has got to go somewhere.  In this case it is the Irish Sea.  And there some complaints between the Irish government and the British government about the effluent that was flowing over towards Dublin.  One of the problems that the Japanese are going to have is that a huge area off their sea coast is going to be un-fishable for a very long time.  However, in the UK it was a smaller scale.  However, there were a lot of lawsuits about men who were in-fertile and believe that their infertility had to do with the water.  Probably difficult to prove.  But perhaps not in-provable, particularly when there were a quite a number of people in this area.  I think that is kind of relevant.  I think nuclear is necessary for us, economically, in Britain, and the French have proved it.  Forty percent of the French grid is nuclear and they haven't had a accident.  Nor have we at any scale, but if you are going to go green, the fastest way is to build a nuclear power station.  So that is another theme, it is a completely modern theme, but it is right there in the film.

MG:  So what you've introduced in the new film is quite a topical focus, that was not really there in the first film...

RH:  Well, apples have been grown forever, haven't they!  Failure of crops is something societies have had to deal with forever. I'd like to think that the wretched people in Somalia who are pouring into Kenya, are offering up something to the gods to make it rain.  It hasn't rained for two years and they are starving to death.  And I think it is unlikely that they haven't tried something along those lines - I would if I was they.  [Laughs]

KH:  Can you talk about the introduction of character.  In the first one, it was a puritan Scotsman, in this one, it seems that all of America comes in.  You go right to the heart of things with the cowboy and the Britany Spears-esque pop-singer.  It seems to be such a symbol of an American moment, right now, with these two earnest Americans go in six guns ablazin' or whathaveyou, with a different type of naiveté than Howie.  It seems to be almost as if they are completely ignorant on almost every level, Howie was smart, these two are not, and it creates a different dynamic on almost every level.

RH:  It does.  Also, one of the great problems of last fifty years is that the United States is the most powerful nation on earth.  Apart from the Elder-Bush's war, which was probably the most brilliant military exercise that the United States has ever done, they actually achieved their goal, got Saddam out of Kuwait, had about nine people killed, and went home.  And then, the Elder Bush, who I think in the history books is going to be a major president, he put together an alliance of all the Arab states, and all the Europeans and all their military groups, and he did exactly what he intended to do.  And no more.  Every other war, since the second world war, the Americans have lost.   Korea is a stalemate, Vietnam was a total defeat, Afghanistan is looking to be a total defeat and Iraq of course is an utter disaster.  With this huge defense budget, the size of all the defense budgets of all the rest of the world and I don't think spending more money will help, it is ignorance, isn't it?  It is sheer ignorance.

KH:  Do you feel that the way the characters are represented in The Wicker Tree is that?  

RH:  Yes.  I don't make a serious comparison to the military and all that, but it is an example.  My youngest son when to prep school in Massachusetts, which was quite a famous school, Franklin D. Roosevelt went there and so on.  They didn't teach any geography.  No geography whatsoever.  And as far as I know, no middle school does teach geography.  I think it was Art Buchwald or somebody who wrote a column about how lucky lucky they were that the atomic bomb landed on Japan and not Rio.  [Laughs]  But the thing is, I remember I went to the headmaster and said, "You are not teaching geography for Christ's sake."  And he said that they get geography in other was, like in their divinity studies.  I don't think that is going to be much use to my son to know how to get to Jerusalem from Damascus.  [Laughs]  I mean, I want him to know where everything is, and not have to call American Express, who probably don't know either!  To answer your question properly, there is no reason to believe that these young people, that they are not just as averagely educated as everyone else.  I tried to make them as average as possible.  He has a physical career, she has a musical career.  They obviously went to the same kind of school when they were kids, when she had braces on her teeth and all that sort of thing, and are launched by this evangelical church - and they are not that particularly evangelical as that church exists, it is real there something like twenty of them in Texas and Montana, wherever cattle are.  And I spent a week, altogether seven services, and afterwards there is a little rope-in, out back.  I wasn't very successful at the rope-in at all, and they are only calves, not even big steers or anything.  And everyone arrives in their SUVs; they are actually suburbanites dressed up as cowboys.  Whereas our guy is a proper cowboy.  I think they work as very nice people, what they don't know or know is part of their background.  He goes off with the other girl, but he is sorely tempted.  The silver ring thing is pretty ridiculous, [laughs] and so I think, in audiences we have tested, women on in the whole are very censorious of what he does, but most men feel they might have been tempted in the same way under the same circumstances.  Men being what they are.  The girl may be Britany Spears, but her PR has been chastity and virginity and purity religion - she started as a gospel singer like they nearly all did - and I think we are being incredibly real there.  Again, as you say, the idea that the British Empire was founded on people who were utterly ignorant of where the places they were going to with their boxes full of bibles, which were utterly irrelevant to the people they were approaching, and they were followed quite closely by businessmen who managed to set up quite successful trading posts like Hong Kong and South Africa.  

KH:  The Scot Lord and Lady almost operate like a little chorus off to the side, where they mock at every turn, the image of America coming in.  And while the film is very satirical on the American side, it is equally satirical at the haughty aristocracy.

RH:  I do not think that anti-Americanism in Britain is particularly strong, rather the reverse.  It is based on a number of illusions, current myths. The French are genuinely anti-American, and they have been since after the second world war.  There is nothing worse than being saved by people when you've let yourself down as seriously as the French had.  It's laced with guilt there. But for the British, well, it was after the war, but isn't anymore it was more mixed with envy, here is this country that has everything, and we had nothing.  There was some anti-Americanism that came from that.  But the British aren't any more anti-American than the Americans are anti-British.  It is just that the cultures are so substantially different.  We laugh about some things in the other culture.  All this business of Lords and Ladies and Princes and Princesses seems pretty ridiculous to Americans and if you think about it, it is.  We find belief in fundamentalism to be pretty ridiculous in turn.  Also attitudes towards sex are so utterly different, really.  I think Mr. Bush actually put up personal money for the silver ring thing.  

KH:  Last question from me.  During the screening the other night, you had this wonderful line, "It is very hard not to believe in Evil."  I know that is a huge thing in itself, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on that statement.

RH:  It is a very negative statement of course isn't it?  But I would defy almost anyone in that audience, or any audience not to have come across evil.  You don't come across it en masse.  If you do come across it en mass, it is nationalism or xenophobia or racism.   I think it is fair to say that the opposition to President Obama is almost largely based on not liking the idea of a black president, and everything else is rationalization.  And I know a lot of republicans for my sins.  I've spent enough time in New York and I think that is the case.  Is that evil?  A little bit.  The existence of people that can do unspeakable things are all around us in the news every day.  How do they manage to do such things that are not only irrational in many cases, but also evil.  I don't want to make a religion of evil (or counter-evil).  One could say that that Christianity and many, many other religions are founded upon the wish to combat evil, whenever possible, and that is fine.  It is easier to identify evil than to identify God.  I'm speaking personally, and everyone should speak personally about such things.  

MG:  And if I may ask a final question.  We are talking about nationalism, about nationalism between Britain and the United States.  How does genre serve to negotiate national identities.  Do you feel The Wicker Man or The Wicker Tree have in any way represented Britain or Scotland? Do you feel that genre can further a national cinema?

RH:  Yes, I think it  can to some extent.  I think the French, who have a very a successful cinema that we don't see, partly because it is funded by the state, and partly because it is almost entirely auteur driven.  The directors all want to write their own scripts and they are allowed to because of France's much greater respect for the creative personality than we the Anglo-Saxon countries, acknowledge it is as a business (and of course it is a business), but the French persist in trying to regard it as an art.  And to a great extent in their domestic films they succeed.  It is surprising the number of films that get remade by the Americans, they are bought outright, so they will never be screened, even in an art cinema in the United States, and then they just take Three Men And A Baby, or all those sort of films,  which are domestic comedies, which the French do brilliantly, and are just bought lock-stock and barrel, and buried.  Then the Americans make an American version.  

MG:  Were you able to receive government subsidies in making your film?

RH:  [Laughs]  "What's it about?  Is it a comedy, sex picture..."  [Laughs]

KH:  We appreciate all of your time.

MG:  Thank-you so much!  I just want to shout out to your male actor, who plays Steve, the cowboy; just a wonderful actor in this film.  Very beautiful, very good casting.

RH:  He actually is a Brit, but his father has some sort of job that takes him back to the US a lot of the time.  While he is not an American, he is very familiar with American life.  His text in the card game is particularly good.  

MG:  Thank you again, and safe travels.

RH:  Not at all!  And Thank-you.

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