Set in Snowdonia, Wales, in1855, Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) struggles to hold together her home with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and younger sister Mari (Jodie Innes). Awaiting her father’s return from war, Gwen struggles with her mother’s mysterious illness, while the ruthless quarry owner (Mark Lewis Jones) encroaches on their land and the local christian community who are suspicious of her mother’s illness turn on the family.
Gwen (2018) is writer and director William McGregor‘s feature debut, developed during his time in television and commercials. His graduation film, Bovine (2010) screened at the Berlinale Film Festival, and in the subsequent years he has directed the short films No Escape (2011) and Eradicate (2012). He has also directed episodes of fantasy drama Misfits (2009-2013) for Channel 4 and the period drama Poldark (2015-) for the BBC One
In conversation with PopMatters, McGregor reflects on the influence of Ingmar Bergman’s cinematography in his work and the relationship of character and space, the uneasy questions confronting independent filmmakers, and the deliberate yet light touch of themes of capitalism and religion.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you personally?
I grew up on a farm in Norfolk [England] and I’d always liked drawing and taking pictures, and actually, I didn’t have a huge film collection. I’d exhausted my DVDs that I had as a child, and probably when I was about thirteen or fourteen I started watching all of the behind-the-scenes. I think it was The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) behind-the-scenes that made me realise that these films I sit at home and love watching, people actually make them. As a kid that was quite a realisation, because you’re not aware of that process.
There was a mini-dv tape handy-cam lying around, and I just took my interest in drawing and taking pictures to the next logical step, which was filming things and downloading free editing software, and telling stories with what I had around me. The earlier stuff I made was basically documentaries about the animals on the farm, filming in an observational way. Then I started to cut them together to tell stories, and it was just something I carried on doing up until college. I guess I just enjoyed doing it and kept reading about filmmaking, and wanting to make films, and so it has just been a natural process.
Gwen has the feel of a film that, in moments, we are passively observing the struggle of the characters, and yet in other moments the camera suddenly allows us to intimately enter the drama.
People in a landscape is something that I want to be able to portray in a story, and how people are affected by their traditions and beliefs, and how they can be affected by the world they grew up in. A part of that has to be getting a sense for what it’s like to be in that space and to be in that isolation.
In order to portray isolation on screen, there’s a pacing and an observation to it that lends itself to a certain style of cinematography: the wider lenses and longer shots. You think of the way people like [Ingmar] Bergman photographed his own country to create a tone around his characters, and that’s something that I’ve been really inspired by and want to do.
But of course as you say, it can’t just be a study of a landscape, because you want to also try to get an intimacy. And you have a fantastic young actress in Eleanor, so you want to get to see the world through her eyes, and to try and connect with her as much as possible because that’s the heart of the film.
Maxine Peake as Elen, Eleanor Worthington-Cox as Gwen, and Jodie Innes as Marie (courtesy of Bulldog Film)
As an audience we possess an instinctive ability to connect with characters through their subtle gestures, which also plays to the observational. So much of cinema is emotionally impulsive and instinctive, our experience of a film conscious as well as sub-conscious.
… Gwen really felt like the first time I’d made a short film in nine years because I had been working as a director in commercials in TV, and this felt like the first time I had gone back to just how I would naturally tell a story. The truth is that up until now I have been lucky to be working in television drama, but in long form drama the storytelling is obviously fast paced, the cut rate is quite high, and the economy of story is quickly, quickly, quickly — how do I short cut? And the way that the commissioning execs want the story to be told is so that the audience won’t push that [exit] button on the remote.
In some ways Gwen was a reaction to that style of storytelling that I’d been involved in, and just enjoying the fact that in cinema, if you’re lucky and you are actually on a cinema screen, that you can be patient and use the audience a little bit more. I know that’s against the grain slightly of most mainstream commercial cinema, but the filmmakers that I like, that’s how they tell stories. I like František Vláčil’s first film The White Dove (1960), and that’s just almost observational poetry. So yeah, in some ways the start of making Gwen was a reaction to mainstream television.
I’m sensing a general atmosphere at this festival [Edinburgh International Film Festival], and possibly talking to first time filmmakers, or filmmakers who haven’t made their first film yet who have made shorts. There’s a slight nervous energy about. Are people going to go to the cinema anymore to watch these independent first time films? What is it that’s going to make somebody leave the house, pay for the parking and the cinema ticket to go and watch a film? Are they only going to do it for the third Disney remake of the year or whatever version of the Star Wars spinoff it is, or whatever the next Marvel film it is because that’s what gets them into the cinema?
But if you are making an 84-minute character study which has genre elements to it, is that going to get an audience into the cinema? I can definitely feel that with the other filmmakers. People are wondering, is it about making films for Netflix, or is it about making long form TV? Or how do you keep making independent films with an individual voice and still find an audience?
Why the choice to tell a story of struggle and suffering, rather than one with a more optimistic feel?
… If I am going to sit in the cinema, I want an intense experience, and I like being scared. I just have a love for the uncanny and dread, and I feel this story, which is anti-capitalist, you are going between, is this woman a witch, which obviously should be terrifying, but also are there the other forces around them: these anti-capitalist forces that are going to take their home away?
Those are really potent, heavy pressures on anyone, and as a storyteller that is intentional from my point of view because I want audiences to lean into and be glued to the screen, but also to be afraid to look away, to be afraid of what’s hiding in the next frame of the film.
As a fan of folk horror films, that’s something that I really enjoy as a viewer. So I just wanted to make a film that I would want to go and see. It’s definitely not a comedy, but I think if you look at something like Chernobyl (HBO, 2019) — and I am not in any way comparing Gwen to Chernobyl — but my experience of watching it is that it’s incredibly cathartic, despite the fact that it’s incredibly horrific. That’s the kind of fear that I’m drawn to, and so I think I’ve made a film that is something I want to see.
Maxine Peake as Elen (courtesy of Bulldog Film)
Unlike the lethargy of happy emotions, sadder stories have a greater propensity to stimulate self-reflection, to recall past memories and life experiences.
I completely agree, and I think there are lots of people out there who share that and are actively looking for this type of film. So you just hope that the film finds them. Also, if you deal with subject matter that is surrounding folklore and suspicion, you are naturally going to make quite a dark film.
For this family that are living a dark and oppressive existence, in which they are barely surviving day to day, there is a need for a belief system. Yet there are certain lies told by the mother that Gwen continues to tell her younger sister, a lie that gives them hope and offers a commentary in religion as a manifestation of false hope.
… These rural people from agricultural backgrounds have their own traditions and their own beliefs, and that is as important as the religion of the day. Even if you go back to pagan beliefs being manipulated and forced out by christianity, it’s all belief systems that keep us happy and sane, and give us a truth, even if it’s not a right truth.
… The mother in the film, her belief is less of a christian one and more pagan, and that’s going to terrify the christians in the community because that’s a different way of thinking, and that’s dangerous from their point of view. In the film I’m definitely not just saying that everyone has a different belief system, and just because someone else’s is different to yours then it’s wrong. We all need that belief system, whatever it is, to keep ourselves sane and to give ourselves hope.
Capitalism is shown as being reverent, yet in the community it’s corrupt, cruel and narcissistic. In essence, it’s the exploitation of religion by individuals, in which perhaps as a friend once remarked to me, “God uses good men, and evil men use God.”
… The intent of the film is that the antagonist wasn’t the witch character, the antagonist was the male quarry owner. So you are setting out with that intent and one of the things I was very keen on was not being very heavy-handed with creating that antagonist. You are very aware that they represent something larger than themselves, but because it’s a story from the girl’s perspective, you very rarely go into their world. It’s just more about how they effect her, and hopefully it’s the sort of thing people can pick up and sense without feeling like the filmmaker is trying to ram it down their throats. So it’s a light touch and you can also come away without having even thought about that, and just having enjoyed the story. But it is there from an intentional point of view, definitely.
Children and adolescents especially see the world through a filter that lends itself to fiction.
I was researching fairy tales and this quote came up, and I wish I could remember who said it: “Our lives are the fairy tales that we tell ourselves.” So it is our own perspective of it and it’s all so subjective the way you see the world or someone else does. The power of cinema is to put you in the position of someone else, and to see through their eyes and that is what you’re trying to do with every shot you set up. You’re trying to put the audience in that character’s headspace to see the world from a different point of view, and I think that is a beautiful thing at the moment.
Why do you see the Gwen’s experiences as somehow beautiful for a contemporary audience?
… If you are just a hardworking person providing for yourself and your family, and you look up and you see what’s happening further up the chain, I still think there’s a sense of oppression and control. Yes, it’s within this fantastical period film, but it’s also still relevant. So I think it will speak to people, and even not just today or tomorrow that people will hopefully still connect with it, because it’s not just relevant to our current political status. It will still be relevant to people in the future, which is actually kind of sad.
As long as there’s someone there to make a profit from your work and from your existence, you are always going to be subservient. That’s one of the things I found when I was researching the period, just in terms of how venture capitalists would come in and buy up the land, and by buying up the land, not only did they have the materials and the land to work with, they also generated a mobile workforce that now has to work for and rent from them. I just found that resonated; how if you lose control, if you’re giving up, or if you’re not self-subsistent. So the idea of just living off the land as a self-subsistent farmer is quite appealing to me, and if you could live outside of the system I’d love to.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the filmmaking process?
I definitely think that whether you know it or not, you’ve written a story for a reason and subconsciously there are things that you want to say, and not necessarily just to other people, but to yourself. So you can look back at the film and your experience of making it, and of course you learn and grow as a person because of the experience. But I also think that’s one of the reasons for being a writer/director — it’s very cathartic, because there are certain subconscious things you’re working on whether you realise it or not.
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Gwen released theatrically in the UK and Ireland on the 19 July 2019.