Shepherd is a psychological horror by Russell Owen, a story following Eric (Tom Hughes) as he deals with his grief and depression by escaping to an island to care for sheep. But it may not be much of an escape. Beautifully atmospheric with an engaging story, Shepherd is one to see!

Outtake was able to talk with director and writer Russell Owen about his journey to directing, his creative process, and what he hopes is next for him.

Was directing always the dream growing up?

Russell Owen: When I was a kid, where I was in Wales and my school in particular discouraged it. They [said] if you don’t know anyone and you don’t live in Hollywood, there’s no point in trying – which is ridiculous because most films are made in London anyway. I remember it making me very angry, but I could draw. I [became] a comic book artist, and I would write stories, but my hand would go after like five pages because of all the drawing.

I went to university and did illustration, and then I did screenwriting. I became a storyboard and concept artist, so I used to go and work with lots of directors and that was my film school, working on things like Doctor Who and loads of commercials.

Tom Hughes in Shepherd with border collie dog directed by Russell Owen
Courtesy of Darkland Distribution

I did some horror films and I worked with some really good directors. I also worked with really bad ones and they taught me more than anything.

What storyboarding does is teach you about lighting and staging and everything else. Then I went and made a short film. I love the visuals of directing and I think after that, I was like ‘No, this is it’. I felt so at home directing.

How did you begin the process of bringing the story to life? Did you have the setting first and then the story, or vice versa?

Russell Owen: I wrote it in 2005, so it’s taken that long to get it done. It started as an atmosphere – an exercise in a sense of space.

So how do you create a sense of space? I love the idea of trying to get an audience to be immersed in something. And it is a combination of stuff, you know? Always a collaboration of artists and all the director can do is try and pick the right ones that are all work, could work together seamlessly.

That was what I was always fascinated about, and  then I took a backstory I used to be obsessed with. An island in north Wales, they used to advertise for families to run the farm there, and it’s [considered] the most idyllic job. Then I think they interviewed the family that left [the island] not long ago [and they were] going, ‘oh my God, it was really difficult’.

So those two things combined, I thought would be the ideal story to be able to challenge myself as a director. Although it’s a simple story, it hasn’t have much dialogue, so it gives me the opportunity to show what I can do in terms of creating an atmosphere and creating attention when I don’t have those aspects of film.

Courtesy of Darkland Distribution

Did you always know where the film was going to be set or did you have to explore different isolated islands? 

Russell Owen: I grew up in north Wales and there was an island called Puffin Island with a black and white lighthouse. I would have loved to set Shepherd there, but it’s really small and you can’t get to it. There’s no way we can get a film crew out there. They’ll kill me. So I needed to find somewhere which was really atmospheric.

I started with Wales and then I went up looking for lighthouses originally, but either you can’t get to them – you can’t get a film crew there – or they’re all really nice and modern, some Airbnbs.So we ended up making a model and then we filmed the inside in a church. That light house is quite an important hangover from my first stories, and I really wanted there to act as symbolism for Eric, trying to get over something and trying to challenge himself.

I ended up on the island Mull and I found those three peaks where they sail across with the snow-capped peaks. It’s not a famous part of Scotland, It’s absolutely beautiful, and there was something more Icelandic and weird about that Island.

Do you have any inspirations for your form of storytelling?

Russell Owen: I’m a big fan of filmmakers who use cinema as a visual medium. People like Stanley Kubrick and Jane Campion

I always approach it as a visual medium and Shepherd is something that works in all countries and all languages quite easily because the majority of it is told visually. If you could turn the sound off on a film and still understand what’s going on, then you know you’re doing your job.

Courtesy of Darkland Distribution

How do you think Shepherd fits into this new age of horror films?

Russell Owen: I’m so chuffed that this horror has become popular. Although Shepherd was always much more of a traditional style horror film, what I love about all this new way is that that was always my style. The reason Shepherd could never get made in the past is because it was a bit out there, even though it was much more simple in those films. So I have people like Jordan Peele to thank, even people like Christopher Nolan with Inception having that really uncertain ending.

Because of this, I’ve finally been allowed to make it after 16 years.

The new wave of horror is becoming more abstracted, so it allows a film like Shepherd to exist.

On the filming process, there’s a very impactful scene in which Eric comes out of the lighthouse and all the sheep are displayed there. How do you go about filming a scene like that?

Russell Owen: I had a nightmare about that scene, so I was like, I’ve just got to put this in somewhere.

I had it years ago now. I actually painted it, because I was at this time I was a concept artist for films. It was such a strong image. I said “you know what, by hook or by crook, I’m going to do this, and even if the entire budget goes on it, I’ve got to do it.”

Courtesy of Darkland Distribution

I’m really pleased with how it turned out. We could only afford to make three sheep. They were made out of Ikea rugs and the dogs was made out of a rug and some clay – but you have to have an amazing art department.

That visual – I just thought ‘what would be the worst thing if you’re by yourself on an island? You’ve just tried to do something in a lighthouse, which you’re freaked out about and you come down – what would be the worst thing to see?’ And I think yeah, that would be.

Is there a type of story or a genre you want to venture into directing in the future?

Russell Owen: Everyone says keep away from comedy, but I absolutely love writing comedy. I’d love to do an action film – just like blowing up things and have actors throw themselves off buildings and all the rest of that. Absolutely loved to do that. I love escapism, so, you know, something like a James Bond film would be amazing – and still involve blowing things up.

I’m really open-minded. I’m not like a romcom person though – everything’s got a dark edge, There’s nothing that I’ve written and there’s nothing I’ve ever been attracted to story-wise that is all jolly and nice.

I’d love to do sci-fi but I do think any future project of mine would be quite, quite different. I do have ideas for that, but it’s difficult to explain in words what I do there. My hope is that I write something fresh and different.

Shepherd is out now. Read out review here.