William McGregor was a student at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham where he made his student film Who’s Afraid of the Water Sprite? This student film would win him a best drama award from the Royal Television Society. After graduating McGregor would go on to direct episodes of Misfits, Poldark, Retribution, and more. His latest project is his first feature film Gwen, which is described as “A dark folk tale set in the hills of Wales during the industrial revolution.” Wanting to learn more about his background and Gwen, I was able to interview McGregor for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved experiencing? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
William McGregor: I loved fantasy, so as a teenager I was very into His Dark Materials, The Hobbit, and The Lord of The Rings, also the Harry Potters too. My copy of The Hobbit was actually given to me by an elderly gentleman whilst on a walking holiday with my grandparents in the Lake District when I was about 9. For a long time as a child I actually thought the elderly gentleman who had given me the book was actually Tolkien. Although I later learned he had of course died in the 70’s. But it was a romantic childish notion that still makes me smile.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in entertainment production? Was there a moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
McGregor: For fun I picked up a handy cam and started making films on the farm where I grew up, almost documentary style stuff about the lives of the animals around me. I submitted one to a young persons festival when I was about 15. It got in and that was my first experience of watching my films in a cinema with an audience. I also met a film programmer and a few other industry people who encouraged me to study film. I still didn’t fully believe it was something I could do so I settled for an Arts Foundation Degree. On that foundation degree I made a short film that was shortlisted for a competition at the BAFTA’s. So I attended the awards in 2007. After that I felt a sense of ‘yes you can do this’.
Yanes: Your first feature film is Gwen. What was the inspiration behind this story?
McGregor: I made a short film called ‘Who’s Afraid of the Water Sprite?’ which Gwen grew from. The short was very much a fairy tale. And although Gwen still has a grounding in folk lore and beliefs, is also inspired by the history and landscape of Snowdonia. Especially the clearings for the queries in the Industrial Revolution.
Yanes: Prior to Gwen you had only written short films. What challenges did you encounter when writing Gwen? Were there challenges unique to Gwen that you think allowed you to grow as a storyteller?
McGregor: I wanted to tell a story that made the audience question what they were being shown, the film is about challenging where suspicion and dread comes from. Is it something other worldly and supernatural or something more grounded and closer to home? This balance was a constant challenge in the writing process. Have I taken it too far into the fantasy? How do I bring it back towards the real world without breaking the spell of the film. This was something that we were still working on in the edit, and even in the sound mix.
Yanes: On this note, how do you think writing and director Gwen helped you become a better creative?
McGregor: I’d like to think so, I certainly feel more confident as a filmmaker. I also think that the experience of touring the film and doing Q&A’s teaches you a lot about how an audience engages with you work, what moments land in the cinema. So I’m trying to take that into my next script. That said though I really think you can’t second guess your own instincts so that is very much a balancing act.
Yanes: Gwen feels like a horror movie at times even though it lacks jump scares and other traditional horror elements. How did you manage to find the right tone in Gwen so that it fills viewers with a sense of dread?
McGregor: I love horror, but in particular folk Horror. So there are definite Horror influences in Gwen. But to call it a Horror film might be misleading, or set the wrong expectations. It’s a film about dread, and questioning superstitions. So there is naturally tension and terror in the film. But I was very lucky that I was allowed to be bold and use the genre elements in my own way. I wasn’t forced by the producers to tick set genre box’s in order to make the film more marketable. I enjoyed how I could build tension for an hour before delivering the first real scare. I think it helped to grow the sense of dread and also make the scarse more impactful. Which is what was needed for the story.
Yanes: While doing research for Gwen, were there any historical items that you were surprised to learn?
McGregor: There’s a lot of folk traditions that I was able to put into the film, which is a personal interest for me. So that was fascinating. I like how there is a logic to the rituals, such as breaking open the skull of a dead sheep to remove bad luck. I can see how that would have its own logic in a spiritual way. I was also shocked by some of the facts about the quarry, such as slate dust being prescribed to quarrymen with bad lungs. Not all of the research could make the film, but it informed the grim barbaric tone that the film descends into.
Yanes: During the processes of writing and director Gwen, did you feel a character or subplot take on a life of their own?
McGregor: I was always writing from Gwen’s point of view, so the challenge was to try and weave in the characters around her and any subplots without breaking away from experiencing the world through her own eyes. What I did learn is that if we did come away from Gwen’s point of view, we would release the tension. There was quite a big scene about a disaster at the quarry that was cut for this reason.
Yanes: When people finish watching Gwen, what do you hope they take away from it?
McGregor: I hope it’s a film that stays with people. I know its not an easy watch. But I want my films to resonate, to create powerful images and scenes that stay in your head. And although I have an intention for the meaning of these images and the film as a whole, I actually believe the power of interpretation lies with the viewer, and that every interpretation of the film will be slightly different depending on what a viewer brings to it. It should be a personal experience.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
McGregor: I’m currently writing a script called Gun Dog with the support of the BFI and Film4. It’s about a poacher caught up in the brutal blood sport of badger baiting. I’m thinking of it as a rural revenge story.