For William McGregor, the story of Gwen, his new slow-burn thriller began with a student film he made called Who’s Afraid of the Water Sprite? ten years ago.
The writer and director had long been fascinated by folklore and fairy tales and he was encouraged by a colleague to explore the region of North Wales along with its folklore, mythology, and history.
When the time was right, that’s exactly what he did.
“I traveled up to North Wales and stayed in a little cottage there and just explored the landscape and read about the history of the space,” McGregor told iHorror in a recent interview. “The fairy tale that I made as a student film very much grew into this film that used the folklore as the inspiration behind it rather than being a fairy tale itself.”
That story became Gwen, a film about a young woman (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) who lives on an isolated farm with her mother Elen (Maxine Peake) and her younger sister Mari (Jodie Innes).
Life is difficult for the three, and becomes even more challenging as Elen falls ill and the mining company who wants their land begins to move against them, firing up their fellow villager’s suspicions.
It’s a film that uses dread as its underscoring emotion and McGregor navigates that perilous landscape beautifully.
“I think that’s been why horror has been most powerful to me and I think that’s why I’ve always liked folklore and horror stories about witchcraft,” he said. “Often it’s just that someone has a different belief than you and you’re afraid of them. I think that’s when horror is most interesting is when the horror is real. It can be visualized by something fantastic or supernatural but it’s representative of a true fear we all have.”
McGregor also recognizes the real boon he had in the cast that was assembled for the film.
Worthington-Cox at only 16 years old had already received a BAFTA nomination for her work in The Enfield Haunting which told the story of a girl possessed by a dark spirit in the home she shared with her mother and siblings. She’s an actress of surprising depth who really understood the who Gwen was and what the film was about.
“And Maxine is an actress that I was a huge fan of,” he explained. “She’s also someone who has an interest in folk tales and folk stories as well as having a slight anti-capitalist perspective and that really worked for the film. It was a lot of like-minded people working together really.”
In the film, the mining company is in control of everything in the village and it was important to McGregor to show how that kind of power can be abusive and corrupting to everything that it touches.
In fact, not even the church was beyond the company’s control and became another tool to use against Gwen and her family.
“If you’re outside of that system, you’re going to be abused,” McGregor pointed out. “We have these independent women who are living alone and maybe one of them has beliefs that are different and more reliant on the land and pagan beliefs. They’re going to be feared and the town was going to try to remove them.”
In truth, audiences are not entirely sure what is actually happening to this family until the final moments of the film, and by that time, McGregor firmly has you in his grasp.
“I think if you’re making a film about dread and a fear of what you don’t understand, it has to be about atmosphere and surviving in that world,” he said. “If you can be disciplined as a filmmaker, you can get inside people’s heads even more.”
McGregor obviously has that discipline, and Gwen is a testament to his dedication as a storyteller and filmmaker.
Gwen will be available in theaters and on demand this Friday, August 16, 2019. Check out the trailer below!