Robin Hardy directed the cult classic The Wicker Man back in 1973 and he's only directed one other film in the last 25 years. It’s understandable, then, that horror fans are eagerly anticipating Hardy’s latest film, The Wicker Tree.
Considered a spiritual sequel or companion piece to The Wicker Man, The Wicker Tree is based on Hardy’s novel Cowboys for Christ and tells the story of two southern Christians who travel to Scotland to spread the word of God. Of course, the townspeople have different plans for the couple…
I had the honor of talking with Robin Hardy about Christopher Lee, scenes in the movie that didn't make the final cut, and why he doesn’t consider The Wicker Tree to be a horror film.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about The Wicker Tree. As a big fan of The Wicker Man, I was excited to finally watch The Wicker Tree.
Robin Hardy: You would agree that it is a black comedy and not a horror film, wouldn’t you?
There were definitely parts of the movie that I saw as intentionally comedic and I wouldn’t categorize it as a straight horror film.
Robin Hardy: I keep on encouraging the distributors to say that. I think you’ll agree as a critic that people go into the cinema based on what they’ve been told on the poster or advertising. If they go in expecting horror instead of a comedy, it takes some time for that to be evident and they are disoriented. I think it is important that people know what they are getting into in advance.
The quote I like the best comes from Christopher Lee about the original book: “It’s erotic, comic, romantic, and horrific enough to strain the bowels …”
Imagine him saying that in that voice of his… In other words, it’s a whole series of genres mixed up.
Can you tell me about your inspiration for the book and film? Who or what did you use as reference for southern Christianity? Did you spend any time researching in the southern United States?
Robin Hardy: When I wrote the book, I had planned to use fundamentalist Christians because they made the best opposition or counterpoint to European Christianity or Agnosticism. So I spent some time in Dallas at these “Cowboys for Christ” churches. I had preconceived notions of extreme fundamentalism, but what I actually found is a religion that is closely connected to the black Baptist religion. I was used to visiting these churches in Harlem where they have singing and these great choirs. I found that “Cowyboys for Christ” is mostly music.
There is a preacher who stands out by the lectern and, amusingly to me, there is this big pool of water where people can be dipped. While I was visiting, there was a lady who told the audience that she sinned against her husband and asked for forgiveness. She was in her nice Sunday dress and they dipped her in water. Then they took her to dry off and everyone clapped. So that wasn’t anywhere near as threatening as we tend to think of fundamentalism. We hear about these places where young people are told about what hell is like. What an appalling thought it is to take a child and show them some idiot’s idea of hell.
So my two protagonists come from this relatively gentle place and believe that every word in the bible is the word of God. It’s interesting that when faced with the facts, those same people still believe every word regardless of how contradictory it might be. You are meant to like the young people, though. Although their mind has been brainwashed to some extent, they are still good people.
I want to ask about Christopher Lee’s cameo in the film. My understanding is that he was originally set to play the lead role of Sir Morrison, but was replaced due to an injury. Is that true?
Robin Hardy: That’s correct. When I shot that cameo scene, which was almost entirely on blue background, the poor man [Christopher Lee] had difficulty standing because he hurt his back in Mexico and it was still painful for him. I originally had him playing Morrison, where he’d be sitting on a horse [for much of the movie]. Of course he couldn’t do that and everyone agreed that we’d replace him with Graham. I’m really pleased with the contribution Christopher made. We don’t know if he’s playing Graham’s grandfather or father, but that cameo shows that everything Sir Lachlan Morrison learned came from his ancestors.
I would have loved to how Christopher Lee played the role of Sir Morrison, but I think Graham did a great job in the film.
Robin Hardy: I think he’s very good indeed and I’m glad that he is a part of The Hobbit. He’s a wonderful actor and I’ve seen him mainly in movies like Rambo. He did a perfectly fine job in it, but I thought it is an incredible waste of his talents. I was extremely pleased with his performance [in The Wicker Tree] and he was a very nice actor to work with, because he’s highly intelligent. He understood exactly what the film was all about.
The British Anchor Bay people asked me to assemble some of the scenes we had to cut for reasons of length. We wanted to keep the film around 90 minutes, but there is a very nice scene between Graham [Sir Lachlan Morrison] and his wife and he does a wonderful job. I miss that part, but we’re going to cut a series of separate scenes for the DVD.
That actually ties right into the next item I wanted to discuss. Some of the characters from the book have expanded roles, such as Orlando.
Robin Hardy: Yes, Orlando particularly. When I adapted the script, Lolly needed to have a better and fuller role. The only way to do that was to reduce the role of the policeman. The book had a lot to do with Glasgow and the religiousness or lack of religiousness in Scotland. When I made The Wicker Man, there were a lot of Presbyterians, but that has really withered away in favor of Agnosticism and empty churches.
Were there other roles or scenes that you wanted to include in The Wicker Tree, but left out for any reason?
Robin Hardy: There are a few quirky moments and roles that I liked. There was a great interest to take them out on the part of the producers, but eventually we agreed which to take out and which to leave in. There was an opening scene in the American church that is actually a sort of tap dancing scene between a young man who is a cleaner and the reverend. I think it is fun and it tells the audience that this is going to be a quirky picture in 30 seconds. It’s quite a valuable moment, but it terrified the producers. If I ever get to do a director’s cut, I’ll bring it back in because it doesn’t change the length of the film.
The Wicker Man is a classic movie for horror fans and many are excited about The Wicker Tree. While you would classify it as a black comedy, many horror fans have this film on their radar.
Robin Hardy: I just want people to understand what they are getting into when they buy the ticket or DVD. I understand why they don't split movies up movies into "horror" and "black comedy". Walmart has huge shelf space for horror, but they don't have a space for black comedy. Naturally, the distributors are worried that they will have problems if they call it anything else. Really it is an issue with the system, more than the distributor.
I was pleased to have Anchor Bay as a distributor because I thought they did an extremely great job with their release of The Wicker Man. When I do screenings, I still have people who come up to me to asking to have those wooden cases signed. I thought it was inspired.
My talk with Robin Hardy was very informative and although it should be apparent from the interview text, he really wants to stress the fact that he set out to direct a black comedy and not a horror film. As Robin Hardy mentioned, it's all about expectations, so keep it in mind if you're going to check out The Wicker Tree this weekend. Anchor Bay is giving the film a limited theatrical release starting January 27th.
To learn more about The Wicker Tree, check out our recent coverage: