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Q&A: Creators Talk the Controversial British Horror Film “THE BLOOD LANDS”

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Sometimes events conspire to give a small film more attention than anyone anticipated. Such was the case with THE BLOOD LANDS, the low-budget British home-invasion thriller (originally titled WHITE SETTLERS) that hit Stateside Blu-ray and DVD this week on Magnolia Home Entertainment’s Magnet label.

With few pretensions to anything but survival-horror scares, the movie nevertheless, in the fall 2014, found itself in the middle of a raging political debate. Dramatizing a conflict between an English couple just moved into a Scottish farmhouse and some angry locals, the film, by a sheer accident of timing, played out a genre microcosm of the British political landscape, where Scotland was voting on whether or not to secede from the United Kingdom and move forward as an independent nation. The Scots narrowly voted to stay British, but the ramifications of the close result continue.

“It’s a very simple film in terms of plotting: a lot of chasing around and escaping from assailants,” director Simeon Halligan says. “It relied heavily on its locations, and I knew from my background as a production designer that that was something I could embrace and do well. It’s not groundbreaking, but the political subtext makes it individual.”

“I’d say it’s a story of the haves and the have-nots,” says producer Rachel Richardson-Jones. “There’s this situation, prevalent in a lot of areas around the UK—Wales and Cornwall as well as Scotland—where wealthy people from the city are coming in and buying up properties, basically pricing local people out of their own market, taking homes that have been in families for generations. It is a real problem.”

BLOODLANDSCREATORS1THE BLOOD LANDS stars THE WOMAN’s Pollyanna McIntosh and Lee Williams as Sarah and Ed, young newlyweds taking the leap of leaving their old, stressful life in London and starting afresh in the supposedly peaceful Scottish countryside. One particular cottage, standing empty after years of belonging to one family, seems like a bargain too good to resist. But when the couple move in to begin their renovation project, they’re immediately assailed by masked figures intent on sending them south of the Scottish border again.

Halligan set up the project with Richardson-Jones (his partner in film, the Grim Up North film festival they run together and life) as the follow-up to their 2010 debut SPLINTERED. Looking for similarly inexpensive material, ideally with a single location and a limited cast, the pair remembered having received the WHITE SETTLERS screenplay from writer Ian Fenton, who at the time was looking to direct it himself through Halligan and Richardson-Jones’ Not A Number production company.

“Screenplays can be very dry, but this one had me clenching the arm of the chair as I was reading it,” Richardson-Jones recalls. “But we’re a director-producer team and were looking for something to do together, so it went away for a while. Then some private-equity finance came up, and we went back to Ian and said, ‘Look, we have some money; it’s not a massive amount, but we can get this movie made.’ And he hadn’t done anything with it, so he told us to go for it!”

Budgetary considerations meant that the film was actually shot not in Scotland but in Derbyshire in the north of England, as near to the Not A Number production base in Manchester as was feasible. Halligan was initially concerned that the discrepancy would be obvious, but gradually came around to the idea of making it work.

“It’s a house in the middle of nowhere, and a forest, so that seemed easy!” he explains, chuckling somewhat ruefully. “But Ian’s script was very proscriptive. He explained the layout of the house as the piece developed, so once the terror and tension kicked in, you knew where someone was hiding or prowling around. That was important in terms of the way it was set up; every element was quite particular, but we couldn’t afford to build sets.”

A house that was exactly right for the stringent screenplay was tough to nail down. “We couldn’t find a location that was exactly right,” Halligan continues, “but what we did find in the end, after a lot of searching and looking at different places, was this particular isolated farmhouse in the Peak District, which just about did what we needed.”

Fenton himself visited and commenced some rewriting with Halligan to accommodate the site. “There was a moment where something spooky happened in the forest beyond the house, for example,” the director explains, “and that had to be changed to the farmyard because we didn’t have forest in the right place. We had to utilize what was there, but it worked out well.”

“We took this nice house that was being lived in by a farmer and his wife, and we basically booted them out and turned their lovely modern interior into this beat-up old place that looked like it hadn’t been touched since 1945,” adds Richardson-Jones, laughing. “It looked really dull, dark, spooky and horrible. Just as we were about to start shooting, the farmer and his wife came to have a look, and they didn’t speak for an hour. I think they were pretty shocked. But they got the opportunity to have us redecorate their house any way they wanted afterward, so they did all right in the end. They were really pleased!”

The Scottish Referendum wasn’t the only coincidence that THE BLOOD LANDS had to deal with. Featuring, as it does, attackers in animal masks, Halligan and co. got an unpleasant surprise when the publicity campaign for Adam Wingard’s YOU’RE NEXT started to kick in while BLOOD LANDS was in production. Suddenly, the UK’s bus stops were covered in scary animal attackers!

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“It was really frustrating for us,” Halligan sighs. “A lot of people all over the Internet were saying our film looks just like YOU’RE NEXT, and it isn’t, and it was never intended to be. These things happen a lot. The Spanish movie TORMENT has animal masks too. Ian’s script was written several years ago, and when I read it, I’d never especially seen a film that did that. But I have to say that it wasn’t something we particularly wanted to emphasize anyway, because it’s not a core, essential part of the film. The pig masks are there purely for concealment, so you don’t know who these guys are and they all look the same. That’s why they’ve all got the same masks rather than different ones.”

“There is a theme to the whole pig thing,” Richardson-Jones elaborates. “It’s not bashing you over the head, but it’s apparent that there’s a reason for those disguises. It’s kind of alluding to the fact that it was a pig farm, basically. It made sense. We thought about the mask thing for a while, and whether we should have really nasty, ghoulish, specifically designed pigskin masks, but in the end, we decided that the guys who wear them wouldn’t have spent time designing their own. They’d just go on-line and find some and buy them. These are probably the first things you find when you search for pig masks on the Internet. There’s a British gangster movie where they use the same ones, and to me that’s great, because it just shows that they’re ordinary items you can buy easily.”

Nevertheless, the YOU’RE NEXT issue was deemed enough of a concern that the masks were kept entirely out of the original WHITE SETTLERS publicity materials. “We thought we had to avoid that,” says Halligan. “The image on the poster was the spooky house more than anything else, which I kind of liked better anyway. It was more atmospheric.”

In the end, however, it’s that Scottish question with which the movie ended up most identified. Realizing that the timing for their film couldn’t have been better, a member of the production team jokingly tweeted, ‘Could this be the Scottish Referendum movie?’ The mini-furor that followed both helped and hindered the project, with first Scottish and then wider British broadsheet newspapers latching onto the story and whipping up a small storm of controversy. The film clearly looked timely, but its creators also started fielding accusations of cashing in.

The Guardian ran the story on the front page of their website,” marvels Richardson-Jones, “and they had pages and pages of people commenting. That was the point when we realized that actually, for a small independent movie, we might have something here, and it might be the best time possible to release it. A movie of this level usually arrives and disappears very quickly.”

“You’ve got to do anything you can to get your movie above the parapet a bit,” Halligan agrees.

Crucially, the film is less simple than it at first appears: It’s not just a case of England vs. Scotland, where the Scottish are the backwards bad guys. “This film was written by a Scotsman, and Pollyanna, who’s playing an English girl in the film, is actually Scottish,” Halligan notes. “I know Ian would argue, and I tend to agree, that if you analyze the film, it’s not necessarily one-sided. Once you get to the end, you realize it redresses the balance of what you’ve been watching somewhat, and makes you re-question the motives of everyone in the movie, and maybe makes you question where your allegiance lies. The ending has been taken in different ways by different people; some people really like it and others really hate it.”

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About the author
Owen Williams
Owen Williams read English Literature at university during the '90s, but preferred the company of engineers and physicists because they liked STAR TREK and metal. A regular contributor to Empire magazine, he has also been widely published elsewhere, and lives in the South-East of England with an academic and a cat. He doesn’t really blog and very rarely tweets.
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