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FOG! Chats With John Walsh, Author of ‘The Wicker Man: The Official Story of The Film’

The Wicker Man is one of the greatest horror movies of all time – a chilling exploration of an isolated community with a terrible secret. Featuring a stellar cast including Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland and Ingrid Pitt, The Wicker Man has terrified audiences world-wide for fifty years. 

Titan Books is releasing The Wicker Man: The Official Story of the Film, the definitive guide to the making of the landmark horror movie, lavishly illustrated and packed with insights into this classic chiller. From author and filmmaker John Walsh, the book tells the story of how this singular – and somewhat unlikely – folk-horror classic came to be, illustrated with fascinating behind-the-scenes photography, new interviews, exclusive artwork, and never-before-seen material from the StudioCanal archives. 

John was generous enough to take some time to discuss both the film and his book, and once again the wonderful people at Titan Books have shared some exclusive images from the upcoming release.

*  *  *  *  *

FOG!: Hi John, thanks for taking the time to do this!  I’ve read all of your film books and one thing that comes across on every page is what a legitimate fan you are of the work that you’ve written about.  Your newest book, The Wicker Man: The Official Story of the Film.  What was the genesis of this book?

John Walsh: Thank you. With all of my books, I often have burning questions about the films and how they were made. The 50th anniversary of The Wicker Man seemed an ideal opportunity to not only delve into the stories we know but also, for the first time, have access to the official studio paperwork from the archives. For many years, a mythology about how the film was made and what happened to the original footage has grown. The fan base has kept the film alive and helped it find new audiences. But now, the official version can be told for the first time thanks to StudioCanal and Titan Books.

Director Robin Hardy (L) and Peter Snell (R) in Church scene onset pics / The Wicker Man ©1973 StudioCanal Films Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The Wicker Man is celebrating its 50th anniversary, but it’s really an unknown film to general United States audiences.  What about the film do you think has kept it from finding a larger audience despite having a cast that includes Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, and Britt Ekland?

The Wicker Man’s success in America saved the film as we know it for audiences today. British Lion couldn’t find anyone to buy the film in the UK, so Michael Deeley took the film to America and asked Roger Corman to take a look. Corman had already expressed an interest in the film but ultimately passed on it. Warner Bros showed some interest and made some prints for cinema but found little enthusiasm for the film in cinemas.

1970s Belgian Poster / Courtesy of The Prop Store

It would be a new small film company called Abraxas who took the film on and, through clever marketing and a new poster, found a willing and accepting audience for the film in an expanded Director’s Cut form. I spoke with Abraxas founder John Alan Simon and the designer of the new US poster, Craig Miller, about the rebirth of The Wicker Man in North America.

The Wicker Man was inspired by the novel Ritual by David Pinner.  It was originally planned as an adaptation and instead was used only as a loose story inspiration.  What prompted the changes prior to production?

It is one of the many myths of The Wicker Man’s history that David Pinner’s novel plays only a passing resemblance to the final screenplay. I have thought for many years that this was an injustice to Mr. Pinner. I spoke with him extensively for the book and, along with a leading folklore history and literature academic, Dr. David Annwn Jones, set out our case for greater recognition of his novel. Dr. Jones concludes that David Pinner is the father of modern folk horror in literature through his careful juxtaposition of the natural and religious worlds.

The novel’s drive and the motivation of the characters in the film are drawn from the novel Ritual. David Pinner has contributed to the new StudioCanal booklet, as have I. It may have taken 50 years, but justice is being served. Once the book was optioned by Anthony Shaffer, Robin Hardy and Christopher Lee, they were free to adapt and change the materials they thought might best suit the dramatic needs of a feature film.

The Wicker Man ©1973 StudioCanal Films Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

What were some of the challenges that the filmmakers had during production and what was the audience reaction upon it’s release?

Shooting entirely on location and using many local people as film performers gives it a grounding in reality. But this meant a huge technical challenge with both inconsistent lighting and sound. Part of the reason so many films up until this time would be shot in studios was the size of the cameras, which were heavy and difficult to move. Recording clean dialogue with your actors was made more difficult with no way of controlling the environment around you.

But the biggest challenge was the weather. The film was set in May, but filming took place in October. The cold, wind and rain made any continuity between takes sometime impossible. Luckily, through the skillful eye of British cinematographer Harry Waxman, the film has a sumptuous and fertile summer look and feel. Waxman got little credit for his work, and his clashes with director Robin Hardy were frequent, as were those of the art director Seamus Flannery. Although these rifts had been rumoured before, I got people on the records about the frictions on location.

The Wicker Man ©1973 StudioCanal Films Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The film has been released in several different restorations and cuts.  Is there one in particular that you think is the best version of the film?

For me The Final Cut is the best. The others have some odd pacing and editing. This was enforced on the film to receive a B-support film release against the A-feature Don’t Look Now in 1973. There has been much debate about the missing footage and the intentions behind its expulsion from the first cut by Robin Hardy. I hope that with this book, we can finally lay that ghost to rest.

As I mentioned in the first question, your book show a genuine love for the subjects that you write about. What do you love about The Wicker Man?

I’m fascinated by how The Wicker Man reinvents itself for each new generation. I thought it may have been fan pressure or even a marketing device. I’ve come to realise that there is something more at work here. The Wicker Man today is flourishing in a bountiful harvest of restoration and audience adoration. Even Lord Summerisle would approve.

The Wicker Man ©1973 StudioCanal Films Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

What do you having coming up?

I have several books on the table for me in the next two years. As I write I am working on another large format coffee table art book on the making of The Third Man, which celebrates its 75th anniversary next year.  It’s a pivotal post-war film that examines the links between friends and traitors with some startling real-life implications from the creatives behind the camera.

The Wicker Man: The Official Story of the Film arrives in bookstores and
e-tailers in the UK on October 23rd and in the US on November 8th

 

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