Author John Walsh Discusses The Wicker Man Making-Of Book & 50-Year Legacy Of Cult Horror Movie
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Author John Walsh Discusses The Wicker Man Making-Of Book & 50-Year Legacy Of Cult Horror Movie

Summary

  • The Wicker Man: The Official Story of the Film provides an in-depth look at the 1973 cult classic, exploring its development, production, and troubled history.
  • Author John Walsh, a filmmaker and fan of the movie, meticulously researched the facts and debunked some of the myths surrounding its creation.
  • Through careful and diplomatic interviews, Walsh seeks to uncover the truth behind conflicting recollections, giving fans a comprehensive account of the movie’s legacy.
  • A British classic is getting an extensive behind-the-scenes look as it celebrates a major anniversary with The Wicker Man: The Official Story of the Film. The 1973 folk horror movie centered on a police sergeant as heads to the isolated Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, only to realize a darker conspiracy is at play involving the local pagan community.

    Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee led the ensemble The Wicker Man cast alongside Britt Ekland, Lesley Mackie, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt, and Lindsay Kemp. Though a critical and commercial failure in its initial release, the movie has gone on to become a cult favorite over the years, resulting in multiple sequel attempts and an infamous remake led by Nicolas Cage.

    Related: The Wicker Man (1973): 10 Things You Didn’t Know About The Cult Movie

    In anticipation of the book’s release, Screen Rant spoke exclusively with author John Walsh for The Wicker Man: The Official Story of the Film, the 50-year legacy of the folk horror movie, and unpacking some of the more tantalizing secrets behind its development and production.

    John Walsh Talks The Wicker Man: The Official Story of the Film

    Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man

    Screen Rant: I loved the book, I finished it yesterday, it is such a great chronicling of The Wicker Man’s journey. You’re clearly a fan of the movie, you make mention it throughout the book, but where did the fandom for this film first come about for you?

    John Walsh: I think for me, it was a case of there was only a certain amount of films that were kicking around as VHS tapes in the ‘80s, and network television in the UK was quite limited what they could show and what they would show. So, the films you’d want to see like Evil Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre wouldn’t be shown on mainstream television, so The Wicker Man was part of that, was part of the films that weren’t often shown. Of course, it had an X certificate, and it had quite a reputation for being quite the horror film. But of course, we look at it now, and actually, there’s no real horror, there’s no graphic anything. You know, there’s no bad language, there’s no bad behavior, really. There’s a bit of naughtiness, you could say, at the end, and it shocked people at the time, because it was a policeman, people had the police on a pedestal. But for me, I was always a big fan of Doctor Who, and this felt like it could be a Doctor Who-style adventure with The Doctor going somewhere — and The Doctor being, of course, the policeman, and there’s a female assistant, which would be Willow in the pub.

    I know it’s a bit of a stretch for some people when I say that, but why not, you know? The Wicker Man is a funny thing, it kind of grows a bit like moss, and if you don’t keep an eye on it, it just keeps growing and growing and growing. And it has no big stars, no one went on to do anything. If we think of Evil Dead, Sam Raimi and everyone else, they went on to do great big things, and that’s kind of like an origin story. This isn’t an origin story. The professional people who worked behind the scenes, this was the finish of things for them, they thought it would get things started, it didn’t. If anything, it kind of put their careers to bed, politely. And the stars who did go on to do other projects didn’t reference this as, “I just worked on The Wicker Man!” They were like, “What? The Wicker What? Don’t shout about that. Isn’t that the film that they couldn’t give away at the time?” “Yeah, that’s it. I just worked on that.” “Well, as I say, don’t mention that.”

    We think about cult films that are successful, that were unsuccessful when they first came out, The Wicker Man kind of sidesteps all of those tropes of usual cult films. Here we are with a 4K restoration, big, expensive book, StudioCanal have produced something as big as a house brick, which has all bits and bobs in it, three versions of the film, essays, one of which I wrote, and postcards and everything else. So it’s getting the royal restoration treatment, if you think of 1973, there are a few films from that era, maybe The Exorcist and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, that kind of deserve the book, and the restoration, and so on. But the poor old Wicker Man got kicked around on his first release, as you will have found out from reading the book.

    One thing that I love about this book, in comparison to a lot of other oral history books, is that it’s written by a filmmaker. How did you balance your approach in writing this book, being a filmmaker as much as being a fan?

    John Walsh: Well, for me, because I’m a documentary filmmaker, I want to line up all of the facts, and line up all of the suspects, if we will. So it’s a bit like a cold case, and the murder hasn’t really been solved. So who was there? What did they know? And what have they said, because you have one interview here saying one thing, one interview here saying something else. As you know, Christopher Lee went around saying lots about the film over the years, which I was always suspicious of. Back in the day, when I was at film school, and when this film was being made, I was at film school in the late ‘80s, the worst thing a producer could be accused of — it’s not like today, there’s all sorts a producer can be accused of — was he destroyed camera negative. That would finish you, if that was true, and it was shown that you worked on a picture, and whether accidentally or deliberately — which is even worse — you might not have done a murder, but you’ve actually destroyed camera negative?

    I always was suspicious of Lee’s assertions that people went out of their way to destroy the film, and I’m like, “These are people you’re talking about who went on to make Blade Runner, and The Deer Hunter, and had already made The Italian Job — Michael Deeley. He’s not going to be going out of his way to destroy the film, because it’s his company who put most of the money up.” It’s like building a house. If you don’t like the windows, you decide to burn it down. I mean, that’s just ridiculous. So over the years, with many of the books I’ve written, different people, often performers, will create, as it were, almost a stand-up routine where they go and tell the stories which regale audiences and have people fascinated, but weren’t true. I thought, “Oh, right, well, I’m going to be unpopular here and put my hand up and say, ‘Actually, I don’t think that’s true,’ and try and show in a book with verification why that isn’t true.”

    There are lots of people around from The Wicker Man, as you will have read, who are still with us, and I had access to all of the paperwork, all of the financial, legal, and contractual paperwork, and schedules and details on the dailies, what you’d call week-order rushes, so the footage that went to and fro every day. So, there really was no stone left unturned in that sense, and there was a bigger story to be told. People often say with these books, “The film’s okay, but actually, the story of the making the film is a real hair curler,” and you think, “What?!” as you’re turning the pages, you can’t quite believe what you’re reading. That was the case of The Wicker Man, it’s a relatively modestly budgeted film, and yet, here we are talking about it 50 years later.

    The happy-ish parade before the weird finale of The Wicker Man

    You mentioned calling people out on some of the assertions they’ve made over the years. How do you approach that in an interview where you’re they’re trying to bond with the person enough that they want to talk to you in the first place, and then you have to deal with some of the more serious subject matter that you cover in this book?

    John Walsh: The approach is you have to be quite careful and diplomatic, and of course, what you can’t say to somebody is, “I think this is untrue, and you deliberately told an untruth.” It’s really a case of going back to them and saying, “Look, I’ve spoken to other people, they remember it differently. What do you think, do you think maybe there’s a possibility that things have been remembered differently?” When Queen Elizabeth, not long before she died, talked about the disputes in her family, and there was all this chat on the telly about Harry and Meghan. The Queen said, “Recollections differ.”

    I offer people the chance to say that recollections differ, and whether it’s speaking to Britt Ekland, or to the producer Peter Snell, or Mike Deeley and Barry Spikings, who ran British Lion, there was an opportunity there to kind of get the story straight, and people were pleased I was writing a book. So, the approach isn’t like an aggressive detective who’s only got 48 hours to solve the case, you know, people know that it’s a loving tribute to the film. It’s being reissued, the film’s getting this great book, but come on, let’s try and get the story straight, because this will probably be the first and last time in book form that the official story of the film can be told. Some people know me from other books, and sometimes for my film work, as well, so they think, “Oh, okay, maybe it’s a cathartic thing I can tell John Walsh, and maybe I over egged the pudding.” It happened on Flash Gordon, up at the top there, some of the cast had behaved — well, one of the cast, let’s be honest — had behaved not ideally, and put really the film at risk, and possible sequels at risk, and so on.

    It’s tricky, though, because film people, as I know, can be professional grudge bearers. It’s not necessarily an old wound for them, it’s a new scab that you’re picking at, so you have to be careful, because you want the access, and you want the interview. But people feel that, “If everyone else has spoken to you, I want to tell you what I think, and I was there.” And people who haven’t spoken before — people think of the cast and the director, but of course the people who haven’t spoken are sometimes the art director, he’d be called the production designer today, I spoke to him at considerable length, and he lent me all those images you saw in there from Seamus Flannery. Many of them hadn’t been published before, and he was quite outspoken about the film, the shoots, his involvement, his lack of credits, in terms of long-term recognition for what he did in creating the image and the feel of the film. And Harry Waxman, who rarely even gets talked about in this country, was a great director of photography, who really created that sort of ambient look the film has as well.

    It’s a case of trying to wrestle away the truth as was and bring it into the light and show people, actually, it was a terrible lie, including the book being optioned. The director, Robin Hardy, the screenwriter, Anthony Shaffer, who was an immensely talented and wonderful man, and Christopher Lee, between the three of them, they tried to imply that they optioned a book called Ritual, that in fact, they spent thousands optioning it, but in fact, they did something completely different to Ritual and this isn’t anything like that. I always thought, “Gosh, that’s another injustice, why are they getting away with this?” Because no one’s really challenging it, and I mean, fans aren’t going to take them to court over it, they like hearing the stories.

    But luckily, the author of Ritual is still alive, David Pinner, I got to know him very well. I said to him, “Look, it’s my view and your view that you’re not fully credited, but how is it best to put this on the page without it looking like, ‘I’ve got a grudge, you’ve got an agenda.'” So he put me in touch with a leading academic, Dr. David Anwyn Jones, and I said to him, “Look, what do you think? This is what I think, what do you think?” He is a leading academic in folk horror, and he contributed extensively to the book to help build my case. So, if we were going to court, and you were the judge, I’d need to be able to say, “Look, this is my evidence, I want to overturn the previous verdict.” It’s a bit of an obsessive way of working, but it’s how I work for TV, and isn’t any different for the books, so it’s great that people get that sense that something new has been discovered.

    On that note, what would you say was one of the more surprising tidbits that maybe you didn’t already know prior to going into the book that you learned?

    John Walsh: I suppose the kind of chaotic nature of the shoots. There were lots of little stories, including one where one of the actors, Lesley Mackie, was sent down to London with the rushes, with the actual dailies footage, on the train to get them into the laboratories for them to be developed. It’s kind of like, “Wow, that would never happen.” Even a few years later, in the ’80s, you’d never do something like that. You’d have someone either from the laboratory come to you, or you’d have a special courier bike, so they were kind of — I wouldn’t say they were careless, but there were a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong here, and it didn’t. Health and safety just absolutely didn’t exist, the shots we have that never been published before of the stuntman, and how he was laying out his mattress underneath what would have been the burning Wicker Man. They set it on fire with loads of petrol, it went like that [snaps]. The stuntman’s inside, he has to jump to save his life onto mattresses, that would never happen now.

    The working processes, health and safety — oh, I shouldn’t be telling you all this, because now everyone’s gonna think, “Oh, I won’t read his bloody book.” But Diane Cilento, who played Miss Rose, she was married to a very, very famous man at the time, she was married to Mr. James Bond himself, Sean Connery. She was having an affair with Anthony Shaffer on the set, he helped cast her as Miss Rose, the schoolteacher, and she brought along her son, Jason Connery, who later appeared as Robin of Sherwood on English television and some movies. They later married, and she revealed after the film that she is, in fact, a white witch. So this kind of lends some of the credence, or if you’d like the conspiracy theory, around how people have been drawn in to The Wicker Man, and people have said that about me as well, that I was chosen to write this book by The Wicker Man.

    I didn’t think too much of that to start with, and then lots of people kept saying it to me, “You’re the ideal person for this, you’ve probably been chosen by The Wicker Man.” I was like, “Oh, thank you very much, do I get a bigger fee?” No, apparently not. [Chuckles] So, finding out she was a white witch kind of lends a sense of eeriness to the idea that The Wicker Man, in the background, is creating his own image, and sustaining himself, and re imagining himself like a myth should every kind of decade. Now, he’s at his height of his powers, the cost of the 4K restoration would be close to the cost of what the film actually cost to make in 1973, so who would have thought all these years later, this film that people wouldn’t go to see, is now being charged for in a very expensive boxset and a book? Strange.

    Edward Woodward as Howie in The Wicker Man

    We’ve discussed a lot of the people that you talked to for this book — actors, people behind the scenes — I’m curious who you felt was the most important person to go to firs? Obviously, Robin’s not around anymore, Christopher’s unfortunately no longer around.

    John Walsh: Well, for me, the person who was the kind of soul of this was the film’s producer, Peter Snell. I worked closely with Peter finding out really what happened, and the kind of temperature on set, and I would check things with him as well. So, if I thought that someone said something a bit outrageous, I’d always run it past Peter to get a sense of — he was the witness, if you will, to all of this and more, because he was involved at British Lion. He was in charge at the time when the film was commissioned, and had he not been, the film wouldn’t have been commissioned.

    I asked that of the then owners of British Lion, who took it over during the shoot of The Wicker Man, Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley, who went on to have glittering Hollywood careers. Barry Spikings went on to make all sorts of films with Castle Rock Entertainment, like When Harry Met Sally, and Misery, and so on, so they’re men of great standing. They both still don’t like The Wicker Man. And I said, “If you had a chance to go back now, what would you do?” They said, “No, we wouldn’t make it. We wouldn’t make it.” So, for me, it was Peter Snell, because Peter was involved in a practical sense from commissioning the film to being the day-to-day producer, and he’s the last of the trio. It was Schaffer, Hardy, and Snell that really made this film work, but it was Peter’s view, and one that increasingly other people were conveying to me. It was made despite Robin Hardy’s input, not because of it, so the film maybe could have been even better had it not had Robin Hardy as the director. Which seems like a harsh kind of conclusion, but it’s not one that I brought to the table, it was one that was brought to me, and then I served it up as part of the meal of the book.

    It’s kind of controversial for fans of this film, who have held on for years to the mythology of what happened to it, and why it was treated the way it was. And many people thought it was treated that way, because it tapped into something that I guess the authorities didn’t want you to be tapped into. Now, it’s not that, it was an unsuccessful film, and unsuccessful films tend to get thrown around the place a bit. So, the fact that it became more successful, as it found its hold again, lends to the mythology of, “Ah, well, it’s The Wicker Man who’s put himself back together.” But there were lots of people involved, people who do like the film are really heavily invested in it, and will watch it regularly, and will enjoy the reissues and the new footage. But those who don’t like it, you can never convince them, you could get them in a headlock, it could be an 8K version, they’re not going to like it.

    Given that this is a book that chronicles the movie’s legacy, part of me was curious to see if you explored the remake at all in the book, which you don’t. Was that an intentional thing, or because there was not enough space in the book? Was it in your mind at all when you were going about this process?

    John Walsh: So what you’ve got, Grant, you’ve got the remake film with Nicolas Cage, but you’ve got the sequel film The Wicker Tree that Robin Hardy did in 2011 with Peter Snell, which Peter said he regretted. And then there was The Wicker Man 2 that was written by Anthony Shaffer as well, and even David Pinner made a sequel to his book, Ritual, so, there were lots of different versions of what could and would have happened next. Because this is licensed by StudioCanal, I had access to all of what they owned for this title. They didn’t own the other titles, but it wouldn’t have been something I’d have been too interested in going into.

    The Wicker Tree is the natural sequel, because it has some of the production team from Wicker Man, and Robin Hardy is directing again. So, when people say to me, “Remake or the follow-up?” I always think Wicker Tree, whereas the Nic Cage film — which is fine as a standalone film, it’s fine, like a lot of films from that era, but it doesn’t capture anywhere near the magic of The Wicker Man. We think of some of the big animated feature films that have had live-action versions done, which are really spectacular and have great effects and so on, but they seem soulless. I think that’s always a difficulty if you’re remaking something and revisiting it, people are hardwired. I was speaking to someone the other day about Superman 2, and I’m hardwired into the theatrical version, and I love the Richard Donner version that came out only a few years ago, which is brilliant too. But the theatrical one from 1982 has all the Paris stuff in it, and you remember as a kid seeing that and being very excited. So, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to remake something that’s so beloved. I can’t think of a remake — probably people are screaming at us now, Grant, “yeah, see, it is a remake!”

    But sequels have been better, you’ve got Star Trek 2 people think is better than Star Trek: The Motion Picture — I love Motion Picture — Godfather 2 people hold up, Empire Strikes Back, and cheekily I say Sting 2 and Cocoon: The Return. People are switching off now probably. [Chuckles] But it’s down to studios trying to revitalize something that people recognize, so it’s like political candidates, you spend half your money on getting name recognition, if people know what you stand for. Whereas if you’re doing part two or part three of something someone’s seen before, or just the remake — there was a remake of Clash of Titans, I’m a trustee of the Ray Harryhausen Foundation, so I’m very much involved in all of the original Harryhausen films, and the creatures, and so on. But I’ve never met anyone who says they liked the sequels to Clash of the Titans, and yet, it did really good business, and it was very successful. So, I think people feel exploited when a film that they so beloved as a youngster is suddenly being churned up again with a different actor playing the leading role.

    As you will read from my book, I have an exclusive interview with who was the original intended actor to play the part that Edward Woodward successfully made his own on the island. And that’s great fun, I love doing that sort of thing, who it should have been, who it could have been. That’s more important to me than following down the sequel road. We could have gone there with the sequels, and with the remakes, but some of the fans said to me, “Whatever you do, don’t even mention the Nick Cage remake, and don’t show stuff.” I was kind of thinking, “Oh, yeah, that was never on my to-do list. Why am I going to find pages for that when I’ve got some amazing, amazing photography from StudioCanal that’s never been published before? I’m not going to shunt that out of the way to get something in for a film no one likes.”

    In a screenshot from the Wicker Man, Nicolas Cage wanders a dark, overgrown field, carrying a small flashlight.

    Now that you have multiple books of this kind under your belt, and you’ve gotten to explore a movie that you love so much, what do you have coming up? Do you have any other books that you’re working on for films like this?

    John Walsh: I have. So I’ve got my list, which I will circulate with the publisher, and they always look at me like, “[Groans], Didn’t we say ‘no’ last year?” And I’m always like, “Well, you said that before about other ones that sold really well.” I’ve been offered some books, as well, which I’m not allowed to talk about, but there are other ones coming, absolutely. I wish I was allowed to tell you, I don’t own the publishing house, so I would tell you if it was up to me. But there are at least three more coming from me, and one that I’m starting, I’ve just sort of kicked off on the last couple of days.

    But [they’re] similar things, people want me to find out the real story of what really happened, and it is tricky, because StudioCanal have a great archive, with this book they helped enormously, but with some of my other books, it has been very hard getting decent photography, finding images that haven’t been seen before, and these will be ones that are not in the studio archives, so that’s why they haven’t been published. So, that kind of detective work is kind of laborious, but very rewarding, and it’s always a challenge to say to someone, “You remember that film from years ago? Well, if you’ve already got the DVD, and the Blu-ray, and the 4K, now go and buy this big heavy book.” Because people think, “Well, what’s going to be in that I haven’t seen?”

    About The Wicker Man: The Official Story of the Film

    Lord Summerisle in front of giant wicker man 1973

    On the 50th anniversary of the iconic movie’s release, author and filmmaker John Walsh 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. Learn the secret history of Summerisle – if you dare. With the truth behind the missing footage finally put to rest.

    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 worldwide for fifty years.

    The Wicker Man: The Official Story of the Film hits shelves in the UK on October 23 followed by the US on November 7.

    Source: Screen Rant Plus

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