We caught up for a second chat with Matthew Butler Hart, director in the husband and wife film-making duo behind Fizz and Ginger Films, with his wife, actress, writer and producer, Tori Butler Hart. You may recognize their names from their first feature Two Down, and their style which tends to utilize low cost and high concept, something they do exceedingly well. Read our first interview with them and a short review of Two Down here.

Their newest feature, The Isle, is an incredible period piece of Gothic horror set on a remote Scottish island where it was actually filmed. This fact, their flare for an incredible story, and incredible penchant for "low cost, high concept" really adds up to yet another incredible film from Fizz and Ginger, and a taut, slow-burner of a horror piece that lights the senses on fire in all the right ways. Conleth Hill, Alex Hassell and Tori really bring the terror of The Isle to life, bringing the same great care and flare for performing that they did to Two Down.

On a remote island off the west coast of Scotland in 1846 a heavy storm hits causing a ship to sink. Three survivors row through a thick, early morning mist, lost and disorientated. The fog begins to clear and The Isle appears before them. They soon discover that it is almost abandoned except for its four sole residents; an old harbourman, a farmer, his niece and a mad woman.

Once rested and fully recovered the sailors are desperate to leave and return to the mainland, but the promised boat never appears. One of them starts to investigate and learns of a tragedy at sea that occurred five years previously causing several young men from the island to perish. When his two shipmates meet with fatal accidents, the myth of a ghostly siren haunting the island leads him to uncover the truth while he battles to save his own life.

The Isle is exquisitely-wrought Gothic horror through and through, made all the more intense because of its location and the great use of detail, but also because of its exposition of the psychological too, a convention its shares with its Gothic predecessors, and part of what I mean when I refer to "sensory ambiguity". This combined with Fizz and Ginger's trademark high concept touch makes The Isle quintessentially intelligent horror: all in a surprisingly large scope and absolutely unforgettable cinematic experience.

The Isle - Official Trailer from Matthew Butler Hart on Vimeo.

The Isle is having its London premiere at the East End Film Festival this Friday April 20. Enjoy the chat below on horror, film-making, stylistic influences, and so much more.

Hello Matthew! Welcome back to The 405! Since we already know about you guys from our first interview, I thought we might get right into horror and The Isle. I thought we'd start by asking, what makes great horror?

Wow, big question to start with! I think everyone has their own version of what kind of horror they think is great but the basic essence of why we watch them is the same for us all I think. We watch them to see our own fears played out without us having to actually live through them. It's a weirdly cathartic experience, and I think that word is very important for horror, experience. It's a way to live through our darker imaginings in the safety of a cinema, but sharing it with complete strangers to find we're not alone, in every sense of the word! Great horror should make us think after we've stopped watching the film and ponder the impossible, whilst also being wary of the corners of the bedroom when we turn the lights out!

That is a superb definition and look at the genre.

We personally love the kind of horror that has the slow creeping menace that very subtly gets into you and stays there, which we hope The Isle has, rather than the "being chased through the woods" film.

Me too. I think it certainly does have that. In huge part, it's what I mean about the "sensory ambiguity", which also, when done well – as in The Isle – a slow simmer that inflames our senses in all the right ways.

 I completely understand why people like that kind of thing, and as I said everyone has their own version of what horror is to them, but I personally quickly forget that experience. This probably comes from my love of older films maybe, but they're the ones that I still think about years later from this genre, where the characters stay with you rather than the latest modern slasher where the characters tend to be a little more simple and more like a device than anything else.

Couldn't agree more with that…

I found the Gothic horror of The Isle fascinating. Not just the 1846 setting but also the sensory ambiguity in the movie. That was very much in keeping with what are essentially Gothic conventions – the central question of: are the ghosts real or more the meanderings of minds pushed to the brink? Things that, like I said, inflame our senses in all the right ways.

What was the inspiration for The Isle?

Thanks so much. Yes, I love Gothic horror and before we'd even seen the island, which actually gave us a lot of our inspiration, we knew that's the path we were going to go, from a genre point of view, after only hearing about it. It's gives you so much more to work with when writing character arcs as with the Gothic comes the Romantic, not just with the characters, but the whole look and feel of the piece. And when we first saw pictures of the island our imaginations really started whirring, and that led us onto researching the area. In the mid 1800’s there was a small thriving community on the island but within a few years it became utterly deserted leaving farms, cottages and a school behind.

Fascinating. Love that coming from real history on top of everything else.

Our natural question was of course why had they left so quickly? This fired us up to start looking at local myths that might work for us, whilst also giving me an opportunity of finally using something I've always been fascinated with: Greek myths. When we found out that the real islanders had left mostly due to a food plight, I realised it worked perfectly with the myth of Perspehone and the sirens, as Persephone’s mother wrought a plague on the earth after Persephone was abducted. And this led us to the idea of starting with a shipwreck, as the sirens would lure sailors to their deaths. We also found out that a murdered woman had been found on the island, probably brought over from the mainland, which just added to the story already forming in our minds.

Still from THE ISLE, which gives a superb look at the atmosphere of this incredible piece of intelligent Gothic horror.

Wow.

So we didn't stick strictly to one specific source, we let various different influences lead us to what would become our story. And I think that is what people are responding to, the layers within the film and it not just being an average "vengeful ghost" story.

Absolutely. Those layers work exquisitely well in The Isle. What works of art influenced your creative process on The Isle? (literature, film, any kind of art)

That's an interesting question as when we were prepping it the team would ask about influences and at first I didn't want to say too much, I genuinely wanted to see what people would come up with just from the script. And very quickly I could see that we were all on the same page of that Victorian Gothic/folk horror feel, and the pacing and tone of the scenes. I think it says a lot about how much this area of horror, more along the lines of supernatural thriller, sticks with people that they can easily recreate the feeling of a haunted island 200 years ago!

Absolutely.

Obviously from Tori's point of view and mine we were definitely influenced by films like The Wicker Man and other folk horrors of the 1970's. That was more for character and pacing.

For the look of it, we looked at Scottish paintings of the time, which often romanticised Scotland but also really showed you the lonely barren land that these people worked on. Paintings like Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait's "Deer Stalking in Scotland" is very similar to one of the scenes when a body is found for example.

Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, "Deer Stalking in Scotland". 1851. Oil on Canvas: 46.2x66.8cm.

Etchings from the time were also very helpful, and maybe because of the lack of colour, really helped with the feel of certain scenes with the sailors at the beginning. And we were very lucky to be able to go up to a museum on a nearby island and see photographs of islanders of the time, which really brings home the reality of what life was like and the loneliness that could too easily lead to superstition.

That process is fascinating. And incredibly effective in the film.

The Isle is also very much a period piece, making the mise-en-scéne an even more vital element for the film – I don't believe an effective period piece can be done without great care in the mise-en-scéne. That's one thing that really struck me about the film: again you guys did quite a bit with a relatively small budget. What were some of the challenges in getting the mise-en-scéne correct?

Yes, you guessed correctly in that we were once again working with a limited budget. It was bigger than Two Down, but still not huge considering the idea was somewhat bigger. And I actually feel it's almost period piece first and then horror, so getting the mise-en-scéne right was very important to me.

As you know, I am very specific with my visual storytelling, as much as budget allows anyway, so having what felt like a genuinely working island was key to it whilst also being inspired by the paintings of the time to bring us slightly out of reality and into the mythological.

A lot of what we did was very subtle, as with Two Down, and a lot of people will never consciously notice things like the red berries that are in scenes just prior to and just after danger, and that they relate to something visually very specific which I can't mention for fear of spoilers!, but these things all add up to subconsciously helping to tell our story, along with very precise positioning of the actors, props, camera and what colours were allowed on screen at certain points of the film.  

None of this was easy because of our location though. We filmed on an island with no roads, just the original rough tracks from the 1800's, and with access to it only by boat. So moving around the island and getting everything we needed onto the island was a rather dangerous adventure in itself, and we had to rethink a lot of carefully planned ideas as the island's weather would change minute to minute.

But as always we had a great team who had either done huge amounts of research in a very short amount of time, or already had a fascination with this period, so I knew that we were in very good hands right from the start. And Tori and I are very specific in the writing of the script so we include everything that needs to be on the screen to tell the story, and with my planning everything unto an inch of its life meant that when things changed we could quickly adapt. 

Still from THE ISLE showing attention to the historical detail, something pivotal to all period pieces and done beautifully by Fizz and Ginger.

Fascinating Matthew. That's a mark of incredible film-making too in my opinion: that planning. What were some of the other challenges with the film?

Looking back we were incredibly lucky almost at almost every stage of this film. We only had two weeks from being green-lit to the first day of shooting. Our first feature, Two Down, had been seen by Laura Macara from the finance company and she asked what else we had on our slate. We'd actually been working on another script so we went in with that but she was fascinated by the idea of The Isle. At this stage we were only on draft four of the script I think, and only a few basic ideas of how we would want to put it together. But that was the script they went for so we had to work very quickly to not just pull it all together, but finish the script, design, storyboard, cast, pretty much do everything in two weeks. Somehow we managed it and from then on our luck didn't change.

Wow.

Every day of the shoot threw up massive challenges though, often because the tide hadn't done what we had been told it would, so our location was now flooded, or a force nine gale was throwing equipment over cottages, but we managed to get almost everything shot in the twenty three days we had for principal photography.

We had a small crash with our drone so had to go back up for more island shots later, but it gave us the time to put a first edit together and go back and shoot different island scenery which gave the land much more of a living and watching quality, which was always the idea, but when it was all put together we could see where the visual holes were. It was small things, but the small things are what I tend to obsess over.

I found the editing and cinematography stunning as well. You fluidly and beautifully communicated especially the psychological dynamic of the terror on the island. Could we get a window into the creative process which undergirded the visual language of the film? Like with the mise-en-scéne, you guys did a lot with relatively little.

The cinematographer, Pete Wallington, has an amazing grasp of storytelling on a wider scale, not just from his job's point of view, he understands that when I want entire scenes shot in one take for example, he knows how to compliment everyone involved, and if I only want one line in close up, he understands why and what I'm trying to achieve.

Pete was one person that I later bombarded with strange images that weren't from films and we also talked a lot about music whilst we were shooting as we're both very much inspired by that side of things and would listen to soundtracks or classical pieces that we thought could inform what we would be shooting and helped to find clever ways of doing things without spending a fortune.

That's great to have people on board you can work that closely and in-sync with.

Our amazing editor, William Honeyball, was also on set with us so we could talk about how it was all fitting together whilst it was happening, which not just saves time but makes complete sense to me to have the editor along side you as it's a collaboration, and he can see why I'm shooting some things and not others, and we can talk about what's best for the story at the time of shooting. That's not to say he didn't go off and surprise us constantly with new ideas and ways of cutting things together, and playing with pacing and bringing in new ways of looking at scenes.

Absolutely.

The three of us have worked together a number of times now so between us we have a nice shorthand, and a very similar love of a certain way of telling the story visually, and often taking chances and not covering scenes in the conventional way. In a time of watching films on the small screen, we fought to make it as big and as epic as we could with the budget that we had, always keeping in mind the older films that had done things so simply and cheaply, but so well.

Still from THE ISLE that really touches on the Gothic aspects of its horror beautifully in how it is edited. You'll see more of what I mean when you watch it.

You're doing it quite well too. Will we be seeing more Fizz and Ginger horror in the vein of The Isle?

I would personally love to go back to the same island for a sequel of sorts and setting it in the middle of WWI, when a lot of the islands were used as submarine lookout posts. We have the story already, and it would be in a similar vein absolutely, which is the kind of horror I will always prefer.

Nice. Would love to see that.

I don't think we'd ever really delve into the slasher or uber-violent kind of horror films, we'll probably always stick to the subtle but on a large canvas. 

Absolutely. Anything new on the radar you'd like our readers to know about?

We have a few scripts that are getting near completion, and we hope to be in production on a straight drama by the end of the year, Mr. Parker, but it's a very different film to The Isle and at the moment I can't say much about it.

We also have a modern day sci-fi, Infinitum, that I would love to make soon, but that would require a much bigger budget; but then we are getting known for doing a lot with a little, so we'll see! Although I think a low budget with sci-fi can ruin a great idea, so maybe we'll just be patient for now…

Still from THE ISLE : what will happen to our sailors?