Eerie horror film Shepherd, directed by former Coleg Menai student Russell Owen, has appeared on Amazon Prime in time for Halloween.
Shepherd was Mark Kermode’s film of the week and New York Times’ Critics Pick when it hit cinemas in 2021.
The creepy thriller centres on Eric Black who, haunted by the mysterious death of his wife, chooses a life of isolation on a remote Scottish island.
After taking a job looking after 600 sheep, Eric (played by Tom Hughes) meets a vengeful supernatural force and fears he is losing his mind as his nightmarish hallucinations intensify.
Shepherd, also starring Kate Dickie, has earned critical acclaim for its relentlessly menacing atmosphere, with the New York Times saying Russell “displays an assuredness with Gothic tone that steadily strums our nerves”.
Russell, who studied the Art Foundation course at Coleg Menai, has already carved out a successful career as a commercial director, having co-founded London creative agency Kindred Communications.
He has directed advertising campaigns for the likes of Armani, L'Oréal, American Express, Haig Whisky and Specsavers, working with celebrities such as David Beckham and Kylie Minogue.
Now he hopes Shepherd will prove his breakthrough as a cinema director, and has secured a Hollywood agent following the film’s success in the US.
However, the movie might never have been made had Russell listened to those who advised him against his previous flick, Inmate Zero.
“I got a call asking if I could direct a zombie film,” said Russell. “The director had pulled out, and it didn’t have any cast, crew, costumes, or locations.
“Somebody said to me, ‘If you do that film, it will be the end of your career’. I said ‘I don’t have a career, not in film anyway’, so I thought I might as well just jump in and do it. I told the production company I’d do it for free if they would finance Shepherd, which I wrote in 2003 while I was at university.”
A deal was made, and within a week of Inmate Zero being filmed, Russell was in Scotland seeking out locations to shoot Shepherd.
“I wrote Shepherd
to illustrate the horror of isolation,” he said. “Throughout the film there’s an underlying tension, something not quite right about everything. You’re never sure where he actually is - is he in Purgatory? Is the island real? Has he gone mad?”
The sound and set design deliberately add to the sense of unease, with the central character’s cottage purpose-built to appear wet and cold, while the noise of the wind and waves is in fact created from sounds as diverse as a male voice choir, dogs barking and dozens of glass bottles being thrown to the ground.
He said: “Shepherd
was a tough shoot, but as a result of finally getting it off the ground, I’ve got an agent in Hollywood, and all the other stuff I’ve written is now with much bigger studios such as Lionsgate and Amazon.”
Work on those other projects has been delayed by strikes in the industry, but it is hoped another film will go into production in the near future.
Russell learned a lot about making films while working under renowned cinematographer Adrian Biddle on 2005 horror An American Haunting, starring Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland. He then developed his skills as a storyboarder for TV shows such as Doctor Who, and worked on set design for The Graham Norton Show.
Russell enjoys the commercial side of his film-making, saying: “It gives me the opportunity to try out new techniques, work with new crews, look at new equipment that’s on the market and try out new technology. Whenever I come back to doing filming after doing adverts, it’s always with a greater knowledge than I had before, which wouldn’t be the case if I was just working on films.”
However, his career might not have happened if he hadn’t gone to Coleg Menai - ignoring the advice of a 1990s school career adviser who said his dream of being a film director was futile.
He said: “My school discouraged pursuing that level of ambition during our careers advice as 'pretty hopeless'.
“The Art Foundation course, in less than a year, taught me the complete opposite. It compressed so much possibility, enthusiasm and hope into such a short time span.
“It gave me that much needed confidence to push forward and do what I wanted to do in life. It was far more educational and constructive to who I am now than my university years. They understand the vital importance of encouraging, nurturing and guiding talent.”
For more information about the Art Foundation courses at Coleg Menai, Coleg Llandrillo and Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor, click here. Applications open in November for September 2024 entry.