All images © 2011 Robert JE Simpson, www.avalard.co.uk. All Rights Reserved.
Robert J.E. Simpson reports from the set of Wake Wood as Hammer comes to town.
It is October 2008. Following a journey of several buses and several hours I find myself standing on the outskirts of a clearing in a wood on the Donegal side of Pettigo – the real-life Puckoon. Night has fallen early, and there is an icy chill to the air. Only the glare from the filming lights, the red glow from an almighty bonfire, and the roadside presence of a couple of fellows with walkie-talkies belies the presence of the film crew currently engaged in one of the most eagerly anticipated horror films of the last 30 years.
Deep in the Irish countryside, director David Keating is helming the first theatrical feature film for legendary British brand, Hammer Films, since 1979. Hammer themselves are no strangers to the island, having made a number of shorts and two features here during the 1950s and 60s, but this is the first time they’ve brought their unique brand of horror to the island. Day-to-day production duties are being helmed by Dublin-based company Fantastic Films. Needless to say, geek that I am, I’m ridiculously pleased to be a first-hand witness to proceedings – spurred on by having spent the bus-ride over reading through my copy of the script.
Ubiquitous character-actor Timothy Spall is heading a group of ‘villagers’ in a strange pagan ritual under the guidance of Keating. Young Ella Connolly – playing the ten-year-old onscreen daughter of Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle – is being kept warm in the biting chill with heavy blankets. It’s a daunting and terrifying scene.
Soon DOP Chris Maris has his camera mounted on top of a gigantic stepladder, focusing all the attention on Eva Birthistle, co-star of Wake Wood, as she is repeatedly dragged across the undergrowth, through the leaves and down into the belly of the earth itself. The minutes quickly become an hour and I feel the pain of the cast as they are physically exhausted by the process. Eva is on course to joining the likes of Hazel Court, Barbara Shelley and Ingrid Pitt as one of Hammer’s leading ladies and, like her predecessors, is earning every moment of screen time.
This is a close-knit production, with every penny of the €2.5 million budget being used to the full. I’m struck by this repeatedly during the filming, never more than when , a few days later, we’re standing in the middle of an old run-down farmhouse somewhere near the Irish border. With filming moving to the upstairs of the old house, producer John McDonnell is inspecting the large iron supports that had to be installed to prevent the upper floor from collapsing. On a big-budget horror, I imagine they’d have built this set in studio, but the team here have gone for authentic, aged Irish locations. No space is wasted, with everything a few minutes drive away from the base at the Pettigo Inn, and each location doubling or tripling up. This isn’t that far removed from the way that the Hammer films of old were made, and something of that ‘family feel’ emanates from the crew. Even when tensions are fraught as filming risks overrunning, there’s still a good sense of camaraderie from the crew.
There’s an eerie silence and that particular drizzle that fills the countryside air round here. Even during the daytime shoots, the pagan ‘other’ of the fictional Wake Wood can be felt on set, aided no doubt by the prop department’s strange ‘instruments’, which are a permanent presence. Wandering around Pettigo itself during a break in filming one morning, I find a large section of the town is run-down and boarded up, only a short stroll from the heart of the village. It’s a familiar enough sight in Irish towns, but serves to give the village a ‘ghost town’ edge suitable for a horror film.
During the last week of October we’ve moved down to Dublin for the crucial opening scenes of the film, including the brutal sequences that take Alice (Ella Connolly) from her parents. Once again Eva and Aidan earn their crust as they stand in Deansgrange Cemetery in freezing temperatures, being repeatedly soaked by a huge rain machine. There’s sinister work afoot, but no horror film worth its salt would be complete without a gothic graveyard sequence, and this one sports a fantastic corpse that easily turns the stomach of us non-actors.
The week is peppered with unusual incidents including an unexpected snowfall that prompts some rescheduling and rewriting before the production wraps appropriately enough on Halloween, with much of the morning spent by the canals amid a constructed traffic jam. Pedestrians wander by, unaware that cinematic history is being created beside them.