In 1973, Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy unleashed The Wicker Man on an unsuspecting world and in mixing folklore, paganism, and some strange music numbers, created what is now referred to as ‘The Wicker Man genre.’ When I discovered the film around a decade ago, it was one of most distinct films I had seen and there’s still nothing really like it. Well, unless you count its spiritual successor, The Wicker Tree. It’s not quite a sequel or a remake, but rather a reinterpretation of the original as a comedy. If The Wicker Man was quirky, then The Wicker Tree is pure exaggeration. I recently got to chat with writer/director Robin Hardy about the legacy of one of my favorite films of all time and his satirical approach to reframing it.
David Harley: The Wicker Tree is not the first time a follow-up to The Wicker Man has been proposed. Back in the late 80’s, Anthony Shaffer wrote a treatment called ‘The Loathsome Landham Worm,’ a direct sequel to the original where Sgt. Howie escaped through the bottom of the wicker man and confronted Lord Summerisle. Were you involved with that in any capacity?
Robin Hardy: I never read it. I know what he proposed, but I didn’t want anything to do with it. Not because I had a particular distaste for it, but just because I didn’t think it worked. You’ve seen the film, have you?
B-D: I have.
Hardy: It’s not a sequel really…
B-D: The Wicker Tree is more a spiritual successor, which is, I believe, how you’ve been describing it.
Hardy: It’s really… I wanted to prove to myself, as well as to audiences, that the genre that we used in The Wicker Man was one that could be repeated successfully. I was particularly convinced of this after I saw the remake and they threw away all the things that created that genre in the original: the music, the comedy, the sex, and all that. It just disappeared in the Nicolas Cage remake. All you were left with was the plot – the plot is okay, but it’s not extraordinary – so they weren’t left with much. I wanted to use all the elements we had used, particularly the music and songs and all the fun everyone until the very end. I think that’s what I’ve done in The Wicker Tree.
B-D: Definitely. The remake left out all of the themes you had, like the power of myth and religion as a means for manipulation.
Hardy: Absolutely. They left almost everything out, except for the lost girl bit. I’m just amazed, because both Nicolas Cage and LaBute, I think, are very talented people. My theory, which you might laugh at, is that Anthony Shaffer, who had been talked to over the years about it, had cursed the whole thing! I think his curse was successful.
B-D: They also didn’t adhere to a UK law where they had to send you a treatment or script for approval?
Hardy: In Europe, we have a law, usually spoken in French, which is called Dual Morality. If it’s a film in which the director has taken a strong part in creating, like I did with The Wicker Man, then we had the right whether we liked the way the script was working and to, in effect, stop the production. For example, I was asked to write a screenplay based on a short story by the great French author Andre Moreau. I had to go to Paris and discuss my treatment with his family – he was dead by then – and the family lawyer. They approved of what I did and gave their blessing. They should have done that for us, but they didn’t. Not only did they not do it, but they put my name in, as well as the screenwriters, as an active participant. I had to use my lawyers to get it removed!
Hardy: They were something like 17 producers and executive producers, so the whole thing got very confused.
B-D: When you have that many cooks in the kitchen, no one knows what’s going on. But getting back to your films, which are actually good as opposed to the remake, do you feel the power of myth and manipulation through religion is as prevalent today as it was during The Wicker Man shoot? Do you feel it’s changed dramatically?
Hardy: I don’t think it has changed at all. I think the Republican Right, as we know from the debates, is driven by religion. If you’d asked me two decades ago whether religion would have any impact on the western world, I would have laughed. It still does in the Middle East. Actually, right now it has much as much influence in the U.S. as it does in the Middle East, as much as in Israel. Fundamentalism is pretty strong in all the free areas. I think you’d agree. If you can establish fundamentalism as a governing power, then you can lead anyone anywhere. It’s a dangerous thing. There are so many examples from the 20th Century where it’s been horrifying. When Hitler came to power, he had giant gatherings and everyone came to adore him and do anything he asked of them. I think it’s a perfectly valid situation to put in front of an audience, and I think they’ll recognize it.
B-D: Before you made The Wicker Tree, you wrote Cowboys For Christ, which was the basis for the film. Was the plan always to write the novel first, adapt for film second?
Hardy: I’ve written quite a few novels and they’ve always, in my mind, been potential films. As someone who has made films, I’m always thinking like that. I thought we’d make a film called Cowboys For Christ, but American investors pulled out because they didn’t like the word Christ or the association with Christ in the title.
B-D: That’s a shame. I actually prefer the original name, because it hints at the sort of broad comedy in the film. It’s still very distinct like The Wicker Man was in its presentation, but it’s more a satirization and there’s more of an emphasis on humor and exaggeration.
Hardy: I agree, I think you’re right. Cowboys For Christ churches are a real thing. They’re in Texas, Montana, and a few other states. So, that part of the film is absolutely authentic. Actually, I don’t believe they are particularly fundamentalist. When Brittania says ‘We believe every word in the Bible,’ she’s more for the truth. Forty million people might agree, but they’re not a huge part of the population. I tried to make her a sympathetic character because of people I’ve met during my research on the book and film were very sympathetic people. What they believed was fundamental and not open to any criticism. They, in a way, stood in for Sgt. Howie.
B-D: I think there’s a really big difference between Sgt. Howie in The Wicker Man and the two protagonists in Wicker Tree. Sgt. Howie is very smart and intelligent, and very steadfast in his beliefs. Beth and Steve are devoted to their religion, but they’re sort of aloof in every other aspect. Is that a sort of perception of Americans, or a comment on those who are part of these churches?
Hardy: I’m told statistically that forty million out of your three hundred and fifty million are fundamentalist, and probably those same people don’t believe in Darwin – what we might call “flat-earthers.” So, it’s a strain in American life that it has been subject to revival. Forty million isn’t an overwhelming statistic, but when I think you take in to account the states that are pushing for evolution not to be taught in schools, it’s a bit powerful, isn’t it? They can’t accept that climate change is taking place.
B-D: One testament to The Wicker Man’s power is that there was a sort of renaissance for several pagan celebrations after the film was release, with many people citing it directly as the reason for the renewed interest. With festivals like Beltane and Burning Man getting bigger, did you look into them as part of your research for The Wicker Tree to see if there are new practices or variations on old ones that you could use in the film as an update on ideas seen in the original?
Hardy: No, I didn’t. I honestly think, although The Wicker Man gave impetus to a lot of that… We have all sorts of festivals now in Britain and Beltane in Edinborough. And Burning Man in Idaho?
B-D: I’m not sure.
Hardy: Well, it’s in one of those western states. In South Africa, where I’m going to festival, there’s an influence there. It’s faintly Christian or proto-Christian festival. I hope it’s not harmful, because one doesn’t want to think they’ve been involved in anything harmful. As you know, the point of both films, in many ways, is how much Christianity owes to paganism, and how much paganism owes to Christianity. When Brittania talks about Easter and the Easter Bunny, the butler says that Easter is set by the moon, which is a goddess. And it is. Not necessarily the goddess, but Easter day is set by variations in the moon and was started by our primitive ancestors. Once they became Christian, it was probably very natural because they were used to setting things by the phases of the moon and, especially in northwest Europe, the sun. Everyone was worried that the sun would never rise again, and how did they know it would? They didn’t; it was a real fear. In 1666, people got on top of mountains waiting to see if the sun would come up, and they were Christian!
B-D: From here, you’re planning on wrapping up The Wicker Man trilogy with a final film called Wrath of the Gods. What does it entail? Is there going to be a book as well? Did making Wicker Tree renew your interest in filmmaking farther than another entry in the series?
Hardy: It will be a book, but it will be illustrated. I’ve already storyboarded the entire film, so it’ll be an illustrated novella. I’ll complete it while putting together the film, because it’ll act as a guide to the various departments on the film. It’s going to be shot in North Scotland.