Film Discussion Interviews & Profiles

Deer Woman Child – an interview with writer/director Gabrielle Russell

We all love a good story, a trip to the cinema, a film night with friends. Film and the moving image are an intrinsic part of our culture. There are admittedly other ways to get our story fix, but why go for the cheaply made cheese burger when you can have the rich and juicy steak?! 

Between 2000 and 2016, the number of film releases in UK cinemas more than doubled. In April 2021 it was estimated that streaming service providers were offering UK viewers a combined total of over 115,000 hours of content. Amazon Prime Video’s catalogue was the largest at over 41,000 hours, followed by Netflix at around 38,000. With so many cinematic delights at our fingertips, it is easy for a film to go under the radar.

One of those films is Deer Woman Child, Gabrielle Russell’s reimagining of folklore and myth in contemporary society. After the death of her grandmother, Pryn (Keeley Forsyth) moves into her farm house. Soon she discovers she is mysteriously pregnant. What follows is a study of myth and the untold wonders of mother Earth.  Set The Tape’s Sam Judd spoke to Gabrielle about the film and its roots in folklore. 

Sam Judd: Where did the idea for the film come from?

Gabrielle Russell: It is based on an unpublished short story by Sarah Corbett who I have known since I was a student. She’s a poet and novelist, and we have a good working relationship. When I began my PhD, which is about folklore, I remembered her story. When I re-read it, I thought that it would actually really work as a film! I spoke to Sarah, and she agreed. 

I felt that in the story there were two folkloric female archetypes. One of those archetypes was the Deer Woman, who is a universal myth. It occurs all over the world in different cultures from Irish folklore to Native American folklore. In the myth there is a woman who is either part deer or turns into a deer; quite frequently she is connected with childbirth and fertility, especially in the Western tradition. In adapting Sarah’s story, I emphasised the Deer Woman archetypal narrative, and made it a little bit more evident. The other female archetype in the story is a character in Welsh folklore called Rhiannon, who is a Queen. She is infertile and has associations with a white horse.  There are also correspondences with her and a Horse goddess who the Romans called Epona but may have had another name in Wales prior to the Roman invasions.

 I was weaving together those archetypes when I was adapting the story. What I was really trying to do was going back to the original folkloric stories, and seeing where the powers of the female characters lay, then trying to restore those powers in my retelling of the story. In a lot of the folkloric narratives the women seem to be referring back to a goddess or pagan deity which when the stories were finally put to paper thousands of years later, were written out. I wanted to restore some of their awesomeness basically.

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SJ: What I love about Deer Woman Child, is it feels real. The light on a tree trunk, daffodils in a dry stone wall, those little details that add a whole new level. Has your upbringing in rural Yorkshire influenced the film in any other ways?

GR: For all my life I have felt a real close connection with the natural world. As a kid I used to spend a lot of time running around the countryside and being a bit wild. I don’t think these days kids have the same freedom to explore the world around them, especially in urban areas, which is understandable but kind of sad. 

I think there’s something healing about being outside and being in nature. That is something I wanted to try to reveal in the film: a sense of nature being an active force in the story of this woman’s recovery. To me the natural world has a life of its own, and when you become attuned to it, you pick up on an array of little messages for you to observe and take strength from which I wanted to include in the film. I think there’s an infinite mystery about the natural world. We often think that we can master it and consider it scientifically when it’s infinitely more mysterious than we can get our heads around. 

We actually filmed the landscapes before anything else, which really inspired me. My husband and I went up to the Lake District over one Christmas, and we just spent a few days there, shooting these very beautiful winter landscapes that we see in the film. Then we went back for another visit in the summer and did the same. Then showing the footage to people was extremely useful in setting the tone. It inspired us all. 

SJ: Can you talk me through how you cast the film’s lead, Pryn? Because the film rests on her performance.

GR: I invited Keeley Forsyth, who plays Pryn, to the Northern Film School where I teach, for an actors workshop I was delivering to some students. Now clearly why I actually invited her was because I was hoping to cast her in Deer Woman Child, and I thought it would be a really good way of seeing how she was as an actress. I think what attracted me to Keeley was that she has extraordinary qualities as a person and as a woman which fitted with my idea of the character.

Whilst I was writing the script, I gradually realised that I was writing it for Keeley. Then I started writing with her specifically in mind. When I finished the script, I had to make the leap, and contact her to see if she would be in the film, which was a rather scary phone call. She read the script and really liked it, we really clicked. She’s very instinctive, and very true to her emotional response to anything. I felt I was in the presence of an artist who was bringing her whole sensitivity to the character. She didn’t really need very much direction, she just got it, and understood Pryn completely from the outset. She had experiences in her own life that let her identify with Pryn. Often when filming, her first take would be good enough. I was very lucky to find her.

SJ: It is actually the first film in a trilogy. Tell me how you see the trilogy playing out.

GR: The trilogy is just called ‘the folklore trilogy’ and it’s trying to reimagine characters from folklore as people in the present day. Part of this is a feminist project as I’m looking for old representations of women that we don’t really acknowledge anymore. It was quite humbling looking at the earliest examples of stories that were ever written down from what will eventually become the British Isles. Initially I did an overview of all the early folkloric characters from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England. I settled on three story ideas. 

Of course, Deer Woman Child. Then the second film in the trilogy is called The Reckoning of Erin Morrigan, which takes as its inspiration the character called The Morrigan who is an Irish folkloric character. A phantom queen and a shapeshifter. She has a very strong connection to war and she’s seen as the bringer of terror and death in the stories. When I started to explore her I realised that she would have to be an Irish character and connected to war somehow.

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I started to have an image of a woman who was dying who had been in the IRA. It is about her looking or experiencing a spiritual reckoning in her last days. We shot it last summer and it’s now in post production. The third film in the trilogy is called Run to Earth and it’s based on a Welsh myth from the Mabinogion which is a very old collection of stories from Wales. The character that I chose was called Blodeuewedd. I’m going to be writing it hopefully when I’ve finished The Reckoning of Erin Morrigan. Those are the three films: Deer Woman Child, The Reckoning of Erin Morrigan and Run to Earth.

Deer Woman Child is currently screening at film festivals. It will be shown at the Worldwide Women’s Film Festival in Arizona and Toronto Women’s Film Festival in February. It is additionally available upon request from Gabrielle.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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