The Isle: how it came to the screen

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Matthew and Tori Butler-Hart chart the journey that brought The Isle to the movies.

Tori & Matthew Butler-Hart (@fizzandginger

Back in 2016, our feature film Two Down was screened as part of the BFI’s London Screenings. It was there that Laura Macara from Great Point Media saw it and invited us in for a chat about what we were planning next. We’d experienced enough finance meetings by this point to know that you can’t go into the room with just one option. We started by pitching a heist comedy we’d been working fervently on, but Great Point were after a more genre piece. That’s when we pitched The Isle, a mythological folk thriller set on a Scottish island in 1846. The script, still in fairly early stages, came about when one of our sparks on Two Down mentioned his family had an island in Scotland and that they’d always wanted to film something on it. The island itself has no roads and is accessed only by boat, so when the BBC had previously recce’d it, they’d decided it would be impossible to film anything there. But we like a challenge and so we went up to the beautiful Eilean Shona to scope it out.

As soon as we arrived at this isolated, rugged oasis, we knew that the location alone would give us inspiration, stunning visuals and incredible production value. The story was born from the true events of the island. Once a thriving community in the 1800s, Shona was near to abandoned after a food plight hit. We even discovered that an unknown woman had been found murdered in the school house, and this was enough to set the creative cogs turning. Because of the position of the island, we looked at old merchant shipping routes of the time, and the Greek myth of Persephone and her sirens fitted perfectly to the setting and history of the island.

Great Point Media invested a majority of the budget with the condition that Conleth Hill and Alex Hassell would both be involved. Conleth was about to be whisked off to shoot another series of Game Of Thrones and Alex was off to Los Angeles to film with George Clooney on Suburbicon, so our window of opportunity was slim to say the least. We had three weeks preproduction from being greenlit and then four weeks to shoot. In that time, we had to work very quickly to get all the legal paperwork together whilst finishing off casting, gathering the crew, and starting all the costume and design work. We were also still working away on the script, rewriting scenes around specific areas of the island after finding out what was going to work best for the story.

Location, location, location

We started the shoot in Suffolk, our location a restored 16th century cottage, almost ready to shoot in, which was the set for all our interior farmhouse and cottage scenes. Filming the interiors first wasn’t ideal, as it was much harder to try and match weather and lighting states rather than doing it the other way around, especially as we enjoyed glorious bright, sunny days in Suffolk compared to the constantly changing weather in Scotland. After an intensive first week, our small team of 20 crew and ten cast made the long trip up to Eilean Shona for the next part of our epic adventure.

Everything had to come across by boat, which took hours of speedboating back and forth from the mainland. Most locations on the island were accessed by foot and quad bike or by boat, so being organised and efficient with the kit, equipment and costumes that were needed for each scene was an essential time saver. Everyone was living between two houses on the island, so all meals were together, and with very little wi-fi or phone signal, and no shops or local pubs, all cast and crew spent the evenings together planning the following day’s scenes and playing games.

Weathering the storm

There was an amazing sense of camaraderie amongst us all, and it was a truly unique and wonderfully fun experience, which was lucky because the daily challenges were many. This was mainly down to weather, be it sudden downpours, force nine gales or unpredictable tides, meaning beaches would disappear within a couple of hours. Above all, the biggest challenge was probably shooting in the water and on the boats. None of it was done in a water studio, so we really were in the Atlantic, at times dealing with some pretty hefty waves. One of the boats we’d borrowed turned out to have a leak in, which we only discovered once we’d sent our actors out on the water in it. So, when Fisayo is bailing water in the opening scene, it’s for real! After a mere 18 days of actual shooting, all scenes were completed, and with heavy hearts the team reluctantly said goodbye to Eilean Shona and made their way back to the real world…

Having our editor, Will Honeyball, on set meant it didn’t take long for the first edit to be ready. We’d always wanted the island itself to be a major character, and for the film to be a slow-burn thriller, so the first edit was a chance to see what footage we still needed to achieve the desired pacing and rhythm. A core group of us went back to spend a weekend getting specific shots of the island, including the drone shots, which we’d had to abandon when the drone crashed into the boat house. This made a huge difference to the visual storytelling and overall feel of the film.

Once completed, the film spent a year at festivals, gathering up awards and great reviews before it was picked up by American distributors Brainstorm Media and released on 8th February this year in cinemas and on pretty much every VOD platform across the US, with the DVD release set for April. DC Films have now taken it on to distribute in the UK, so it will be in cinemas this month, with DVD and VOD following as well.

The whole process has been a challenge and a wonderful learning curve. Managing to make a slow-burn folk thriller based on a Greek myth, shot on an unfilmable island, and then being in the tiny minority of British films that get a theatrical release in the US, it certainly has felt like a bit of a dream. In fact, the LA Times called it a “dark fairy tale”, which might be more accurate. As we always say, every film made is a miracle, but this one absolutely felt like it was.

Read more about The Isle and watch the trailer at 

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