If shacking up in Whitby for the Bram Stoker International Film Festival 2014 taught me anything, it is that Whitby is more than another post – industrial coastal town. From its ancient buildings, labyrinthine alleyways and panoramic landscapes, it is a city that exudes mystique and history in a way that is difficult to truly fathom. Fittingly the function of myth, history and place is something that equally effected writer Dan Weatherer when he took an iconic local legend and re-invented it for the modern horror audience. The Legend of the Chained Oak is the result, a tale of misplaced curiosity, paranormal investigation and cruel vengeance set against the backdrop of the Staffordshire’s enigmatic and historically disputed ‘chained oak’.
Although the rough elliptic short that screened at Bram Stoker International Film Festival fell into many of the pitfalls of low budget indie filmmaking, its combination of the paranormal, rustic folklore, witchcraft and real locations give the film huge potential to be developed into a successful UK horror, or as Weatherer hopes ‘The British Blair Witch’. Flickfeast sat down with the gothic writer post – screening for a fascinating interview discussing the longevity of the ‘chained oak’ legend, oral traditions of storytelling and potential developments for a feature film.
Flickfeast: Could you tell us a little bit about your background in film and how you got involved in this project?
Dan Weatherer: I grew up around the area of the ‘chained oak’. The ‘chained oak’ is based in Staffordshire near Alton Towers and I grew up with the legend that was familiar with all the kids and was looking to start writing a horror story. So I thought I should start with something I knew, so I took the original legend and then I re-invented it in a smart story that was originally published in January 2013 called ‘The Legend of the Chained Oak’. A few friends and colleagues read it and liked it and told me there was guy interested in making a film about the ‘chained oak’ in 2007. They said why don’t you give him a shout and see if he is interested. This is a guy called Dean Maynard who is based in Durham and is actually a talent scout by trade and has a lot of acts in the X Factor at the moment. I emailed him and sent him my idea and said ‘I know you wanted to make a film and it never got it off the ground but how would you feel about this story?’. He got back to me and said let’s go with the author as his version was dead in the water. He had liked this original idea, commissioned me to have a screenplay and a budget (that subsequently got cut and cut) and then it was a matter of months that we pulled in a film crew, for most being their first film. It was Mark Mooney’s first film directing and it was also a lot of the camera guys first project outside of university. A couple of the actresses Faye and Amy have done films around the North East such as Flowerman (2014) and myself and Darren Mcaree the lead used to work together. I wanted to use local talent in the film who are not actors and I tried to create a sense of community from friends and locals. The legend is part of our childhood so I wanted to involve as many people as possible and give it a fair representation. It was a community thing and everybody gave their time for free and I guess you have seen the result today at Bram Stoker International Film Festival,
FF: Prior to the film, I didn’t know that the ‘chained oak’ was a real location and that it perpetuated so many myths and stories. From your experiences how would you sum up the enigma of the historic location?
DW: The only problem with the film is that we had 3 days to shoot and couldn’t get the back story in so we took a very light approach and focused upon a fictional journal. The actual legend which the ride Hex at Alton Towers is based upon is that the Earl of Shrewsbury who lived in the Alton Towers and was coming back one night along the dirt path and was stopped by an old women who asked him for money. He said ‘no’ and the old women pointed to the oak and said ‘for every tree of the old oak that falls a member or your family will die’ which he disregarded. That night there was a storm, a bolt of lightning struck tree and the prophecy was fulfilled. It’s a great story that has survived the ages and is one we have all grown up with but in 2007 one of the major branches fell off the tree and everyone was wondering if someone had died. So the BBC got involved in the story and they contacted the Earl of Shrewsbury’s bloodline and they revealed everyone was alright. The story lost its legs and that’s why I approached it by reinventing the history as I have done hours of research and there is no tangible evidence based history. There is just this big oak in the middle of nowhere with chains that have grown through the branches that have been there a few hundred years. We could do something with this so I reinvented it by saying that somebody has stumbled across a journal and the journal details what really happened. My version is that there was a women in the village who was accused of witchcraft and they hung her but they got it wrong. When they were trying to hang her after some terrible atrocities a branch snapped and she broke her legs. Subsequently she cursed the villagers then and I brought it forward and set the film in the future when investigators look in this journal looking for evidence. Then it gets a bit spooky.
FF: As a researcher / writer, does folklore and local history interest you when it comes to ghost stories?
DW: That’s how stories are born and yes they may get twisted and turned throughout the age but at their essence you have something that perhaps is true. Something generates a story. In our case it was the Oak. It’s perfect, it’s there and a blank canvas as it has no evident history linked to it. That’s why I and the crew are so happy the film has got into the Bram Stoker International Film Festival. I’m not really into films and as a writer of Gothic horror I am chuffed to bits to be associated with Bram Stoker.
FF: Was the way the film was shot reflective of the budget? Were you not tempted to do full scale period enactments given more time and money?
DW: My ultimate aim would have been to make Mable’s story as the original published story was about her and her struggle and although it looked like she was wrongly done by in the hanging, it was more complex. It would have been nice and this was our first film you know and we didn’t have that kind of money. We approached people to fund it but as it got nearer to shooting we had to decide on found footage, keeping it looking like a raw documentary and trying to get away with it. If we tried to do it period style it would look naff and wouldn’t do the story justice. It wouldn’t have the same chill and I think the main reason I stayed away from that was a decision to stick with what we had, and get people involved in and create an environment where it was fun even though we had little money.
F: You mentioned you don’t have a strong affinity with films and see yourself as a writer first and foremost. Would you say this is because you find the process of filmmaking more limiting than crafting horror stories in prose? With that in mind what are your opinions on modern horror cinema?
DW: That is an interesting question. It was very much a learning process for me because obviously I had a vision and you can’t always stay true to it. We made amendments and we did what we did. I am not from a film background but understand people study them and really know their stuff and I was content to let them do their thing and trust that they were experts in this field where I would steer from the back. In terms of horror writing I have done a few screenplays since and it is just that the film industry as a whole is difficult to get anywhere. We have had success at the film festivals (Best Short – Stoke Film Festival, Best Horror Portabello Film Festival) and as much as I would like to take more of my stories and develop them into films I realise that at some point you hand over control. That was something that I struggled with but it is a necessary evil. One day I would like more stories to be made into films but would I take a more hands on role? In this instance I produced, organised things, organised the festivals submissions and did drive the project forward. Everything has been a learning curve and while that is good and I am all about new experiences there are people perhaps better placed than me to deal with these issues. I would like to ideally work with them.
FF: What would you say is the most primal fear that you like to engage with as a horror writer?
DW: I center on sticking your nose into things you shouldn’t. While people might think they are doing something innocent it is something you should stay away from. That is something I think I often accidentally come across when I am writing. Curiosity and also being forgotten. In the original Chained Oak story Mable had a horrific time and she came back with a vengeance as she didn’t want to be forgotten or misrepresented. I deal with things about people wanting to be remembered and refusing to fade in to the background. Even if you are dead, something to leave behind is better than nothing. Even if it is horrific actions and consequences.
FF: What is next for you? Would you like to see The Legend of the Chained Oak developed into a feature?
DW: I have finished a feature length script which is currently with Film 4 and some agencies in London at the moment. I have had to fight hard to get them to look at it as I have only been writing a couple of years full – time and I don’t have an agent. They don’t normally look at unsolicited material but off the back of our festival success I convinced them to take a chance on me. So there is a script with a budget that is out there. A lot of people say the short has the potential to be a full story and it just needs someone to get behind it. Yes it is the British ‘Blair Witch’ but unlike the original Blair Witch which was totally fabricated, ‘the chained oak’ is something that links to a real item and event in history and it is something we should use. I also have a second collection of short – stories coming out soon, two non – fiction books based on the paranormal. I am trying to learn more of the factual side of the paranormal that I can introduce into my fiction, broaden my horizons and write entertaining stories for people. The ultimate aim is to build a platform to get noticed In the world and I don’t think there are many big horror writers coming through. Yes you have Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Clive Barker but who is coming through next? I am going in for that spot and it may take a long time but that’s the pedigree I want behind me.
FF: Some interesting recent horror films such as Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England (2013), have used elements of British folklore and history to inform their stories. Can you ever see yourself working in more commercial American film, or do you feel you have a connection with Britain as a wellspring of stories and history?
DW: I believe you should write what you know and what you feel and growing up in rural Staffordshire has left me with a lot of great stories. The American audience do like British horror, our legends, our myths and folklore. There is a definite market and the strongest point I maintain about this film is that the Oak is real and I have had people email me from the other side of the world asking about it. You can go and visit it and there is nothing anywhere detailing when it was chained, why it was chained or why the steps are there and those steps are well trodden and worn. It’s almost like a hidden gem and I think we should take what we have and share it with the world. Yes we are making a horror film about it but I was sitting listening to people talking about the film after the screening and people wanted to know more about the tree and its history. That’s what I wanted and that’s what the crew wanted.
FF: What do you hope audiences will take away from the The Legend of the Chained Oak?
DW: I think it has the potential to be the ‘British Blair Witch Project’, which is a cross between Blair Witch (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007) that is based on something very real. The one thing I want people to take away is that we have good stories in our history you just have to look for them. Even just coming to Whitby and speaking to the locals you get such a rich breadth of stories. There are stories everywhere and you pick them up in the most unlikely of places. It doesn’t have to be Hollywood slashers that are made to scare people. You can have real stories based on real people and they can be just as scary, engaging and provoke a response where you feel for the characters. We have stories in our local areas and we should embrace them.
For more information on ‘The Legend of the Chained Oak’ check out the official website
For more of Dan Weatherer’s writing check out his website www.fatherdarkness.co.uk