The Making of ‘The Black Shuck’ short film: How I made ancient folklore reflect modern fears.
A ferocious hound, an omen of death, a guardian to lonely women, the size of a horse, the size of a calf, two glowing red eyes, one red eye. The Black Shuck – a spectral demon dog who's said to haunt the coastline and countryside of East Anglia – is the subject of multiple folkloric accounts, varying in shape, form, and motive. If you speak to people who grew up with the legend, they may believe one or another of these variations. If you visit Holy Trinity church in Blythburgh on the Suffolk coast, you can even see his so-called claw or scorch marks on the inside of the north door, although some believe these were just caused by a candle or lighting.
My 2018 short film The Black Shuck was inspired by these local canine legends. It had its first public screening at the Fear in the Fens festival in Downham Market. The festival opened with an extensively researched talk from Dr Maureen James, a folklore expert. She gave a comprehensive presentation on the history, endless chronicles, and sightings of Black Shuck through time. It seemed appropriate our film was playing at the same festival!
Cut back to ten months prior, and I had received a small bottle of Black Shuck Gin – 'Norfolk's Legendary Spirit' – for Christmas. Around this time I'd been working on an idea to shoot a short film that followed a grieving and isolated character who lived in and meandered through the Norfolk countryside. I wanted the location to essentially be a character in the film, but I was struggling to build a strong story around it. As I was looking at the dog emblem on the bottle I suddenly realised that the missing ingredient of the film was none other than the Black Dog of Bungay. The same day (25 December 2017) I wrote the first draft of the script and sent it to fellow filmmaker/actor Mark Finbow, who later went on to play a small role in the film. He seemed on-board with the idea, and we began to work on various drafts and rewrites.
In the original version of the screenplay, the protagonist was male and Mark himself was set to play the lead. These early versions of the script were just that, early versions. They were questionable at best, and lacked any real narrative punch or purpose. Not long after this, Rebecca Grant approached me to record some audition tapes for her. It was currently pilot season in the US, and her agent had lined up several readings. Rebecca had previously been a regular on Holby City, Doctors, and more recently had appeared in Stan Lee’s Lucky Man. After working with her, it suddenly made sense that Rebecca should play the lead role in The Black Shuck. We came to an agreement that, if she acted in my short film, I’d help her with the audition videos. And so, many rehearsals and rewrites later, I had a script. The latest draft focussed on the grief and maternal loss of the main character.
I decided to crowdfund the film through IndieGoGo. Although I've been involved with projects that received their funding through crowdfunding before, it had never been one of my own films. I was fundamentally relying on the people in Norfolk and Suffolk who knew the legend to help us make the film; I wanted them to make a connection with the material and be curious enough to want to see it made. As with any crowdfunding effort, I offered various incentives depending on how much supporters contributed. I then started hitting up all the local press outlets as a way to draw attention to our campaign. I set the initial target for £3,000, but I knew if we didn’t reach that I could still make it for around £1,000; it actually garnered a little over the latter sum! Also, as if by fate, Patrick and Sarah from the Black Shuck gin company came board as producers, helping with a large percentage of the finance.
In terms of the ghostly hound’s role in the film, I wanted to try a new angle. All of the best horror movies are about something more than what's on the surface; you'll often hear film academics saying ‘Jaws isn’t a movie about a shark’, and the most celebrated examples of the genre have metaphors sewn throughout. One route I could have taken is setting the film in the sixteenth-century, in which the myth originates, and exploring the tale everyone knows; namely, the arrival of Black Shuck in Bungay then Blythburgh during a thunderstorm in August 1577, crashing through the door of Holy Trinity church (leaving the marks mentioned above), then killing a man and a boy and causing the church’s steeple to fall through the roof, as originally reported in a sensationalised contemporary pamphlet.
I believe there's a film there but it's not the one I was interested in making. Instead, there's a famous quote from Churchill in which he likens his depressive episodes to a black dog. This sparked the concept of setting the film in the present, and having black shuck act as a metaphor for or manifestation of the protagonist’s mental state; I wanted the audience to wonder if the dog is real, or if they were just experiencing what’s in her head? The film is only twelve minutes long so only really touches upon some of these themes. However, I do plan to rework The Black Shuck as a feature-length screenplay, which may or may not see the light of day. Who knows?
The Black Shuck was filmed entirely on location in Norfolk across a handful of diverse rural and urban locations. The shoot took us to a cottage North Walsham, a signal box and train station in Wroxham (shades of Andrew Davies's 1976 M. R. James adaptation The Signalman!), and various spots in and around Norwich. The film’s location manager had a task getting all of these locations agreed to and secured for our short window of shooting time, which was only two days and one evening. Our skeleton crew was made up of myself as a director, a director of photography, a sound recordist, and a producer. During post-production, a composer and visual effects artist joined the mix.
The film was in post-production for five months; after filming wrapped May, I edited until October. The film was heavily restructured and trimmed in the edit, moving a step away from the script to what I believe is a stronger narrative. Extra care was taken creating the sound design in the film; indeed, I plan to create a video/vlog detailing our approach to sound design in the future.
The film’s second screening was only a few days after Fear in the Fens and took place at the Forum in Norwich. It was hosted by Hallowed Histories, a podcast and events group that focuses on the horror, folklore, and myths of East Anglia. There was much more public praise for the film here, and I was relieved that it was mostly well received. The screening, which was a double bill of The Black Shuck and Piers Haggard’s 1971 folk horror classic The Blood on Satan’s Claw, was sold out, and given an audience made up of half friends, family and crew members and half folklore and horror obsessives, the pressure was high. Since the screening, the film has received mostly positive reviews and some press interest, and I've subsequently submitted it to several more upcoming film festivals; it was recently an award winner for Best Horror under twenty minutes in the UK Monthly Film Festival. If you’re interested in watching the film, it is still available for free with an Amazon Prime membership in the UK and US.