ScreenPicks recently posed some questions to director Matthew Butler-Hart about his distinctive and highly atmospheric new British supernatural-laced film The Isle.

Set in 1846, the movie follows several castaways as they land on a mysterious, largely deserted island off the west coast of Scotland. The castaways are warned to stay inside by the few inhabitants who remain. In their attempt to escape, the castoffs attempt to unravel the mystery of the windswept, relentlessly eerie island.

Butler-Hart co-wrote the film with his wife, Tori Butler-Hart, who also stars in the movie. Sir Ian McKellen is an associate producer and The Isle also features Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones) and Alex Hassel (Suburbicon). Memorable, haunting cinematography is provided by Pete Wallington.

The Isle opens in limited release on Friday, February 8.

What inspired the story for The Isle and what themes is the movie exploring? Although the film takes place in the 19th century, is it also addressing contemporary issues?

Butler-Hart: The actual island itself was a big inspiration for a lot of the story. We were invited to go and look at it as a possible location as the owner, Vanessa Branson, sister of the entrepreneur Richard, had always wanted something filmed there. It’s an incredible place full of history, but it’s also a very rugged island with only two inhabitants, no roads and only small boats to reach it. In the 1800’s it had a thriving community and even a little school, but by the mid-1800’s it was entirely deserted and remained so for a long time. All the cottages were just abandoned as the whole island up and left.

So this got us wondering about why a whole community would suddenly vanish, and although the reality was more economic than our story, it gave us the beginnings. Although the history of the island isn’t without incident; a strange woman was found dead in the schoolhouse around the time our film is set, and to this day no one knows who she was or where she came from.

The island is amazing, but when the light goes it does take on another feel completely, which perfectly lends itself to imaginations running wild and hearing whispers in the wind and shadows moving in every corner. We started looking at local myths and realized that one reminded us of the old Greek myth of Persephone, Hades and the Sirens.

We always wanted the film to be female-centric, whilst trying to fit into the period. We started to imagine what life on a lonely island must have been like in the Victorian era, the feelings of isolation and what that would have driven people to do. The Victorians weren’t known for treating women with mental health issues well, most ended up in asylums for the smallest complaint, so we wanted to weave a few subtle ideas in amongst the supernatural element, making us question ourselves whilst we watched. Our lead female character, Lanthe [played by Tori Butler-Hart], suffers from various undiagnosed conditions including epilepsy, a condition that in the Victorian era was seen to be possession. We wanted to question what she saw and how much truth there was in what we were seeing, too. In lots of places in the world, women are still struggling to be heard and taken seriously about their mental health.

Your IMDB bio states that you grew up among the “rainy hills of Yorkshire and Lancashire.” Did this influence the atmosphere in The Isle?

Butler-Hart: I suppose the isolation of the little places I grew up in could be said to definitely influence certain aspects of the story. However, our family holidays were mostly spent up in Scotland, staying in tiny cottages in the middle of nowhere. As a young boy whose father showed him the Hammer Horror films from the age of four, it didn’t take long for my imagination to start creating stories of ghosts haunting pretty much every cottage in which we stayed! We would often stay up in these cottages around Halloween, too, so you could say I’ve always had this sort of story in the back of my mind, which is why when Tori and I saw the island, it was an easy choice of what sort of movie we wanted to make.

Tori’s family are from the borders of Scotland and her grandparents lived in possibly one of the scariest houses I’ve been in, so she very quickly saw how this sort of story works perfectly in that sort of setting.

How did Sir Ian McKellen become involved with the project?

Butler-Hart: We’ve been hugely lucky to have Ian McKellen involved from the very beginning of Fizz and Ginger Films [the Butler-Hart’s production company]. He was in our first short film, Egad Zombies (the 18th-century comedy with zombies), back in 2009 and has either narrated, helped us with locations or helped with finance on most of our projects since. I met him in my acting days and then assisted him when he was in The Da Vinci Code. He knew that I had always been making short films since I was a teenager, so was very generous in coming and supporting us when I decided that was the direction in which I wanted to go.

Are there any filmmakers that you particularly admire and have they influenced your work?

Butler-Hart: Tori and I both seem to lean towards older films and I think that’s a big influence on all our work, especially with the writing and character development. We spend a lot of time getting to know our characters and fully invest in them rather than the more whizz-bang scenes which are gone in a second. I tend to love the films of the ’70s for example, which use long shots to develop scenes. A lot of the films or filmmakers we like tend to work on a more epic scale – David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott. And although I try not to reference other people’s films in ours, I would imagine there are definitely subconscious elements in there, albeit on more modest budgets!

Is there anything, in general, you would like to tell audiences about The Isle?

Butler-Hart: The Isle was a crazy ride from start to finish. We went from being greenlit to our first day of filming in three weeks. Two of our main actors were about to go and work on big projects and we either had to get it done or wait up to a year to try again. Conleth Hill was about to go and film Game of Thrones again and Alex Hassell was off to shoot Suburbicon, and the finance guys at Great Point Media had loved them both in our last film, Two Down, so they said if you can get it done now, let’s do it. Obviously, we said “yes, of course, we can do it”, and spent a manic three weeks scrambling around getting crew, cast, costumes, sets together, all whilst still dealing with the huge amount of paperwork that goes with a production.

Added to that was the fact that the island had been deemed ‘un-filmable’ on by other production companies that had been up there to look for locations, so there was nothing easy about the project. And yet we were incredibly lucky amongst sinking rowboats, force nine gales, and weather which changed its mind every ten minutes, which is always fun to film in! We are incredibly proud of the cast and crew who helped us create something that is genuinely a little different and exciting. So we hope you guys like it!

Would you like to share with us what your future projects are?

Butler-Hart: We have various projects at different stages of development – a drama, Mr. Parker, set in Yorkshire in the present day and the 1990s. Inspired by true events, it’s a coming of age tale looking back at my youth and the unreliability of memories. We also have a comedy heist, Dragheist, in which a group of drag queens seek revenge on a wealthy businessman who is developing London’s Soho – both very different from The Isle! And we’re working on a sci-fi thriller TV series, Infinitum. TV is a new medium for us so it’s been a lot of fun developing it from feature screenplay to series format. We’ve also been asked to write a book about the Fizz and Ginger Films’ way of making films, so we’re beavering away on that at the moment.