07th Feb2018

Horror-On-Sea 2018 Interview: Thomas Lee Rutter on ‘Bella in the Wych Elm’

by Philip Rogers

Having been selected to play at at Horror-on-Sea I got a chance to talk with writer and director Thomas Lee Rutter about what we can expect, the inspiration for the look and the style of the film and the alternative version.

In 1943 a group of boys wandering the woodland of Hagley Hall discovered the skeletal remains of a woman stuffed inside a hollowed Wych Elm tree. To this day her identity is still unknown. In 1944 however, mysterious graffiti began to adorn the walls of the neighboring towns; WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH ELM. Somebody knew but who? This curious folk phantasmagoria feverishly displays the known possibilities which take us from the mystical realms of witchcraft, restless ghosts to sinister WW2 espionage. Bella In The Wych Elm will intrigue, and frighten in all it’s quaint yet claustrophobic glory.

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What can we expect from the film?

A quaint, feverish and very spooky account of an unsolved murder mystery that is local to me in the West Midlands. It shuns the sheen of HD films of today in favour of hazy textures and archaic film looks.

What made you decide to create a film based on the stories surrounding Bella in the Wych Elm?

I was in the process of making a feature that in order to both finish and get right needed more and more work and ideally a budget to begin with. I had to take a step back for a time in order to film and complete something more realistic. I also wanted to do something more personal, something that evoked the spirit of the Black Country and rural side of Worcestershire. When I was told about the mystery by a friend I fell down a rabbit hole researching it and the more I dug the more I realised there were so many fascinating elements comprising the story. I knew there would be an audience for such a great story.

What were your inspirations for the look and style of the film?

The growing interest in rural horror stories and the broad spectrum of folk horror which celebrated the uncanny and otherness on the backdrop of the English pastoral was a driving factor. I wanted to contribute a piece that was a heartfelt love for older generations, traditions and how the unknown and archaic can be terrifying.

Look-wise in particular the three films Haxan: Witchcraft through the ages (1922), Legend of the Witches (1970) and Wisconsin Death Trip (1999) and their structures encompassed Bella. They were at once pseudo-documentaries but also horror films, mood pieces and feverish journeys into the past. I love the idea of docu-horror. Something that throws out the typical tropes of what should compromise a documentary and fill the film with artistic licence and fantastical imagery. Guy Maddin and several other silent movie classics are also a huge influence.

There are two version of the film; the original version and a special silent movie edition with intertitles. Why did you decide to create a silent movie version of the film?

Silent films were a main source of visual inspiration through-out the time I was making Bella. I would put one on in the early hours before I drifted off to sleep with some ambient music that together really spellbound me. My head would be inspired but relaxed, they really took me somewhere different, somewhere magical that films today rarely, if ever do.  Watching ghosts when the environment would fall silent, really a beautiful thing. Because I was incorporating a lot of these looks and because It was the intention to release a DVD when finished I thought why not create an alternative version that played like a silent film.  Understandably the film took place in the 1940s which was post-silent era, but I thought, as someone creating in 2017 anything goes so why not? I had 2 scores created especially for it by some amazing local musicians Craigus Barry and Deathly Pale Party.

Was any of the footage shot at the original location of the original Wych Elm tree?

Yes, we shot some bits in Hagley woods which is near to where the big obelisk stands that you see in the film. There is nothing left of the tree anymore, so we couldn’t find the actual spot.

What was one of your favourite scenes in the film?

The occult section is my personal favourite. I got to employ some subtle but fun special effects and really express my love for Haxan there. The cone of power coven scene I was extremely happy with.

Do you have any new projects which you are working on?

To try get to grips with finishing the aforementioned feature and push forward with more projects in a similar-yet different vein. Can’t name names at this stage as it usually jinxes it!


If someone is looking to direct their first film, what advice would you give them?

Well first is to just pick up the camera and go for it. Do not expect to make a masterpiece or even a good film right away. Consider all areas of production, have a go at each. I’d also recommend going for horror. It is the best genre for any filmmaker to cut their teeth. You can put just about every other genre in horror, so you can’t go wrong!

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