An Isolated Sheep Farm Holds a Dark Secret in Lucy Chappell’s Rural Thriller ‘Yellowbird’

Lucy Chappell’s latest short Yellowbird is a tense and uncomfortable thriller which tracks a farmer and his daughter who live on a remote farm in rural Scotland. As the film plays out, it slowly starts to unfold the secrets the pair share and the unsettling dread the farm withholds. It’s a terrific exercise in tension and what isn’t seen, and is bolstered by a powerful lead performance from Chappell herself who stars as Daisy, the daughter of the farmer. Twelve Cabins joined Chappell in conversation as Yellowbird begins its festival run to discuss her attraction to making films with dark subject matters.

Where did the idea for Yellowbird come from?

For me, ideas usually come from a couple of different sources of inspiration that hit me simultaneously, and I build a story around that. For Yellowbird, the first was the work of photographer Milly Cope, who I’d discovered around that time. She predominantly photographs herself in understated, honest and beautiful images, and a series from her earlier self-portraits of her alone in her bedroom really captivated me. There’s a sense of innocence and isolation in the photos that was really intriguing, as well as the focus on the body. It seemed a character was alive in the pictures and was hugely inspirational for the character of Daisy. 

The second was something I saw from a train window when making a journey up north, a woman cycling through a vast and misty space. It was maybe in part due to the eerie surroundings, but there seemed something quite dark about it; I wondered what or who she was cycling back to, and that became the introduction to Daisy in the script. I wanted to paint a picture of what seemed like a normal situation when we later find out the reality is very different. So it was these two things, as well as my want to write something set in Scotland, that began it. 

What attracted you to make a film that deals with dark and uncomfortable themes?

I’ve always been drawn to darker subject matter and characters who do questionable things, and was really interested in exploring the relationship and actions of two seemingly regular people, a father and daughter, who in fact have incredibly dark, unthinkable intentions and have completely normalised the way they live. I was interested in the psychology of that, the moral implications, and the symbolic constraint placed on the female body and fertility. I think though, as dark as many of the themes are, the central theme is finding empowerment, autonomy, and freeing yourself from your constraints. 

There’s some fairly intense scenes between your actors, how did you work with them on their performances whilst making them comfortable?

Everyone involved in the project, cast and crew, just jumped in, were incredibly giving and didn’t question the material or why I wanted to make something like this. I think everyone just understood what we were doing. Ian and Tom, who had to perform the uncomfortable scenes with me, are brilliant people as well as actors, and made the process so easy. Ian and I spent most of the time laughing between scenes, and Tom and I have been friends for a while and have worked together before so I didn’t have to worry about him much haha. He’s incredibly talented, we only had one afternoon to shoot his part and he just got on with it. The crew were also fantastic in making sure the cast were as comfortable as possible when it was freezing in December – there was a lot of tea.  

There’s a real sense of tension in the steadiness of the camera. How did you approach telling the story of Yellowbird on a cinematic level?

I was keen for the camera, and therefore the audience, to seem more as an observer of the action and not get too close to it. I think the steadiness works in adding to an unsettling, ambiguous feeling, and particularly heightens the sense of dread in key moments. 

How did you find shooting on farm? Were there any challenges practically?

The most challenging thing was finding the right farm in the first place! But it could not have been more perfect – it’s where my mum, aunts and grandparents spent time during the holidays in the 70s with their friends, who still own and live on the land. They were incredibly generous in allowing us to use the space and make it our own, so we didn’t need to use a studio or build a space to shoot in. Visually it was incredible – lots of peeling wallpaper, dated decor, rusty roofs, a winding staircase and grandfather clock – it felt like we’d walked into my imagination. The electricity and water was also still working which was a huge plus! The exterior was a bit more challenging: first, the weather of course – and the geography of the space needed a bit of cheating. Fred MacMillan, our production designer, did an amazing job to conquer this, including completely transforming one of the barns to make everything fit together. You wouldn’t have believed the space before and after.  

It’s a tricky question for a film like Yellowbird but what are you hoping audiences take away from watching it?

It’s out of my hands at this point as to what people feel about it or what they take from it which is the beauty of its ambiguity too, I guess. I just hope they think it’s a weird little film. 

Are you working on any new films or projects at the moment?

I have my next short, a dystopian drama, in development at the moment which I’m aiming to shoot in the next couple of months, and a couple of other writing and music directing bits on the go.

Yellow Bird was programmed by the Twelve Cabins team. If you’d like to see your film on our pages, submit here.

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