The story behind the film The Witch’s Mask is intriguing. We spoke to writer and director Paul Westwood about the dream that inspired him and the attention to detail to telling the story through film
D&CFilm: You’d planned The Witch’s Mask for a long time. Tell us about the story of the story – how did you come across the idea, what research did you do, how did it develop over time and why did you decide to film it?
Paul Westwood: The inspiration for my film, The Witch’s Mask was based around dreams, which was not unusual as many films and books have been inspired through dreams. But what was intriguing about the dreams was that much of the information within them turned out to be true. To read deeper into this, I’ll leave the audience to decide.
Naturally, when you analyse the contents of dreams you then go and research the facts. This led to quite a few surprises. In the film my main character, Steven, is shown quoting some of this research as he reads through some books in a library. In many ways I am Steven, but the film is not a dramatized documentary about my dreams, I am a filmmaker and a storyteller, and written the narrative to tell a story. Research into the facts in the dreams, shaped that story.
Let’s start with the two main antagonists, Matthew Hopkins and John Stern. Matthew Hopkins was an infamous witch finder of the seventeenth century and John Stern was his colleague and companion.
Matthew Hopkins was a lawyer by profession, and John Stern was businessman and gentleman. This is in stark contrast to the 1968 film, The Witch Finder General, in which John Stern was portrayed as a common ruffian. But Hopkins had two other women assistants not shown in the film, and in a dream, it was an elderly woman that swam Anne in a river from a ferry. Unfortunately, I also didn’t show an elderly woman swimming Anne for practical reasons.
Swimming a witch was a superstitious method of proving a person to be a witch. If an accused sank, they were proclaimed innocent, and if an accused floated, they were found guilty and hanged for witchcraft. Some have us believe that this was a no-win situation and being submitted to swimming meant certain death. But in fact, if a person sank, they were pulled up immediately and proclaimed innocent. Nevertheless, swimming a witch was a dangerous practice. In the film and in my dream, the witch finders swam Anne from a ferry. The use of a ferry was backed up by my research in to seventeenth century engravings.
The law of the land and Parliament, disapproved of the practice of swimming an accused witch, but because of the English Civil War, the assizes were suspended. Matthew Hopkins took advantage of the suspension and operated above the law as a witch finder. But he didn’t go out looking for witch’s, he was hired by villages and individuals who accused someone of being a witch.
The accusations were mostly made by the grassroots members of the public, usually by women against women. This is shown in my film when Steven argues with the villages saying, “You hired that lawyer, you can stop this.” It was the women of the village that argued back quoting the bible.
In the film the accused witch was called Anne. The way that Anne dressed told us much about her, but you would need to be familiar with the dress code and culture of the time. According to the original synopses of the film, Anne was dressed in black wore a black capotain and covered her face behind a black visard.
Her appearance would resemble the classical look of a witch we all identify with today, but this look has its roots in the seventeenth century when the film was based. To analyse her garments one by one and their meaning, let’s start with her dress. Her dress was long and black. The dye to make black material was very expensive at the time and worn by the reasonably well off. The same can be said for the capotain. The capotain was a tall wide brimmed hat. For men they usually had a flat top, but for women they can be rounded at the top or even pointed as in the mid seventeenth century at the time of The English Civil War.
The capotain was a status symbol and was made from beaver felt from the colonies. The visard was a mask worn by women in the seventeenth century to protect their complexions from the sun. The visard could be black or white and was made of felt with a silk lining.
Masks also gave women a certain amount of freedom similar to a Venetian Moretta. In Venice at the time, people couldn’t be arrested wearing a mask, because they were considered to be play acting. Anne in the film was enjoying a certain amount of play acting which helped land her in trouble with the locals. Masks in England had a long connection with the theatre. At the time women weren’t allowed to take part in theatre performances, and it was also frowned upon for respected ladies to even attend the theatre. So, they wore masks. Two black and white masks even became a symbol of the theatre.
Anne was well familiar with European social etiquette, she was reading Peter Erondell’s book, The French Garden when Steven met her in the woods. All this added to Anne’s mischievous playing around. Unfortunately, she didn’t get the gravity of the situation when she was confronted by Matthew Hopkins. She only understood the seriousness of the situation when she was hit with a stick in the superstition of witch scratching to bind her power.
In short, why did I decide to film it? It was a story waiting to be told. There was no story to develop. The story was already there.
D&CFilm: Where did you do the filming, and how did you find the locations?
Paul Westwood: A great deal of consideration went into choosing my film locations because of the back in time scenes are based in the seventeenth century. In fact, I had to make sure I could shoot critical shots before I could proceed with even writing the script.
A big encouragement came early on with finding the seventeenth century village. I always start by searching the internet with Google searches and looking at images in Google. I soon found Little Woodham in Gosport, a reconstruction of a seventeenth century village. Also, the little seventeenth century village was also used for film productions. For the cast I could use a local theatre group and the villages own staff who recreate the seventeenth century village life.
The river scene I had to take into consideration of the logistics of transporting actors and crew to the scene. So, I looked at the river Tamar. For this I started looking for locations using Google Earth. The scene required a raft on the river as a seventeenth century cable ferry. For this I needed to take health and safety on the river into consideration. So, I enlisted the help of Serious Outdoor Skills. I opted to choose a filming location near to where they were based at Cotehele, Dung Quay. Another import consideration when finding locations, is how and when the cast and crew can eat. In Dung Quay, there was a lovely café where I picked up the tab.
The country scenes were shot by the stone circles at Fernworthy Reservoir. Finding this location was a challenge. I was searching for a suitable location for over a month. The main problem was, that most country tracks use modern surfaces. I needed a none surfaced road or path. We found that walkers had beaten their own path to the stone circle. I treated my actors and crew for lunch at the Warren Inn before shooting.
The kitchen location was original planned to be in a working hotel kitchen were real food was being prepared. The scene would open with a waitress taking an order at a table and the camera would then follow the waitress into the kitchen to introduce the audience to the present-day Steven. Unfortunately, I didn’t get confirmation from the hotel to film, and had to fall back to Plymouth College of Art’s kitchen. Because the kitchen was not an operational kitchen, narrative and dialogue had to be written for the scene.
The bedroom scenes were also a fall-back location having lost the use of the build space at Plymouth College of Art. Instead my daughter’s own bedroom was used for the bedroom scenes. The modern-day Anime posters helped the audience know that this was in the present.
The library scene was shot in two locations. The external was shot outside Torquay Library while the internal shots were shot inside Plymouth College of Art library. When putting together a scene, it is always best to think outside the box and create a scene from multiple locations.
D&CFilm: There are some great costumes in The Witch’s Mask. Where did you get them from and how difficult were, they to source?
Paul Westwood: I was fortunate to know Lionel Digby, a well know costumer based in Torquay. He runs his business called Flame Torbay Costume Hire. He supplies costumes for both stage and film. Some of the most famous are The Kings Speech and Downton Abbey, but there are many more. For anything he couldn’t supply, he introduced me to Bristol Costume Services with connections to Bottle Yard Studios in Bristol. They make films and TV series like Poldark. If you wish to buy a capotain, the best places are in America. Because of their tradition of celebrating the Pilgrim Father’s, they make high quality capotains, but they are made to order, and you need to allow plenty of time with your order. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a visard made in time.
There is only one full size visard in existence which was found walled up in an old building a few years ago. It was believed the mask was walled up to prevent evil spirts entering the house and was a witch’s mask. This mask is in private hands, but there is a doll’s version in the Albert and Victoria Museum.
D&CFilm: How does The Witch’s Mask fit with your other films and filmmaking – are there themes and ideas you tend to explore? And what do you look for in a story to film?
Paul Westwood: The Witch’s Mask was inspired by dreams dating back to my childhood. I like to write my own films. Several years ago, I wanted to write a fictional novel, but in 2015 I went on a foundation degree course. As part of the course we had to write a script as part of our narrative module and in 2016 my script was chosen to make a group film. It was when the actors read my script for the first time, it suddenly hit me. My script came to life. This was a profound meaning to my creativity. To start with something that is in my imagination and somehow make it real. And I have a very wide and vivid imagination, I have lots and varied ideas for films. Mostly I love romantic films, I’m a bit of a romantic at heart, and The Witch’s Mask had a strong romantic element about it.
D&CFilm: Visually, are there any looks are styles that you go for in your filmmaking and how is this demonstrated in The Witch’s Mask?
Paul Westwood: The Witch’s Mask was filmed both in third person and first person. During Steven’s waking moments the film was shot in third person, which meant we could block our shots, and Steven himself was in shot. In Steven’s dreams the film was shot in first person, and the audience was seeing everything through Steven’s eyes. This had advantages and disadvantages. In first person everything had to be in one take. I separated each part of his dreams by creating blackouts. Each dream was shown in fragments, like you would in your sleep. There was a particular problem with the arrest scene, I needed new camera angles. I decided that the camera would flash back to Steven dreaming restlessly in his bed. All this was planned beforehand.
If Steven’s dreams were shot in third person, we could have blocked the shots, cutting back and forth to each actor. We could have also used B roll, objects and angles of interest. First person did have some slight gaps in the speech, which would have been smoothed out in third person. First person was an advantage in the ferry scene. Steven was looking towards the river and the girl he loves for the whole time. You could only hear the crowd behind him. If it was shot in third person, the camera would need to show the crowd which would require an army of extras.
What I could have done differently with The Witch’s Mask, was to shoot only in first person at the beginning of Steven’s dreams so the audience can initially see this is Steven’s point of view, and then cut to first third person so Steven is then in shot and the audience can see Steven’s past self. This would work by seeing the road through Steven’s eyes at the beginning of his dream. He then sees Ann and sits down beside her; the camera can then cut to show both Steven and Ann talking to each other. Then camera can then cut to wide shots, over the shoulder shots and extreme close ups. The shots in the past could be then blocked and B roll used. But don’t forget, when there is a crowd, you need to show the crowd and not just use sound.
Styles I like to use in future films is to use long takes with movement using stabilisation techniques like Steadicams, dollies and cranes. I wrote my dissertation specialising on long takes. I am also interested in non-linier story telling. That became well known in films like Pulp Fiction and Walking Dead. I am writing a short film about a post-apocalyptic event using none-linier story telling. What I like most about this kind of storytelling, is you can explain more about the characters by showing the audience the narrative and story behind the character, and then bring the stories together.
D&CFilm: Tell us about your background and your journey into film?
Paul Westwood: My journey into film has come full circle. It was an old ambition of mine to get into film but living in Torquay made opportunities difficult back in the seventies and eighties. There were no film courses around in those days. The computer and internet revolution have changed all that, and I’m so much aware of what’s going on. I joined a Film and Photography Foundation Degree course at the University Centre South Devon in 2015, and then completed a Bachelor of art course with Plymouth College of Art in 2018. The computer age has help greatly with my writing because of my dyslexia. Without computers I would have never done my degrees. I now I love to write my own films, and every film starts with a piece of written work.
D&CFilm: How can we keep up to date with what you’re up to and where can we see The Witch’s Mask and what’s next?
Paul Westwood: The Witch’s Mask is going to be screened in The English Riviera Film Festival on the 6 October at Torquay Museum. You can keep up with what I’m doing on my websites: Devonflicks.co.uk and Thewitchesmask.co.uk. There is a link to buy tickets at my Devonflicks.co.uk website on the festivals page.
I’m working on a feature length dramatised and animated documentary during The Second World War. This is in the research phrase at the moment and I can’t say too much about it. I have my post-apocalyptic short film project also at the writing stage. I’m also writing short comical sketches because I like to see the funny side of things, and writing sketches is an outlet for that. The Witch’s Mask is a 23-minute short film, but I hope one day it could be made into a full feature film.
I hope you all and see The Witch’s Mask on the 6 October and watch out for my films by Paul Westwood or under the brand DevonFlicks.
D&CFilm: Thanks Paul!
top image: Cast of The Witch’s Mask: From left to right we got, Jay Robertson, Phil Baker, Simon Alison, Katherine Drake and Tip Cullen.