an interview with
An interview with Rubicon Films’ George Popov, director of Hex (2017) and The Droving (2020)…
An interview with Rubicon Films’ George Popov, director of Hex (2017) and The Droving (2020)…
For connoisseurs of indie horror, Rubicon Films—an outfit based in Cumbria—have been making quite a name for themselves. The people behind the marque are Bulgarian-born George Popov, who writes and directs, and Jonathan Russell, who writes and produces.
Their first film, Hex (2017), was a small-but-gorgeous character piece, set on the sidelines of the English civil war. Despite being made for one thousand pounds, it managed to achieve a real ring of truth, standing out in a genre that all too often looks and feels like live action roleplay. As director George Popov told us: ‘we only use things we know we can find and know we can get.’ The result has an authenticity that is, frankly, extraordinary on such a small budget. As for the story, it begins like a historical version of Enemy Mine (Wolfgang Petersen, 1985) but goes somewhere else entirely, signing off with a coda that’s both surprising and thoughtful. In short, it’s a gem of a film that’s well worth your time and attention.
Their second feature, The Droving (2020), was a step up in scale and ambition, with a larger cast and modern day setting. Instead of a historical war, we skirt round the edges (and eventually join) a real-life Cumbrian festival, which makes for a superb centrepiece. Actor Daniel Oldroyd returns to play a troubled soldier, whose sister vanished at the time of the Winter Droving. It’s cut from the same cloth as Hex and shares the same creative hallmarks: beautiful direction, moral ambiguity, clever use of location, and a mounting sense of dour, folksy dread. As with Hex, it starts with familiar beats but does something new and surprising with them, lingering on the mind long after.
Both films earned some well-deserved praise and are available to buy or rent on Amazon Prime. Kim Newman, a veritable grandee of the British horror scene, gave each a solid thumbs-up; he was ‘impressed by Hex and even more taken by The Droving,’ adding: ‘the fact that folk horror is at risk of being swallowed by cosy nostalgia is one of the more hideous ironies of current horror fan culture—and this gets away from that, into the dark, cold, chilling, primal nastiness that made the sub-genre connect in the first place.’
We had the pleasure of asking George Popov some questions and have transcribed his answers below:
Hex is a great example of how to tell a story within your means. It’s very nearly a two-man show that gets maximum value from the wonderful locations and mounting sense of unease. Even so, it’s incredible to see the budget listed as £1,000. As an independent filmmaker, how do the financial challenges shape your creative process?
George: Hex really, as a film, needed to fulfil a few goals that me and Jonathan set for it. Because first of all, it had to be the film that proves we can do it in the first place. That we can really accomplish a feature film at a certain level, a certain standard of both filmmaking and storytelling. And it’s technically and creatively something that not only just exists, as an entity that can compete professionally with all the other films out there, but can also set us apart as a filmmaking company – me as a director, him as a writer – and really show what we’re capable of within the genre, but also as personalities.
And yes, absolutely. Whenever you’re looking at a film that starts from thinking ‘what do we have,’ for a filmmaker, that can be challenging. It can be seen as a constraint. Okay: we have to work within very certain means, we’re limited in a lot of areas—how can we, at the same time, have the freedom to tell exactly the type of stories we want to tell?
To me that never really felt like a problem. I know it’s become a cliché now but I think it’s really true that limitation can breed creativity. It was definitely the case with Hex. The moment we saw what our opportunities can be in terms of telling a story, and what we can have access to in terms of telling a story in that period, it seemed like the right decision, and then from there on it was pretty much the freedom of what kind of story we wanted to tell.
We didn’t want to do a two-people-in-a-room sort of situation because a lot of microbudget films start there, and that’s understandable, and there’s a lot of really great movies made that way, but we wanted to do something special. I wanted to do a story where you really get a feel for the type of atmosphere I feel like I can do a lot with. And it was definitely very ambitious for its size, but at the same time, we only use things we know we can find and know we can get. And once we had that—once we knew the setting was going to be 17th Century, and the genre and type of story we wanted to tell—then we saw that you can absolutely do that with a very limited cast.
But at the same time I wanted that always to be compensated by something else. Okay: let’s have two people talking—or two people, in the case of Hex, sometimes not even talking—but if we’re going to have a limited set of characters, and if we’re not going to have that many key locations, at least they need to be incredible to look at, and we have to photograph them in a way that makes them even more impressive. There was a scope to the film, even if the epicness of cast or expansiveness of landmass that you cover throughout the story is sort of minimal. At the same time, you can feel the really full sense of atmosphere in that forest, or the way those locations look, or how impressive they are compared to what the characters are going through.
So anywhere we contract because of circumstances, we expand in another way. It’s a very freeing way of working, knowing that, yes, you might have your back against the wall, but everything in front of you is a place you can explore.
What are you proudest of in your two films? Conversely: was anything a complete nightmare?
G: I’m really, really proud of the team. The teams of both films—we do have a lot of overlapping people and then added a lot more for The Droving. Of almost everyone really committing to those stories and those projects, really trying to do their best, performing at the level to really elevate the films and projects to way more than what they should be, based on their size. It’s very hard not to be proud of that, of just how seriously everyone took it. The really heartfelt professionalism that everyone brought to it and the quality of the work, from pre-production to post-production, from pretty much everyone involved. It was great to see and very awesome feeling, very humbling, and all of it shows. All those individual efforts and the combined effort show in the films, and it’s a big part of why they work on that level.
Another thing I’m proud of is the fact that, by doing that, we were able to reach people in a way that’s sometimes hard to predict, especially in films that are, to some degree, considered genre pieces. There have been so many people that it touched in a certain way, impressed in a way that can sometimes even be deeply personal, or challenge them and make them think at a deeper level. That’s a great feeling, and it’s the best you can ask for as a filmmaker, really. Everything else – all that other praise, financial rewards or critical awards – they’re amazing, but they’re a means to an end. It helps you make more of them. The end goal of reaching out to people and connecting with them through art, through a film – that’s priceless.
In terms of nightmares, a complete nightmare? No, I wouldn’t say so, actually. I can’t think of one thing that I would call a complete disappointment or complete nightmare.
Loads of little nightmares, every day. Many, many problems that you need to solve – loads of little moments of crisis – but you solve them, you just continue. I’m sure at the time, I definitely wasn’t as calm as I am now. When those things needed solving, they definitely felt like nightmares – many of them throughout both films, and in-between, and after.
You just solve them. You go around sometimes or tear them down and just keep on going. I think you can make any one of them into a complete nightmare in your head at the time, and that can bring disaster, especially as a director, and someone that people are looking up to, to help them keep the atmosphere going, in the workflow and everything. So yes, you can make anything into a complete disaster, but I just don’t allow things like that to happen. Everything can be solved and ninety percent of filmmaking is problem-solving. So nightmares are part of the job, and I just try to eat them up.
The Droving makes great use of a real-life Cumbrian festival. Hex has a wonderful sense of landscape. In these films, which came first—the settings or the story?
G: With both films, the setting came first to a certain degree. With The Droving it was more obvious because we did want to set it in the Lake District, and we did want to base it around that festival and use it as an inspiration, and from there we constructed the story.
And, to a similar degree with Hex, we knew it was going to be 17th-Century, and we knew it was again going to be in that area and landscape. But the actual locations and the way they were used in the story, and all the particular places we were shooting, and the way that they were done, came after the story. Those were absolutely an effect of how we wanted to tell those stories. So it’s a bit half and half. The usage of the particular locations, and how they were interwoven – that was completely dictated by a story that already existed, at least on a synopsis level.
But the original concepts, yes, that was part of the what-do-we-have way of thinking, especially with Hex, and those determined how we wanted to tell the stories. And then the rest of it just came from there.
Both of your films are very interesting character studies. They subvert our expectations and make us reconsider where the real horror comes from. Is this something you and Jonathan Russell especially enjoy? Which films inspire you as storytellers?
G: Yes. This way of storytelling, I don’t really consider the genre to be something that determines it. I think whatever I attempt has to have an important character story in it, because that’s how we can relate to the world and the theme that I’m trying to establish. And I think the characters are the window into the thematic relevance of the film, and through them you can tell a very powerful story.
And the fact that these characters don’t always have to be the guys we necessarily agree with, that makes it even more interesting to me. And it’s something a lot of great storytellers and filmmakers do.
In terms of that being connected to horror, and where the real horror comes from, I think that’s an interesting thing because, to a big degree, it comes from my collaboration with Jonathan as writers. He’s been a big horror fan all his life, and I am a horror fan, but my knowledge of horror films is probably not as vast as his, and I have a few specific, really big favourites that have influenced me a lot. Whereas he just revels in the genre and the supernatural elements of it and everything. And to me, I’ll always have a bit of an outsider view on that, and it helps me see it with a bit more of an objective eye, and think how a character story can relate to a horror setup, to a horror genre or subgenre.
And maybe it’s because I’m from the Balkans, and it’s very hard not to think of horror as something that comes entirely from humans, I don’t know. Maybe that’s the case, and with the combination of my life experiences and his life experiences, we combine to something quite interesting. And it’s certainly something we both enjoy a lot, in terms of building characters and combining those elements.
In terms of the films that inspire us, it’s very hard to say, and I can’t speak for him. But from my point of view, I think there are a lot of films in very different genres that have probably inspired me, and they probably have something in common, but it’s the combination that leads to some of the conclusions I end up doing in terms of filmmaking. So I love films like Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) that I saw at a really early age, and after that The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003), and I love both fantasy and sci-fi horror. It’s a very different style of filmmaking as well, so maybe I’m constantly trying to reach for something like that. Something as romantic as The Lord of the Rings which, in a lot of ways, probably clashes a lot with how much I love David Fincher and all his films.
I love dichotomies, I love arguments and counter-arguments and trying to find what the truth is. I feel like there’s so much of life that’s a combination of all these things that we’re projecting in different genres, where they’re all separate, but when you put them all together, I think that’s the description of what we all feel day to day. That these contrasts just permeate our lives. That’s what I’m mostly interested in, and it’s why I’ll keep trying to find the truth by mixing all these things together, and show the horrible when you least expect it and show you the beautiful when you least expect it. How simple and yet how complex everything is. Hopefully I’ll get to do that with more genres and more characters.
On Twitter, you mentioned a new slate of films in development. Your website lists Iron Hearts as your next project. Will it be a horror, a fantasy romance, or a bit of both? What else do you have in store for us?
G: Yes, we have a slate of projects in development that we’re very excited about, and I’m really looking forward to getting to make all of them, one after the other. They vary in genres and sizes, and with how things usually go in filmmaking—especially right now—you never really know which one’s going to be next.
But I’m really excited about all of them and looking forward to exploring them, because we have some fantasy, we have some horror films, we have some dark sci-fi stories, and all of them are hopefully going to have those great character developments and moments, and they’ll have something that will make people really talk about them, I hope, and that’s really exciting.
In terms of Iron Hearts, yes, it’s a fantasy movie, it’s a fairy-tale, it’s a romance, and it has very dark elements to it. So I absolutely think there’s the DNA of a horror in there, probably in the way it’s going to be made and shot, and the atmosphere. At the end of the day, it’s a fairy-tale structure that we have our main hero following—but of course, like all that stuff I’m really interested in, that doesn’t continue for long, and soon the film breaks that structure by integrating the harsh reality of what the real world is like, and our hero has to overcome those difficulties.
So yes, I’m really excited about it, and I’m really excited about those two characters, and doing something that’s probably not as nihilistic as the previous two films. It’s a little bit more ‘gothic romance’ and very human and possibly not as bleak, even though, in some moments, it’s insanely dark. Maybe what I see as positive varies a lot with what the common human being views it as, something really bright and happy. But I think people who especially like dark fantasy and those types of stories, and something that really stays with you but has a mythological fairy-tale to it—they’re going to love it a lot. I can’t wait for us to talk more about it, and we’re developing it day to day now.
Your films feel like love letters to the British landscape and traditions. What drew you to these themes? Can you see yourself making a completely different kind of film, like a sci-fi or western? What else is on your bucket list to do?
G: It’s great the films feel that way because I love that, I love that kind of stuff. I love nature and landscapes and I’m a big history buff, and I’m interested in tradition and folklore, for sure—but as someone who didn’t grow up in Britain, as a Bulgarian, I’m definitely seeing them in a very different sort of way than probably Jonathan did, or anyone else in the group. And I think that’s a big part of why the films feel and look that way. Because I just have that outsider view towards it, trying to take the parts that can build the quintessential atmosphere that might not be exactly what you’re experiencing, in those places, but they work in the context of our story, and highlight all the really interesting parts of the landscape or traditions. And I think that will apply to anywhere I go around the world, and I’d probably like to explore more folklore and more locations. But I love this land, and there’s so much to it that has a particular mood and particular atmosphere that I really enjoy and really subscribe to.
And there’s so much left to explore around these islands. It’s just that phenomenon where, when you live and you’re surrounded by something all your life, you might not really think of it as being that special. It’s the same thing when I’m walking around Sofia and there’s someone with me—an English friend who’s coming to visit—and there’s this old building that I’ve walked by my whole life, and I never really paid much attention to it. But he would say, ‘Wow, look at that, it’s incredible.’ I feel like I’m that guy here, when I visit those locations and they immediately reach out and speak to you. I try to connect with them on a personal level, where you really find the way they should be shot and portrayed in order to service the story, and to really allow people from all around the world to see them in the way that hopefully no one else will really show them in exactly the same fashion.
And considering the types of films that I want to make, I don’t really feel pigeonholed to a single genre. There are ones I’m interested in that we’ve made so far, and I’m interested in making more in the future, and the immediate future, and I do enjoy what horror gives you. But as you can see, they’re vastly different anyway, in terms of what the actual settings are when you go from Hex to The Droving. Something that’s very period, and focussed on a certain way of how stories are told, to highlight the historical meaning, and drawing it to something that’s relevant today—and then going to The Droving, which is something that actually takes place today. I’d rather change the settings and genres and mix them up, and do things that people don’t really expect, but keep a style and attention to filmmaking and storytelling that can survive all these genres, and you can really tell that it’s made by one filmmaker.
I’m not doing that on purpose but that’s how it happens naturally, and I’d love to do that in a lot of different settings and time periods, to make something all humans can enjoy for a long period of time, where they look back to those movies and they still feel relevant. And you can still connect to them because, no matter if it takes place in Britain or ancient Japan or space or the desert, you’ll still connect to what the themes are and what the characters are experiencing. You’ll be able to relate to it. I love stories that can transcend the ‘there’ and ‘here’ and ‘now’ and ‘then’ and say something that’s always relevant.
So absolutely, I have a lot of stuff on my bucket list. You can go for very different settings, and we have a very interesting post-apocalyptic sci-fi project in the making that really feels like it fits in the same group, even though, right next to it, we have stuff in development that’s fantasy and period based, or things that take place in the modern day.
So yes. Western, sure—samurai movies—space. There’s a lot of stuff I’m excited about. Maybe not comedies. Maybe I need to just get older, or something like that. But films with a bit more humour in, absolutely, we need a little bit of that.
Kim Newman praised The Droving for tapping into ‘the dark, cold, chilling, primal nastiness’ of folk horror. What does folk horror mean to you? If someone was new to the genre, what films would you recommend?
G: I think he’s very correct in saying that it’s chilling and nasty, when you think about the genre of folk horror, and that’s essentially what drove me to it. It’s that most of the horror that’s done in those films is completely perpetuated by people. Some of them might have supernatural elements in them, or that might be the ultimate evil standing behind it, but it’s usually the humans in folk horror who do the most horrific things. And I think it’s important, especially in this day and age, when we have so much misinformation and fake news, and a lot of people who believe in things, almost in spite of everyone else, that are fairly ridiculous. It’s usually about a delusional group of people that are so willing to perpetuate a narrative that is, at its core, horrible and violent and utterly ridiculous, and then how a normal human being can cope with all that.
I think, yes, it might not be realistic that we’re looking left and right and seeing human sacrifices being made every day, not to that extent, but we see the flashes of what humans are capable of, day in, day out, because of some sort of tribalistic nature, or beliefs in things that are clearly outdated at this point, and what those humans are capable of. And usually it comes to violence, and there’s a wilful ignorance about folk horror that we seem to be drawn to and explore. And that’s what we were exploring with the villains. I wanted to make a folk horror where the folk wasn’t the horror, and it was actually the character who was bringing none of that with him, but he was bringing everything else. It was a very modern evil he was bringing with him. Again, everything that they usually say, I immediately try to come up with the opposite argument, and if I believe in something I want to say: is that always the case? And can we look at some times when what we believe in is not the correct thing? And I think folk horror gives you a lot of room to do that and it’s a wonderful genre to explore human complexity.
In terms of ones I recommend, I don’t want to just continue rambling about different folk horror films for ages, that everybody who’s a horror fan already knows. Many times I’ve said The Wicker Man is great, it’s an absolute staple—but I’d probably recommend a couple of films from different time periods that are quite popular but don’t always get mentioned.
When it comes to that period of The Wicker Man and Blood On Satan’s Claw (Piers Haggard, 1971), and all the classics, I know Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968) does get mentioned often—but for someone new to the genre, if they’re coming from maybe more of a historical point of view than the horror point of view, I think Witchfinder General is a great one to do that. Because it really taps into that kind of stuff I was just talking about, in terms of where the evil comes from, and it’s based on facts. And the story’s still big, and the film has a big heart for a horror film, definitely, and it definitely has some theatrical moments in it—but I think it’s a very, very interesting piece and incorporates a lot of great elements that are now staples in the genre. So, Witchfinder General I definitely recommend.
In terms of modern ones, there are great staples that came out only in the last few years, like The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015) and Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2015) and quite a few more. But just to get away from Western Europe for a little bit and the Americas, another one that I would call a masterpiece and absolutely love is probably my favourite in the last few years: the Korean The Wailing (Na Hong-jin, 2016). And that’s something I think everyone should see. It combines genres in a great way and you just don’t know what to expect when you’re watching it. I think any film fan would love watching The Wailing and I highly recommend it.