Feature: The Wicker Tree – Development Hell

You would be hard pressed to find a film that has suffered through as much development hell than Robin Hardy’s eagerly awaited “spiritual sequel” to The Wicker Man, aptly titled The Wicker Tree. Hardy’s film tells of two American evangelist missionaries who come to the Scottish village of Tressock to spread the word of God, however it appears they have been lured into a trap by the village’s Pagan residents. It is not a direct follow up to the 1973 film but explores similar themes (However, for information on a sequel to The Wicker Man that was written in the late 1970s – check out Allan Brown’s book, Inside the Wicker Man: How Not to Make a Cult Classic). Buzz about the project broke out in the late 1990s but the film would not actually get its release until 2012, after suffering a staggering amount of setbacks.

Rumors began to circulate in the late 1990s and early 2000s that original star of The Wicker Man, Christopher Lee and original director of The Wicker Man, Robin Hardy were planning to revisit the film’s territory in a new feature. However, the project never seemed to get off the ground. That was until 2004, which saw the project make some progress as Hardy had secured a Government grant for the production, now planned to shoot in March 2005. Of course, it is never that simple and the terms in which these grants were given had now changed and the director no longer qualified (similar events happened to Richard Attenborough in the production of his film, Closing The Ring), thus delaying filming.

Hardy’s original novel
Fortunately, Hardy had managed to secure a solid cast for this latest venture – with Lee taking the role which had been written for him, Lachlan Morrison (the leader of Tressock village) and the wonderful, Vanessa Redgrave set to star as Delia Morrison, Lachlan’s wife. Hardy was also in talks with singer LeAnn Rimes for the role of Beth, a pop singer turned evangelist. Lord of the Rings star, Sean Astin was also locked to play Steve, Beth’s boyfriend. However, these stars were to patiently wait until another means of finance could be found. 

As Hardy’s authentic successor to The Wicker Man was struggling to get off the ground in the UK, over the pond Neil LaBute and Nicolas Cage were busy butchering the film’s source material in the hilariously awful, American remake of Hardy’s 1973 classic. This remake further confused production surrounding Hardy’s upcoming successor – often being misconstrued as a sequel to LaBute’s remake. September 2006 saw the release of this remake which was a box office disappointment and critically slated.

In the meantime, Hardy had managed to secure a publishing deal for his novel, Cowboys For Christ (on which the script was based) which was met with positive reviews on its release in late 2006. The film was to keep the title of the novel, but during its many production stages went through several titles including May Day and The Riding of the Laddie (based on a Pagan rite which takes place in the book).

The start of 2007 saw filming plans back on track as Hardy had managed to secure funding for Cowboys For Christ, with a few differences from the planned 2005 shoot – Faye Dunaway had replaced Vanessa Redgrave and was now to play the role of Delia Morrison. Also (now The Vampire Diaries star) Paul Wesley had joined the cast as Steve, Beth’s cowboy boyfriend (replacing Sean Astin) and young American actress, Morgana James was to play Beth. However, before filming began in September 2007 there were rumours that Charlotte Rampling had taken the role of Delia – these rumours never amounted to anything as it was soon revealed that Dyan Cannon had now been cast in the part. Of course, you know by now – things do not have a habit of working out for Mr. Hardy, with Cannon now being replaced by Dynasty icon, Joan Collins. Christopher Lee remained a constant factor in the production. 

Cowboys For Christ poster (2008 Production)
However, production stalled in September 2007, with the shoot falling-through but Hardy stated things were on track for Cowboys For Christ to film in April 2008 with Christopher Lee, Joan Collins and Paul Wesley (see the original poster). These shooting plans were quickly destroyed, two weeks before filming was due to commence, with the arrival of the Credit Crunch – where an investor pulled out, withdrawing $1.5 million from the production (over half of the budget of for Cowboys For Christ). The project was once again put on hold. 

February 2008 once again saw buzz surrounding the film appear with the random (and very false) rumour that original star of The Wicker Man, Britt Ekland had joined the film’s production. This hiatus saw another casting change: Paul Wesley left the production and Eragon actor, Ed Speelers signed on for the role of Steve. By the end of the year it was revealed on Christopher Lee’s website that a three week shoot would commence in Summer 2009, with half of the original budget. Things were looking even more positive as it was announced in May that filming had taken place in Dallas, Texas.

You know the drill by now, it was once again time for another setback. Whilst filming Hammer Film’s The Resident in New Mexico, Christopher Lee suffered serious back injuries after tripping over cables on set. The veteran star was now unable to take the role that had been written especially for him. Due to the short notice, Graham McTavish, who was set to play the Morrison’s butler was now promoted to the role of Lachlan. However, soon followed the bad news that Joan Collins could no longer make the production after the continued schedule changes – she was replaced by River City actress, Jacqueline Leonard.

With a new Lachlan and Delia Morrison came a new Beth and Steve – in the form of young rising stars, Brittania Nicol and Henry Garrett. Character actor, Clive Russell stepped into McTavish’s former role as Beame and Foyle’s War actress, Honeysuckle Weeks joined the cast as free-spirited villager, Lolly (a role originally set for Footballer’s Wives star, Susie Amy). 

Brittania Nicol, star of The Wicker Tree
With his new cast, Hardy began filming in Edinburgh and various other locations throughout June, July and August. He also announced that the film was no longer Cowboys For Christ, but instead would be titled, The Wicker Tree, as well as announcing Christopher Lee would feature but simply as a cameo. The production wrapped at the end of 2009. 

After a long period of silence, buzz for The Wicker Tree began to appear online, with the official website appearing in 2010 and plans to headline the 2011 Edinburgh International Film festival being announced. However, once again the God’s were not in Hardy’s favour as the festival snubbed The Wicker Tree claiming “The festival isn’t really right for it this year.” The film went on to successfully premier in Canada in July 2011.

The Wicker Tree has continued to tour many horror film festivals throughout 2011 and received a limited theatrical release in the USA on January 27th 2012. The film has been announced for DVD/BR on the 30th April 2012 in the UK.

We’ll have our review up in the coming week.