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Introducing Cathy Wippell, writer and star of ‘Black Samphire’

© Cathy Wippell, writer and star of Black Samphire

Black Samphire is a chilling, British folk horror short film that circulates the theme of pollution, our complex relationships with our own environment and the consequences of ignoring the signs. 

Co-produced by Silicon Gothic and River Action, the film is scheduled for release in March 2024.

Q1. Tell us about yourself

I’m a writer and actor working primarily in bringing female-led, environmental and socio-political stories to the thriller and horror genres in film. I have a background in activism, having co-founded the SAFER campaign whilst studying at the University of Manchester, which went on to be featured in BBC News, the Today Show and referenced extensively in parliament debates. 

I started acting professionally after I graduated in 2021, and discovered writing and producing through my work in screen acting. My first short film, Bloom, interrogated sexual assault without ever actually explicitly mentioninging it and was created with an all-female cast and crew. The film was featured in Film Stories magazine. 

Q2. In April, 2022, you co-founded the production company, Silicon Gothic Ltd with director and producer, Joseph Archer. What was the inspiration behind creating Silicon Gothic?

The idea for Silicon Gothic stemmed from mine and Joseph’s own, personal concerns with our changing natural world. Climate change is such an overwhelming, multi-faceted issue, and we found that personifying issues like fast fashion, water pollution etc into modern, tangible monsters was a way to make these issues more digestible and understandable for our audiences.

On a more personal level, I found that writing stories with monsters like these at the core of them was a catharsis for many of my own anxieties with climate related issues. The fable-like nature of our stories hark back to my fascination with English folklore, and this is definitely an influence for us as well; with folklore being so informed by the mysteries and intricacies of our land and elements, the British folk-horror tradition is at play in a lot of Silicon Gothic’s work.

Q3.  Tell us more about the short film, Black Samphire. Where did the idea stem from and why did you want to make it?

I grew up partly in Shipton Green, Itchenor  and harvested wild samphire myself with my mother when I was little. As well as this, we also picked wild blackberries. I remember it was always a race to get the blackberries when they were just ripe, or the other families would beat you to it. This had me thinking about human greed, and the hunger to use up our natural resources from an early age.

I’ve always been a keen open water swimmer and, as I mentioned, it was hard to ignore the news this summer of rising water pollution levels, especially when two of my local swimming spots were fenced off for a time. Seeing how the world changes in such a short time, and in the place I grew up trusting my environment so much, deeply disturbed me; instead of just launching into the water, there were questions of hygiene and health to ask. That’s one of the horrible things about pollution; it makes people distrust the environment they themselves are destroying. 

So, armed with these ideas, I wanted to create a story about overconsumption set in the marshlands in West Sussex. When River Action came on board as executive producers, they really helped to bring out the element of water pollution that was present in the script. Their expertise and information resources steered the story to more explicitly address the issue as the ‘monster’ of the narrative.

On the 31st of July, 2023, as we were beginning pre-production, an Unearthed investigation found that ‘over 300,000 hours of sewage spills hit England and Wales most protected habitats’ in 2022. On the 5th of August 2023, as we were well into pre-production, fifty seven triathletes were hospitalised after partaking in the Sunderland triathlon championship due to swimming in polluted water. Now, just as we’ve finished the film, the UK’s ‘urgent’ plan to tackle the sewage pollution crisis has been delayed by four months, with no date of publication in sight (Source: The Guardian).

In other words, the water pollution crisis in the UK has been present throughout the whole process of this film. What’s more, it won’t go away anytime soon, unless we take urgent action. The ever increasingly relevant issue of water pollution on the British Isles has shaped ‘Black Samphire’ from start to finish, and will continue to inform the project’s journey.

Q4.  You have worked on Black Samphire as both writer and actor – do you enjoy the extra responsibility that this entails?

To be honest, writing and acting in the same project is always a huge positive for me; as I’m lucky enough to be with the characters from when they were literally created in my imagination, I often find that most of my character work has been done and interrogated throughout the script writing process. So, this makes my life easier on set, as it’s really easy to switch into character quickly. 

I’d say the extra responsibility on this film actually came from mine and Joseph’s shared responsibility with the company. As the marshlands are actually quite precarious to shoot on due to uneven ground and swampy, soft land (we had an issue with a sinking light at one point!), we had to make sure proper risk assessments and safety checks were carried out for the safety of the cast and crew. We did so many recces of those wetlands – maybe about six or seven despite the fact that I was already familiar with the area. 

Q5. Do you have any favourite moments from the shoot?

One of my favourite moments has to be when we were shooting the final scene. Without giving away too much, there’s a part in the film where Isla has to spit black gunk out of her mouth. The blocking for the scene had me lying in the marsh, with Ishtar (who plays Isla) leaning over me. As we were about to shoot, there was a concern with costume continuity as we needed my costume the next day, sans black gunk. 

So, Ishtar said ‘Don’t worry, I’ll spit it so it doesn’t go anywhere near the costume’. And you can guess what happened next – it went all over me and it was hilarious. It’s a very intense, emotional scene, and having that happen was so unexpected and funny that it was difficult for a moment to stay in character!

Having James and Erica from River Action visit the set was also a highlight for me. It was really great to share the set experience with them, and to have them there from script stage all the way through to the distribution phase is very special indeed.

Q6. What are you looking forward to working on next?

For me, ‘Black Samphire’ is my primary focus at the moment. The short film is actually a proof of concept for a full-length feature, so I’ve already started working on the treatment, and then I’ll be looking for commissioning to write the feature script itself. I feel a real sense of urgency with this story and narrative, so it’s going to be a matter of working on the feature as the short undertakes its festival circuit. 

Silicon Gothic will be pitching a slate of films, including Black Samphire, at the Cannes film festival this year, as well as other international and national film markets throughout the year.

– Cathy Wippell, Co-founder of Silicon Gothic