Milk is Murder: A look into the minds behind “The Herd”

onesheetposterherd copyReleased for free online streaming via Viva and the vegan White Lies website on Monday the 1st of February Melanie Light’s short film The Herd is a brutal allegory for the horrors of dairy production wherein adult women are transposed in to the place of dairy cattle. The film follows Paula (played by Victoria Broom) who along with many other women is imprisoned for her breast milk by a sinister shadowy corporation , represented in the film by the brutal harsh guards (played by Jon Campling-who played a Death Eater in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 1 as well as having roles in many UK horror productions- and Billy White) and the terrifying icy nurse who is played by Pollyanna McIntosh (the star of Let Us Prey who rose to fame in an incredible performance as the feral titular character in The Woman). Other recognizable faces include Andrew Shim better known for playing Milky in This is England and Shane Meadows regular Seamus O’Neill.

The short is just under 20 minutes long so I think it’s particularly wise not to delve too deep in to the films plot. In fact I think it is best that before you read this interview you watch the film available at http://www.whitelies.org.uk/resources/video-footage/herd and then read what the creators have to say. Suffice to say however the captive women are subjected to the litany of abuses which are usually reserved for dairy cows. They are kept in cramped squalid pens, forcefully inseminated and then have their children taken at birth (the phrase “it’s a boy” will haunt you after viewing the short), all so they can be brutally milked.

The short is brutal but also compelling and emotional with a strong, original core concept. The production design and cinematography are fantastic, the equal of any recent extreme horror feature and it’s all sound tracked by a brilliant score by Laurent Bernard (or “Lags”) of popular hardcore band Gallows.

The film’s director Melanie Light began working in the art department of films The Devil’s Chair and Inbred before beginning to make her own shorts. The Herd however is sure to be the short of Melanie’s to get the most attention.

Horrorthon’s Patrick Thompson spoke to Melanie Light and screenwriter Ed Pope about the project.

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Horrorthon: Firstly what was the genesis of the concept of The Herd?

Melanie Light: The original idea came from Ed, it’s a concept I had seen in various forms in the past, but it hadn’t been put to film with a narrative, which is why I felt it was a worthwhile project.

Ed Pope: I met a lot of people who considered veganism to be a bizarre concept. Many people thought drinking plant-based milk was strange, and could not see any merit in my response that drinking the breast milk of another species was perhaps at least as weird! There’s a mindset that views the consensus of the masses to be correct, and without question. I’ve never felt that way, so in this instance I wanted to frame the dairy issue in a manner that even the most disconnected people could empathise with. So the concept was largely born of frustration!

H: To both Melanie and Ed, what does “feminist vegan horror” mean to you? As much as the films violence and the treatment of the women is justified by the concept and the message of the film I do think that in the hands of a male director it could be harder to justify some of this content. Would you agree or do you think that’s irrelevant?

EP: Thematically The Herd was entirely conceived as a vegan allegory. However, veganism and feminism are intrinsically linked. For the production of dairy and eggs, it is the female reproductive system that is exploited for commercial gain, so you can’t separate the two without admitting speciesism. Horror and veganism are even more closely linked, and this was very important to me when writing the script, to express the horror experienced by dairy cows as precisely as possible. So to me “Feminist Vegan Horror” means that if you’re writing a film that is thematically about the vegan take on how animals are treated, you can’t avoid the other two.

Before I started writing I was very clear that I wanted to ensure that there was no risk of this film being titillating or sexual in any way. This was planned right down to what the captives wore, and how certain scenes were composed. I’ve known Mel since 2003, and very soon into the writing process I knew I wanted to give her the script when it was done. This had nothing to do with her gender, and everything to do with her filmmaking abilities and artistic style, and how I knew she’d handle the subject matter; but to some degree I do agree that it is best that this film was directed by a woman. Not that a male director with the same integrity couldn’t have done it justice, but there’s no doubt that Mel was the perfect person to helm this project, in many ways.

Herdstill2 copyML: I agree, to even begin to make this film was walking on dangerous ground, it straddles a lot of sensitive issues. Ed and I worked on the script together after the initial draft, it became a labour of love for us all. You are always liable to be misunderstood, but we are dealing with ideas that intersect- for me as a vegan and a feminist, understanding the fight against oppression of women from a very basic level, be that human or non-human, is about the right to control our own bodies. This film is trying to highlight suffering, regardless of species. We could have changed the women to men and had their semen collected, but it would betray the suffering inflicted on female cows, which was the overall point of this film. Others might not agree but I do not distinguish one suffering from another, we are not trying to belittle one suffering by highlighting another. The Herd is very blunt and deliberate yes, but everyone agreed, we had a point to make, and that point is that if you’re a vegan feminist, you care about all females. 

I don’t think we need a man to direct a film about an issue that only effects women, and this film portrays a very real perspective. As a woman directing a female cast with this subject matter, there needs to be an inherent trust and affinity, which we had and I noticed subtle things like their shared body language and mannerisms as a result of this horrible setting,that I encouraged. They caressed their fake pregnant stomachs instinctively, their upset during the drowning scene was palpable, in fact the whole cast and crew found many of these scenes harrowing. Even though it was Ed’s story, we were portraying a reality, and in many ways what we filmed was not only a collaboration between director and writer, it was the horror of the situation that made it all the more disturbing. To that end, this was very much a vegan feminist horror. 

H: To you are the concepts of feminism and veganism innately linked?

EP: As above, yes. But feminism is only a constituent part of veganism, and then only in my opinion. As we show in the film, male calves are useless to the dairy industry and are either killed at birth or sold into the veal trade. Male chicks are killed as they hatch in the egg industry too, for the same reason. Veganism and horror are much more closely linked.

ML: Yes. At a very basic level, they are both about drawing attention to the suffering and enslavement of females.

H: In my experience sometimes horror fans, upon hearing the term “vegan feminist horror” are expecting something very different from the end result. Why I love the film is that it has a point and a message, which I find is lacking in the majority of extreme horror. Was it important to you to make the film work beyond being a polemic allegory or to you is that (polemical aspect) so integral to the film?

EP:  Absolutely. I had no interest in writing a pure propaganda piece. I’m a life-long horror fan and wanted to ensure that the story could exist on its own without the theme. This is another reason why I thought of Mel early on in the creative process, as we both share a love of the genre. Thanks to Mel’s realisation of the script and the excellent cast we had, I believe the film can stand on it’s own as an effective horror film if the viewer chooses to ignore the thematic elements. If you enact what society does to these animals on screen you cannot avoid making a piece of extreme cinema.

The Herdstill3 copyML: It is a horror film because the subject matter is horrific. You cannot make a film about the dairy industry without that. It will always be torturous and violent and sad. That being said, those who watch horror films will identify with the horror aspect. Horror is about creating a monster and then destroying the monster. I think you can watch The Herd without understanding the allegory, the end result is the same, the monster gets his comeuppance. We were aware that when making a violent film with a political narrative that isn’t immediately obvious it runs the risk of offending those who see it as just another torture porn flick, or even worse, those who share our values but worry that the only thing that will register with people is the violent abuse of women. This is why we added the end credit sequence, so that no one is left in the dark about our message. Using tortured women, I can see this being a problem for a lot of people, and I was sensitive to this, but on the other hand, I am a woman, and I wanted to make this film specifically because this is an issue that only effects women.

It is true that there are people in the world who might see this film and dare I say, enjoy it for all the wrong reasons. It’s a disgusting thought to entertain, but we can only hope that the majority of people who watch it understand that the violence portrayed in the film is wrong on every level, which is the entire point we are trying to make.

H: Melanie what was your background in film prior to making this film?

ML: I’ve worked in the art department in Film and TV for over 10 years. I did a lot of Production Design but more recently work as a Stand-by Art Director. Prior to making ‘The Herd’ I had made three other short films and a couple of music videos.

H: Melanie at what point were you approached about the film and how did the script change over time?

ML: Ed sent me the first draft of the script about a year and a half before the actual shoot. I had to wait until I knew I had the right funding and time to really get it off the ground.  We developed the script in those few months and the location we used influenced the final draft. As we got closer to a shooting script it became a very collaborative effort with input from my partner and our actor Pollyanna made some vital changes too. 

H: The performances in the film are amazing. Pollyanna McIntosh in particular is terrifying as the nurse character in charge of inseminating the women and birthing their children. What was the casting process like for the film?

herdstill4 copyML: Pollyanna is a brilliant actor, I was a huge fan of her work in ‘The Woman.’ We had met on set of the short film ‘Him in Doors’ which I was designing. We stayed in contact and she was always in my mind for the nurse character in the film. Pollyanna is disturbing as it appears she is working against her own sex, and is also caught in a system that allows her staff to belittle her, her own struggle to exercise power as a woman whilst desensitising herself to the horrors she inflicts. I personally find the male captor’s more terrifying, especially the character played by Dylan Barnes. 

All the actors took the script and ran with it. Victoria and Charlotte are so powerful and a great duo. They shared a great energy and the scene in the cage is so strong it rips my heart out every time I see it. There were a few casting struggles and changes towards the start of the shoot but everything just fell into place. Most of the actors I knew through other projects that I had worked on before.

H: I know that Laurent from Gallows was involved from the point at which the film was being crowd funded but how did this come about? On a side note I loved the Momentum track “Realities of the dairy industry” that finishes the film- why did you make this choice?

ML: Laurent and I had met via Twitter, he had private messaged me after I tweeted something irrelevant to him! He offered to compose music for anything I had coming up. I eventually employed his talents for The Herd. He is brilliant to work with. He’s a natural at film scoring. Momentum were a vegan hardcore band who I was familiar with and this song title speaks for itself, so was a fitting end to the film!

H: A friend of mine who watched the film commented that as shocking as the film was nothing affected him like the reality footage during the credits? Why did you choose to include this footage?

ML: Without it I felt that for many, the film would just be a sad tortuous story of women being used to make the anti-ageing cream. We had to make sure that people made the connection even if it is heavy handed. I personally still can’t watch this myself, it is so awful but it has to be on there, people need to see the reality behind this film.

H: Since it’s Women In Horror month and giving your connection to the movement (having curated a calendar for WIHM) what does WIH mean to you and do you think the situation for women in horror is changing?

WIHM has changed a lot for me over the years. I was fortunate enough to be involved from the beginning with the ‘Ghouls on Film’ festival where my first short film ‘Switch’ was shown. Being a strong believer in equal representation for women in not just the arts but all professions, when WIHM came about I was so excited, It felt like I’d finally found a community that shared all my interests and beliefs. I feel there is still more opportunity to use this as a platform for drawing attention to women’s skills and abilities within art, media and the film industry.

The calendar was a result of this, I wanted to highlight a mixture of creative talent, with each month depicting a different artist or director or writer. I was lucky enough to have a great photographer friend named Tina K. The women involved all came up with their own looks and styles for their images. For me this is what WIHM is all about. 

H: How many of the cast and crew were vegan during production and did the film inspire a change in anyone?

ML: I’m not sure on the full numbers but I know for sure there were about six vegans and many vegetarians. We had vegan catering throughout the shoot with a generous donation of food from Fry’s, a popular vegan frozen food company based in the UK. We definitely educated a few crew to the delicious cruelty free diet. I know one person went vegan as a result.

H: Finally Melanie you have revealed teaser artwork for your first feature project Covetous. At this stage what can you tell us about this film?

HERDPOSTERNEW(2) copyML: Right now it is still in its infancy, and I am trying to source the right Producer and to get some funding. I have a couple of actors attached. It is all very early days but the only way to get a film made is to start the ball rolling! I have worked on the script for over 5 years on and off and my partner Alex has been a great input too. The film is about a woman who, having spent her life in a secure unit is released into society for the first time and follows her fight for survival. I guess it’s a social horror thriller?

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Melanie and Ed!

The Herd facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TheHerdMovie/?fref=ts