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After gathering buzz on the film festival circuit, the cryptic and captivating coming-of-age story The Other Lamb comes to VOD this week. This surreal horror offering centers on a forest-dwelling cult of women and girls who devotedly follow one man, Shepherd (Game of Thrones' Michiel Huisman). However, among his loyal lambs stirs Selah (Raffey Cassidy), a teen girl whose journey into womanhood comes with some harrowing realizations about her family, herself, and the patriarchal cult that would make her a slave.
To toast The Other Lamb's digital debut, SYFY FANGRRLS spoke with the film's director Malgorzata Szumowska, a Polish filmmaker who's made her name making docs and features in her homeland before branching out to the English language with this Ireland-shot tale. She shared the challenge of bringing The Other Lamb together, the meaning of its woolly set design, and why it was important that its cult leader be so sexy.
Fluent in English, Szumowska found the true challenge of The Other Lamb's making to be the short window between getting the gig to helm and its wrap date. Instead of years or even months to prep the production, she and her team had just four weeks. In this time, they had to find a cast and locations, which led them to Ireland. But as the script by C.S. McMullen was set in Australia, this locale demanded some changes in costume.
Instead of the white dresses that McMullen imagined the women would wear, brightly colored wool dresses were chosen: red for the wives and blue for the daughters. "It was very cold (in Ireland)," Szumowska explained, "And that was why our costume designer (Jenny Nolan) — a very smart girl — she said they had to have dresses of wool (to keep warm) because otherwise it'd be too complicated to shoot." This striking yet modest look of bright wool dresses with braid-crowns was inspired by real life. "A Christian sect in Ohio in the U.S.," Szumowska explained. "They are dressing that way."
When it came to casting, Cassidy's already impressive filmography made the 18-year-old ingénue an enticing pick for The Other Lamb's defiant heroine. As Szumowska recalled, "I saw Raffey in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Vox Lux. I found her striking, very powerful. It was something in her eyes. She carried the show, especially in her eyes. I said to myself, 'She is the perfect choice.'"
Casting Shepherd was more "complicated." Szumowska ultimately decided on Huisman in part because he didn't look the part. "I was drawn in by the way he looks," she explained, "because I don't think he looks very dangerous. I was trying to create a danger in a different way than usual."
She described Huisman as "a man who looks like a doll" and explained how his appearance and seeming gentleness would be a draw emotionally and sexually to the women who follow Shepherd. The film leans into their perspective with lusty close-ups of Huisman's bared abs, soft smile, long locks, and gorgeous face. Because he seems so winsome, "It's not so obvious what he's doing," she noted. This added to the slow burn reveals of Selah's journey. Plus, she added, "It's always better if there's something sexy. It's less boring."
Finally, it came to the shoot in the Irish woods. There, the open spaces and wilderness could appear quite freeing. But that's not the way Szumowska wanted Shepherd's terrain to be viewed, so she turned to wool. In the cult's forest home, long strands of spun wool are woven between trees and below the ceilings of their humble shacks. It's pretty yet unsettling, which for Szumowska was precisely the point. She wanted to create a sense — even in the vastness of the woods — of Shepherd's influence and oppression of these women. "We took some wool and I said, 'Maybe let's try to create a barrier that the Shepherd (would approve)," she recalled. "Like a church without walls, the walls are created with the (spun strands) of wool." In the film's thrilling finale, Selah finds a new use for the wool. "They kind of use this wool against him," Szumowska teased.
All told, "it took nine months actually," Szumowska said of her time on the film, "like a pregnancy." She called the 25-day shoot "a challenge." But it was one Szumowska was glad to take on in part because of the trust she had in her cast and crew, including cinematographer Michal Englert, who she knew could handle getting the shot with only a few takes per setup. In the end, everyone endured the cold of the Irish wilderness and any other woolly tangles in service of telling Selah's story.
Within the film itself, Shepherd's rules suggest such a thing is sacrilege. He teaches his wives and daughters that none of them are to tell stories; only he has that privilege. Asked if this was intended as a way to reflect and criticize the film industry, where Boys Club vibes and gendered harassment can make it difficult for women to thrive, Szumowska pondered, "Is that a metaphor for the filmmaking industry?... That's how it is. I mean it's changing slowly, step by step. But most of the time, there's male domination, from directors to the storytellers, but also the characters are most of the time male characters, especially of a certain age."
For her part, Szumowska was proud to push back against this sexist standard, adding, "I was happy that my film was commenting on that."
The Other Lamb hits digital and cable VOD on April 3.