Cry wolf: ‘THE OTHER LAMB’ director trims original story to shape a visceral cult drama

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

One of the most famous writing maxims is “show, don’t tell.” This is certainly true of the horror genre, which mostly sees people scared by what they see on screen compared to the characters’  rants. 

IFC Films’ chilling cult drama The Other Lamb is a work that firmly believes in painting pictures that bury thousands of words behind its images. 

Directed by Polish filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska (2013’s In the Name Of) and written by C.S. McMullenThe Other Lamb is a polarizing cinematic experience that you will either love or hate but never forget. It taps into our fascinations with religious cults and the process of deprogramming.

Centered on a remote commune, led by Shepherd (Game of ThronesMichiel Huisman), the film explores the story of two generations of women (including Raffey Cassidy of The Killing of a Sacred Deer) who are under the spell of its eccentric religious leader. Cut off from the outside world, with no access to modern technology, the wives, sisters, and daughters are protected and live in self-sufficiency in exchange for sex and blind worship.

Fresh Fiction recently spoke with Szumowska about why our curious minds turn toward cults, creating a visual identity and examining the deeper meanings behind the film. 

The Other Lamb is now available to purchase on digital platforms.

Preston Barta: If ratings for true crime stories have taught us anything about cults, it’s that we cannot seem to look away. We are addicted to learning about them. What insights into humanity did exploring this territory give you? 

Malgorzata Szumowska: There are many aspects to this story. But to me, it’s about the journey of a damaged, innocent follower [Cassidy’s character] learning how to transform herself into a personable woman who can understand the world around her.

What made this story fascinating to me was exploring how these people will continue to follow their leader and not hate him. Perhaps there’s a metaphysical dimension that we cannot touch in normal life because we are afraid of dying or getting sick. In a cult setting, suddenly, that anxiety is peeled away. There’s no fear or death because the leader is telling you everything is going to be fine, and it’s all an illusion. This person fills the hole within our souls. People need something like this because it makes them feel safe.

Additionally, having only one male and a family of women was interesting to me. Among all the dreams and realities, the explorations of the crumbling nature of these characters — all those elements made for a great story.

Did making a film so sparse with language cause the experience to be more exciting or challenging to lean on your cinematographer to develop a visual identity together? 

My cinematographer, Michal Englert, and I have worked together for 20 years. I’ve never worked with anybody else. He’s also an amazing writer, which is rare to see someone working in both of those areas at the same time. We really know each other and understand what we want to do. We share art, other films and albums with each other to get a sense of style.

The original script had much more dialogue. But when I met with [Englert] and all the actresses, I found that it didn’t need as much dialogue and that we could say more things visually. We don’t have to overexplain things but have you be more curious. Usually, the best films, in my opinion, are speechless. Too often, information is passed through dialogue, and that can cause the audience to feel like they’re losing something by listening to each line. It can be much better to go to the visual side occasionally.

Raffey Cassidy, left, plays the role of Selah, a girl who is coming of age in IFC FIlms’ ‘THE OTHER LAMB.’ Ailbhe Cowley plays the role of Tamar. Courtesy of IFC Films.

It allows you to exercise using subtlety as a filmmaker, too. Your film has a lot of deeper, symbolic meanings. There’s the birth of the fleshless lamb, the face-off with a ram, the Barbie doll, the red and blue dresses, the maggot-covered bird, and the way the Shepherd puts fingers in his wives’ mouths. Is it vital for you to understand all aspects of your film? Or, do you purposefully put things out there that you don’t even understand, so you can wrestle with its meaning like everyone else? 

Some of the images, like the birth of the lamb, I used a Christian connection. There’s this false prophet and an innocent lamb. I took this directly from a Christian reality, I would say. In the original script, it’s taken more from aspects of Australia’s aboriginal culture. That has nothing to do with Christian belief, but when we saw the landscape of Ireland, where we shot, it welcomed a different view, something more connected to my European culture.

The image of the ram is the symbol of a man, of course. I’m not overthinking about all the symbolism; I’m just following my intuition. I’ve studied the history of art and have seen a lot of old century paintings. There are some elements taken from my studies that naturally or conscientiously work their way into my [director of photography] mind. You can read all those symbols differently than the way I intended, however.

For example, fingers in the mouth was very practical. Even if we wanted to show more of Shepherd being perverted towards these women, we couldn’t. The central character that Raffey Cassidy portrays was a minor at that time. We couldn’t show a young girl dealing with those things because there are so many restrictions. Because of that procedure and we couldn’t show more, I thought of using fingers in the mouth. Sometimes less is more, and I think that’s true. Those implications are scarier.

Yes, you are leaving room for the imagination to color in the gray areas. Because you’re playing with ambiguity here, are you thinking about what images the audience will be intelligent enough to pick up and what may overwhelm them? Do you think about how far may be too far? 

GAME OF THRONES’ Michiel Huisman, center, appears as the sole man (Shepherd) and leader of a cult in ‘THE OTHER LAMB.’ Courtesy of IFC Films.

Yes. Of course, I think about the audience. From the beginning, the producers gave me the freedom to make an independent film, which has a commercial value. They were more interested in what kind of fairy tale [Englert and I] could create. I know that this film will not speak to everyone and may be overwhelming, as you said. Maybe it’ll be too much to handle. I am conscious of that.

Also, I must say, this is the first time in my life that I am not working with my own script. It was someone else’s, and we had certain restrictions that caused us to change things. I said to myself: The best way to do this is to make something very visual. If you’re going to make something with your own stamp, it should have some style that is your own. That doesn’t mean that others need to accept your style. It’s a European approach to cinema. I’m thinking of the audience, but I am also thinking about my own style, language and how I view the film.

And that’s what makes it a singular experience. I appreciated how you used the elements and sounds around these characters to maintain tension, such as floor creaks, trees shaking in the wind and heavy breathing. There’s also your editing style. Did you have to push yourself to find more visual and auditory ways to maintain tension when scenes may be a bit quieter? 

I go from the script, and then I go to the location to see how that scenario would realistically play out. In the script, it said “dry,” “desert” and “hot.” When we shot, everything was the opposite. We’re in the middle of Ireland, and it’s freezing, windy and rainy. Because of that, it was not possible to shoot that film. We were trying to unpack the whole story while in a new setting. It’s a whole process. 

You have to forgo many things with the new elements, and step by step, the story is changing. Of course, if you had $20 million and the entire script, which is 120 pages [and the final film is about 70], you may feel more obligated to do that story. We had a limited budget and a limited amount of days to shoot. The spirit of the script remains, however. It was mostly just dialogue trims, not so much the action. The characters talked a lot in the original text.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.