The inspiration for ‘Witch Hunt’ came to me as more and more victims of sexual assault came forward between 2017-2018. Sexual violence against women was making an appearance everywhere, in the past of men in powerful positions, on my own doorstep against girls my own age, and in my own potential future in the film industry. This short film is the product of everything I saw and felt at the time.
I am not a victim of sexual assault, nor am I claiming that this is how a victim would feel. I think the aim of the short film was to make a universally understandable story, that anyone who watched could recognise the pain felt, and empathise.
Writing the screenplay was difficult, and I wanted to handle it with as much care as I could. I researched transcripts from sexual assault trials (Brett Kavanaugh etc) to see what kind of questions victims and perpetrators were asked, what were the differences? What was the focus?
Concept Art, school scene
Concept Art, witch trial
Concept Art, courthouse (deleted) scene
Despite the issue the film deals with, I was adamant that absolutely no scene occurred where we see the main character Alice being assaulted. That would be extremely exploitative, and unnecessary. I also wanted to keep the focus on Alice as much as possible narratively speaking, I didn’t believe the character Thomas needed screen time or attention – what he did was inexcusable!
The Salem Witch trial comparison is purely based on the fact that I think it’s such a universal representation of violence against women. It’s not the only historical event I could’ve alluded to (the Magdalene Laundries jumps to mind) but I decided to go with something that could resonate with people on a global scale.
The screenplay for Witch Hunt differs greatly from the final film for a number of reasons. As a screenplay itself I think it is quite straightforward, and communicates efficiently the images that would be seen on screen. That being said, I wish I had gone through a few more rewrites before filming, so the dialogue could develop and become more natural.
Have a look at my Script for Witch Hunt
Before shooting I wasn’t certain what locations might have been available to me. I made general storyboards of all the scenes. This proved to be a huge mistake, and in future I will scout every single location in advance of the shoot, it is essential to know what you have to work with in terms of space and lighting, whether that be outdoors or indoors.
Storyboard, school scene
Storyboard, forest scene
A lot of props had to be made in pre-production, especially because of the size of the cast. Over 20 masks were made for the extras, and a pilgrim costume was created for Alice by my mother.
Casting was a painless experience, we shared a casting call online and received many audition tapes. I met with a few actresses who I knew personally, and had enough time to explain my vision.
The most difficult part of this film was actually organising the huge amount of extras we needed for some scenes for example the school, forest etc. I used surveys and group chats to find out what days would best suit the majority of people, and a lot extras turned up for each shoot day and had a great time!
The most challenging experience I have ever had on any film shoot was on the final day of shooting for Witch Hunt. We were shooting in a Courthouse in Kildare town, which is quite a distance from where we live. The cast and crew were mostly teenagers, and couldn’t drive, so getting there presented a logistical challenge. When we arrived at the location, which had been once a functioning courthouse but now an abandoned building, it was practically useless.
The courtroom and stands had been turned into a Santa’s grotto (it was March) and the rest of the building was completely empty and abandoned. The whole aim of shooting at this location was to shoot the climax of the whole film, when Alice is tried by a jury of her peers and the guidance counsellor (a part of the Salem Witch Trial sequence).
I had to improvise on the spot, devising new shots and scenes in the abandoned building. I was under an intense amount of pressure, not just as a director but also because I felt like I had personally wasted everyone’s time. By the end of the day I was drained emotionally, which was very difficult because it was our wrap day. Before I got home, I cried, because it was definitely the lowest point of my filmmaking experience, so far.
I was mostly afraid that we might need to reshoot some scenes, because narratively the film would end up very different without them. We got a whole lot of footage that day, but unfortunately, we couldn’t use a single shot. The only piece of footage I used in the edit from that day was Alice’s voice over description of herself. From now on I will personally scout every location well before Production.
It was a huge challenge editing this film. It went through a huge evolution from it’s original screenplay, scenes were shuffled around and some completely omitted. My main aim when editing the film was that it was to remain completely understandable and accessible to anyone who watched it. It could’ve easily become quite an abstract artistic film, but that’s not what I had envisioned and I refused to go in that direction.
In order to make sure the film was understandable, I had men and women watch different versions, and asked them their interpretation. It seemed that some men found the storyline hard to grasp. I kept re-editing the film to make it more and more simplified so that everyone could understand it. One of the final additions I made to the film was including the voice over, I thought it was important that the audience knew more about Alice as a character, due to the lost time of the omitted scene.
This short film was very difficult to finish, it went through numerous changes and it was not at all how I had envisioned it at the beginning. With that said, I am very proud of how it turned out, it managed to become a very unique and interesting short film, that challenged the audience . It was heartening to witness the respectful silence of the audience at the film’s screening during the Fresh Film festival and elsewhere.
I think I did the best job I could with the resources I had and the challenges I faced. I learned a lot of things, including how essential it is to visit locations well before shoots. Most importantly, I learned not to give up on a project when things get tough, and to see it through to the very end. This film was worth it!