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An Interview with ZoŽ Dobson, Director of The Cunning Man

by Mike Haberfelner

November 2019

Films directed by ZoŽ Dobson on (re)Search my Trash


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Your new movie The Cunning Man - in a few words, what is it about?


The Cunning Man is an enchanted tale about magical possibility in the face of a cheap-suited inspector and a Ďknackerí man, who makes his living out of death.


How did the project fall together in the first place?


I became interested in the life of a knackerman. Itís a job at the very bottom of the food chain, a man who goes from farm to farm collecting rotten, bloated and stinking carcasses. Itís a gruesome job and to consider that this is his 9-5pm caught my imagination.

Collaborator and magician Ali Cook [Ali Cook interview - click here] had the ingenious idea of bringing the Cunning Man into the mix. Cunning Men were professional or semi-professional practitioners of magic, active from the Medieval period through the early twentieth century, and together with the knackerman we had our tale.


What can you tell us about The Cunning Man's screenwriter, producer and star Ali Cook [Ali Cook interview - click here], and what was your collaboration like?


Ali was the perfect collaborator for this project. As a professional magician Ali brought a sensibility to the project which was undeniable. His knowledge of the magic arts and my interest in the knackerman and coming from a farming family, bought the two worlds of the film together.


With The Cunning Man being about Pagan magic, did you do any research into that subject to do it justice on a visual level?


Once Ali had introduced me to Cunning folk, I started to read up on the subject. I came across a famous Cunning Man who came from Wales, John Harries (b1785). Although his detractors called him a quack he was a trained physician with a clinic in Harley St, London who believed he had magic powers, powers that could heal the sick. John Harries specialised in curing humans but there were also Cunning Folk who healed sick animals. My research turned up John Harriesí book of spells or incantations which is kept at the National Welsh Library. Itís handwritten with drawings accompanying the spells. One of which we used in the film as a reoccurring motif, seen in a faded tattoo on the Cunning Manís hand and later in the ashes collected from the fire.


I think one of the key factors of The Cunning Man is its locations - so where was it filmed, and what was it like filming there?


It was filmed on my brotherís farm in Wales. I knew the farm inside out and could picture every part of it so It felt like such an advantage to be able to visualise the set, all we needed to do was fill it with a cast and a story. It was such a strong influence on the film, it almost became the 5th actor. It set the mood, the palette and the dynamic.


What can you tell us about your overall directorial approach to your story at hand?


My approach is led by the visuals, allowing the story to unfold through the visuals. I like guess-work, I want the viewer to be curious to find the clues along the way and to be wrong-footed at times.


Iíve always loved Dutch vanity paintings, or vanitas and their themes: the transience of life, the futility of pleasure and the certainty of death playout throughout the story of The Cunning Man. The palette of the film, from the location to the costume choices were inspired by those of Dutch vanity paintings.


Do talk about your key cast, and why exactly these people?


The moment we set eyes of Simon Armstrongís headshot we were pretty sure we had our Cunning Man. You feel like he has seen life, has lived it and born the scars. His character has few words but his expression is all you need, I particularly love the way you only see him smile at the very end of the film, and itís a moment when he totally transforms.


A few words about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?


The shoot was tough, we only had two days and it was hugely ambitious. We had quite a few challenges; the pyre of animals had to set, striked and set again, which was a huge task for the art department, to achieve the top shot in the barn we had to rig the Alexa in the rafters and control it remotely, marshalling live animals into one of the scenes was particulary tricksy. It was a testing environment for the crew and some of the scenes were disturbing but everyone was on board with the ultimate message of the film and that was really important.


The $64 question, where can your movie be seen?


The film is presently touring the international film festival circuit. Check out the upcoming showings on social media by following the hashtag #TheCunningMan.


Anything you can tell us about audience and critical reception of The Cunning Man?


I love the moment mid-film where the audience take in a sharp intake of breath. I canít tell you anymore!


Any future projects you'd like to share?


Not at the moment.


What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to The Cunning Man?


I am a BAFTA award winning TV director and have directed documentaries for the BBC on the Ďwrapping artistí Christo, the photographer Alison Jackson and the classical pianist John Ogdon, amongst others.


How would you describe yourself as a director?




Filmmakers who inspire you?


Feeling lucky ?
Want to
any of my partnershops yourself
for more, better results ?

The links below
will take you
just there!!!

Find ZoŽ Dobson
at the amazons ...


Great Britain (a.k.a. the United Kingdom)

Germany (East AND West)

Looking for imports ?
Find ZoŽ Dobson here ...

Your shop for all things Thai

Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch.


Your favourite movies?


Ratcatcher by Lynne Ramsay.

American Honey by Andrea Arnold.

Coffee and Cigarettes by Jim Jarmusch.


... and of course, films you really deplore?




Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?

Instagram: @ZoeJDobsoon


Anything else you're dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?


Thank you for this great interview!


Thanks for the interview!



© by Mike Haberfelner

Legal note: (re)Search my Trash cannot
and shall not be held responsible for
content of sites from a third party.

Thanks for watching !!!



Robots and rats,
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Tales to Chill
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Tales to Chill
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a collection of short stories and mini-plays
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from the post-apocalyptic
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tales that will give you a chill and maybe a chuckle, all thought up by
the twisted mind of
screenwriter and film reviewer
Michael Haberfelner.


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the new anthology by
Michael Haberfelner


Out now from




On the same day
a Burglar wants to kill you
and your Ex wants
to make up ...
... and for the life of it,
you can't decide


A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
Melanie Denholme
directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
Michael Haberfelner
Ryan Hunter and
Rudy Barrow

out now on DVD