16/04/08OUTLANDER: A Real Adventure In Indepdendent FIlmmaking
The Little Epic That Could
by Christine Purse
Dirk Blackman joins a panel of seasoned and successful independent filmmakers at HD EXPO on March 5th for "Creativity, Cash & Tools: The Making Of An Independent Film." His movie OUTLANDER, starring Jim Caveziel, Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Jack Huston & Sophia Myles, and directed by his writing partner Howard McCain, opens in select cities January 23.
In 1996, screenwriter Dirk Blackman and his writing partner director Howard McCain were inspired to write a no-holds-barred sci-fi retelling of the granddaddy of all monster tales, Beowulf, as their next project. Well before the more recent interest in the classic, the duo was enthralled and inspired by the story. They had no idea how adventurous getting the movie to the screen would be. While there is a (mostly) happy ending to their story, there have been enough twists and turns to keep even jaundiced insiders in their seats.
HDE: How did you and Howard begin to work together?
BLACKMAN: We're both transplanted easterners. I had moved here in 1988 to go to AFI and Howard was moving here after graduating from the grad school at NYU. A mutual friend thought that our tastes, which she found weird and off-beat, were amazingly similar. As it turns out, she was right! After a spirited and I'm sure somewhat embarrassingly heated discussion over which movie is better – "Seven Samurai" or "Lawrence of Arabia," we decided to write together. Our first assignment was at RKO, retelling the old Val Lewton classic, "I Walked With A Zombie." We've worked on twenty projects since then for a variety of studios and production companies.
HDE: OUTLANDER tells the story of a space traveler whose ship crashes to earth during the time of the Vikings. As you might guess, they don't roll out the welcome mat to a suspicious foreigner who shows up during a time of bloody tribal warfare. Once there, his loyalties and heart are put to the test as he helps the village battle a terrifying monster.
What was the inspiration for this redux storyline of Beowulf?
BLACKMAN: Our interests ran the gamut of all things geeky. From comics, to Godzilla; from Lord of the Rings to Archaeology magazine. Before we met, we'd both independently read an "Archeology" article about a Viking burial in which an entire intact Viking ship had been found. It got us to thinking about Beowulf, and why it hadn't been made into a movie. Naturally, we thought of aliens. What I mean is, we realized Beowulf was fantasy – everyone knows there were no monsters in Viking times. However, the language of acceptable mythology still exists – sci-fi. So, we set out to write the sci-fi origin of Beowulf: This is how it really happened. That was 1996. We sat down and wrote the script and had a blast doing it. We've been partners ever since and have worked consistently since then.
HDE: As OUTLANDER opens in theatres around the US, from TWC, many independent filmmakers might wonder how you successfully go from page to screen. Could you please give us a brief outline of how that happened for OUTLANDER?
BLACKMAN: After we finished the script for OUTLANDER, Howard and I were naturally impressed by what a good job we'd done. But what do we do with it? Our agent wanted to put it on the spec market. He was extremely enthused. It was going to sell. But in one of those marvelous pokes in the eye, the day it went out was the same day principal photography was announced on The 13th Warrior, the film adaptation of Michael Crichton's retelling of Beowulf. So of course, no sale.
Then we decided we were going to do it ourselves, with Howard directing and me producing. As you can imagine, that's not so easy. People were lined up for blocks to give us money. Seriously, the script was always well received, and attracted, at various times, four different producers and an offer to buy it and walk away from a major production company. It was tough to say no, let me tell you, but we stuck to our guns and kept pitching.
We came to the realization that we needed top-flight visuals, so we called Patrick Tatopoulos ("I Am Legend," "I Robot," Silent Hill," "Godzilla,") one of the pre-eminent creature designers in Hollywood. He read the script, believed in it, and designed our version of Grendel, the Moorwen. It was beautiful, if you like deadly creatures. That was a monumental step, because if you walk into a room with a 3 x 4 foot maquette of a Patrick Tatopoulos creature, people sit up straight. We ended up signing with the film's eventual producers, Chris Roberts and John Schimmel.
I believe that one step in our success to getting the movie made, and something that other filmmakers can use, is marshalling the "star power," of below-the-line talent. We got Patrick, then Iain McCaig, an amazing designer ("Star Wars," "Iron Man," etc.) who is now at Pixar. That package plus the script plus an earlier producer got us the attention of Barrie Osborne, just finished with The Lord of The Rings projects. Barrie became attached, and his name alone got us into a number of critical meetings.
While a $35 million dollar movie doesn't sound like an indie; this movie really, really is an indie. Firstly, in the studio or major production company environment, it would have been an $80 million film. Secondly, the money came from everywhere – Canadian tax credits, foreign pre-sales, loan sharks, soon-to-be jailed German fund managers, Harvey Weinstein. Production moved from Romania to New Zealand to Canada, all the time chasing the tax credits.
HDE: What's the technical background of OUTLANDER?
BLACKMAN: We went through months of pre-pre-production with Iain McCaig's 9th Ray Productions during which the entire movie was designed, from costumes to swords to space ships, plus full animatics of all the action scenes so they could be easily bid by the SFX houses. We shot the movie in 35, and finished a DI at Technicolor. Pierre Gil, a supremely talented cinematographer, shot the movie. The movie has over 600 visual effects shots and there were certainly delays and complications with that many visual effects in a compressed timeline and budget.
The Weinstein Company is distributing.
HDE: How did the bioluminescence of the Moorwen come about? It's very compelling.
BLACKMAN: It filled a story need. Most good monster movies try not to show you the monster too quickly. They want to tease you. We wanted to do the same, but not resort to hiding a ten-foot tall creature behind a tree or a barrel. We were inspired by actual bioluminescent fish to use chemically produced lights on the creature to suggest its presence. That way we could hide it but still give the audience something to look at that was mysterious and cool.
HDE: Early on, there was a bit of a viral campaign. How did you do it, and was it successful?
BLACKMAN: For us, it was very grassroots, but it was quite successful. We're now approaching over 500,000 hits on Youtube and it's helped with the buzz. Basically, we snuck a few unfinished trailers on the web site and on Youtube. We took a number of data bases and contacts, looked at the fanboy sites and got to one very influential independent publication, Ain't It Cool News. They sent a reviewer to a screening and he really liked the movie. He wrote us a terrific review. We're getting ready to launch the next phase tied directly to the movie's release.
HDE: What advice do you have for other filmmakers?
BLACKMAN: Know this: you are in it for the long haul. Moviemaking is not for the impatient or the shy. Always do your best work. That's supremely important. It took us 13 years to get the script onto the screen, but in that time, the script itself got us easily half a dozen other jobs. So you don't know who or where your work will be seen. It may not be where you intended it.
HDE: Thank you and great luck with OUTLANDER.