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Howard McCain, Outlander Interview

from / by Troy Rogers

If you’re a fan of Viking movies, you’ll undoubtedly want to stand up and take notice of director Howard McCain’s upcoming sci-fi/fantasy film Outlander, currently filming in both Halifax, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland on the east coast of Canada. Jim Caviezel stars as an alien named Kainan who crash lands on Earth during the time of the Vikings. He aligns with local Norsemen to battle another extra-terrestrial called Moorwen, which has also crash landed on the planet at the same time. With the production in full swing on the east coast, we caught up with writer/director Howard McCain to talk Vikings, creature design by Patrick Tatopolous, and what fans can expect from Outlander, which also stars John Hurt, Ron Perlman, Sophia Myles, and grandson of the late great John Huston, Jack Huston.

UGO: Where did the inspiration for Outlander come from?

HOWARD MCCAIN: Actually, I remember the day in 1992 when I was in NYU film school. I saw a cover of Archaeology magazine and there was a picture of a Viking ship on it that they rebuilt to sail across to Newfoundland. I kept thinking I always wanted to make a version of Beowulf and at the time Lord of the Rings hadn’t come out yet. I kept thinking that nobody is going to buy a monster in Viking times. I put that idea on the shelf and then in about 1998 I decided it could still be a cool idea, and we’ll use science fiction as the excuse to jump back in the past and basically tell Beowulf that way. It was originally written as Beowulf with the lead character called Beowulf, and there was a Grendel and everything else. I wrote it and the agents loved it, but they said everybody hates Beowulf. It was that thing you were forced to read in English class that nobody liked, so we had to re-title it and all of the characters changed and it became Outlander.

UGO: How tough of a sell was the script?

HOWARD: I was just a budding screenwriter and it got me a writing career. It didn’t sell, but it got me a career. Everybody liked it at the time and it got optioned a number of times. Renny Harlan was even going to make it once. Then a couple of years ago we tried to get it made, self financed. A friend of mine, Patrick Tatopolous did a fantastic creature for us for free. More time went by and we found this company called Ascendant Pictures, who just made Lucky Number Slevin and Barry Osborne, the producer of all three Lord of the Rings, was a huge fan of the script. and he came on board. This was about two years ago and at about that time the film was set to go to New Zealand with a significantly higher budget. But because it’s an independently financed film, and a very expensive one at that, some of the money fell through. We’d already scouted New Zealand and Weta was going to do the effects. They were offering to do all of the armor and chain mail, and that stuff. We were going to shoot it in the South Islands, but that all collapsed, which was very sad.

UGO: How would you describe the film’s conceptual design?

HOWARD: Iian McCaig, one of the chief character designers on the last three Star Wars movies, is a friend of mine. After those movies wrapped Iian and a bunch of artists left LucasFilm and moved down to L.A. to form a co-op of artists that would do production design, concept work. They’re called Ninth Ray Studios and they worked on John Carter: Warlord of Mars and now they’re doing Iron Man for Jon Favreau. Last summer, right before the New Zealand thing collapsed, we hired them and spent about ten weeks just doing concept artwork and storyboarding for the entire movie and we did animatics for it, and everything. We did characters, props, buildings, everything. It was an amazing film, an amazingly expensive one.

UGO: I’ve heard Outlander described as Vikings meets Predator, but Jim Caviezel recently compared it somewhat as Braveheart meets Highlander. How do you see it?

HOWARD: I guess it’s kind of Predator meets Braveheart. As a one-liner, I guess those work, but they sound corny when I hear them. Highlander meets Braveheart is about as accurate, but the film has more adventure and romance. It’s not just strictly a hardcore action film the way Predator was, so in that sense it makes it more like Braveheart. You really get into the Viking world. One of the things I’m proudest about with the movie and story is that you really get the sense that there is a whole culture and world going on in the Viking times before the hero arrives. There’s a huge political conflict that is occurring between these two tribes. It has nothing to do with our hero, but eventually plays directly into the plot. A lot of movies like this just feel like the movie is waiting to happen once the hero arrives. A hero just drops into this movie and it’s already going, and it has its own concerns, relationships and problems.

UGO: So how would you describe Jim as the Kainan character?

HOWARD Well, he’s a very soulful Kainan and that’s what I wanted. I wanted a person with soul, and there were a lot of actors suggested to me. Over time, I didn’t really care if they could do the action part really well or not. Personally for that character, it’s about a man being reborn and it’s about him learning to take responsibility for what some of his actions were in the past. It’s kind of an original sin that you find out as the story gets going between him and the monster. That’s what I also liked about this; the monster is a character, not just a killing machine. He has a whole history with the hero and it’s born out in the course of the story that it’s starting to repeat itself here on Earth. So, I like that. I like stories that invent their own mythology and kind of carry it through and bother to give a history and a backstory of why things got to be the way they are. Jim can bring that soulfulness and that gravitas to the part that the character needed. Jim is also, I think, as he himself would admit, there is something a little ethereal about Jim – his look, his manner, his nature – he looks different than the Vikings. He’s also great to work with and he’s a really warm person, so it was pretty comfortable.

UGO: You’ve got a really diverse cast with Jim, John Hurt, Sophia Myles, even Jack Huston. How important was casting?

HOWARD: I think the reason we were able to get the level of cast that we wanted partly was because I keep fighting that one-liner you mentioned, Predator meets Braveheart. For instance, when John Hurt was given the script he said, “You have to be kidding, Vikings and aliens,” and his wife and him just rolled their eyes. But when they sat down to read it, John said, “Wait a minute, this isn’t what I thought at all.” Then they read it again and said, “This really works.” That’s what we wanted, really good actors for these roles. Sophia is amazing, she’s just spot on. Jack, who is the grandson of John Huston, is amazing. He’s going to be something pretty quick, I think. Also, because it’s a Viking film, you kind of have to play a European angle. It’s fine that Jim sounds like an American, because he’s the alien in the bunch, but everybody else had to have that European sound in order for a Western audience to buy that they were Vikings. The other cool thing; there is a point in the film where Jim, who is speaking in his alien tongue before he learns the Viking language, in order to invent our own language we decided that’s what he would speak, we actually use old Norse. We went to Iceland and got this professor who is one of the only people in the world who can speak old Norse, which is a totally dead language. We had him translate the dialogue and then brought in a language guy to teach Jim and another actor how to speak old Norse. We’re the first film in history, Viking or otherwise, to have old Norse in it. The cast is really important that you find a believable cast to bring you into this world. You treat it with a lot of respect and a lot of love so that the elements that might make you stand back a little bit were overcome by the authenticity and the intensity of the performance.

UGO: How are you and Patrick Tatopolous approaching the Moorwen creature from a design standpoint?

HOWARD: Well, just to let you know about the name, since we couldn’t call it Grendel anymore, we always liked the word Morlock from H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. It was actually a play on that, so we came up with the name Moorwen. It had to fit several things. First of all, I didn’t want some biomechanical killing machine. Pretty much since Alien, with the exception of Predator, all of the creatures that have been made since then kind of fall in the shadow of those two creations. What we decided right off in terms of the story, the Moorwen was really more about that it had character; it had backstory more than just its shape and its design. Beyond that, when you got into the shape and design, Patrick and I looked at it and we both thought something should look great in silhouette. It should have a sensual, pleasing shape to it right away that the eye fixates on and loves the shape. Also, underneath all of that, the creature is an animal. It’s not a monster. It’s a monster to us, but it’s an animal, which kind of puts it down a different path because you’re not trying to design something that is so outrageous and makes no sense that the eye has difficulty comprehending it. In certain stories that works perfectly, but in this story it doesn’t. This is a creature that in its world whole social structure and a life, and is an animal. It may be at the top of the food chain in its world, but it is a biological living thing. With that in mind, you can still design something that is scary as sh*t, and it represented that idea. Where you look at H.R. Giger’s Alien, it really doesn’t fit into any kind of known concept of animal, bug, or whatever. A lot of people took a crack at the design, but Patrick just got it right away. He brought the right amount of fierceness, sensuality, the sense of personality and a sentient kind of intelligence to this thing that was perfect. I love the design.

UGO: So how does it fit into the story?

HOWARD: He’s there the whole time, but he’s bioluminescent, so when he’s in the woods hunting at night, you can’t see him unless he wants to be seen. In this world, first of all, the Vikings have no street lights or anything, so whatever is there is the only available light at night, the torches. It’s not like Predator. It’s not see-through or anything, it simply uses light to lure its prey and what Patrick came up with is pretty cool.

UGO: How are you balancing the effects with the story?

HOWARD: I would actually lump in effects with the action, because there is a lot of action in the movie and some of it centers around the effects. It’s not a problem; actually, because in this film the way the creature makes itself known, and it’s kind of allotted out as the story progresses, it doesn’t overwhelm anything. Right about the time you find out what it looks like, you now find out about this big backstory, which now makes you look at that thing in a totally new light. Before it was just a thing to fear.

UGO: I’ve heard you built an actual Norse village and a Viking ship.

HOWARD: Yeah, and it was very sad when we burned it. We built a beautiful boat, and I’ve been to Norway to research the film. We couldn’t shoot in Norway, because it’s the most expensive place on earth. When I got off the plane, I went to McDonalds and a medium coke and fries cost 13 U.S. dollars. I went to the Viking ship museum in Oslo and that’s where they have the Oseberg ship, this burial ship that they dug up. We got the measurements and designs for that and that ship was 77 feet long. We had to shorten ours by 10 feet, because it wouldn’t fit down the road and we had to take it to this place called Little Port in Newfoundland where we put it in the water. It was a real Viking boat in every other way. We rowed it out to sea and it was unbelievably beautiful, and then we burned it. Actually, we burned it twice and by the second time the thing was cooked.

We built the village out at Nine Mile farm, which flooded. When we went there and scouted it in late May or early June, we logged our own trees to do it and because we were on such a tight budget, we hired our own logging crew and truck to cut all of our own tress to build the parapet. We have like 800 feet of parapet wall and it goes up 20 feet. We also build the long houses, a lot of them true to form. It took three months to build the village and it’s pretty big. It will be very sad when they have to tear it down.

UGO: It’s interesting that you also have Debra Hanson on board as your costume designer.

HOWARD: Yes. Debra did Beowulf and Grendel, which was shot in Iceland. That was a big boom for us, because all of our extras use costumes that come from that movie. Not the lead costumes, just the extras. There was a huge shipping container that came over from Iceland with all of the costumes for the extras. She built by hand all the rest of the costumes. She did an amazing job based on the Ninth Ray designs because we did everything a year ago with Ninth Ray Studios.


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