Click to viewWe've waited a year to see viking-alien epic Outlander, which hits U.S. theaters Friday. But for co-creators Howard McCain and Dirk Blackman, it's been 18 years of struggle. They told us their whole movie-making saga.
We were starting to wonder if Outlander would ever open in U.S. theaters, after it had showings around Europe last year but nothing was scheduled in the U.S. But the delay in getting the film released here was just the tail-end of a long struggle by co-writers McCain (who directed it) and Blackman (who produced it.)
Outlander tells the story of an alien (Jim Caviezel) who crashes on Earth, near a Viking town. And with him comes the Moorwen, a deadly monster that threatens to kill everyone in its path — if Caviezel's character can't enlist the Vikings to help him. Also starring in the film are Sophia (Doctor Who) Myles, John Hurt and Ron "Hellboy" Perlman.
Their mission to create a viking-alien adventure story began years ago — they had both read Beowulf in high school and loved it, unlike most of their peers. So they wanted to make a Beowulf-esque saga. Early drafts of the script actually named the hero Beowulf and the monster Grendel. But their Hollywood agent, "in true Hollywood style," told them nobody wanted a Beowulf movie.
Since then, of course, there's been Michael Crichton's Beowulf clone The 13th Warrior, the Robert Zemeckis Beowulf, and an Icelandic version, among others. But by that time, McCain and Blackman had already revamped their script to make the Beowulf references less overt.
They wanted to have an alien and his monster foe crashland in Viking times, because it removed the whole issue of historical accuracy from their "historical epic." Whether or not you can believe there was a monster named Grendel, anybody can tell that a crashed spaceship is made up.
Over time, the studio execs pressured Blackman and McCain to change some of the more authentic Viking names. And in every development meeting, Blackman and McCain had to explain that their Vikings would not have horned helmets, they wouldn't be goofy, and this wasn't going to be something out of Asterix.
The story McCain and Blackman ended up with clearly borrowed from Lord Of The Rings — another epic that nobody was considering filming, back then. And since LOTR lifted heavily from Beowulf, "we cribbed from a cribber. We stole from the best, who was already stealing," says McCain. "We knew what we were doing. For better or worse, whether anybody likes the movie or not, we knew what we were stealing from."
They also did tons of research into Viking culture — an earlier draft of the script spent way more time going into local Viking politics, including blood feuds and a battle over the throne. "There was a deeper tapestry." Blackman and Howard amassed a four-inch thick notebook with a D-ring binder, full of notes on belt buckles, tattoos, sword hilts, buildings and hairpins. They visited the Viking ship museum in Norway and took copious notes. In the end, of course, they had to decide which details to represent faithfully and which to sacrifice for the sake of a good story.
"It's a monster movie," says Blackman. "You're not there to recreate history, you're there to create a world that's fun to enter into and live in."
Their dedication extends to including some of the Viking warfare and politicking — plus a fight with a bear — before Caviezel's character even shows up. That way, you feel as though it's a real world, which was already having a life before the story begins.
The duo had a stroke of luck, when they managed to get Ninth Ray studios, a group of artists formerly from Pixar and ILM, to work on art and designs for the movie. (Including some of the concept art featured with this interview.) Ninth Ray had just done a first pass on a John Carter Of Mars movie, and had time to work on Outlander. So by the time the film actually had a budget, it already had detailed designs for every prop and building. (See more of that stuff here.)
One of the great parts of the film is that when Caviezel's alien visitor shows up, the Vikings pretty much understand him right away. They get the idea of his ship having crashed, and the fact that he's hunting a monster. McCain argues that the Vikings would have been pretty cosmopolitan — they had raped and pillaged so many other cultures, and traded with so many as well, that they had an idea of what other cultures were like. Vikings reached as far as Constantinople and Africa. Plus they had a rich mythic life, including valkyries as well as dragons.
On the other hand, Blackman says, if E.T. had visited the Vikings, "they would have eaten him."
In coming up with the Moorwen, the alien monster Caviezel and the Vikings fight, Blackman and McCain were mindful that only a few classic alien monsters had beocme icons, like Giger's alien and the Predator. So they came up with the idea of making the creature bioluminescent — something they think will also turn up in James Cameron's Avatar later this year. And they focused on giving the creature a rich backstory. But then they were lucky enough to have input from Patrick Tatopoulos, who worked on Dark City, I Am Legend and several other big films.
They wanted the creature to look like it could fit into the more natural world of the Vikings, as opposed to Giger's alien, which looked more mechanical and could only look at home in a world of conduits. "We had to thread a needle where it looks like an alien, but it could actually have a presence in the Viking world," and the Vikings could mistake it for a dragon.
The Moorwen also got some backstory, as we learned that humans had destroyed the Moorwen's homeworld. The Moorwen becomes more of a sympathetic character — right before everyone goes back to trying to kill it. Blackman and McCain said they wanted to add some depth to the storyline, and make Caviezel's space traveler less of a clear-cut good guy. In an earlier draft of the screenplay, the monster actually talks towards the end, so you realize it's not just a mindless beast. You have to feel for the Moorwen a bit, just like you feel sorry for King Kong.
"We may still have to kill it, but it's not entirely a good thing," says Blackman.
They also wanted to include a bit of a political message about invading other people's homelands and stirring up trouble — even though when they first wrote the script, Bill Clinton was still president, they felt it was a timeless theme about the "cycle of violence" perpetuating itself.
So is Outlander an action movie? A horror movie? A monster movie? An adventure film? I asked, and it turned out Blackman and McCain have been arguing this exact same point for years, partly in the process of figuring out how to market their baby. "We had a lot of deep arguments, ten years ago," says McCain. Blackman is very clear in his own mind that it's an adventure film, but McCain sees it as more of a monster movie with adventure elements.
But their biggest genre influence, originally, in coming up with the story, was all of the Chinese movies of the 1980s and early 1990s. "All those Chinese action movies, where they'll throw in everything," says Blackman. "I mean, there's gods and there's demons and there's kung fu fighting, and when we thought about that, we decided, 'what'll be fun?'... There was a certain amount of influence there, in terms of saying, 'Okay, we'll have some mythology, we'll have some scifi. Why not?'" But unlike some of those Chinese films, they think they found a narrative thread that ties it all together.
They're still sad that the film was kept out of the U.S. for so long, and didn't get a wider release. This weekend, it's opening in a bunch of cities around the country, but not L.A. or New York. The film did really well in Spain, "a country which isn't known for loving its Viking films," where it made $3 million on 200 screens. If it had opened wide in the U.S., and gotten a similar per-screen average, it could have made $30 million. It's not impossible that its U.S. run could get bigger if the film does well in its first weekend. (So tell your friends!) At this point, though, they mostly hope it gets a new life on DVD.
Meanwhile, the duo also have another movie opening this weekend — they rewrote the script for Underworld III: The Rise Of The Lycans. They were involved with a Conan reimagining that's still looking for a director. They have a World War II film, based on a true story, in development. And they're talking about a host of other genre projects. Let's hope their next movie doesn't take another 18 years to come out.