Interview with The Dead Outside director Kerry Anne Mullaney
The Dead Outside is Scottish filmmaker Kerry Anne Mullaney’s feature directorial debut. Gripping, atmospheric and quietly unsettling, the film unfolds as a post-apocalyptic psychological horror tale of loneliness, loss and madness.
A mysterious neurological pandemic has ravaged Britain. Two survivors seek refuge in an isolated farmhouse in deepest, darkest Scotland. The pair forges a tenuous relationship until the arrival of a stranger throws their world into turmoil. As well as dealing with serious trust issues, the three must also fend off attacks from the infected population besieging the farmhouse on an increasingly frequent basis…
The Dead Outside screened at the first Yellow Fever Independent Film Festival in Belfast last year and scooped several awards at the 10th Annual Estepona International Horror & Fantasy Film Festival, as well as garnering nominations from the likes of Frightfest, Night of Horror and BAFTA Scotland. It was released to DVD this week and I was fortunate enough to catch up with its director Kerry Anne Mullaney and chat about mass media scaremongering, global pandemics, Alien and shooting low budget horror movies in Scotland.
Behind the Couch: How did the idea for The Dead Outside come about? What inspired it?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: I was very inspired by the stillness and peacefulness of rural life compared to the city. One day I was staying with relatives in the borders of Scotland. They live in a beautiful isolated area, and one night I looked out of the window at the fog rolling in over the hills and just thought what if there was no one else beyond those dark hills? How scary would it be, to be totally, totally alone. That's what really inspired the film and where the idea came from. The idea to use two main characters and the one location was purely because we had a low budget, but luckily it was implicit in creating the feeling of loneliness and disconnection we needed.
BTC: What was the writing process of the film?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: I wrote the film with Kris Bird. I'd had the idea for a while so most of the plot points where already down. It took us about four months every evening after work to complete the script. Much of the research was already done so it was just making sure it all worked. The dialogue was the hardest thing to pin down. We had a couple of days rehearsing it with the actors which helped a little, though you always need more time. We also rehearsed once in a studio and just before the shoot on the actual location.
BTC: Did it change much when you were transferring it from page to screen? Was it a difficult shoot? What were the most challenging aspects?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: I think we dropped a couple of scenes which didn't really move the story on. When you shoot your first feature you look at your script and just hope you shoot enough and don't just end up with a feature which is way too short - which is not so saleable. We always had to bear the 'selling' aspect in mind. In the end we filmed more than enough thankfully, so it found its natural length in the edit. I only wish we had left more time to shoot people moving around, exploring, action, and of course more rehearsal and practise time. Dialogue scenes are fairly easy and quick to get on tape, whereas people moving over distances, like action and exploring, take a lot longer to shoot. It was all a learning experience.
BTC: Sandra Louise Douglas gives quite a compelling performance as the troubled April - How did you go about assembling the cast and crew for the film?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: We auditioned for the three major characters in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Sandra came into an open casting session in Dumfries, we weren't expecting to find a local girl there, but we did. Dumfries is a pretty small town so it made my day to find her.
BTC: The ideas of solitude and isolation and trust are rife throughout The Dead Outside? What ideas and stories capture your imagination most as a filmmaker?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: I really enjoy stories that explore people's states being put to the test under extreme or extraordinary conditions. I find that most interesting, for example I really liked the film 'Blindness' by Fernando Meirelles.
BTC: What was it about exploring ideas around national panic and pandemics that appealed to you most?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: I feel like we, as a society, really 'live in the now', we don't see how our actions today will affect the future. Even when it's obvious that something will do long term harm; there's no will to do anything to avert disaster. It's a very difficult situation with no clear answer. The media really makes people panic as well. With swine flu for example, we got mass scaremongering, then it just dropped off the map when it turned out not to be so serious - where were the people asking, “Why did this happen and how do we stop this happening again?” Maybe we shouldn't really be keeping factory barns crammed with sick pigs coughing and wheezing but not dying because they are so pumped up to the eyeballs with antibiotics. Instead it's ‘quick get the vaccine out!’ It could have been much worse, we don't seem to learn! Nothing is being done to improve factory farming conditions to stop this happening again, there's no real public or political will. It's all about 'today'.
I think it is interesting that in society we see viruses and diseases as the enemy that we must quash at any cost. Like we have a moral responsibility to defeat all disease. But messing so much with nature that you end up with “extensively drug resistant” strains of infections in our hospitals, is terrifying. Just for an example, we have co-existed with Tuberculosis since before the Egyptians, yet it only became drug resistant in the 1980s. Now, every year, nearly half a million new cases of multi drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) are estimated to occur worldwide. When do we stop? I suppose I just feel like maybe we are out of touch with the natural progression of life, and there comes a time when the damage done outweighs the good. I don't know what the answer is, but the days are gone when we could just hope and pray that science will fix everything; the reality isn't so pretty.
BTC: Are there any ideas or themes you find yourself returning to explore throughout your work as a filmmaker?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: Themes I like to explore, I'm really drawn to how people behave, and what psychologically pushes us to that place we can’t get back from. Madness, loneliness and loss, but with a fantastical element. I like reality but with a little bit of the fantastic thrown in. I love exploring cult behaviour, alien orbs, telekinesis and things like the Milgram Experiment, it's all fascinating. And strange people, I love strange and wonderful people and characters.
BTC: The Dead Outside has quite a grim and moody tone – how did you go about achieving this? Was it difficult given the low budget and limited resources?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: Not really, it was Scotland in March so everything just looks like that. Cold and dull.
BTC: Obviously the locations were of the utmost importance to the story – how did you go about finding the locations in the film? Was it important to you to set the story in Scotland?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: I was born in Dumfries, Scotland, so I knew the area quite well which made it easier. I wanted to set the film in Scotland because of the ease of filming and I really felt there was a rawness and beauty in the accents of South West Scotland. The young girl was from the area and I feel we don't hear that kind of soft accent so often, it's usually Glaswegian or the Edinburgh accent. So I felt it was nice to represent my hometown accent, although, most Americans would probably not notice the difference, I'm not sure. But yes, budget and being close to our base at the time, Edinburgh, which is two hours drive, was important.
BTC: What are the subsequent rewards for shooting such a low budget film?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: Experience. To have the experience has been invaluable. Shooting it is only half the battle, sound design, making deliverables and continuity spotting lists are a whole other battle. Oh and money and time! That's been a battle too. But if it means I can do what I love then I'd do it again any day. The film took a whole year from writing the script to deliverables; a nightmare, but we learned so much. We learned that if you scrape just enough money to film it, then just set a date to film, there can be no going back - once you're in the edit suite you have a film in the making.
BTC: What kind of support can independent filmmakers obtain in Scotland?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: The main ones are Scottish Screen, which is now turning into Creative Scotland, the UK film council, for my area its South West Scotland Screen Commission. SWSSC gave us a little to help with transporting and housing crew.
BTC: You have been nominated and won several awards such as a BAFTA Scotland Award for New Talent/Director (congratulations, by the way!), the Golden Unicorn for Best Film and the Silver Unicorn for Best Director at the 10th Estepona International Horror and Fantasy Film Festival – How did it make you feel to have your work recognised in this way?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: It made me feel really overwhelmed that although we don't have a big budget, stars and lots of fancy special effects people recognised there was something special in our film, it has heart and emotion, and some would say buckets full of atmosphere. It makes me realise that trusting your own instinct and making what 'you, yourself' would like to see or feel on screen is important.
BTC: Who or what has inspired you most as a filmmaker?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: Early fantastical films like the Dark Crystal inspired me when I was very young. As I grew up I loved Animé and J-Horror. I remember the first Alien film deeply affecting me. I remember feeling this feels so real, I've never really felt like this before.
BTC: Are you a fan of horror films? What do you think of contemporary horror cinema?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: I am a fan of 'intelligent horror' rather than gore - but I do enjoy a good creature feature like The Host. I'm a sucker for a good ghost story too, but I don't enjoy CGI ghosts like in some Hollywood remakes. 'Ghost cam' ruins films for sure.
BTC: What does the future hold for you? Any future projects you can tell me about?
Kerry Anne Mullaney: Yes, we have two on the go. A science fiction body horror - working title Arthropoda. We also have a higher budget affair, called Harrow's Gate. It is a ghost story with a pseudo-mythological twist…
The Dead Outside was produced through Mothcatcher Films and is available on DVD now.