Gory days down on the farm
Billy O'Brien's accomplished horror film has an unlikely cast - a herd of killer cows. He tells Donald Clarke how even his description of calving scared the executives
When Billy O'Brien first approached Film4, the British production company, with the idea of developing a horror film involving killer cows the executives were, understandably enough, somewhat underwhelmed.
"So, we went to veterinarian school and got these digital images of cow autopsies and used them when we went back in, because they didn't quite get it. We also had these images from America of the famous Beltsville pigs experiments. These giant pigs. They were saying: 'What are you talking about? Cows aren't scary.' So we said: 'Just look at this.'"
O'Brien's story conjures up a striking image. A gang of film wonks - pony tails trembling perhaps - turn from their flowcharts and budget proposals to gawp at malformed bovine embryos and monstrously huge pigs. Perhaps they gave O'Brien the money as way of ensuring they'd never have to look inside his horrid portfolio ever again.
Then again, O'Brien is a very enthusiastic and persuasive man. A slightly portly, grey-haired fellow from Buttevant, Co Cork, the film-maker, now 36, talks in rapid, flowing sentences that throw vast amounts of useful information towards the listener. I would guess he is a hard man to say No to.
As it happens, none of the various production bodies involved should feel any regret at becoming associated with Isolation. O'Brien's debut feature, which stars John Lynch, Ruth Negga and Sean Harris, is, it is fair to say, the most accomplished Irish horror film we have yet seen.
FOCUSING UPON THE results of an ill-advised genetic experiment aimed at producing more than usually fertile cows, the film, shot in Co Wicklow, sends its heroes swimming through slurry and trudging across muddy snow as they flee lethal ambulatory embryos.
Many of the film's cosseted urban viewers may find the ubiquitous filth and rudimentary living conditions as frightening as the monsters.
"I remember sitting in London and telling people about helping my dad with the cows and pulling calves out of them," the farmer's son explains. "I quickly realised that they had never come across any of the things I was talking about. They were slightly appalled.
"It occurred to me that we know loads about Africa from David Attenborough and so on, but we don't know much about our own farms.
"So I worked really hard at ensuring every frame is soaked in the right atmosphere."
One of the most striking scenes in the early part of the film sees Lynch grab a newborn calf by its legs and swing it vigorously about his head to revive it after a troublesome birth. This is one of those activities you occasionally come across in films that looks so darn unlikely it must have a basis in reality. "It's not very common, but I saw it done once," O'Brien says. "They got me to help when a calf was being born. It was premature and he pushed me aside and began swinging its round his head. It is not correct practice of course, but it works."
O'Brien had his father's farm in mind when he was developing the concept for Isolation. He clearly still has a feeling for the land and agriculture, but admits that he never seriously considered taking over the family business.
"Growing up in Cork, I was always drawing," he says. "I was the only boy in the family, so people often asked if I was ever going to be the farmer. Well, both my parents realised early on that I would have been rubbish at that. I remember clearly them saying: 'You are interested in drawing, you should go to art college.' It was odd, because I was then studying with kids who had been cut off from their families because they insisted on going to art school. But it was actually my parents' idea."
After graduating from Dún Laoghaire College of Art, O'Brien went on to study for an MA in film production design at the Royal College of Art in London. He worked for a spell as a designer on Kenny Live at RTÉ and then travelled the world making major commercials for such firms as Barclay's and Orange. But, ever since directing his graduation film at Dún Laoghaire, he knew that he wanted to further a career as a film-maker. In 2000 his excellent animated short The Tale of the Rat That Wrote was nominated for a Bafta and, suddenly the toast of Wardour Street, he was offered a development deal with Working Title. So what happened? I notice that the prestigious production company, progenitor of Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary, is not involved with Isolation.
"We spent three years - me and a team of designers and illustrators - working on this big children's film about rats.
"Then eventually three things happened in a row. A version of the script was produced that, frankly, didn't do the business. Then we learned that Pixar was developing Ratatouille and Aardman was developing Flushed Away, both films about rats. That's two rat films from the two most important makers of children's films in the world." O'Brien parted from Working Title on perfectly good terms and his experiences developing the children's feature proved useful. The discipline of honing a story for demanding producers helped him when he came to knock together the script for Isolation. That film, grimly disturbing and gratifyingly free of post-modern nods and winks, forswears computer-generated monsters for mechanically animated creepy crawlies. His early adventures in animation on The Tale of the Rat That Wrote were, thus, equally valuable.
"The birthing scenes are, for example, all fake," he explains. "For me, one of the things I was secretly happy about is that nobody has asked me about the fake cows, because they assume they are all real. If you see a cow walking around in the film, it's real. Otherwise it might not be. We would cut from a real head lying in the straw with eyes blinking to a fake body and that really works. I was worried that we'd have the actors doing their best in this serious scene and then I'd cut from John Lynch's serious face to something that looked like a rubber cow. Thankfully, that hasn't happened."
O'BRIEN FINISHED WORK on Isolation last year and has spent the intervening period dragging the film round the world's film festivals. He amusingly explains that at dedicated horror events the audience set themselves the task of anticipating the shocks and, as a result, the film-maker ends up playing a sophisticated game with his public. "We were at this event in Belgium and they howl whenever they catch sight of the moon," he laughs.
Isolation won over those gore hounds and has been picked up by the respected independent distribution company Lionsgate UK. Propelled by positive buzz and excellent reviews from its French release, the picture has every chance of attracting significant audiences. This will come as a relief to O'Brien. Since he left the lucrative world of advertising he has married and has become used to the life of an independent director. He knows, also, that there may be no way back.
"To be honest, I didn't think of that when I made the move," he says. "I didn't realise that I might be struggling for money to get food. I just saw it as an opportunity. I really wanted to make a feature film and couldn't juggle it with the commercials career. But at one stage we had just 900 quid in the bank for ourselves. We had raised half the money for the film and, of course, that is as good as no money at all. I just didn't have a Plan B if the film didn't come off." At one stage in the film's development a commercials firm phoned up Billy and suggested he drop in a show-reel - a selection of his work - into their office.
"Everybody there was in their 20s," he laughs. "I was walking in there with a VHS and the rest of them all have their work on their websites. I handed it over to this guy with the dust all over it and he said in his very posh voice: 'We will give you a call.' I knew then that that was that." The nation's horror fans have it in their power to spare Billy any future such embarrassment.
Isolation is on limited release from Sept 29