SXSW 2010 Exclusive: Colm McCarthy on His Celtic Beast 'Outcast'

Scottish filmmaker Colm McCarthy blew into Austin's SXSW festival for less than 48 hours to premiere his modern-day folklore-horror flick Outcast, a mysterious tale of dark magic and beasts set against the backdrop of Edinburgh's gloomy council estates.  As the director told FEARnet, the story about a woman (Kate Dickie) and her son (Niall Bruton) on the lam from a dangerous pursuer (Highlander's James Cosmo) has very specific roots in the mythology-laden childhood he shared with his brother and co-screenwriter, Tom McCarthy.

We spoke further with McCarthy about Outcast and its place within the filmmaking traditions of social realism and horror, his nostalgia for the days before torture porn, his genre influences, and where the beast story fits within the long tradition of European werewolf films.

FEARnet: What was the genesis of Outcast, and what is the film's relation to the tradition of Celtic storytelling and folklore?

Colm McCarthy: My dad is from Cork, Ireland, and he brought us up on mythology and Irish folk tales. He's a seanchai, which is an Irish storyteller, as well as being an actor in his own right. Myself and my brother grew up with all these strange, dark, Celtic stories and also with a love for horror movies. And I think that the film is a combination of those two things. It's an idea of what those kinds of stories would be like in the real world that surrounds us now; we spent our teenage years in a kind of mad castle estate in Scotland, sort of like the projects -- run down areas of multiple depravations, social housing stuck outside the city. No resources or anything. And the idea, I suppose, was that the dark forests of fairy tales and mythology kind of correlate into a displaced place where people couldn't afford to live in the city center have arable land to live. So that's where the idea first came from. And then the idea of doing some kind of werewolf-esque [story], a beast type film, that was kind of a whodunit, was kind of exciting. So all those things came together and stewed over the course of a couple of years and turned into the script. In the meantime, I'd directed a couple of short films that won a few awards, I started getting TV dramas to direct and that probably helped to then get the financing for the film.
Some folks describe Outcast as blending genre with the filmmaking style of social realism. Would you say that's true, and if so was it purposeful?

I guess so, I don't know -- social realism includes a lot of films that are really unrealistic. Like Mike Leigh, for instance, who I like; his films are called social realism. But I guess we were inspired by Alan Clarke, and the filmmakers who were influenced by Alan Clarke like Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, British actors turned filmmakers. My brother and I watched The War Zone, the Tim Roth film. It's a great little film, an incest drama with Ray Winstone and Tilda Swinton, and it's amazing. What it does is, the first 25 minutes of this film you're watching this family and you know that something's wrong but you don't quite know what it is. But what I love in horror are films like The Shining, which is in a way the same thing… So I don’t think that's that mad of an idea, I think it's mad that nobody's really done it in a big way before. Scary films are more scary if the environment is real, you know? The idea of making a scary film with real people in it is much more interesting to me.

You've spoken about Outcast in the context of the modern legacy of Hammer Horror films and the days when horror was about suspense rather than gore. Can you elaborate on that?

There are a lot of torture porn and gore-indulgent films, and I have nothing against that. When I was 15 I used to love Troma films. That's all great, and I don't want to slag off that kind of film because it's definitely got its place in entertainment. But for me, a really good horror piece is something that deals with stuff that's actually uncomfortable for us. The term comes out of being uncomfortable, not from seeing someone's eyes pulled out of their sockets. I find that stuff kind of funny. And that's cool, that's fine. It's just a different thing than what we're trying to do. It kind of feels a bit like there's one kind of horror product out there now. There were more of the interesting, dark films that felt like they were happening in the real world made in the '70s, a lot of horror material of that type. All the classics from back then were interesting, films where maybe it wasn't a bad thing to be a bit grown up.

And with Outcast, you're trying to hearken back to that tradition and perhaps bring something new to modern horror?

Maybe. I suppose the thing for me is, a lot of people… I was talking to Tim League who runs the Fantastic Fest, he was really understanding of what I was talking about because a lot of the time when you tell people you like horror films, they assume you're an idiot. They assume you like bad films. Not that you like films that are challenging and dark. If you like horror literature, there's a lot of classic stuff out there to be into; I've seen quite a few films made of Clive Barker's books but have never seen a film that's like a Clive Barker book. Don't Look Now, or even The Exorcist -- look at The Exorcist, when it came out they played it completely straight with no winking at the audience. I quite like that in a movie.

You mentioned that Outcast came out of both the folklore you'd heard as a child and the horror films you and your brother had watched as kids. What were some of those films that influenced your sensibilities?

The Shining was a big influence on both of us, for sure. And I suppose that talking about a love of horror films is talking about a lot of films that [weren't necessarily horror] -- Don't Look Now, I wouldn't call a horror film but it falls into a lot of categories. The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist, those are films that scared me. But also there was a lot of TV; there's a British series based on a Roald Dahl adult stories called Tales of the Unexpected. That was a really interesting thing. It was a bit like The Twilight Zone, but darker. The stories were all quite twisted, dark stuff but they felt grounded in reality, sort of mythical.

And to you, is Outcast a stab at creating a sort of modern-day mythology?

Somebody asked me the other day, is it real mythology? It's based on mythology that's quite old and Irish. I said there's no such thing; that's what mythology is, made up stuff. But it's memorable, hopefully.
You mentioned a beast element to the story of Outcast; is this in some way a reclamation of the Wolf Man/werewolf folkloric legacy in Scottish and Irish culture, which has since become appropriated by Hollywood horror films?

Well there are certainly lots of good shape-shifting and lycanthropic tales in Irish and Scottish folklore and mythology. I think The Beast in our film is more a representation of unrestrained male lust and rage. There certainly are good stories of this type from Scotland and Ireland, but my very favorite werewolf stories come from France, actually. There is a great one where the whole village is searching for the creature that has been terrorizing the locals and as the search parties are being organized the local drunkard stumbles into the town square. He is a shambles of drunken insolence and ends up collapsing at the feet of the mayor where he promptly proceeds to vomit. The revulsion at this act is nothing compared to that given reign when the villagers realize that he has thrown up the half chewed arm of a small child who has been missing since the night before. They have found their werewolf. The idea of werewolf story as whodunit is one of the main strands of Outcast, though our Beast is somewhat less hairy than traditional...