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Interview with Billy O'Brien

On February 19th 2007 DVD sales started for the "cow" horror film "Isolation". On the same day we had the opportunity to interview director and writer Billy O'Brien, who talked about his project, feedback on his film and future plans.

Please tell us something about you. We know that Interner Link"Isolation" has been your debut as a director, but what have you done before it and was it always your dream to direct movies?
Well I started by going to art college and I loved messing around with cameras and drawing my own (bad) comics. When I finished I decided to go to film school and my doodles turned into storyboards. I worked for a while as a film designer on shorts before directing some short films myself. I found I really liked directing, it seemed easier then designing.
How did you get the idea for "Isolation"? The movie is - in a positive way - different to all the horror films that were produced lately. Why the topic "gene research on cows"?
I grew up on a farm and although I never thought that my first film would be set on a farm, the idea just came to me one day about having a monster in a cow, and all my memories of helping my father with cows giving birth came back to me. And that was exciting; using memories to create a "real" horror film; combining the reality of a farm with a sci/fi Billy O'Brien during an interviewpremise. The gene research plot came about for two reasons: I've always been interested in animal issues, one of my short films is concerned with animal testing, and secondly this type of genetic research/practice is very real and so fitted the reality of the earlier parts of the story.
Do you have some anecdotes from festivals that screened "Isolation" that you can tell us about?
It's been fantastic! I think Gerardmer and BIFFF in Brussels were two of the funniest. At BIFFF myself, producer Bertrand Faivre, designer Paul Inglis and editor Justinian Buckley all had to sing a song on stage before the film was projected. That was more nerve racking then making the film itself. In Gerardmer I tried skiing for the first time. Or falling as I've renamed it ...
What were the international reactions to your movie like?
Really good its only been out in cinemas in a couple of countries, but the festival and critics seem to like it which is good. However I think its not to everyones taste, I mean it seems strange to me but not everyone wants to go to the cinema to see people freezing cold covered in cowshit being chased by cows! Weird.
I talked to some fans after we had seen "Isolation" on the Fantasy Filmfestival in Bochum and their reactions were rather mixed, some of them even calling it slow paced and boring - an opinion I can not share.
After a year at festivals its been very interesting. I think some horror fans want the Interner Link"Hostel"/Interner Link"Saw" torture style of horror where not much is left to the imagination. Those films are a bit like an arms race I feel, as in what can we cut off or mutilate that we haven't before? And that's fine, the great thing about horror as a genre is that its wide ranging and over this last year I've watched the film with many different audiences and chatted to them afterwards (usually at the bar) and some like the slow pace others don't. I've always liked a mixture of films myself from the classic's like "Rosemary's Baby" to splatterfests like Interner Link"Bad Taste"! But I wanted "Isolation" to feel as real as I could make it, like a documentary.
What kind of reactions did you experience while visiting the festival in Berlin?
Berlin seemed fine, but I was only there for a night and didn't get to meet too many people.

Billy O'Brien in a public discussion  Billy O'Brien in a public discussion
The dark, sometimes even clautrophobic atmosphere on the run-down farm really intrigued me. Was the film shot on original location(s)?
Yes we spent over a month looking for interesting farms in Wicklow near Dublin. The one we used was big and factory like and run down. It was great to find it. Then Paul (designer) did tons of work to it, building into sheds and adding corridors etc and finally flooding half the buildings as if it was all sinking into the bog.
At the beginning there is a "beautiful" sequence in which Essie Davies sticks her hand inside the cow to feel the fetus. This was a hell of a special effect. Or did you use a real cow for this scene?
We did indeed! Essis trained with a vet for a day and learnt all the vetinary procedures. She insisted on it!
It is said that "Isolation" was made on a low budget. Despite this fact you create a look that can easily compete with a big-budget production. What were the most important things for you while shooting?
Time time time and the lack of it. That's what shocked me. You spend two years writing and raising the money and then on the shoot its in danger of failing because there is so little time to get all the shots. I learnt to adapt really quickly; to make the most of every minute we had. It was exhausting, but you are so aware that this is it, if I fuck this up all that time and effort is wasted.
Billy O'Brien during an interview
And would you say that the look of the film would be different, had you had a bigger budget?
Bigger budget means more time I guess! Some individual scenes I would have done differently, but now its finished I think that the frantic energy we had due to the small budget helped create something special. It was a hard shoot but everyone worked so hard that that energy was translated into the camera I think. But i'd like to try another film with a bigger budget to have more time, to try things out. However I know bigger budgets can also mean more restrictions like which actors you can use, and more editorial control. With low budget you do have control.
It seems you have put a lot of work into the creature-design as a lot of the scenes look surprisingly realistic, leaving the audience guessing what is real and what is only an effect. Until which point were you allowed to use the real animals?
It wasn't really an "allowing" issue, basically once the cow starts giving birth we would have to use the fake cows because a cow gives birth in a couple of hours and it would be impossible to get all the shots that time. In other words once the cow lay down in the film then it is mostlya fake from then on.
And did you encounter problems trying to get cows to "act" in your movie?
If you want quiet, thoughtful looking actors then our cows would be perfect! But distressed or angry cows is pretty impossible!! If a cow just wants to stand there looking at you then it will! We ended up using a selection of giant rubber cows for all the angry cow bits! It was really funny seeing half the crew trying to lift an animatronic cow over the wall ...

Isolation (screenshot 1)  Isolation (screenshot 2)
The monster at the end reminds me a bit of Interner Link"Alien", but in an early design-stage. I also think that the end bears a lot of resemblances to Ridley Scott's classic. Especially the final - definetly a splendid climax for the film - seems to be inspired by "Alien". The claustrophobic corridors, the sparse lighting - like old-school filmmaking. Was this intended from the beginning or was this dictated by the low budget?
Well it was always going to be in the back of my mind from writing onwards, after all when I was a teenager wandering around the family farm at night it would remind me of the spaceship in alien! (Or the milking parlour would become the engine room in "Das Boot"!) Its impossible not to think that way when you are doing a monster movie on an isolated location. With the creature designs we were determined to stay away from Gigers designs because so many Hollywood films rip him off. But although we researched genetic disorders and designed a creature and lifecycle that was very different from "Alien", at a certain point the low budget and the fact the monster is in dark corridors lit by torchlight means a lot of the subtlties of our design was lost and yes it does look a bit alieny in the finished film. Dammit.
How were you able to convince the producers to put money into your project? I heard that they didn't like the idea of a horror film with cows at the beginning.
Well not surprisingly they thought a horror film with cows was not going to work! My own two producers (Ruth Kenly Letts & Bertrand Faivre) liked the story and in particular the birth sequence but the funders were more difficult; the horror ones wanted it more like other horrors; more teenagers etc the other non-horror funders didn't get it and I had to take in photographs of cow diseases and autopsies in full horrific colour to persaude them.
Billy O'Brien during an interview
Do you remember any anecdotes that happened during the shooting? Were there any special incidents or mishaps?
Throwing the rubber cow over the wall like I mentioned/the fact it snowed on the one day we could use it which was like a miracle/the huge snowballfight that same day between the whole crew where I seemed to be everyones target/coming away from the catering van at 6am in the pitch dark and watching the wind and rain grab your breakfast and flying it off the plate into the darkness/watching a cow kick your lead actress and watching her kick the cow back.
What kind of goo did you use in the scenes with the slurry? Certainly not a comfortable stuff to be thrown in while it is that cold outside, right?
Throwing the rubber cow over the wall like I mentioned/the fact it snowed on the one day we could use it which was like a miracle/the huge snowballfight that same day between the whole crew where I seemed to be everyones target/coming away from the catering van at 6am in the pitch dark and watching the wind and rain grab your breakfast and flying it off the plate into the darkness/watching a cow kick your lead actress and watching her kick the cow back.
At the end you feature a typical element in horror films: the audience gets to see the dark future. Should anybody offer you the job, would you are willing to shoot "Isolation 2" or don't you like doing sequels?
Yes I do have an idea for the sequel gathering dust on my mac somewhere. Its called "Desolation" (!) however the phone has stayed very quiet about sequels, I'm not expecting any calls ...

If someone wants to remake< "Isolation" great, I could use the money. Call me. Please. Call now!
Talking about sequels, what do you think about the remake hype that has overcome the whole film industry? A large portion of the films produced lately are either sequels or remakes. Do you think Hollywood has no ideas anymore? But that they are also too frightened to give independent filmmakers with fresh ideas a chance?
In general it's a sign of corporate culture; everyone is too afraid to take a risk, its simpler making or remaking the same old trash again. When I see films like Interner Link"Children Of Men" and Interner Link"Pan's Labyrinth" get made it makes me so happy that somebody at last is prepared to take a risk.

Isolation (screenshot 3)  Isolation (screenshot 4)
Who are your idols and what are the movies that you like most?
Uhhh. Too many too long a list! I suppose I like directors who create worlds. You know the fat bearded ones! Kubrick, Coppola, Sergio Leone, Jackson, Del Toro!

Recently I've liked a couple of hairless slimmer ones like the aforementioned Alfonso Curzon, Park Chan-Wook and Shane Meadows.
OK, back to "Isolation. You took quiet a serious topic and mixed it with horror elements. What do you think about all those gene experiments and the cloning of living things?
I'm not a scientist but basically I believe any research done by companies for profit is dangerous because the pressure to get usable results to pay the shareholders means risks are taken, animals are wasted in an industrial scale and nobody is making moral judgements on the rights or wrongs of it all. This belief that scientists do not make moral judgements is total bollox.
We are nearly finished. Can you tell us something on what we can expect next from you? Will it be another horrorfilm or will you change the genre?
Writing a couple of things slooowly. One is a horror film of sorts. One is not. Its going to take me awhile!

Billy O'Brien during an interview  Billy O'Brien during an interview
Last but not least: Is there anything you would like to tell our readers?
Ummmm happy new year. May 2007 be a damn fine vintage for us all.
Thank you very much for taking your time for the interview.
Thanks for the interest.
Interview by Daniel Pereé
Translation by Ivo Scheloske

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