“Never work with children or animals,” goes the old showbiz adage. First-time filmmaker Andrew Cumming technically abided by that wisdom… though “creature feature set in the Stone Age” might soon belong on the avoid-for-your-own-sanity list.
Set 45,000 years ago and staged across the Scottish Highlands, Out of Darkness follows six prehistoric humans who wash ashore in a new world, in search of an evolved future. Cumming, Ruth Greenberg, and Oliver Kassman wrote the script in an entirely fictitious language called Tola, with a story that has the group’s immediate survival efforts threatened by something lurking in the shadows. As the patriarchal society’s leaders fall, a young woman, Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), confronts the threat herself. With thick atmosphere and enough on its mind to imbue familiar horror tropes with much-needed specificity, Cumming’s directorial debut is the kickoff to a promising career. But making the film wasn’t easy.
With Out of Darkness out in theaters, I spoke to Cumming about taking a big swing and sticking to his guns, in spite of the many raised eyebrows he encountered over the movie’s years of development.
Out of Darkness has been a journey. How many years ago did you start work on it?
We put pen to paper in September 2015. That was when we first committed words to sentences about the subject matter.
This is your directorial debut. Very few people start out by making a prehistoric horror movie. Did it feel like a risk? Does it still?
It brings me comfort now, but not at the time, because there wasn’t really a template. A lot of debuts, you can go, “OK, I see that this is a contemporary drama,” or “It’s a sort of comedy thriller” — you can see what it is. But then when we were pitching this film, we said, “Oh, it’s a bit like Alien. But it’s also a bit like The Hills Have Eyes. Also, The Witch?” So you’re borrowing percentages from all these different films and making this Frankenstein’s monster, and then going “Oh by the way, it’s my first film, it’ll be in a made-up language, a discovery cast.”
But I was excited by it. I felt like this was a movie I would pay to see. It felt like it could be really cool, and it would say something about humanity. But even when we were shooting… I remember the day before we started filming, I said to the cast I that was worried this was just going to be a huge Scooby-Doo movie. Without spoiling anything, you’re always just worried that people are going to find it hokey. When we were pitching it, we’d always be asked, “Do they speak?” I worried people were expecting like a Raquel Welch throwback [like the 1966 movie One Million Years B.C.], or a more cuddly thing like Alpha. I was fraught with a lot of anxiety, because it was my first feature and because there was no roadmap to making the prehistoric horror movie.
It’s a smart pitch on paper, but how did you find a way into the actual premise? What grounded you in this alien world?
The operating thesis was, this is a film that asked the question: Have humans survived because of our own inhumanity? So that was the thing we kept coming back to, whether it’s through a patriarchal aggressor, or through the sort of weird spiritual dogmatic elder, or whether it’s through abusive young people — whatever you want to name it, however humanity presents itself. Or whether it’s through the wars that are going on as we speak. That was the guiding principle: Are we at the top of the food chain because when the chips are down, when we’re afraid, we can just turn on each other and do the most heinous evil things to each other to keep ourselves alive? So that cycle of fear leading to survival and just going around in circles felt like a good shape.
With your first feature, I think you’re leaning into your own influences — either subconsciously, or you’re extremely aware of it. And one of them for me, Oliver, and Ruth was Alien. There’ve been many things written about Alien — I’m not going to add any new insight there. It’s just a fantastic movie. It’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s a horror movie. It’s a sci-fi movie. It’s one of the first films I remember seeing that had this female who rises to the top and takes control, but she’s not like a badass. She’s just a woman who’s in a terrible situation, who has done her best to get through.
There’s a lot of overlap, structurally, between Alien and Out of Darkness. We borrowed that structure quite unashamedly, because it works. And it was really important — it wasn’t like Eeny meeny miny moe, let’s choose Alien. We wanted to chart Beyah’s journey from this orphan to becoming an apex predator. The Alien template works because she’s the runt of the litter. She’s been oppressed her entire life. And if this group didn’t encounter this supernatural presence, she would have turned out to be just like Ave, the pregnant companion of the leader, just this downtrodden, oppressed woman.
When Beyah is eventually handed the spear, it turns out she’s actually quite able, and she has a lot of hatred and venom inside her, because of how she’s been raised and what she has been subjected to. So it felt like Alien and Out of Darkness were exploring the same thematic journey.
And the thing I love about the Alien saga, especially those first two movies, is from the xenomorph point of view, Ellen Ripley is a genocidal maniac. So that also fed into Out of Darkness, because the film becomes a meditation on all these things I’ve said, about what you’re willing to do when the chips are down.
You worked extensively with experts to develop a unique language for the prehistoric people, and even then, the dialogue is limited. How did that challenge casting? What did you ultimately look for in your actors?
First of all, you need that group, that core ensemble, to look like they’ve got the same ancestors. I would joke occasionally that we were making a pop supergroup. You’re working with tropes. OK, you’ve got the tall athletic one, you’ve got the clown, you’ve got the scholar, you’ve got the “virgin” — I am slightly borrowing from Cabin in the Woods here, but you get my point. You are taking these tropes, and then it’s about how you subvert them and play with them over the course of the film.
Then when you cast the movie, you don’t exactly know what you’re looking for, but then someone comes in with a certain energy. Safia came in and read for Beyah — she just was this force of nature, this little 19-year-old pocket rocket who had dancer training, so she was incredibly physical in her movement, but she could act. So we got Beyah, and I thought that was going to be more difficult. Sometimes you just get lucky. And everyone brought something quite different, but when you combine them, their energies all bounced off each other in a really helpful way.
Then we’re talking about costume and makeup. I encouraged my production and costume designer to go and look at Inuit fashion, because they live in a similar climate, and when they kill an animal, they use every part of it in their costuming and jewelry, etc. So it was all just about trying to make these people feel human, and that they have culture and they express themselves, and there’s real intelligence there, and artistic abilities. I think that helps them hopefully feel a bit more lived-in, and more like three-dimensional characters instead of waxworks in the museum.
Did making up your own language afford you some freedom to have actors say whatever they wanted to sound cooler? Could you bend the rules?
I don’t know how it is for other directors, but I have a strong sense of rhythm and dialogue. Someone told me When I read the script, there was a musicality to it. I think that helps actors learn their lines better, giving them a sense of rhythm. They’re speaking in this language, Tola, so the first thing is: Do I believe it in the eyes? Beyah wants something from Geirr, so do I believe Safia’s performance that she really wants this thing? Because they’re not speaking in English, you’re not worried about the words, you’re only worried about the intent.
And then it’s just that thing of: Does it have a rhythm? Does it feel lived-in? Are there colloquialisms? Does this line have too many syllables? Can we shorten it and make it feel more lived-in, that these two people are friends, as opposed to strangers who have just met? They would have a different way of talking to each other. So yeah, you’re just feeling it in the moment. We didn’t write an encyclopedia — it was a script, and all you ask after every take is, Did I believe it? And if you say no, you do it again.
The movie takes full advantage of beautiful, misty Scotland landscapes. How did the land change how you wanted to stage action and some of the creepier horror beats?
Originally at the midpoint of the film, they come across what we called the “blood pit.” Originally, that blood pit was supposed to be at the bottom of like a 30-foot cliff. And we couldn’t find a 30-foot cliff anywhere within 45 minutes of our hotel, so we eventually had to change it and create this rock that became an altar. And something quite horrible happens at that altar that was originally supposed to be something that involves the cliff. A convoluted example, but one of those moments where myself and Ruth looked at each other and said, “We’re not going to find this, we need to think of something else.” And then the thing you think up is infinitely better.
We were in some locations where you’re up to your ankles in marshy bog. So we couldn’t put any tracks down there, but I didn’t want to go handheld. So it’s Can we get it so it’s going to be flat, and not sinking halfway through the shot? It was a challenge every day. Even with the weather changing from day to day, you would see a location in beautiful sunshine, and then you get there and it’s 40-mile-an-hour winds. That changes the performance, that changes how you’re going to shoot it, it changes your energy levels. So you are reacting to things every day, but trying to hold onto that thesis, how each scene leads us toward the denouement. As long as you have that thesis tattooed under your eyelids, you’re good.
Who or what was the guiding light that kept you going through this?
I’m a disciple of David Fincher. I saw Seven too young, and that formed a lot of my character. I also came of age when [Steven] Soderbergh was making some extremely interesting movies. But even going back to John Ford, or Hitchcock, or Polanski — are you allowed to say Polanski? — just any filmmaker that has an idea of what the hell they want to do and executes it, and it looks like there’s been a plan, that’s a good start.
Let the record show you also have a giant Akira poster hanging on your office wall.
I convinced my dad to buy me Akira on VHS when I was 11 because he thought it was a Disney movie! While the rest of my friends were watching actual Disney movies, I was watching Akira.