Family Business: Exclusive interview with Alien Outbreak’s Neil and Amanda Rowe

We speak to husband and wife team Neil and Amanda Rowe about their latest film, Alien Outbreak, their love of sci-fi and what it’s like to live and work together.

Alien Outbreak

New British sci-fi horror Alien Outbreak is the second feature film from Devon’s Rendered Pictures, which is the collaboration of husband and wife team Neil and Amanda Rowe. Neil is the writer, director, producer and happens to be an award-winning VFX artist. Amanda is a producer and composer, and together, they deliver ambitious genre films.

In Alien Outbreak, the deadliest plague has come from above! Set in a rural English town, two police officers begin their normal shift but soon realise something is wrong. With residents behaving strangely and horrific events unfolding before their eyes, they learn they are under attack from terrifying alien creatures and must fight to defend their town and community.

To celebrate the release of Alien Outbreak on DVD and digital download, we caught up with the pair to hear about their latest outing…

Working together, you’ve previously made Robot World which earned a great response among genre fans, how did you then conceive the idea for Alien Outbreak?

Neil: As well as producing films, Rendered Pictures is also a visual effects studio, so this is always going to be our main sales point. Alien Outbreak grew from the idea of the large aliens, and I really liked the idea of these large creatures in corridors trying to attack our characters. Originally, they were going to be a much bigger part of the story but as it developed, I thought that it would be unlikely this advanced race of aliens would be crawling around our small buildings trying to catch us! So, the drones started to become a bigger part of the story, and what their purpose was.

Amanda: I work as a police officer, so that’s where that angle came from. We could write a story about something I knew and therefore this part would be authentic. I was able to help advise Neil when writing the script to ensure we portrayed the police side of things correctly. I have worked in many rural isolated areas during my career where there are only three officers on duty at one time, which instantly makes for a great concept when developing a horror/sci-fi film.

How did Robot World help prepare you for the challenges of making another sci-fi feature, and one that was arguably more ambitious?

N: More than anything it gave us confidence. When making Robot World, we had no idea about the business end of the process and really didn’t know whether it would see the light of day. With Alien Outbreak we had distribution in mind from the very beginning and so were keen to be a lot more ambitious.

A: This certainly was more ambitious, although we did feel me may have taken on more than we could handle at one point. However, we muddled on and are pleased with the end result. For example, a main difference this time round was the amount of locations we wrote into the storyline and using a Landrover which was challenging in finding one to actually hire! Add to this mix the fact that we had a bigger cast and crew, although still small scale. I mean you are talking about, on an average day, having four actors and four crew members, but we all had day jobs, so we squeezed patches of filming in around our work. To get the cast and crew assembled for various days and nights filming took some organising, but thankfully it all went smoothly.

Neil, as you are the VFX artist as well as the director, is that helpful in terms of knowing exactly how your aliens or certain effects-driven shots will fit while you’re shooting and editing in your mind?

N: Yes and no. It helps certainly in that I get across my concept and my ideas to the cast for each scene with what is in my head. I mean, I know what readings I require on set and other technical elements like that to be able to complete the effects in post-production at a swifter rate. However, this also meant as I was the director/cameraman and CGI artist on set, when the scene was finished, I then had to turn my mind on to taking the measurements to get the dimensions right for effects shots later. It was tiring, especially on night shoots. Also, I did not have all the creations done by the time we filmed, so if an actor was asking what they are reacting to, I had to make it up a little!

Alien Outbreak
Neil is not only the director of Alien Outbreak, he is also the VFX artist!

How did you cast Alien Outbreak, and what was your experience working with the actors?

A: This was the first time we held a casting call since we didn’t need one for Robot World, as Neil’s brother Ian was our only actor. We achieved this by utilising the various local agencies, theatre groups and creating an online presence to allow local actors to audition, for example posting on Facebook or on the D&C Film (Devon & Cornwall) website and inviting actors to send their showreels. I viewed them all and made a short list, then both sat down and made our decisions.

Amanda, how long did it take you to devise the music, and what were some of your biggest influences?

A: John Carpenter really is the biggest influence for me. I feel the mood he captures within his composing works so well, also with the mood and feel of the films we are making. I am pleased that some critics have in fact picked up on this. I also look around at what sounds and styles are around at the time. I watch a lot of TV, I like a good box set and if I hear something of interest, I will try to replicate this music in my workstation. I noticed an increased use of drums in TV soundtracks and I played around with rhythms, using beats to build up the tension. I used Cubase 8.5 for Alien Outbreak.  

It’s great to see beautiful scenic locations used in British genre cinema. What are some of your favourite locations and why did you choose those particular places?

N: We are both from Exeter which means we are on the fringe of the beautiful and stunning Dartmoor and other fantastic places. Dartmoor just lends itself to the types of films we write and produce. We do have a low budget in the world of filmmaking so we have to rely on tricks to try and produce a good quality film, with access to locations. I often write scripts where we can achieve this, for example, using Dartmoor as a backdrop for our film gives the instant feeling of isolation with no need to dress a ‘set’.  This keeps our character list down along with negating large-scale operations such as closing roads or towns for filming.

A: As with Robot World, we worked with the local landowners such as the Dartmoor National Park and the Duchy of Cornwall. We hired various holiday cottages along the way as well, so the owners were very kind and supportive and made their houses available to us. We have some lovely quirky places throughout the film.

A: One of my favourite locations was Plym Valley Railway in Plymouth, a charity run heritage railway site with volunteers. I approached Dan from the railway, and he helped us achieve what we wanted, kindly offering the use of a train and carriages. On that day we worked with about 15 extras and it was a great and really memorable day. The team at the railway were very helpful and gave up their time to help us.

With Amanda also working as a police officer, she and Neil could ensure this side of Alien Outbreak was authentic.
With Amanda also working as a police officer, she and Neil could ensure this side of Alien Outbreak was authentic.

We have to ask, what’s it like working as a husband and wife filmmaking team? Do you make a point of switching off from work at a certain time of the day, allowing for family time, or throughout a shoot is a lot of attention taken by the responsibilities of the film?

A: We have two young boys as well, so family life is very hectic. We try to switch off however, inevitably, we end up talking and discussing the latest project out of office hours so to speak. We do involve our kids when we can. For example, we needed to do various pick up shots for Alien Outbreak and often incorporated a family day out on Dartmoor to do these. Our eldest, Jacob, helps Neil with these shots to the point that he has insisted on being called our assistant director!

It can be challenging at times but overall, we really enjoy working with each other. When it comes to collaborating on the music side of things, I will spend the majority of time exploring ideas and composing, then we come together and discuss what works and what doesn’t. This can get a little tense when I particularly like a sound, but Neil disagrees. Most of the time I can talk him around!

Is science fiction a main interest, or would you like to tackle other genres at some point? And do you know what’s coming next?

N: Science fiction is by far my favourite genre and personally feel that there is not enough feature content being produced. I think this is due to it often being more expensive, and sometimes difficult to keep the balance of science and entertainment. Horror is a close second, so there is so much to explore in these genres that I don’t think I could ever tire of them.

We are working on a couple projects at the moment, one large and one small, so we are waiting to see which one we will be able to make first. I am also working on other people’s projects and providing my expertise in the field of visual effects. This is another part of Rendered Pictures, working with other filmmakers or to advise on the CGI elements.

A: I have tried to persuade Neil to write a lovely romantic comedy, but he just won’t listen to me! Neil has a big appreciation of sci-fi and horror films and has a vast knowledge of many classics including low budget indie films. This is his area of expertise, so we go with what we know.

Finally, what can sci-fi fans expect from Alien Outbreak?

A&N: A fast-paced high tension, horror film. With lots of good quality visuals and special effects. It is crammed full of spaceships, drones and aliens. Not for the faint-hearted!

Watch in horror as a small rural community comes under siege by an alien presence and mass suicide spreads. Can they be saved? Or are they heading for extinction?

Dazzler Media presents Alien Outbreak out now on DVD and digital download.