When the fine folks that run the SXSW film festival announced the lineup for the 2010 iteration, it was met with excitement. It was a pretty stellar lineup, including some high-profile studio flicks like Kick-Ass and MacGruber as well as films that were riding a wave of buzz from other festivals like Winter's Bone and Enter the Void. As the festival moved closer, some films were dropped and some were added and somewhere, very quietly, a Neil Marshall presents a Secret Screening entry found it's way on to the schedule. It wasn't a secret for long as we discovered that we'd be treated to Centurion, Marshall's new film about a lost legion of the vast Roman empire starring Michael Fassbender. I had a chance to sit down with Marshall and toss a few questions his way.
Horror Squad: You've made a mark using strong female characters which is something that often doesn't happen in US action and horror films, can you talk a little about why that's important to you?
Neil Marshall: I tend not to differentiate; I just want to write good characters. With the exception of Descent, that was a very conscious thing to make an action or horror movie that was an all female cast because I hadn't seen anything like that before. But with all the other characters in the films, it's just like why shouldn't they be women? And certainly with Centurion, the historical context means that there almost certainly would be women warriors at that time. And it is in the time before sexism, so why not? And let's just exploit that. As long as they are three-dimensional characters, as long as they all have exactly the same motivations as you would give a guy, what difference does it make?
Marshall: For me it's just an integral relationship. Sam and I have been working together now for nearly 20 years on one thing or another. I don't know what I'd do without him. He thinks the way that I think. We both love the same kind of movies and have the same kind of thoughts about films. Each time we do something we want to try something new that we've never tried before, but we also want to make stuff as big and epic and cinematic as possible. Also, he operates as well as lights and he works really fast and his framings are just brilliant. We both like to work at quite a good pace. And he's just a great fun guy to work with as well; he's a great mate more than anything. It's good to go to work with your mates everyday and make movies.
It's a combination of him and Simon Bowles, my production designer, and Paul Hyett (special effects) certainly, who wasn't on Dog Soldiers but has been with me ever since. There is that kind of unspoken language or shorthand between us all. We all kinda know where we're going. You start building together a team. I guess my dream is to one day be like Clint Eastwood and have the whole team that you work with and make a film every year. It's just the same bunch of people because you know them, and you trust them to do the job. But the main thing with working with people again and again is that it has to be a challenge for everybody. I don't want to repeat myself, I don't want to do something exactly the same. Cause what's the point? We need to set ourselves new goals, new challenges and try something new.
HS: It seems pretty clear that you've got a big Carpenter influence and some George Miller as well in Doomsday, can you talk about some of your other influences and how that plays into your work?
Marshall: Yeah, I was certainly influenced by the likes of Spielberg and Ridley Scott and all that lot. And with this film it's kind of predominately the Western directors, Howard Hawks and John Ford in particular. I kind of see this like it's a northern western or a Roman western or some kind of comparison like that. The Roman army are the calvary and the Picts are the Apaches, and it's just like one of those She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or Rio Grande or something like that. And we shot it like that, it's a horse opera but in the highlands of Scotland.
HS: With regard to effects, what are your thoughts on practical versus computer augmented or computer generated effects in your films?
Marshall: My feeling has always been if you can shoot it for real, shoot it for real. It will always look better. And it's so much more fun. Shooting against greenscreen ... my choice of filming is like I'd rather shoot on location than shoot on a set and I'd rather shoot on a set than shoot against greenscreen. You start stripping away the layers of reality and it becomes a lot less fun to actually film. It may be cheaper or more practical, but it's a lot less fun. And even filming in a blizzard [like we did on Centurion], it was tough but it was really satisfying at the same time. And it got you capturing that reality on film...you really can't fake that. My feeling has always been shot it for real if you can, and there are some things you simply can't shoot for real. I'll try and do it that way. I love CG, it's a great tool; I just don't think you should use it to replace reality, you should use it to augment and enhance. Do matte paintings, do composites, do replications, stuff like that, but you're taking something real and working with that as opposed to trying to fake it from scratch. The human brain can tell the difference. When I'm watching something, the effect is no longer special as soon as I can see how it was done. If it was done in a computer [then] that's not really special to me. I think it certainly has its uses, but the day where it becomes [used] to replace reality then you start to get into muddy waters.
HS: You've done four very different films, is there another idea maybe for a film or maybe an idea for a scene that's stuck in your head that you'd like to do that you haven't had the opportunity to do yet?
Marshall: I've been working on a project for years called Eagle's Nest. I guess it's a little bit Indiana Jones, it's a little bit James Bond, it's a little bit kinda Where Eagles Dare, it's a World War II espionage [film]. It's a full on adventure movie. That's kind of my dream project that I continue to work on and refine and we'll get off the ground at some point. My biggest inspiration is Raiders of the Lost Ark. That's the film that made me want to make movies. And I guess this is my closest movie to that kinda thing, so it's my most personal project. That would be my dream.
HS BONUS TOPIC: We were also joined by the lovely Axelle Carolyn, who played Aeron in Centurion, and who has written a new film that Marshall is producing. I had a chance to ask them about this new project.
Axelle Carolyn: It's a ghost story. It's really inspired by old British films and that weird atmosphere they used to describe the villages in the countryside in Britain and you never really know if the villain is going to be the ghost or the villagers.
Marshall: It's like the crazy old English folklore of witches and stuff that's totally ingrained in the tiny little hamlets and villages around the UK. It's called The Ghost of Slaughterford because we stumbled upon this actual village called Slaughterford and it's the spookiest little place. It's like 5 or 6 houses and a church down in this little valley and you go there and you're like "Whoa, this is creepy!"
Carolyn: It's heavily inspired by the likes of Hammer films and The Wicker Man, The Others, the recent wave of ghost films. The Devil's Backbone is one of my absolute favorites, The Orphanage, those kinds of films. It's kind of a reaction to all those films that came out there were just a lot of gore and a lot of blood and not necessarily extremely spooky. But this is just going to be atmosphere and scares and old-fashioned chills.
Here's hoping Neil can get Eagle's Nest made soon! I'm looking forward to seeing The Ghost of Slaughterford as well, and be sure to check out Centurion when it's release date rolls around. Many thanks to Axelle and Neil for taking the time to talk about their films!