British director Christopher Smith (he of 'Triangle,' 'Severance' and the underloved 'Creep') is back with a new genre film, 'Black Death.' Starring Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Houten and Andy Neyman, Smith's latest follows a band of 14th Century knights (led by Bean) who seek out an isolated English village that is reportedly unaffected by the bubonic plague currently sweeping the nation. It's a gritty and somber story about life and death, faith and conviction in medieval England. So, basically, if you saw the trailers for 'Season of the Witch' and thought it looked too goofy and Hollywood-y for your tastes, 'Black Death' will definitely be more up your alley. (Think of it as 'Season of the Witch' by way of 'Valhalla Rising.')
Speaking of 'Season of the Witch,' Smith holds no ill will toward it. The similarly-plotted movies coincidentally went into production back-to-back (in fact, some of Smith's crew members worked on both films) and 'Witch' just beat 'Black Death' to theaters (the film is currently available On Demand and will hit theaters on March 11).
Smith also happens to be a huge fan of Nicolas Cage's, though due to a recording flub I was unable to transcribe our opening discussion of how great it would be to work with the actor. So even though that part of the conversation was lost, don't be surprised when Smith, who has an infectious, energetic passion to simply be working in the film industry, brings up 'Bad Lieutenant' and his new werewolf movie in the same breath.
How important is it to establish a precedent for how you're going to handle violence in a film? In particular, it seems that the first person Sean Bean kills sets the tone for the entire movie.
Christopher Smith: If you walk off and kill someone in the distance, it's much more powerful to me than if you use an almost pornographic, close-up insert shot. He walks her away and privately cuts her throat. He takes a good time to do it, he's properly sawing, and then he drops her down and just walks away. That is more gut wrenching than if we had 15 cameras all around the shot. The reason is because it reminds us more of the brutality of the way people die in the real world. That's what we tried to do throughout the film. We tried not to titillate. Obviously there's one big scene at the end, but that's the only scene in the movie where that's the case. All of the other times it's blunt and brutal.
If you look at movies like 'Saving Private Ryan,' for example, people remember those scenes of soldiers getting gunned down more because it's so realistic. Don't get me wrong, I love the macabre, really titillating sequences in horror movies and I've done them, but for this movie keeping it real was the mandate.
There's also a realism to the way Sean Bean has to struggle to get through the tissue.
It was a lot of work. Imagine me going up to Sean Bean – this is a man I've admired all my life – and telling him, "Right, what you're going to do Sean is really saw through her neck." So he goes off and does his thing and I'm laughing! I'm laughing because it's brutal and it's Sean and so he kept wondering if it was alright, so I just kept saying "It's great, Sean."
He's so somber and perfect for the role, was Sean Bean who you had in mind the entire time?
There was a long history to the project, actually. Originally Geoffrey Sax was going to make the movie and he came to me when I was halfway through the edit of 'Triangle' [with Sean attached]. I loved the story and I had a lot of ideas for the second half of the script and fortunately there was a writer and producers who wanted to go for the real feeling. The first half of the film you see is almost identical to the script I read, but the second half was more supernatural.
I felt that if we were dealing with a period and a real thing-- If the bubonic plague had happened 50 years ago instead of 600 years ago, we would be shooting it in a very austere manner and giving it the same respect we do World War II movies. We don't shoot them in a men-on-a-mission way, unless you're Tarantino; we shoot them in a serious way. That's the case with Vietnam movies and that's definitely the case with Iraq and Afghanistan movies. I feel like there's this thought that once you go far enough back in time, people just go "F**k it, let's shoot it like a fantasy." And if you watch most medieval movies, they're shot like fantasy movies. But I wanted to shoot it like a war movie, which would affect not only how we shot it, but how the actors acted in it. That's why it has this modern feel even though it's very old fashioned.
How much research do you and your production team do to make a convincing period piece on a small budget without sweeping shots of castles and what not?
First we had that idea that if this is a war movie, let's stay with the characters, let's walk with the characters. The camera almost stands behind their shoulder and walks with them and immediately that negates helicopter shots and all that.
In terms of accuracy, we obviously had to do a ton of research for how things look, costumes and all that. The DOP also did an amazing job of how much smoke and fog and texture was in the air, but it wasn't just a case of making it look good and filming it so it still looked good. We had to get into the spirit of how these people would think and act. It's interesting you mentioned the Sean Bean moment, because when he does that you think, "Oh, what a horrible person. He's a maniac." But in the very next scene he explains it was the only option he had and the audience goes, "Yeah, that's reasonable." And you get behind him, you start to think in a medieval way, which helps a lot.
But of course there was another option. They could have taken her with them for 50 miles. But he doesn't see that option because he's a fundamentalist that deals in black and white. What works in the film for me is the pace. It's a risk to do that when it's not a drama and it's not a straight horror movie. You have to obey certain rules. This is a guys on a mission movie, so you have to give them battles and obstacles and tension.
It was a balance. We shot the film in order, which was a luxury. So the first thing you see is the first shot and the last thing you see was shot on the last day. That kind of continuity created this strange feeling of authenticity.
Where'd you guys shoot? Was it in England or elsewhere in Europe?
We shot in East Germany, actually. You're lucky in the States. You've got everything and you've got space for everything. In England, we have everything, but since we're much smaller whichever way you look you're going to see a telephone pole or a power station or a Starbucks. We don't have the space to do it anymore, but East Germany hasn't become Americanized yet. You can walk for a while and not see a petrol station.
Moving beyond 'Black Death,' I wanted to read to you what you said to me when we spoke last year about 'Triangle' and what was next for you you had 'C.H.E.R.U.B.' but then you also said, "Oh, and just so the horror guys know I haven't lost my street cred, there's a really twisted horror movie in the pipeline." And I just wanted to know what that movie was and if it's still in the pipeline.
It's absolutely in the pipeline. 'C.H.E.R.U.B' is an ongoing process. It's a kids film I want to do that's very edgy and street. It's like 'Gremlins.' It's not fantasy in the way 'Gremlins' is, but you wouldn't make 'Gremlins' anymore. It's fun but kind of mean spirited. When it came out in the UK it had a 16 certificate, which means it's not actually for kids. In America it got a PG or whatever it was, but that territory is near the mark. As long as the morality is good then that should be fine. So I'm still trying to do that, which I've been trying to do for a while.
And then I came up with a really cool werewolf film that I want to do. I've written the first draft and we're about to start the second one. It's funny, it's not straight horror, but it's not funny-funny, either. It's kind of like 'Bad Lieutenant' funny.
Woah. Bold statement.
[laughs] I love that movie. It's got laugh out loud moments and it's very risque.
Do you have a title for that?
At the moment it's called 'Bitch.' [laughs] It might not be called 'Bitch' in the end because that's a bit full-on. It might be called 'Blue Moon' or ... what else have we got ... 'Killing Moon.' I like those, but 'Bitch' is the most punchy.
It'll get some eye-rolls, that's for sure.
[laughs] "I'm not going to see 'Bitch!'
I'm not sure I'll be able to get away with it. I keep telling people that if you wrote the script for 'The Exorcist' now and you handed it to a studio, they'd probably have you arrested. You don't remember 'The Exorcist' just because of the horrendous moments in it, you remember it because it's a brilliant film. Hand it in now and you'll have the police around your house. The '70s were so cool.
People are too sensitive now.
They're so sensitive now. Look at 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.' Here's this guy who has sex with a teenager and you still like him! Today it would be, "He has sex with a kid? No way!" But because it's Jack Nicholson you go, "It's cool, it's Jack."
The '70s was a good time for adult movies made for adults. Those are rare these years, though I must say I loved 'Blue Valentine.' That makes me encouraged about movies for adults. It's one of the best directed films of the year.
We're making our films with one hand tied behind our backs at the moment. Kids shouldn't be watching them, we should be making them for adults.
Speaking of movies made only for adults, have you made your 'Paris, I'll Kill You' segment yet?
I've actually got to deliver my script to them this weekend. It's tricky because they're trying to coordinate between, I think, ten directors. But I'm really excited about that film. The guys that are producing it are really cool. I've got a cool idea for mine and I've heard some others have as well. It's hard to do an anthology, but I think they've managed it. There's some fun, twisted stuff coming through 'Paris.'
You've got two more projects in the works I'm curious about. Is there anything you can tell me about the recently announced 'Detour'?
'Detour' was a project I came up with four or five years ago, a film noir with a twisted soul. It's a road movie... I can't talk a lot about it just yet because it has a strange structure to it. It's not like 'Triangle' which has a strange structure that makes you feel twisted, this one has a strange structure in a different way where you actually come away with a revolution. It's taken a while, but I've always fancied doing it. It's a cool, American Indie road movie from LA to Vegas. It's about a guy... honestly, I don't want to say too much because I'll just spoil it. I'll just say it's an edgy thriller and the second draft is done and I'm really proud of it. That should go in the next year or so, it's not in the immediate future.
What is the immediate for you then?
The immediate for me is mainly working. I've got the werewolf thing, I've got 'Detour,' I've got the kids' film. There is something else. I've got a plan and if the plan doesn't happen I'm always open. I read things on the net, too, and I'm like "That sounds interesting...is that true?" There's a ton that goes into who gets what film so I try to just create my own things. If there's a good script like 'Black Death' that just arrives at my lap, you have to work for it to make it what it is, but I'm very lucky to keep working on my own projects. I just like working. So if you've got any cool scripts, send them to me. I like to work.
I was surprised, and maybe you were as well, about the rumor that you were attached to 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.'
I have a one-year-old that's crying in the night and I couldn't sleep so I was up on the Internet and saw it and went, "That's cool, but that's the first I've heard of it." [laughs] I've since read the script, though, and it's very good. But there's a lot of people who think that too, so who knows how these rumors start or who will get it.