Based on the trailers and ubiquitous TV spots, the highest compliment I can pay Neil Marshall’s Doomsday is that it looks like it’s been socked away in Universal’s vault for twenty years. Though many filmmakers have put their own, modern spin on the tropes of the post-apocalyptic action genre, Marshall’s picture comes off as an unapologetic, low-fi throwback. If the film delivers, it’ll be a geek labor of love: a recreation of an outmoded aesthetic rather than a burnished, overproduced homage.
The premise of Doomsday centers on the outbreak of a deadly “Reaper” virus that threatens to wipe out mankind; fortunately, the hot zone is located smack dab in the middle of Scotland, which allows the British government to simply erect a second, more fortified version of Hadrian’s Wall to seal off their aggressively accented neighbors to the north. Problem solved. For twenty-five years. Then the virus hits London, forcing the government to revisit the hot zone where, unexpectedly, there are survivors. Desperate for a cure, they organize a special ops unit, led by the ball-busting Maj. Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), to infiltrate Scotland. Their mission: find the antidote… if it exists.
Evidently, Sinclair’s search necessitates furious firefights, duels to the death and loads of vehicular mayhem. And according to Marshall, it’s all been shot practically like George Miller or John Carpenter would’ve done back in the day. Doomsday represents a major step up for Marshall, whose first two films – Dog Soldiers and The Descent – surprised viewers with their low-budget ferociousness. This time, he’s got to satisfy those of us who revere Escape from New York and Mad Max as much as he does while also connecting with the younger viewers who prefer car chases of the GTA variety.
It’s a tall order, but Marshall’s a very confident filmmaker. And chatting with him last week at the Hotel Sofitel in West Hollywood, I get the sense that he’s delivered the kind of movie that you might’ve pulled down from the “sci-fi” shelf of your local video store during the mid-80s. And, really, that’s all you should want from a movie called Doomsday.
Q: This is a decidedly bigger canvas than The Descent and Dog Soldiers. Did you have to develop a different skill set?
Neil Marshall: It’s always different, but it’s always exactly the same. You’re still dealing with so much money to do so much work in a certain amount of time; that doesn’t change. You’re always trying to pack it in there in as short a time as possible to get everything done on time; those sorts of logistics don’t change. All that changes is that the numbers are bigger: the numbers of extras or the number of money you spend on something. But in all honesty, I loved the scale of it. After being in a cave all the time… I mean, to be honest, it wasn’t a nightmare being stuck in a cave with six girls. But just to be out and dealing with a bigger canvas was such a pleasure as a director.
Q: A little daylight is nice once in a while.
Marshall: Yeah! Daylight, landscapes, tons of extras! It was great.
Q: You’re paying direct homage to certain films we grew up with, and there’s a certain expectation that comes with those types of films. How do you match or subvert or maybe surpass those expectations?
Marshall: We use those inspirations as a stepping off point, but then apply a totally different kind of story, totally different kinds of characters and a totally different kind of story to that. It’s inevitable that if you deal with a society that’s scavenging, they’re going to scavenge similar stuff. When you’re dealing with a future world where they’ve divided into tribes or gangs… there’s a nature to that tribe warfare or gang thinking: you want to make yourself look like part of the tribe, and you want to look scary. So it wouldn’t take a genius to pick up some record sleeves or read some books and say, “Well, they look kind of scary, so let’s dress like them.” Or, hell, they might’ve found a copy of Mad Max and watched it. “Hey, let’s dress like that!” Some things are going to have a similar feel to them, but the whole idea was that I was making a film for an audience that wasn’t there when Mad Max came out. I wanted to give them a sense of what we experienced, but also to take it to a whole new level and tell a totally different type of story in a totally new and fresh world. It’s heralding back not so much to the ideas but to the style of those films. I wanted to make [Doomsday] very in-camera, non-CG reliant, no green screens, real stunts, real stunt guys doing crazy stunts on cars at ninety-miles-per-hour… it’s that insane. I wanted to bring back this raw, edgy filmmaking that I haven’t seen in a while.
Q: Those kinds of practical stunts, if done well, still have the power to amaze younger viewers. I remember showing a younger friend of mine Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, and he just about lost his mind. I haven’t seen Doomsday yet, but it seems like the vehicular action in your film is along those same lines. Do you think filmmakers might be getting back to those kinds of thrills and stunts?
Marshall: I think there’s a real desire for audiences to see that. Grindhouse touched upon it, and the Bourne movies definitely touched upon it. The film that shattered my faith in that type of thing was the remake of Gone in 60 Seconds: the big car jump at the end of that was just so blatantly faked with CG. It looked ropey as hell, and I was just like, “Oh, it’s all gone wrong now.” So I said to myself that if I ever got to do a car chase, I want to do it for real; I want to have real cars doing really crazy shit. And that’s exactly what we did?
Q: How did you approach the filming of the chases? How much preparation was required, and how many cameras did you cover it with?
Marshall: We broke it down into its component parts; each day we’d do a major stunt sequence or a major pyrotechnic sequence. It took us three weeks to shoot the car chase. Three weeks… that’s half the shoot of Dog Soldiers, just to do this car chase. And we needed it because people were putting the lives on the line every day doing these crazy stunts.
Q: Though it was probably a logistical bitch to execute, did you still get off on it a little?
Marshall: Oh, totally! It was like going to play with a train set every day, and having all the best toys to play with. I loved it.
Q: Sometimes when you do these sequences, you end up working with certain types of stunt guys–
Marshall: Insane stunt guys. Those are the types we worked with. (Laughs)
Q: But sometimes you get guys who’ve worked on those great car chase films, like the ones you’re partially paying homage to with Doomsday. Guys who maybe worked on Mad Max or The Road Warrior.
Marshall: We shot down in South Africa, and we tapped into some of the South African stunt guys down there. These are guys who cut their teeth on low-budget action movies with Wesley Snipes; they’ve been doing this stuff for years. And more recently on 10,000 B.C. and Blood Diamond. But they’d never really done car chase stuff before, and they were itching to have a go at that. These guys are nuts. Climbing out of a car and standing on the hood at ninety-miles-an-hour without any wires… you’re watching it, and you’re thrilled and exhilarated and terrified all at the same time. We were lucky that nobody tripped up.
Q: How willing were your actors to participate in the stunts? Did they get involved at all?
Marshall: As much as possible. Darren Morfitt, who played Spoon in Dog Soldiers, he plays Dr. Ben Stirling in this – we have him hanging out the side of a Bentley. There’s a guy hanging on his door… the door’s gone open and the guy’s pulling him out the door. So I’ve got Darren hanging half out of the Bentley, inches off the road at god-knows-what-speed, and he loved it. And there weren’t any safety wires or anything like that. He might’ve had his seat belt on, but that was it.
Q: (Laughing) Are those the kinds of things you can get away with in South Africa that maybe you couldn’t get away with in England?
Marshall: Maybe. That’s fine by me.
Q: Speaking of Darren, I suppose we should discuss the actual humans in your films. It seems like you’re playing with certain archetypes like Snake Plissken or Mad Max while mixing in a Ripley kind of vibe. Were you consciously doing this in the writing?
Marshall: When I came up with the story five years ago, I didn’t know then that I would be coming off The Descent. So I didn’t sub-consciously think, “Should I change this since it’s another strong female role?” I wanted to stick to the story, and I wanted the character to be different from what I’d done before. I liked the character of Major Eden Sinclair, and I thought it would be different for a post-apocalyptic world; I hadn’t seen that kind of film done with a strong female action lead. And I don’t necessarily think of the Resident Evil films as action; they’re more horror-based. I know the new one is a little more action, but, obviously, it hadn’t come out at the time.
Q: From what I can glean, you give Eden a bit of a backstory with her mother, which is more along the lines of Mad Max, who had a family in the first film. Plissken, on the other hand, had a very spartan backstory.
Marshall: Yeah, I was just trying to combine those things to give it an emotional core, while building a Plissken-esque toughness around that. There is something going on here (indicates the heart), but she’s tough-as-nails on the outside. She’s a product of the state. She’s a product of that future society. That’s what made her tough-as-nails.
Q: And you had to step outside of your company of actors to cast Rhona Mitra as Eden.
Marshall: I do have my company, but we brought in a lot of new faces: Bob Hoskins, Malcolm McDowell, Alexander Siddig, Adrian Lester, David O’Hara. We brought them into the fold, and it just added to the whole thing.
Q: Let’s talk Bob Hoskins.
Q: Going back to the early 80s… I mean, he played one of the all-time great gangsters in The Long Good Friday. He’s legendary. Was he someone you’d been dying to find a role for in one of your films?
Marshall: Oh, god, yes. Ever since Long Good Friday. He was the first choice for this role [of DDS Chief Bill Nelson]. He’s a British icon, the ultimate British bulldog. It was a pleasure to work with him – and Malcolm, as well. It was a such a joy to sit down with these guys in between takes and listen to them tell stories; they loved telling the stories, and I loved listening to them. The interesting thing with Malcolm… I didn’t ask him anything about A Clockwork Orange; I wanted to ask him about Royal Flash and Figures in a Landscape – more obscure stuff. And we talked a lot about Lindsay Anderson and their relationship. It was great.
Q: After Dog Soldiers and The Descent, was it intimidating to work with actors of that caliber?
Marshall: No, no. I mean, up until then I had only worked with, essentially, unknowns, but [Hoskins and McDowell] just loved their work so much; that made it easy for me. There was no pressure and no hassle; these guys aren’t difficult in the least bit.
Q: Did you view making Doomsday as a necessary step in your career? Are you trying to move on to bigger films?
Marshall: It is necessary because the stuff I’m writing is not stuff that can be done on a low budget in the U.K. I am branching out with my own ideas and broadening my horizons, so this is the first step.
Q: What about different genres? Your first two films were horror, while Doomsday is a genre mash-up in a way. Are you thinking you’ll stay close to horror? You are a member of that “splat pack” and whatnot.
Marshall: We’ll see on an individual, project-by-project basis, but I think inherently I’m always going to have a bit of splat in my movies. I like that. It’s kind of like [Paul] Verhoeven; he never seems restrained, no matter what genre he’s doing. But I have various projects in various genres; the one common link is that they’re essentially action-based. That’s what I love directing, and that’s what I love watching. And good characters.
Q: We heard your name in connection to The Wolf Man when they were looking for someone to replace Mark Romanek. Did you take any meetings on that?
Marshall: No. My name was put forward, but I didn’t get as far as the meeting stage. There were a lot of bigger names on the list before mine. I didn’t exactly get my hopes up, but I thought it’d be a good idea.
Q: Making a werewolf movie that would be a bit more gothic and classical…
Marshall: It would be a very interesting thing. I am itching to do another werewolf movie at some point. But that one wasn’t the one.
Q: In the same classical vein as The Wolf Man?
Marshall: I don’t know. I’m not sure yet.
Q: Do you know what you’re doing next?
Marshall: No. We’ll see what happens next week.
We shall. Doomsday gets a semi-wide launch on around 2,000 screens this Friday, March 14th. Looks like a blast.