Neil Marshall is exactly the sort of filmmaker the genre world needs more of. He’s got a sharp eye, he’s a great storyteller, he can work with actors, and he’s got an imagination that feels like it was fed by the pages of Fangoria and GoreZone. Marshall’s been building a filmography that feels like the best movie marathon you’ve ever been to, with his films jumping from genre to genre but retaining the same visceral, pulpy fun feel.
Centurion is no different. A chase movie based on the true story of the disappearance of the Ninth Legion in Roman occupied Britain way back when, Centurion has great actors like Michael Fassbender and Dominic West having lost of fun while hacking and slashing. The film is now available on demand, and will be hitting select theaters in the weeks ahead. You can read my review of the film here.
Recently Marshall came through Los Angeles and I sat down with him and his wife Axelle Carolyn, who appears in Centurion as one of the savage Pict warriors hunting our heroes down. This was the first time I had met Neil and Axelle, but they knew me through my tireless cheerleading of an unfairly maligned Marshall film…
Axelle: You were a supporter of Doomsday?
I’m a huge supporter of Doomsday. I always describe it as a great mix tape of a movie.
Neil: That sums it up pretty well, I think.
Centurion feels like your most political film.
N: Considering I’ve never seen any of my films as political, this would be a step in that direction.
By default. Any time you’re telling a story like this, in a time like today, it’s going to end up feeling political. Was it the resonance with current events that appealed to you about this story?
N: It was something that never occurred to me until I started working on it and started getting into the story. It’s so comparable to what’s going on in the world today – it has imperialism and guerilla war and all those elements. But I also made a conscious decision not to make it a blatantly political movie. I thought, ‘The allegory is there, let’s just leave it at that. They’ll either take it at face value or they’ll see deeper.’ And I think that’s how an allegory should work. I’d heard other stories that the other film about similar subject matter - The Eagle of the Ninth - I heard they were deliberately giving their Romans US-style crew cuts and really hammering home the comparison and I thought it was too in your face and wrong. I mean, the comparison is there!
You just pick it up automatically.
A: It’s interesting that there are a lot of people who, whether they’ve seen the film or not, criticize it based on politics. They’re like, ‘Oh we’re supposed to root for the Romans? They’re the invaders!’ They’re missing the point. The film isn’t saying Rome should have invaded Scotland, it’s not saying the United States should go to Iraq, it’s saying that whether we think [the war] is good or not, we just want the soldiers back home. It’s looking past the uniform and the political side of it and see those individuals who are trying to make their way home.
While this might be your most political film, it’s also another ass-kicking Neil Marshall movie. It’s mostly practical, right?
N: I use CG to enhance what I have. In the case of the Legion itself we only had about 100 Romans and we multiplied those into 3000, but there are no animated extras or anything. It’s all real guys. And that goes for blood and guts as well – it’s got to be about 90% practical and I added some blood in post, specifically in some of the battle sequences.
A: Interestingly you don’t plan the scene thinking ‘We’ll add the blood later on.’ You do it all practical and then you look at it and think ‘We need more blood.’
N: ‘This is not enough, let’s add more.’ For all the rest of it there are some matte paintings and things, but it’s all to enhance, not to replace. The moment CG replaces reality it starts to fall on its face a bit. But it’s a great tool for that.
It’s interesting that you use the digital blood to enhance. Some filmmakers use digital blood because it’s easier on the day – it’s a faster reset – and when you use digital blood if the MPAA has a problem with the wetness, you can tone it down.
N: I’m not thinking about the MPAA when I’m making it at all. We set out to make a film that was bloodthirsty and violent.
What are some of the big influences on this film? One movie I thought about while watching was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with the Super Posse.
N: Definitely the Super Posse sequences were a huge inspiration. And it is Westerns more than anything else – it’s not really Roman movies. It’s mainly John Ford cavalry movies; Fort Apache and Rio Grande. That was the main inspiration – it’s a Roman Western.
Which you can see in the big landscapes you shoot. Which is funny because I think a lot of people might see guys with swords running around a big landscape and think Lord of the Rings, but it feels more like Ford.
N: There wouldn’t be a Lord of the Rings without John Ford, as far as his mastery of shooting landscapes. If you’re going to have guys with swords in a mountainous landscape you’re going to get a Lord of the Rings comparison, but that movie didn’t invent that. I grew up with Excalibur and Conan and that has similar kinds of things in it as well. These inspirations are ingrained it me but I didn’t set out… with Doomsday I set out to make a homage, with this one if the comparisons are there it’s unconscious. With the exception of I think one shot which I did totally take from Butch Cassidy, the one scene where they’re climbing up the hill and the camera pulls back and you see the riders in the far distance. It’s the scale I love in Western movies that you don’t really see in British movies. You don’t get that outdoors wilderness adventure in the UK, it just seems absurd. This could be the first of its kind!
Speaking of Excalibur, I came across a list you did for Film Comment where you listed your favorite guilty pleasure movies and that was on the list. I was stunned that you would consider that a guilty pleasure. Do you consider any of your films guilty pleasures?
N: I think Doomsday has become a bit of a guilty pleasure.
How do you define a guilty pleasure?
N: I think it’s a film that a lot of people laugh at, don’t take seriously or think are bad. There are a ton of films that people think are terrible that I genuinely like. I like things like The 13th Warrior and we both like Reign of Fire and Waterworld. They come up for a lot of slagging off, but I enjoy them. Waterworld I appreciate because it’s one of the last big films that was made that was completely practical. There’s not much CG – there’s some comping here and there but all the stunts and stuff are real. I like that.
A: One of the things about all those films is that they’re completely shameless in the fact that they embrace the genre. They do it to such an extent, and I think that’s what Doomsday does, being completely a love letter to those kinds of films. I think that it’s so full on that it turns some people off.
Doomsday does divide people. How does that impact you as a filmmaker – do you look at it and go, ‘Well, I won’t go there again,’ or do you say, ‘At least some people liked it.’
N: Personally I’m really proud of it, and it was a great experience to do. I’m proud that it has a small hardcore following as opposed to no following at all. I don’t think I would do it differently. The litmus test with Doomsday is whether you appreciate the rabbit exploding it or don’t. If you think it’s gratuitous and I should be shot for it – for the few who think I actually killed a rabbit – and then the rest think it’s hilarious and outrageous and that’s the audience that gets the movie.
You’ve written every feature you’ve directed.
N: So far, yeah.
Could you direct somebody else’s script?
N: Absolutely. I’m just waiting for the right script to come along. I’ve never been closed off to that idea, but I have had this backlog of scripts I’ve written that I want to get made, and I’ve needed to make them. But I’m not closed off to the idea of directing someone else’s work. As a director it’s a great experiment that I haven’t tried yet.
With Dog Soldiers and Centurion you’ve captured the guys bonding thing very easily. What’s the secret to that?
N: I think it’s something you’ve got to be in tune with as a director anyway, but it also comes from the casting and finding people who can get on anyway. Then finding an environment that allows them to do that. Once you’ve thrown them in an ice cold river, that’s a bonding experience. We did the same thing on Dog Soldiers - the guys on Dog Soldiers, by the end of that shoot, they would have fought and died for each other. I’m not sure it’s the same with the Centurion guys, but they went through rough physical experiences and forged a bond together.
We’ve heard you’re doing a 3D movie about spontaneous combustion – is Burst next?
N: We’ll see. I never have a clue which is going to go next until someone calls me and tells me the money is there.
Are you excited to do the 3D?
N: I’m excited and terrified at the same time. It’s coming in for as much criticism as it is praise. This is the way that we want to go with this thing, and it makes sense as it’s about people exploding so we can have fun with that. I see it as a challenge, a way of doing it that could change the minds of the naysayers a bit. It also has to work as a 2D movie. Certainly the editing point of view will be interesting as well – you have to edit it in a certain way, taking into account the extra dimension. I’m looking forward to it.