Count your blessings that Devin is so skilled and prolific when it comes to interviews, because I’m pretty terrible at it — I’m never properly prepared, and my questions have less focus than a LASIK waiting room.

My rusty interviewing proficiency aside, I was definitely interested in the opportunity to chat with The Descent writer-director Neil Marshall at this year’s Comic Con in San Diego when Dev’s schedule quickly became more than full.  I was thoroughly impressed with Marshall’s follow-up to the fan fave werewolf flick Dog Soldiers (I actually caught The Descent last year, so including it on my 2005 Top 15 list was sort of a cheat).  

While it’s irrefutable that the horror genre is experiencing a recent resurgence, The Descent is a rarity in that it’s genuinely goddamn scary, featuring more discomfort, shocks and abject terror than a weekend with Tara Reid. The movie opens this Friday, August 4th, courtesy of Lionsgate.

Q: Do you get the sense that you had a built-in audience from Dog Soldiers?

Neil: It’s almost difficult to tell because my only perception of the reception to Dog Soldiers over here has been through the internet. It certainly has attained a sort of cult status. It’s unfortunate it never got a theatrical release. I was curious to know what people thought of it here, and it’s great to know there is a fanbase for it, and that they seem keen to see The Descent.

Q:  They’re very different movies, but they have some similarities: a core group of people in a secluded place, and they get whittled down by some sort of monster.

Neil: Yeah, Descent is kind of the dark side of the mirror, I suppose.

Q: And the female side.

Neil: Well, that’s the dark side, isn’t it? [laughs]

Q: What do you think of the whole current return to the “roots of the genre”?

Neil: I think it was probably a natural cycle. Things were going to get back round to it eventually. That whole Scream postmodern thing… now it’s got back to what for me worked better. If I think about my life and all the horror films I’ve seen, the ones that stick in my mind are all from the 70s and early 80s.

Q: Those are the ones that are getting remade now.

Neil: Right. All the ones that played it straight. And they’re the best ones. And that’s what I aspired to do with Descent, to go back to that kind of filmmaking.

Q: There was a another movie called The Cave that went the opposite direction with the creatures, they were all CG. But with The Descent you kept as much practical as you could?

Neil: That’s just me as a filmmaker. Same with Dog Soldiers. I don’t really rate CG creatures on the whole. There’s a time and a place for those kind of things, but even now some thirteen years later, nothing’s come close to Jurassic Park. So what’s the point? You can’t beat reality at the end of the day. And because these creatures were essentially human based, it seemed illogical to do them any other way. They’re humans evolved to live in a cave, and I wanted to use humans to play them. I thought it made them more scary that way.

 Q: How did the idea for the movie originate?

Neil: Any number of different brainstorms along the way. “Oh I know, I’ll do a horror film set in a cave. Why not have it all women? What are these things going to be in the cave? Well let’s have them some human-like thing.” So it was just a steady progression of ideas that came along. It was about two years developing the script.

Q: What was the gap between Dog Soldiers and The Descent?

Neil: Dog Soldiers was shot in 2001, released in 2002. And then we did the deal for Descent a year later and then two years after that we were shooting it. It was actually quite a long process, and I spent a lot of time writing other scripts. Stuff I’m kind of lining up to do next.

Q: Which one is next?

Neil: Doomsday. It’s a postapocalyptic sci-fi action thriller. I’m casting it when I get back to the UK and shooting at the end of the year.

Q: Another mostly British cast?

Neil: Yeah, it’s set in the UK. It’s an all-British story.

Q: And ironically The Descent was set in America.

Neil: We shot it all in England. The exteriors were shot in Scotland and the interiors at Pinewood.

 Q: What are your current favorites in the horror genre?

Neil: I really liked the remake of Dawn of the Dead, really liked the remake of The Hills Have Eyes. I’m not normally a huge fan of remakes generally, but they were well done. The originals had… problems. They don’t necessarily stand the test of time. Dawn of the Dead is held up to this incredible masterpiece, but there’s some really daft moments in it. I thought the remake took the best and ran with it. I didn’t particularly like Wolf Creek that much, but I kind of got what it was trying to do. It’s just gratifying that people are going back down that route making hard-edged gritty horror movies again. That’s what we want as horror fans.

Q: Was that your intention when you started out as a filmmaker, to stick with the horror genre?

Neil: No, not at all. The film that made me want to make movies was Raiders of the Lost Ark. That’s the absolute inspiration. It’s got a bit of everything in it. I also grew up watching Frankenstein, and American Werewolf in London, and The Thing and all these other films. Somewhere along the way it seemed like a natural step for me to start off making horror films. But Dog Soldiers is an amalgamation of all sorts of things. It’s a war movie, it’s a siege movie, it’s got western references and horror references. It’s easily labeled as a horror movie but it’s almost as much comedy, really.

Q: Do you have any interest in doing a Raiders-style adventure movie?

Neil: I’ve got one written, I’m hoping to do it two films down the line. It’s called Eagle’s Nest. It’s set during WWII. I don’t if you’re familiar with the story of Rudolph Hess, he parachuted into Scotland and was immediately arrested. My story is a hypothetical story of what if Himmler sent in a team of German paratroopers to rescue him. Only the plan goes wrong and they take up residence in a country castle, and the gamekeeper does a Die Hard sort of thing until help arrives. It’s full of mayhem, action, car chases, explosions, a train chase, all sorts of things. It’s going to be a big film, yeah. But that’s kind of my Raiders.

 Q: You mentioned the siege story – that seems to be sort of a staple in the horror genre, particularly zombie movies. They’re all Zulu with the undead.

Neil: Dog Soldiers was most often compared to Night of the Living Dead, but it’s as much Zulu as that. I just like siege movies – Rio Bravo, Assault on Precinct 13, and I wanted to make that kind of movie. But with The Descent I set out to make much more of a pureblooded horror movie, something straight that wasn’t full of humor like Dog Soldiers.

Q: Oh, it’s scary as shit.

Neil: That was the intent! [laughs] When I set out, I wanted to make something that would scare the shit out of audiences today in the same way these other films scared the shit out of me.

Q: Outside of maybe Asian horror films, nobody has really used sound design to such an effect. Shadows and darkness too, but sound, that’s what makes it so scary.

Neil: We had this bunch of geniuses called Phase do the sound design and they did a fantastic job. All the cave stuff was done on sets – it was sets but it wasn’t exactly pleasant for the actors, mind you.  Pinewood in January, no heating in the studios, cold and wet and damp, it was pretty grim. When there’s shots of people lying in freezing cold rivers or pools of blood or whatever, they put up with hell for that. But yeah, we had to strip away all the sound we recorded on set except for dialogue and then start from scratch, so we knew that the sound designers were going to have a field day with it. And certainly coming up with the “crawler” sound effects was great fun for them, and I had some pretty strong ideas, and it was a good mix. The cave is an acoustic environment.

Q: Have you been to any screenings and gauged people’s reactions? Do people freak out?

Neil: Yeah, I went to one last night. They freaked out. It was brilliant. I lot of people find the cave-in to be the worst sequence. I inadvertently tapped into something there. I figured there was lots of claustrophobic people out there, including myself, but I didn’t realize there was quite so many. Shauna [Macdonald], who plays Sarah, she is actually claustrophobic and she had a hell of a time doing that performance — even though it was a set it’s still not  a pleasant place to be. She had a hard time with it. And I’d forgotten just how intense the first attack in the movie is, watching it with an audience. 

Q: I suppose I’m obligated to ask about the alteration to the end and what prompted that.

Neil: I was given a second chance, in a way. I did the UK ending, and I’m really happy with it, but when we did it in the edit suite we did try the alternate ending. Then we ended up going with the original scripted ending. It played well in the UK but it also divided audiences. So when we got the chance to release it here we decided to try it.