Elston Gunn Interviews Neil Marshall About CENTURION (Which Hits Video On Demand July 30!!)
Published at: July 22, 2010, 11:57 a.m. CST by merrick
Hello. Elston Gunn here...
Five years ago, director Neil Marshall took the horror world by storm with his original feature THE DESCENT, winning awards and garnering acclaim from critics who don't ostensibly have many kind words for films of that genre. He followed with DOOMSDAY, an apocalyptic action film, which allowed Marshall to show what he could do with a little more money.
The former film centered on women trapped in a deadly cave, the latter focused on a quarantined Scotland. His latest feature, CENTURION, again tells the story of a group of people caught in an extreme situation: the Ninth Legion surrounded by Picts in Caledonia. Marshall and his new movie is no exception. It's an action thriller set in the Roman Empire.
CENTURION, which stars Michael Fassbender, Dominic West and Olga Kurylenko, premieres on Video On Demand Friday, July 30 and in select theaters on August 27. Visit the film's official websites HERE and HERE.
Marshall took time to answer some questions for AICN.
[Elston Gunn]: Do you remember how you first became aware of the myth? Was this a story you heard as a child and you've since thought it would make a great movie?
[Neil Marshall]: I grew up in the town of Newcastle in the north east of England, and it stand at one end of Hadrian's Wall, this 60 mile long, 30 foot high, 12 foot deep wall that the Emperor Hadrian built to keep the Pict's out of England in 117 AD (when Centurion is set.) The wall is mostly a ruin now, but as a kid we'd often go on school trips to the wall and various forts along it, and I was fascinated by the idea of these soldiers standing sentry duty in this harsh, wet and windy place, the farthest frontier of their empire. To them it must have send like the edge of the world, and what was so terrifying that they built this huge wall to keep out like King Kong or something. So all this stuff has been stored away in my mind for some time, just waiting for a story to hang it on. Then I heard about the legend of the Ninth Legion, this entire army of Roman soldiers, 4000 strong, that marched into Scotland to wipe out the Picts but then disappeared without a trace.....or so the legend goes. As soon as heard that, I was hooked, and I absolutely thought it would make a great movie.
[EG]: You've said that the film is not historically perfect, it's an action thriller. What are your feelings about historical accuracy vs. simply telling the story in cinema?
[NM]: What is historical accuracy? What the books say? They can be as tainted as any movie since they are usually just one person’s opinion. But honestly, this story was always based on a myth anyway, so historical accuracy doesn't really come into it. I approached making this film knowing full well that historians and archeologists alike have been investigating the myth of the Ninth Legion for years and just when they think they've come to some conclusion, somebody else comes along and debunks it. So I wanted to clear from the off-set that this was a fabrication of a legend. The legend is actually pretty thin, so had to fill in a lot of the blanks. As such it's a work of fiction based loosely around real people (Governor Agricola and General Virilus), and real events (like the building of Hadrian's wall). Most first and foremost, it's a thrill ride. An action packed adventure movie.
[EG]: Ridley Scott's ROBIN HOOD seemed to aim high on realism, low on myth -- not that the two have to be mutually exclusive. Was your first and foremost goal for CENTURION just the opposite?
[NM]: I don't think the two are mutually exclusive at all. I think one thing both Robin Hood and Centurion have in common is a desire to set this mythological story within an authentic world. There are two kind of historical accuracy in films - story and detail. Since my story was nothing more than a legend, I wanted to make sure that the rest of the detail, the environment, the costumes, the props, the weapons, the fighting styles, the food, all these things, should be as authentic as we could make them. Obviously, our budget was about the same size as Ridley's catering budget, so maybe we didn't get everything 100% right, but we did what we could with what we had. The Pict's for instance, are very much a grey area, because so little is known about them. They're language has long since been lost in time, they had no written history. So we had to create a believable society for the Picts based on what we did know, like where they lived, the kind of climate they had to endure, the kind of wildlife they had to hunt, things like that.
[EG]: Having said that, how much research was involved in the making of the film?
[NM]: As I say, we did as much research as time and money permitted, and where we found no answers we had to improvise. That's show business!
[EG]: What was the biggest challenge in writing this screenplay?
[NM]: I guess the biggest challenge was trying to get into the heads of these characters. Making decisions about what kind of language they would use, what kind of colourful profanity? Should they speak in some antiquated way, or should they be updated and talk like we do now. In the end I reached a compromise. I figured soldiers have been fairly rowdy since time began, so I wanted them to sound pretty much like soldiers today. They wouldn't have used the word 'fuck', but they would have had some other word instead. The only thing I wouldn't allow was any reference to Jesus or Christianity, since in 117AD it hadn't come to Britain yet and hadn't caught on in Rome either. You wouldn't believe how tricky it is when you can't use blasphemy in a script! It's something we take for granted. Characters on screen do it all the time. So it was tricky coming up with things for them to say in moments of exclamation. That said, writing the script was a blast. I did the first draft in 3 weeks. I was having such a great time getting into this world and these characters, the story just fell into place so naturally.
[EG]: Michael Fassbender is quickly becoming one of the best actors working today, doing something completely different with every role. What kinds of ideas did he bring to CENTURION that elevated his character for you?
[NM]: Michael is such an incredibly dedicated actor. He gives himself over to a role 200%. He immerses himself, not in a Method kind of way - he wasn't walking around after hour in a toga or anything like that - but he's a consummate professional. He loves what he's doing and he does it extraordinarily well. What he brought to the role was a depth of feeling and a sense of the burden of responsibility that Quintus carries. It falls to him to get his men home against all the odds, and Michael perfectly portrays a man who understands when to fight and when to run, and gives him real strength, both inward and outward.
[EG]: You have often expressed your love of genre films. What films did you screen for yourself or the crew for CENTURION? What kind of references, cinematic or otherwise, did you want to include in the film?
[NM]: I screened all sorts of films, from my own DOG SOLDIERS to John Ford's DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON and FORT APACHE, to Robert Aldrich's ULZANA'S RAID, Walter Hill's SOUTHERN COMFORT and THE WARRIORS, Joseph Losey's FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE and Michael Mann's LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Surprisingly, we didn't watch any Roman movies! But it's clear from these choices that the main influence for me was the Western. I always saw this film as the equivalent of an old cavalry picture, with the Romans as the US Cavalry and the Picts as the Apache or Comanche Indians. The landscape, be it Monument Valley or the Highlands of Scotland, is also central to the story. The comparison of telling the story from the invaders’ point of view is much stronger than anything in British or European cinema. This film fits very much into that genre. After all, to the Romans, Britain was their Wild West frontier!
[EG]: How did you shoot CENTURION and what was your approach to effects? You're an accomplished creator of carnage, how did you balance the digital versus the practical?
[NM]: We shot CENTURION the old fashioned way - on 35mm, on location, in the cold, the wet and the wind. Digital cameras would have frozen solid in the conditions we were working. My approach to this film and its effects is much the same as any other film I've made. I always prefer to do as much for real and in camera as possible. Then, we either enhance what we've got or fill in the blanks with CGI. I find it works better that way. CGI is brilliant at expanding and enhancing reality, but it never quite stands up to scrutiny when it replaces reality. The brain and the eye are too well attuned and can spot the difference. Thousands of years of evolution have taught the brain to know what blood looks like, so I always try and use practical effects wherever possible. Of course, issues like time, money and other practical concerns sometimes make that impossible. So, you have to use CGI, or else when you’re watching the movie in the cut, you think it needs a little bit more of something here or there. That's when CGI comes into its own. With CENTURION, I'd say about 10% of the make-up effects had additional blood or gore put in during post, but I was very demanding about how good it looked. Once it's all cut together in sequence, hopefully, you can't tell the difference!
[EG]: Could you talk a little bit about your approach to color (muted, saturated colors, use of blues) and what that means to you in terms of the overall look?
[NM]: From the very first moment I conceived this film, I knew I wanted it to be bleak. I wanted it to be cold, wet, desolate and miserable. I wanted the audience to see Scotland through the same eyes as the characters, men who'd probably come from places like Spain or Italy, and found themselves thrust into this cruel, bitter landscape. Up until then, I'd also associated the sword-and-sandal genre with dust, sand and sunshine, and I wanted this movie to be the complete opposite of that.
[EG]: How do you choreograph action scenes when you're dealing with, theoretically, thousands of characters?
[NM]: Unlike dealing with thousands of CG extras, when you're letting loose a few hundred real extras with swords and axes, you don't have complete control over every person’s actions, there's a certain element of chaos about it, and I think that's what helps make it look messy and real. Basically, you just have to give them the broadest of instructions, as a group, and let them get stuck in, and hope nobody gets seriously injured. With the main battle, we literally just had to turn them loose on each other and hope for the best! The most important thing is what's happening directly in front of camera, what's happening with your lead actors. The background should be a little chaotic. If anything, that helps with continuity because there is no continuity. In every shot the battle looks different, so that helps it look bigger than it actually is. Then, you have to think about the broader scale, about how to make your few hundred warriors look like a few thousand warriors. Where are they going to go, what formation will they take? You have to build a battle sequence from the ground up and plan it like a general. It's all about strategy!
[EG]: You employed historical reenactors to play Roman soliders and Picts. How helpful was that experience?
[NM]: The guys we had on this film were great. They really mucked in and help out. A lot of them are ex army, so they have that in-built sense of discipline and order, so it's second nature for them to march in formation, whereas it could take days to train a bunch of extras to march in step. It may not seem like much, but saves a lot of time and effort. I don't think we could have made this film without their help, advice and encouragement. If one of these guys took me to one side and told me we were doing something wrong, I'd listen. After all, this is what these guys do, all the time, so they know it inside out and I’d have been an idiot to ignore them. Luckily, we got most of our details correct, so it didn't happen very often, but when it did, I was glad to have them there.
[EG]: What kind of pragmatic advice do you have for other filmmakers with regards to getting the best out of your budget? What kinds of things did you do on CENTURION to put every cent on the screen?
[NM]: You've got to pick and choose carefully. It's about not spreading yourself and your budget too thin, and instead picking where to spend more and where to save more. One of the easiest and simple tricks is to shoot widescreen ratio - 2.35 : 1 This instantly doubles your budget, and it's such a beautiful format to work in.
Next is choosing your crew well. I've been so lucky to work with my core crew again and again because they are all geniuses when it comes to creative thinking and how to spend the money where it will best serve the movie. Simon Bowles has been my production designer since DOG SOLDIERS, and he's an expert in milking every last cent out of a budget and coming up with cheap, effective solutions to the problems I regularly present him with. Sam McCurdy, my DoP, then comes along and shoots it in a way that gives it scale and gravitas.
My job amongst all this is to be able to tell both Simon and Sam as much what it is I don't need as what I do, so they can concentrate on what's going to be used and not wasted. A classic example of this would be the Roman fort in Centurion. Simon couldn't afford to build the whole fort at the scale I wanted it, so it came down to a choice, make it smaller, or only build 3 walls. I figured out exactly what I wanted to shoot there, and how I was going to stage the action and figured out I could do everything I needed without seeing 360 degress of the fort, so we went with option B and only built the fort with 3 walls! It's not rocket science, and sure, it would have been nice to film 360, but the movie would not stand or fall on that. What if we'd built all four walls and then never even looked at one of them? Now, that would have wasted a lot of money. So, that's how you stretch the budget.
[EG]: What was the biggest lesson you learned during the entire process of making this film that you will able to apply to future projects?
[NM]: Never work with people who don't truly believe in the film and who don't support and nurture it from its conception to its release. That's the biggest lesson I'll take from this experience.
[EG]: You've done a creature feature, a post-apocalyptic film and now a period action thriller. What would you like to do next and what kinds of things are you developing?
[NM]: I've got all sorts of things in the pipeline. I never want to be tied down to one genre. I love watching all kinds of movies, so that's really what I like to make. I've got a couple more horror projects in development, an action thriller, a war movie, a Indiana Jones-style adventure, a mediaeval heist movie... all sorts of possibilities!