Neil Marshall (2008)
Not with a whimper
Jocks away! Neil Marshall cuts Scotland loose before the SNP can in an orgy of poorliness and violence in his latest film, Doomsday. It’s the third offering from this new force in cult entertainment, full of Marshall’s usual fun, wit, action and, yes, blood. We want more, and he tells us we’ll get it.
There’s a man from Newcastle who’s reinvigorating British fantastical film, if such can ever be thought of as enough of a constant to be reinvigorated. That man is Neil Marshall, and we wish him all the best with his efforts. His first two films were smallish affairs, modest groups of people in what could be called difficult situations, though only if one were the stone-cold master of understatement. Doomsday is a far bigger fish, and a post-apocalyptic one at that. There’s a plague, there’s no cure, Scotland gets walled off to prevent it spreading to the rest of the world. That’s the set up. Years later, the plague crops up again, this time in London, and a crack team are sent into the depopulated northern kingdom in search of a cure amidst the remaining, and highly irritated, Scots. It’s a slambang affair of a movie, light on subtlety, high on thrills, featuring everything from knights in armour to cannibal gangs roasting people alive. In short, it’s everything the 13 year old you wanted to see in a film, together at last.
“That was exactly the intention, so that’s good,” says Marshall with just the faintest of smiles. In my experience, Geordie’s come in two flavours, loud and shouty, or quiet and thoughtful. The 37-year old Marshall’s definitely the latter. There’s something about a soft Geordie accent, one that’s not been bellowed in your ear in Newcastle’s Big Market, that speaks of hard work, consideration, and a splash of the humble poet.
“There was a period of time in the early 80s,” he says, “Now, when we look back to the 1980s, we kind of slag off a lot of the films, but you look back at the big blockbusters or just generally the genre moves that were coming out, and it was just so much better than anything now. ET and The Thing, and Bladerunner, and Excalibur, all those films, I just wanted to hark back to that period of filmmaking, and make something in that style, taking elements of films that I like, but reconstituting them and retitling them and creating something new and fresh. I wanted to make the best sort of these movies that I was paying homage to.”
Marshall’s love of the works of George Miller and John Carpenter oozes out of Doomsday. There’s a visceral energy on screen at all times, and like both of Marshall’s other films it’s very much focussed on character, despite the increase in numbers of bodies on set this scale of film has meant – there’s 1000 extras in one scene (his previous maximum, in The Descent, was 30). But perhaps the most notable thing is that, though the budget is up, there are as few CG effects in Doomsday as there are in his other movies. This is an old-fashioned film, made the old-fashioned way, because Marshall finds CG unconvincing.
“I find that incredibly frustrating, the whole CG obsession,” he explains. “I grew up on a different kind of filmmaking, I grew up on the films of Walter Hill [director of such diverse fare as Red Heat and 48 Hours, and the creator of TV western Deadwood] and stuff like that. That’s what inspires me, I like that kind of gritty, raw action that’s actor led, that’s physical. It’s what I want to see, so if nobody else is going to make it I’ve got to make it myself. There’s absolutely minimal CG work in Doomsday. There’s a few matte paintings, things like that, but no CG animation in the film whatsoever. All the stunts were done for real, we didn’t have any wire work or anything, so when those people are standing on bonnets of cars going 90 miles an hour, they reelly are standing on bonnets of cars going 90 miles an hour, with no safety nets, so that was pretty scary, but logistically it was just… As I say to everybody else, just because the film’s bigger doesn’t make the film any different. The only thing that changes is the numbers. It’s still I’ve got to make this film, for this much money, in this much time. That hasn’t changed a jot.”
Making what he wants to see himself is something else that hasn’t changed. He’s been doing it his entire life. He caught the film-making bug after seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Making of The Raiders of the Lost Ark within days of each other, then followed the Peter Jackson route into the movies, making films in his friend’s garden with his mum’s Super 8 camera.
“I never looked back, I was like ‘That’s what I want to do for a living, that looks like the best job in the world, I want to direct films.’ And literally the next day, a friend and I started making films. We were always trying to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark, or something like it. Then we moved on, in the late 1980s we were trying to remake Aliens, and then I went to film school after that. I did Super 8, film school, at what was Newcastle Polytechnic in 1989, and is now something totally different, I edited for eight years, was writing during that time, and then I directed Dog Soldiers. I spend as much time as possible watching films. I’ve grown up watching films, that’s all I’ve done, just watched films, and I love it, and if I can translate that love into my own films, that’s it, that’s my job done.”
Marshall penned his first feature script when he was 15, and wrote several before conceiving of Dog Soldiers in 1996, though his first script credit was as a co-writer on Bharat Nalluri’s Killing Time. It took him five years to write Dog Soldiers, before it was released in 2002. His next, The Descent (2005), won him awards. His budgets have increased with his success, but even so, Doomsday was made for the modest sum of $28 million, though it looks far more expensive like a $28million dollar film.
“We got a lot of value for money going to South Africa, and I approached it with the same ideal as with the past two films, like they had £2million and £3million budgets, and I wanted to make a £10million pound movie. With this one I had $28million, and I wanted to make a $50-60 million movie. It’s a lot more than the other films, but it’s not unmanageable. With Doomsday, it was absolutely essential to have that level of budget, but I wouldn’t have wanted to have too much more, and I’m not in a hurry to do the big $80-100million movies, because I think at my stage of my career I would have to sacrifice all control and I don’t want to do that.”
Control is something that is very important to Marshall, though not in a Kubrickian sense, he is not a subscriber to auteur theory, and insists that it is wrong to employ people just to dismiss their ideas. For him, it’s about listening to his creative team and the actors, and if it works for the film, it’s in. He gets little interference from his bosses either. Despite all the money being American, Doomsday is a quintessentially British film, with its roots in Wyndham, Wells, and comics like Action!, Eagle and 2000AD, as much as in Hollywood.
“It’s something I’m really proud of,” he says, with justification. “Nothing like Doomsday has ever been made before in the UK, or come out of this country, and to have an all British cast is pretty unique. I want to show Britain in a different kind of light, I want to show it as a place where action movies can get made, which just so rarely happens. It can be hard to sell a British-set piece abroad, but in this case, it wasn’t at all. It never even came into the equation. And I think quite early on in the process I asked, if they wanted me to write an American character into it, and they said that it would seem forced and unnecessary. I was like ‘Excellent!'”
Marshall cooks up his script ideas mostly by himself, and though he had editors on both The Descent and Doomsday, as a man who spent eight years editing the work of others, he obviously understands better than most how to structure a script, and shoot the footage. He’s also accomplished at welding diverse elements together to create a believable world and exciting story. That’s one of the defining aspects of his films, the narrative cogency of them, something that stems from his focus in the characters. In Doomsday especially, it helps you buy the weirdness. You’ve got Scottish cannibal gangs, knights in armour, a woman with a bionic eye… Yet none of it seems out of place.
“There’s a logic to it. The clues are all there to look at,” he says. “The biggest in the entire film is in the medieval sequence, the gift shop sign behind Falco (Cal Macaninch) in one shot in the castle. I was adamant that should be in there, you cannot forget, this is not a medieval movie, this is a futuristic movie, this is just a tourist spot that these guys are living in. The logic to it all, I didn’t want to get into it in the movie because there’s no time to explain it all, but everyone that lives north of the wall are scavengers. The cannibals, they’ve scavenged from the city, so they have city stuff, and the guys in the castle, they’ve scavenged from castles and museums, on the surface you see people on horses and you think ‘knights’, but if you look closely you see that they are wearing army flak jackets, a tank driver’s helmet or World War II goggles, there’s a whole mix of weird stuff going on in that world. It might be an insane logic, but that’s the logic in my head, that’s the way it works, they are not just living like that for the fun of it.”
This logic is, admittedly, a little bent, born out of Marshall’s desire to get a lot of different time periods into one movie. We essentially have three: near future London, crowded and impoverished; medieval Scotland; and the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Glasgow (actually Cape Town – the hospital scenes were shot at the town hall, from the balcony of which Mandela used to address the crowds!).
“You get inspiration from the strangest places, I mean Doomsday, the inspiration came from two different sources, one was an image that I had in my head, of these futuristic soldiers squaring off in front of a medieval knight, and how the hell could I make that happen in a film without resorting to time travel? The other thing was I that lived in Carlisle for seven years, and was constantly going backwards and forwards on the Roman road that stretched between Carlisle and Newcastle, behind Hadrian’s wall. I just had this idea of what could possibly happen that they’d rebuild it? And then the whole idea of virus, and quarantine and isolating the country came up. It was something that was unique to Scotland, it was a place where it could possibly happen, because the Romans did it 2000 years ago already. It could never happen between the USA and Canada, it’s just too big, but it seemed just practical enough to get away with it in Scotland. And so the whole Doomsday scenario came from that. It’s also, partly of wanting to do it in the UK, and Scotland is the only thing verging on wilderness that we have that could be used to that effect. That was it for Dog Soldiers, too. Though, the thing is, without getting too technical about it, if you rebuilt Hadrian’s wall, it’s not the Scottish border. Newcastle’s going to get cut off as well, and most of Northumberland, but I didn’t want to get that into the movie. But it was always in my head that if it was a success and they wanted to make a sequel to it one day, that I would feature Newcastle, Escape from Newcastle!
“It’s one of those films that, and the critical response in the States proved this, that you either get it, or you don’t, and if you just reject the whole idea of a movie that’s a homage, for whatever reason, people that might reject a homage will accept something totally if it’s a parody, it’s like parody’s fine, but homage is wrong. If Tarantino had directed this movie it would probably be hailed as his masterpiece.” He says this tentatively, Marshall doesn’t blow his own trumpet much, and that too, like his films, is refreshing, “but because it’s not Tarantino, it’s like ‘Oh it’s totally unoriginal, bleurg.’ Well, fuck them, most people, the fans, totally clued into it, it’s getting some really, really loyal fans very very quickly, and people just say well it is what it is, it’s just two hours of solid fun. It’s mayhem and chaos, totally insane, and there hasn’t been a film like this for quite some time, and that was my intention, I wanted to do something nuts, in a fun way. It’s not meant to be intellectually challenging.”
Marshall might sound a little rueful when talking about Tarantino, but he has been compared to him, by Bob Hoskins, no less, who co-stars in the film. Marshall also takes his cues from John Ford, particularly in the way he uses the same ensemble cast and crew.
“Ford had this stable of solid actors that he used again and again and again, and it’s absolutely my pleasure to do that, and bring new people into the fold at the same time. It’s great fun working with these guys. I’m only interested in doing it and they’re only interested in doing it if we’re challenging each other a bit, I’m not going to repeat the formula. So Sean Pertwee, he did Sergeant Wells in Dog Soldiers, and he’s iconic in that, that’s brilliant, but I don’t want to do the same thing, so in Doomsday, he’s totally different.”
Um, we’ll say, you cast him as a scientist, and then he was cooked alive! How did he feel about that?
“Ah, I think initially he was surprised. He was slightly disappointed that the part was quite short, but then he said, ‘But, I get the best death sequence in the entire film, so I love it!’ It’s like Nora-Jane Noone had lesser parts in The Descent, so it was nice to bring her to the forefront a bit more here, and give her more to do. Someone like Darren Morfitt is a brilliant actor, having played Spoon in Dog Soldiers, and then to give him the more sedate role as Dr. Stirling… I like to mix it up. You know, they’re great to work with, they’re hugely talented. I just like that idea of an ensemble, like an old-fashioned theatre troupe.”
With Doomsday in the can, Marshall is already lining up his next projects. he’s a man brimming with ideas. the trouble is getting them made, he’s got a backlog of scripts he’s itching to get on screen, including his much-touted Eagle’s Nest, a World War II action-adventure that he describes as his dream project.
“It’s The Eagle Has Landed, Die Hard, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Where Eagle’s Dare… all these things thrown into the mix, but nobody’s bought that yet. In a way, it’s the film that is closest to my roots, Raiders made me want to make movies, but I haven’t made anything like Raiders, and this is the closest yet. I don’t know, we’ll see, I’m chasing that one. And I’ve got a medieval heist movie, I’ve got all sorts of things that I’ve written that are waiting in the wings. It was always my lifelong passion to do an authentic, Victorian version of The War of the Worlds, set in the UK. But obviously a certain Mr Spielberg stole my thunder on that one. I am a huge fan of Jeff Wayne’s musical version, too. I like the imagery on that one. But never mind.”
Despite these minor frustrations, Marshall is rapidly turning into a bankable name, and he already has two new projects lined up. A horror for Rogue, who co-produced Doomsday, called Sacrilege. He tells us that he can’t tell us much about it, then tells us about it – he likes to share his ideas does Marshall, and glad we are too, as it sounds cracking. Sacrilege is a period horror movie set in the California goldrush, a mix of Unforgiven and The Exorcist. That’s at the script stage, but his next project, Driver, marks a departure for Marshall – he’s directing a script by someone else, one based on a book by James Sallis about a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver.
“It’s a change for me, but it’s exactly what I needed, just to try that, it’s a great script, and it’s very different from everything else I’ve done. It’s like a film noir kind of piece. It’s set in LA, and it’s just totally different.”
And that’s the question that’s hanging in our minds, where is his career going to go now? He’s made people sit up and notice, is the next step the big money and bright lights of Hollywood?
“I don’t think so, I wouldn’t want to give that up, and this Driver, for want of a better word, it is going to be a Hollywood movie, it’s a studio backed piece, but it’s not a huge mega-budget movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’ll be a similar sort of budget to Doomsday, and it’s quite a concentrated small piece about a few characters. I thinks it’s an interesting move to make, just to try out it out, just be a director for the first time. The various other projects, a lot of the stuff that I’ve written. It’s just a question of having the kind of success in order to go and say ‘Look this is what I want to make next’, and hopefully they’ll say, ‘Yeah, do it.'”
And does he have any yen to do an epic SF or horror TV series?
“I’d always love to come up with an idea for that kind of thing, but I haven’t been struck by it yet.”
But actually, he has.
“Oh, I have had one idea,” he says suddenly “it’s kind of like Star Trek in a way, but it’s set on a Navy frigate, a galleon, during the Horatio Hornblower days, that strays into the Bermuda Triangle and goes into, you know cross-dimensional things.”
And finally, the $100 million question, literally. Would he give up his English sensibilities and the control he has for a massive budget, or if it came to it would he be happy to keep making mid-budget films just for fans like us who get them?
“No,” he says. “I don’t want to give up my own identity, whether that identity is through sick black humour or through a British feel to something, I don’t quite know what that is, I can’t quite pinpoint. I still want to make the kind of films that I’ve been making, I never want to give that up, though I’d like to combine that one day with a a big, big, hit, obviously, a huge runaway success! But at the moment I just seem to be making cult movies, and that’s great, because the fans of cult movies are just ten times more loyal. When I go round to conventions, everybody’s so dedicated to the work that it’s a hell of a reward for film-making. So I’m certainly not complaining about the films that I’ve made and the responses that they’ve had, it’s been fantastic. I wouldn’t mind making mid-budget films for the rest of time if it allowed me creative freedom. It doesn’t matter to me making huge budget films, that’s not what it is about.”
DOG SOLDIERS (2002)
Marshall’s first film, a cult hit, starred Rome actor Kevin McKidd as a Scottish infantryman kicked out of special forces training for refusing to kill a dog, his reward having his squad used as bait in a hare-brained scheme to catch werewolves deep in the middle of nowhere. But it all goes awry, the hunters are killed, and the bait soldiers find themselves pinned down in a farmhouse with limited ammo, facing a nearly unkillable enemy, some of whom are not as far away as you think. Kind of like a hellish Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but with werewolves and squaddies.
Scotland was chosen because it’s really the only place in the UK where a werewolf friendly wilderness exits, though the Scottish McKidd was too polite to point out during filming that there is nowhere in the country that is isolated by a four-hour drive, as the film has it.
Bar a few establishing shots, much of the flick was shot in Luxembourg. The film exhibits Marshall’s black humour and love of film references, which pepper both films, for example, when Private ‘Spoon’ Witherspoon (Darren Morfitt) is eaten, it causes Sergeant Wells (Sean Pertwee) to remark, ‘There is no Spoon’.
“People thought that I invented that character just to tell that joke, but it was totally the other way round, the character was always going to be called Spoon, I just thought ‘let’s put that in there’ later,” Marshall explains.
Other in-jokes include Pertwee’s character being named after H G Wells, and another soldier being called Bruce Campbell, a reference to the films of Sam Raimi, of which Marshall is a fan.
The film established Marshall’s talents and tastes, there’s plenty of snappy dialogue, fast-paced action and gore, and precious little CGI. The werewolves were achieved entirely through physical effects, with dancers raised up on stilts. Though they look a bit dodgy here and there, they look more convincing than recent CG wolfmen. A sequel to Dog Soldiers, subtitled ‘Fresh Meat’, is in the offing, though Marshall has no involvement with this at all. It is, instead, being written and directed by Rob Green, who was responsible for the pretty good, but not as good as Dog Soldiers, WWII horror flick The Bunker.
THE DESCENT (2005)
Though it has much in common with Dog Soldiers, The Descent is a much darker movie. Like Dog Soldiers, it features a small group of characters trapped and menaced by terrifying, man-flesh hungry creatures, in this case cavers being attacked by mutant humans who dwell underground and hunt by echo-location. But the similarities end there. The main cast here is entirely female, the film has a black-hearted core of sexual betrayal, and whereas Dog Soldiers can quite safely be called a knockabout romp, The Descent is one of the most claustrophobic, terrifying horror movies of recent years, with a bleak, bleak ending, and ending that was, predictably, changed in America.
“I’m not quite sure of the reasoning behind it, they simply clipped the ending off, it’s no less ambiguous, but it does mean that physically she’s out of the cave at the end of the film, so I guess that must mean it’s happier in some way,” explains Marshall. “I let them do it. It was an agreement by which I said as long as we get a guaranteed thousand screen release in the States. It was kind of like selling my soul to the devil to get the big release, which I think the film absolutely needed, but I knew the proper ending would get seen on the DVD anyway. So I knew I wasn’t going to lose out.”
Marshall played the maverick a little on this film, finding actors to represent the nocturnal crawlers rather than the usual stuntmen, effects technicians and dancers usually employed in such roles (this included Craig Conway, who played cannibal chief Sol in Doomsday). He got them to cultivate individual characters for the creatures, and kept their appearance secret from the cast.
“That was good fun!” he says. “If the opportunity arises, I love to do things like that, it created a real tension on set with the girls, they had no idea, they didn’t even meet the actors who played the creatures before their first scene together, so they had no concept of what to expect.”
It worked so well he got an award for the scene where the crawlers are introduced. Probably because the actresses looked absolutely shit scared,
“Yeah,” says Marshall deadpan, “they were.”
Marshall’s skill as a film-maker makes a big leap from Dog Soldiers, making scenes set in cave interiors look realistically dark and cramped requires special skill. And while Marshall deserves praise for making us feel as if we are trapped underground, cinematographer Sam McCurdy was key in making it look like we are without denying us the opportunity to enjoy Marshall’s liberal gore by shrouding all in darkness. In short, underground sequences are a bitch to light well, but they did it expertly.
The Descent was a critical success, scooping seven awards, include the Saturn for Best Horror and two British Independent Film awards.