Dog Soldiers. The Descent. Doomsday. Centurion. Even with only a little over a decade of feature filmmaking under belt, director Neil Marshall has already left his mark on cinema for generations to come. While the fates haven’t seen fit to gift us another theatrical effort from the man over the past few years, Neil has remained a busy bee. In addition to writing and developing countless potential film projects, Marshall has kept the fires going with tours of duty on a few high-dollar television shows, HBO’s Game of Thrones and Starz’s Black Sails. His work on the former scored an Emmy win for the series in its second season and stands among its best output to date. It’s no wonder that the producers have brought him back for the upcoming season to film what will surely be another corker of an episode.
Black Sails, a prequel to the classic novel Treasure Island, debuts later this month on Starz, and the brass seem to have a lot of faith in the series. After all, they greenlit a second season based on Comic-Con reactions to Marshall’s pilot alone. Neil also found the time recently to produce his multi-talented wife Axelle Carolyn’s own feature-film debut, Soulmate, which should land before our eyes sometime later this year. On top of that, he was recently announced to be writing and directing an English-language remake of Troll Hunter, the acclaimed 2010 Norwegian fantasy epic. Production is currently expected to be in full swing later this year.
Busy, busy, busy. Lucky for us, despite all of this, Mr. Marshall was gracious enough to grant this writer an interview recently. Our interaction was spread out across a few months, the majority of which occurred during Marshall’s time filming his latest Game of Thrones gig. It’s not often that a filmmaker decides to take time out of an undoubtedly hectic schedule to speak with someone like myself, so I would once again like to thank Neil for doing so.
Daniel Baldwin: Let’s start with the basics. What, as the saying goes, are your humble beginnings? What was your life like growing up? And when did your fascination with cinema begin?
Neil Marshall: I grew up on the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England, famous for producing coal, ships, the steam engine, Newcastle Brown Ale (My grandfather designed the famous blue star logo!), Sting, Ridley and Tony Scott, Stan Laurel, Get Carter and one end of Hadrian’s Wall (more of which later) to name a few. I’m certainly proud of my roots as a “Geordie” (that’s someone who was born in Newcastle, for reasons not entirely clear) and an Englishman. I specifically point that out because I often get mistaken in print and on-line for a Scotsman, probably because I have an affinity for Scotland that’s readily apparent from my movie. But no, for the record, I’m English.
My dad was an amazing graphic artist and calligrapher (now retired), and I definitely got my artist streak from his side of the family. Both Mum and Dad have always been big movie fans. They were often going to the cinema, there were movie books around the house and they were always watching movies on tv, so I felt surrounded by movie culture from an early age. One of my earliest memories is being woken up by my dad late one night. I must have been about five years old. He took me through to the living room where he said there was something on television I needed to see. It turned out to be James Whale’s Frankenstein, and I sat there, eyes glued to the screen, entranced and terrified. It was my first experience of horror cinema, and it made a very big impression.
I guess the next significant moment was a few years later. For my sister’s birthday treat we went to see this new sci-fi film everyone was talking about; it was Star Wars, and it blew my mind! That was the beginning of my passion for going to the cinema. It was closely followed by my first Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me, Close Encounters, A Bridge Too Far, Smokey and the Bandit, to name a few.
Then in 1981, aged 11, the epiphany happened. Actually the epiphany came in two parts. The first part was meeting and becoming best mates with a guy from my school called Mike Johnson. It turned out his parents were equally passionate about movies, and it had rubbed off on him too. We instantly clicked over our mutual geekness, and that led directly to the second part — seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time. To say that it rocked my world is a major understatement. Seeing it (in conjunction with the “making of” doc on tv) set me on a career trajectory I’ve never veered from. From the moment those credits rolled and that theme soared I knew I had to direct movies. I didn’t know how, but I was determined to find out and make it happen. A few days later, we got hold of Mike’s parents’ Super-8mm camera and started making our own films. The next few years would be an incredible education, mostly through making a shit-load of mistakes. But what better way to learn the basics? Planning, shooting, blocking, framing, lighting, editing, visual effects, stop-motion animation, miniature work, scoring — you name it. We were nothing if not ambitious. At the same time, we both started writing feature scripts in our spare time. Utter bollocks of course, but again, a huge learning curve. Leap forward 30 years, Mike and I are still great friends and he’s now a successful screenwriter of moves such as Sherlock Holmes and Pompeii, so I guess it paid off!
After high school, I did a one-year diploma in graphic design then went on to film school for three years. Technically it went under the more pretentious title of “Media Production” and wasn’t very practical based, or educational for that matter, but it did afford me the opportunity to make a 20-minute zombie comedy action movie as my final project. Brain Death earned me my bachelor of arts degree by way of fake blood, latex guts, miniature FX explosions and gratuitous violence, all done on a shoestring budget.* It definitely stood out from the crowd of artsy student films that year and got me noticed by some local film producers who offered me some work. I spent the next eight years working as a freelance editor, starting out on Betamax then moving to Avid as the technology came into play, cutting everything from music videos to news items, documentaries to dramas. Learning how NOT to direct a sequence as much as anything else. If you have any aspirations to direct, I urge you to try editing other peoples work first. It’s the best on-the-job practical training you can get! All the time I was still writing, and somewhere along the way came up with the idea for my first feature.
*The proposed sequel, ‘Brain Death 2: Chainsaw Holocaust’ sadly never made it past the teaser trailer stage. Though perhaps that’s for the better.
DB: When most directors decide to launch into feature-filmmaking with a horror movie, they usually do so in one of the following subgenres: psychotic killers, vampires, or, more recently, ghosts or zombies. What made you decide to go for broke and target something as FX-heavy as werewolves? Is there a particular affinity you have for them or was it more of a desire to aim for a less overused genre icon?
NM: Just to put it into context, I left film school in 1992, and I came up with the idea of making Dog Soldiers around 1995. Of all the iconic horror monsters, werewolves have always been my favourite. I was profoundly affected by seeing The Howling and An American Werewolf In London for the first time in the mid-80s (on VHS, since I wasn’t old enough to see them at the cinema). And I always preferred the bi-pedal werewolves of The Howling but felt we never got to see enough of them. Since then, the introduction of CGI and movies like the Underworld saga have proved you can have too much of a good thing and that, actually, The Howling and American Werewolf got it absolutely right! But hey … anyway, so I love werewolves, but I also felt they under-represented on screen. I’d already made a zombie movie (of sorts) and my efforts to adapt that into a feature didn’t amount to anything. Hard to believe now but back then nobody was interested in making or watching zombie movies! Not that it was any easier making a werewolf movie either. Of all the myriad financiers I approached, the consensus at the time was it was either “too ambitious” or “not our cup of tea.” Which pretty much sums up the British film industry in the mid 90s — no ambition and no taste! But I was convinced it was achievable (and a decent idea) and was determined to get it off the ground somehow.
I think also that I didn’t really consider just how ambitious and complex a film I was trying to make at the time. It was my first feature. At that stage in your career you’re just relentlessly pursuing the dream. You’ve got blinkers on to the world around. I was incredibly single-minded and stubborn, it was the only way it was ever going to get made. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that it wouldn’t. Ignorance is bliss!
Dog Soldiers (2002)
DB: Did you view making a “good werewolf movie” as a challenge? Even most horror fans will admit that of the all famous movie monsters out there, there seem to be very few werewolf movies that are worthwhile, with Dog Soldiers being one of them. Why do you think it seems to be so hard to nail this particular beastie on film, even when they have the budget to do so?
NM: The answer to the first part is absolutely! That’s part of the reason I avoided doing an on-camera make-up FX transformation in my movie, and I knew I didn’t want to go down the CGI route. So instead I paid homage to that other classic of the genre Carry On Screaming by having Liam Cunningham hide behind the furniture! I knew, on the budget we had, I could never do anything to challenge Rick Baker or Rob Bottin. But what I did feel we could do was some pretty decent werewolves. A friend of mine sketched these amazing looking creatures, unlike any werewolf I’d seen before — muscular, yet lithe and slender. Very feminine looking. We hired one of the top British make-up FX artists, Bob Keen, to make them for us, and I cast dancers to play the werewolves because I wanted an elegance and fluidity to their movements.
As for the second part, I’m not sure. Most werewolf movies, starting with the original Wolfman, tend to focus on the “curse” of the werewolf. I wasn’t interested in this at all. I simply intended to use my werewolves as a savage and (mostly) indestructible antagonist. An enemy for my soldiers to fight. I also wanted to incorporate some classic fairy tale and nursery rhyme mythology into the proceedings, such as Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
DB: After making Dog Soldiers and The Descent, do you feel like you have said everything you have wanted to say about monsters on film? Or is there still a desire within to return to this particular subject matter, be it werewolves or other things that go bump in the night?
NM: Absolutely! I’m not done with monsters yet! Not by a long way. It’s just about finding or creating the next iconic monster and combining it with a great story, and these things aren’t always easy to come up with. That said, with Troll Hunter I have both so I’m really looking forward to returning to my monster movie roots and exploring this particular mythology.
DB: Neil, like many of your contemporaries, you have been lumped into what most affectionately refer to as the horror “Splat Pack,” as well as being viewed as a postmodernist “DJ of cinema” filmmaker. How do such labels make you feel as an artist, and how have they affected the choices you have made, particularly the horror-centric one that has followed you since your debut?
NM: It’s a fact of life as much as it is a fact of the business I’m in that people like to attach labels to you. It’s unavoidable. I never wanted to be known purely as a horror director. I figured that would limit my chances of working outside the genre. After all, the movie that first made me want to make movies was not a horror movie. If anything, I’d prefer to be known as an action or genre director, since these are common elements to all of my work.
So when I’d made The Descent and the opportunity presented itself to make something that wasn’t a horror film, I jumped at the chance. Also, in many ways Descent was a pretty tough act to follow. It’s success with critics and audiences alike surprised a lot of people, especially me! The result of all that is that it makes you self-conscious, which is the worst thing to be when you’re trying to come up with your next movie. I didn’t have any other great horror ideas knocking around so I avoided the genre, and for better or worse, have done for several years. I’m now at a stage where I do have a bunch of horror ideas and I’m itching to get back into it and scare the shit out of people again. Strangely, the one label I did literally nothing to avoid was being a member of the Splat Pack. I think this is a badge I definitely wear with pride. No matter what genre I’ve done, be it post-apocalyptic sci-fi or historical adventure, I’ve thrown as much if not more blood at the screen. Even my TV work is about as gory as the horror movies I’ve made! I think one of the biggest challenges for me as a director is to make something without a single drop of blood in it. But where’s the fun in that?!
DB: Your films tend to be far more character-based than most of what we receive these days, which I find infinitely refreshing. Within their genre trappings, each has a specific dramatic tale that they are relaying to their audience. Dog Soldiers’ Cooper, Descent’s Sarah, Doomsday’s Sinclair, and Centurion’s Quintas are all on personal journeys amidst the madness around them. What is your process for crafting these stories? Do you begin with a genre or subgenre that you would like to tackle and then attempt to find an emotional hook and set of characters to frame it around? Or is it the opposite?
NM: It’s different every time. Quintus’ journey started with a myth, the disappearance of the 9th Legion, from which I had to work backward to find his story. Who is he? How did he get there? How was he involved? What happened to him? Corporal Lawrence T. Cooper, Sarah Carter, and Major Eden Sinclair all grew and evolved in unison with the story. I think Cooper is somewhat led by the story. He’s mostly reacting to events around him. As a soldier, he didn’t choose to be there. Sarah, on the other hand, is the story. It’s all about her, especially if you apply the notion that most of it is happening inside her head. Not that I’m saying this is the case, but I deliberately wanted to keep it ambiguous.
Major Eden Sinclair falls somewhere in-between — a military figure who becomes a loner and rebel. I don’t know that I’ve often come up with a character and invented a story around them. With Dog Soldiers, I came up with the concept of soldiers vs. werewolves and the rest grew from there. With The Descent, it was the desire to make a truly terrifying movie set in a cave. With Doomsday, it was the notion of what might cause Hadrian’s Wall to be rebuilt, and with Centurion, it was about solving the riddle of what happened to the 9th Legion.
What used to happen was that, having come up with a concept, I would often bend and sometimes break the characters in order to force them into the story. Then, as they evolve, through writing and re-writing, they emerge stronger and better and ultimately reverse the process and guide the story. I may have originally wanted to turn right at some stage in the story, but the character determines that it should be left. Only by going through this process can you know with any confidence why. Some of my more recent ideas have started with a character and grown from there. Whatever the case, it’s vital to me to find some kind of emotional hook, to make you care about the characters and what happens to them. I got that from horror movies, from the desire to have characters that weren’t just victims lining up for the chop.
When I was casting Dog Soldiers and talking to the actors, I made it very clear to them that this was going to be “a soldier movie with werewolves,” not “a werewolf movie with soldiers.” It’s a fine line, but it’s important. I did my research. I wanted my soldiers to feel authentic and believable. If the audience didn’t buy into them and their characters, then the more fantastical elements couldn’t possibly work. I applied exactly the same principle to The Descent, making sure my heroines were utterly believable as women above all else.
With Doomsday, there was more of a heightened reality. It was never meant to be the “real world” as such, more an exaggerated version of what might be. And with Centurion, I wanted to apply the same thinking as Dog Soldiers — to treat these men as if they are just a bunch of squaddies (or grunts) just in a different age. Weirdly, some people had an issue with them using modern words such as “fuck” and “shit,” but didn’t seem to mind them speaking English. My point was that whatever language they spoke, they are soldiers, and soldiers swear and bitch and laugh and cry, no matter what the language. Always have done, always will.
DB: You have a penchant for writing strong, independent female characters, which is unfortunately a bit of a rarity in genre cinema. Why do you think you have managed to succeed where others have failed? And why do you think writing women as people, as opposed to what sometimes amounts to nothing more than a talking prop, is an overall problem within genre cinema?
NM: I’m sure it’s got something to do with the fact that the vast majority of studio execs, producers and financiers you encounter are men! As a member of the audience, I’ve always liked seeing strong women represented in movies. I’m not sure where it originated, maybe Ripley in Alien, Marion in Raiders or Leia in Star Wars. I’ve always thought of my mum and sister as strong women in their own ways. Many of my friends and, of course, my wife, Axelle, are all strong, smart, self-reliant women.
It’s not about strength of body, but about strength of mind and of will. The weakest person can move mountains if he or she has the will to do it. These are qualities I admire in anyone, not just women, but the fact that such qualities are considered rare for female characters (only a hundred years on from the birth of cinema!) is fairly tragic. In the constant battle to come up with anything vaguely original, I’ve always seen that as a glaring omission, not to mention an opportunity to exploit.
That’s not to say it’s been easy and I don’t claim to get it right every time, but I’ve had my fair share of creative squabbles with the powers-that-be over the integrity of my female characters. By way of example, one such difference of opinion revolved around whether my entire female cast (you can probably guess the film) should randomly strip off and go for a swim at a particularly unwise moment in the story. The producers wanted this in the movie. I argued that it made no sense for the characters, the story or the film, and in the end they backed down. It’s notable that during the making of Centurion when all the male cast members where required to jump into a river, nobody suggested they should all get naked first!
I think part of the problem is that certain exponents of genre cinema (both creators and fans alike) absolutely relish and encourage female stereo-types, and I’m not just talking about men here. Women can be just as culpable of harming their own cause. Some people clearly don’t object to the potentially negative portrayal of woman in genre cinema. More to the point, they don’t see it as negative. For me, personally, it is a negative thing, and it’s not particularly what I want to see in movies, so it’s definitely not the way I want to depict women in my own work. I’m not out to score points with the feminist lobby. For me, it’s just about making good movies with good characters, nothing more. If it’s integral to story and character that they take their clothes off, then so be it. But if it’s clearly not, then as the director the integrity of the film is your responsibility and surely worth fighting for.
Anyway, weirdly enough there are as many people out there who think my films are misogynistic as there are who think they’re pro-feminist. Seriously, students have written essays on the subject. Not very good essays mind you, but it’s fascinating anyway. I remember at a Q&A in New York after a screening of The Descent, a woman in the audience grilled me for depicting women in such an unflattering way. I should only depict women in a flattering way? Because the depiction of men in movies is always so flattering, right! That’s the kind of dumb comment that really hurts the cause for having more woman in movies, both in front and behind the camera. Personally, I don’t think I’m either pro or anti-feminist, but I like to think I am pro-equal. In my movies, everybody is equally likely to die horribly before the credits roll. No favourites here!
DB: Upon revisiting your films once again in preparation for this interview, this time around I was particularly taken with the thematic similarities between Doomsday and Centurion. Major Eden Sinclair and centurion Quintas Dias are both disenchanted soldiers hailing from a society filled with deceit and corruption. In the end, both choose to abandon their previous lives in favor of the freedom of the untamed lands on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall, both in its original and futuristic forms. Toss in Private Cooper’s refusal to compromise his morals and you have a through line of characters who are loyal to those they fight alongside, but are unafraid to question authority and stand up for what they feel is right. Is it fair to say that Neil has an anti-authority streak running through him in his quest to carve his own path in cinema and the world in general?
NM: It’s probably a little bit of both. I’m hardly the rebel without a cause. My parents would tell you I was not a difficult teenager. I was too busy making movies! I’ve often said that if I hadn’t followed this path and become a film director, I’d have probably ended up in the army. As much as my family (on my dad’s side) were all artists, they were also all military men. My grandfather fought in the battle of the Somme, and my dad served in the occupation of Austria just after World War II. They used to throw snowballs at the Russian sentries, who would shoot back!
So much of what inspired Dog Soldiers came from hearing my dad’s stories about the army, although as far as I know, he was never attacked by werewolves! I know I’m pretty good at logistics and strategy – which comes in very handy planning the battles on Game of Thrones – and making a movie is virtually a military exercise anyway. Though I think I’d be less good at taking orders. I’m way too stubborn and single-minded for that! Dog Soldiers took me six years from script to screen, and at no point did I ever consider giving up.
Another example of a determined streak was when I was at film school. The general consensus among the staff was that a horror film was not worthy of the course. So the only way I could make my zombie movie was to submit a fake script, get it approved, and then shoot the real script within the department itself (because I needed a large building). But only after hours when the tutors had gone home and we had bribed the janitor to let us in. Every night we would get in, shoot some scenes, mop up the blood and get out. Then I’d keep the tutors out of the edit suite, at least until I’d finished enough to show them that it had some some merit. Eventually, one member of staff saw it, loved it and championed it from then on.
There were consequences to all this rebellious behavior, as I was to discover later. The following year, after I had graduated, the course changed the rules limiting the length of student films and cracking down on anybody getting away with such guerrilla film-making again. Part of me was proud of having rocked the boat, but at the same time found it criminal that creativity should be stifled, especially on a film-making course! WTF?! But that was a long time ago. I’m sure the course has much improved since then.
Since then, I guess if I have any kind of rebellious streak, it has been to go against the grain of British cinema — to make big, bold, ambitious, exciting, audience pleasing movies. More blood and guts than kitchen sinks and corsets. When the industry was telling me Dog Soldiers was not their cup of tea, I refused to listen. I was sure there was an audience just waiting for a movie like this. Ultimately it took a canned spinach magnate from Arkansas to help me reach it, but that’s another story! With The Descent, I wanted to make an action horror movie with an all-female cast in which none of them took their tops off. Practically unheard of in the horror genre!
Doomsday is an outrageous, epic, post-apocalyptic action movie in the grindhouse tradition, set in Britain and with a female lead. Again, unheard of! Centurion is large part western, small part survival horror, and tiny part political allegory, all disguised as a sword and sandal movie (without a sandal in sight!), set in ancient Scotland and featuring a mute female warrior as the villain. Anywhere else in the world these might not seem so strange, but in Britain we just don’t do that sort of thing. So I guess I am trying to make my mark, but mostly I’m just trying to make the kind of films that I want to see.
DB: Backtracking a bit to Hadrian’s Wall, you seem to have a very specific affinity for the subject. Does that stem mainly from growing up near its ruins or is a deeper love of history in general also at work? Your recent forays into television, both the medieval trappings of HBO’s Game of Thrones and the sea bound scalawag-stylings of Starz’s Black Sails, certainly seem to suggest the latter.
NM: I can’t deny that growing up in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall must have had some impact upon me. For 27 years, I lived in and around Newcastle, at one end of the wall, and for seven more I lived in and around Carlisle, at the other end, and spent a lot of time driving back and forth along the old Roman road that parallels the ruins (practically in a straight line for 60 miles). Combined with my love and fascination of history in general, perhaps it was inevitable that it would find it’s way into my films sooner or later.
I can’t remember which story came first. Possibly Centurion, or as it was then known, The 9th Legion, but it was never my intention to make them back-to-back. When I was given the opportunity to make Doomsday, a futuristic “what if” scenario based around the wall, I could hardly say no, and the same went for Centurion. I always joked that they represented the first two parts of my Hadrian’s Wall trilogy, of which I had no third part. Well, now I’m directing an episode of Game of Thrones that focuses specifically on the giant wall that separates the north and south of Westeros, and is certainly heavily influenced by Hadrian’s Wall, so maybe this is the third part after all!
I certainly love making period movies and creating those worlds. I’m drawn to stories from history. Doomsday may have been set in the future, but it was equally about history. There’s a romanticism in the past that doesn’t, can’t exist in the present. How does the saying go? The distance lends enchantment to the view. And the way I see it is that audiences today seem so poorly educated about history, either their own or anybody else’s, that in their eyes the past is as much of an unknown fantasy realm as any vision of the future, or distant alien world.
For me it’s a case of personal preference. I actually have great difficulty coming up with contemporary stories. My imagination feels more at home in worlds far removed from the one I live in. When it comes down to it, what matters is not the time or the place, but the people in it. An engaging human story is timeless. On a semi-related note, there are also those misguided folk who think I must surely hate Scotland and the Scots because of my depictions of them on screen, whereas the truth is I love the place and I’m very fond of it’s people. I got married there FFS!
DB: Like many auteurs, you seem to enjoy working with a lot of the same people whenever possible, both in front of the camera and behind. I’m sure it makes things easier for the most part when you know how each other work and can develop a sort of shorthand with one another, which can only help on smaller films where both time and budgetary constraints are constantly nipping at your heels. That said, are there any particular people (be they actors, producers, and other behind-the-scenes maestros) who you haven’t worked with yet, but would like to?
NM: What better than to go to work with your mates every day? To do the job you love with people who share your passion? The people I work with again and again, I do so because they were each incredibly talented colleagues before they became such great friends. That’s how I came to know them. I’ve worked with Sam McCurdy since the early 90s. Our careers have moved in tandem ever since. Simon Bowles I met for the first time and hired for Dog Soldiers around 2000. Paul Hyett and Jack Ravenscroft came on board for The Descent. With the TV work I’ve been doing lately, I haven’t had the chance to work with them for a while, but I’m hoping to ‘put the band back together very soon!
I always hoped to gather around me a repertoire of actors to work with again and again in a similar style to the way John Ford or Woody Allen work. All the guys from Dog Soldiers and the girls from Descent were such a pleasure to work with and gave such great performances, it was a no-brainer that I’d want to work with them again on future films. And whenever I’ve had the opportunity that’s exactly what I’ve done and will continue to do. But I always said, it’s not simply a question of handing out roles to friends. It has to be something different from the last time, a challenge, for them and me, or else where’s the fun in that?
As for people I’d like to work with? Hmmm. I’d love to give Liam Cunningham a leading role – that’s long overdue! Otherwise, I aspire to work with a bunch of people: actors varied as Kurt Russell, Liam Neeson, Helen Mirren, Colin Farrell, Jason Statham, Tom Hanks, Judi Dench, Anthony Hopkins, Sigourney Weaver, George Clooney, Viggo Mortensen, Gary Oldman, James Nesbitt … producers like Jerry Bruckheimer, Gale Ann Hurd, Frank Marshall … composers like John Williams, Hans Zimmer. I’d love to work with ILM one day. The list could go on and on. There’s a lot of very talented people out there!
DB: It’s amazing how much the business has changed over the past decade, particularly in the past five years. It seems to me that if you walked into a studio today asking for the financing to make something like Doomsday, which uses the post-apocalyptic trappings of Escape From New York and Mad Max and forges its own path with them, they would just assume dust off an older property of their own that fits that mold and insist that you slap the existing title on it. That has to be frustrating for any writer or director, let alone someone like you who enjoys doing both. What is it like trying to get original ideas made these days in an industry that has almost zero interest in funding any projects that aren’t based on a previously existing property, be it an older film, television series, comic book, etc.?
NM: In retrospect, I’m amazed that a studio agreed to make to Doomsday, period! The movie is completely insane and decidedly un-studio-like, but I’m very grateful they took a chance on it! Yes, it’s intensely frustrating. And seems so narrow minded, especially with so much creativity and talent available in the movie business. It’s also a tricky question to answer given the movie I’m about to embark on is a remake of Troll Hunter!
On the one hand, we should be creating our own myths and legends, not just recycling them from previous generations. But great stories have always been handed down from generation to generation, be it in the form of campfire tales, theatre, books, music, and now movies and television. Though I’m not sure future generations of movie goers will be entirely grateful for some of our current legacy. On the other hand, remakes are hardly new, or the sole domain of movies. Nobody thinks twice when a new adaptation of a theatrical play gets made, so why should movies be any different? If Jaws or Star Wars are such great stories would they not survive the remake treatment in the same way that Hamlet or Waiting for Godot regularly do? Not that I’m suggesting for a minute that anyone should try, but it’s a valid question, isn’t it?
I suppose the problem is that all Hollywood seems to be producing right now are remakes, sequels and adaptations. It would certainly be refreshing to see more original stories thrown into the mix – balancing and combining business interests with creative endeavors. Well, I can dream, can’t I? I think, at the end of the day, I’m not against remakes. I’m just against SHIT remakes, and the same goes for reboots, reimaginings, or any other form of reinvention! The truth is, some of my favourite movies are remakes – Carpenter’s The Thing and Cronenberg’s The Fly are two excellent examples. And now I’m about to embark on a remake myself. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think there was a valid reason for it. The original Troll Hunter is an amazing film, but the fact is that being subtitled meant an awful lot of Americans (and Brits too, probably) won’t watch it. The decision to do an English language remake is to open up such awesome mythology to a much wider audience while never taking away from the original. It’ll still be there for anyone interested enough to seek out, and I can definitely recommend seeking it out.
DB: You have even flirted with and been rumored (as well as fan-championed) for quite a few Hollywood productions in recent years that were based on pre-existing material. How often have you sat down with any of these films after the fact and said to yourself, “You know what? I really think I could have done it better!”? Also, in keeping with the industry’s obsession with rebranding popular fare, is there is a specific property out there (a film, a TV show, a novel, etc.) that you would actually like to get your hands on and put your own definitive stamp on it?
N: It’s a frustrating process. When most people miss out on a job, they rarely get to see if the person who actually got it did it brilliantly … or not-so-brilliantly. In the movie business we do, and without sounding too much like an egomaniac, I can honestly say that with the majority of high profile movies I’ve missed out on I know I could have done it better. But I’m not saying which movies! There are definitely a few properties out there I’d love to put the Marshall stamp on. I always wanted to do a period-faithful adaptation of War of the Worlds, I’ve got an awesome idea for Buck Rogers, and I’d love to have a go at the next Tomb Raider movie, to name a few!
D: You also have numerous projects that you have spoken of over the years that have yet to come to pass: The Eagle’s Nest, Outpost, The Sword and the Fury, Sacrilege, Burst, The Last Voyage of the Demeter, Hellfest and your World War II-set alien invasion tale, as well as many others. I will now ask on behalf of both the fans and myself: Are these tales that you still desire to explore someday, and are any still in some sort of stage of development?
NM: I’m always developing new material, new ideas, either stuff I come up with or things inspired from books or articles on-line. I’m constantly on the hunt for fresh stories, new ideas, fascinating characters, great drama, exciting adventure, so the projects tend to pile up and some inevitably fall by the wayside. It’s very difficult to give up on one of your own scripts. Too much hard work has gone into them to just shove in a draw and forget about them. Eagle’s Nest and Pendragon (formerly The Sword and the Fury) are both passion projects of mine and I’ll keep working at them and pushing them until they get made, or I snuff it, whichever comes first. Outpost was the adaptation of my student film, a zombie movie long before people started making zombie movies again. Back then it felt fresh, now it doesn’t. The bubble burst on Burst. The rest are all in various stages of development, hoping one day to be realized.
DB: I understand that your immensely talented wife, writer/actress Axelle Carolyn, has recently made her own feature directorial debut with a film called Soulmate. Is there anything you’d like to tell us about it?
NM: Yes! And it’s awesome! After developing the script for a couple of years, and almost getting it off the ground once before, she finally shot the movie on location in Wales last November. It’s a supernatural drama, I guess is the best way to describe it. It’s a ghost story with a strong emotional core and a few twists and turns on the usual formulae. It’s all finished now, and Axelle’s just gearing up for it’s world premiere in Sitges in October, followed by several other festival screenings at Frightfest Halloween in London, Abertoir in Wales, the Leeds International Film Festival. And it’s just been accepted to the BIFFF in Brussels next April. And that’s just for starters!
As a producer on the movie (not the mention the husband of the director), it’s impossible to be entirely objective, but I do think it’s a wonderful, intimate, dramatic and scary movie. I’m incredibly proud of Axelle’s achievement. The film looks beautiful, and has two powerful lead performances from Anna Walton and Tom Wisdom. My on-set involvement was very minimal. She knew exactly what she wanted, and she had a really talented crew backing her up, so I just left her to get on with it. The few times I was out on location I was usually roped in to being a unit driver! So we’ll be taking the film to AFM in November looking for distribution and then see where it takes us.
Meanwhile, Axelle already has a strong idea for what she wants to do next, and she’s just trying to find the right producer to team up with. It’s another genre film, with a spin – scary, quirky and heartfelt. With each project Axelle is refining her style, and I love observing that process at such close quarters, having gone through it myself. Of course you have to evolve as a film-maker and adapt your style in order to keep things fresh and engaging, both for the audience and for yourself, so it’ll be fascinating to see what kind of movies Axelle is making five or 10 years from now.
DB: What films and filmmakers excite Neil Marshall these days? What have you sat down with recently, be it something new or an older work that had escaped you until recently, that made you stand up and say, “This is why I love cinema!”?
NM: Recently I saw Rush, Ron Howard’s movie about the Formula 1 rivalry between James Hunt and Nicki Lauda in 1976, and I absolutely loved it. It was history I was vaguely familiar with — I was six years old at the time — but I found it such a refreshing change from all the superheroes and CGI-fueled carnage of the past few months. Having felt like the majority of big summer blockbusters had literally busted my block and pummeled me into submission, this was a breath of fresh air. Sure, this film is probably equally loaded with CGI, but it’s invisible — perfectly integrated in order to create the world of the story but never distract from it. This was also a story about regular humans, with real strengths and weaknesses, something that I as a regular human, can actually identify with for a change! It was the first time in a long time I’ve felt completely engaged and genuinely excited watching a movie.
That’s why my favourite screen heroes are characters like Indiana Jones, John McClane in Die Hard, Snake Plissken, Ellen Ripley, James Bond (most of the time), Clarice Starling, Hawkeye from Last of the Mohicans, Robin Hood, Lawrence of Arabia — heroes with human flaws and weaknesses. Though Bond has often walked a fine line between human and super-human. In Casino Royale he’s very human, but if you want him a bit more unflappable there’s always Roger Moore. And that has it’s own virtues.
I love directors who can lend their hand to just about any genre. I think Ron Howard is one of those, so is David Fincher, the Coen brothers, Ridley Scott, Robert Zemekis — all directors whose work I admire and follow. But surely the master is Steven Spielberg. You can only stand in awe of a director who can deliver a movie as emotionally shattering as Schindlers List and then turn around and make a classic blockbuster like Jurassic Park, or completely reinvent the combat movie with Saving Private Ryan. Basically, Spielberg is the teacher and we are all just students. So I always await his next movie with eager anticipation, and I can’t wait until he decides to make another big summer blockbuster and again show us all how it’s done.
There are plenty of other directors whose work I love and who have certainly inspired my own work. John Carpenter, obviously, Joe Dante, John Landis, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah, John Sturges, David Lean, Peter Jackson, John Boorman, John Huston. It’s a long list, mostly full of people called John!
Movies are so over-marketed now, especially in the U.S., and so far in advance of the release date, it’s difficult to be surprised any more. With the internet and social networking it’s almost impossible to avoid walking into a cinema knowing virtually everything there is to know about the movie, including whether people think it’s any good or not. When a trailer for a movie plays on TV during every commercial break, sometimes twice every 10 or 15 minutes, it’s like saturation bombing. It’s complete overkill, and the result is it makes me not want to see the movie because I resent having it shoved down my throat that way. I figure that if this is the contempt in which they hold the target audience, as if we’ve got zero attention span and the memory of a fish, then how good is the movie likely to be? No thanks, I’ll pass.
Film festivals are a great way to see movies, because usually it’s far in advance of the official release date so there’s no marketing yet. You really can go and see a film you know nothing about, based purely on the subject matter or the talent involved, and on occasion be genuinely surprised and impressed, and that’s something to be treasured.
We here at Cult Spark would once more like to thank Mr. Marshall for his time. Don’t forget to tune in to the Black Sails premiere this Jan. 25 on Starz.