British filmmaker Neil Marshall has established himself as one of England’s most respected contemporary horror filmmakers with the one-two punch of his debut Dog Soldiers and its popular follow up The Descent. Veering into science fiction territory with his last movie Doomsday, Marshall explored one possible future for the United Kingdom, but in his new movie Centurion, he’s tapped into his country’s rich history to create an action thriller set during the Roman conquest of Europe way back during the 2nd century.
Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, upcoming X-Men: First Class) plays Quintus, a Roman centurion who survives a raid by England’s savage tribe of Picts to lead the Roman’s Ninth Legion north with orders to kill the Pict leader Gorlacon. Instead, they’re ambushed, their leader (Dominic West) in taken, and they find themselves on the run from a relentless group of Picts who want nothing more than to kill all Romans.
ComingSoon.net spoke with Marshall on the phone a few weeks back to find out what it took to create a film with such an epic scale and scope while still making the film independently.
ComingSoon.net: Many of your previous movies have had horror and sci-fi elements and this is the first one based in history and more reality involved in it. I understand you had a connection to Hadrian’s Wall already?
Neil Marshall: Well, pretty much, yeah, just when I was born, where I grew up is at one end of Hadrian’s Wall, so I’ve know Roman history and it’s been a part of my schooling from earliest days really. We went on school trips to Hadrian’s Wall, my dad’s kind of a history buff, so in this part of the world where I come from, you can’t move away from ancient history. If it’s not medieval castles, it’s Roman forts, and it’s all there just to see.
CS: Had you been thinking about doing a movie like this for a long time? Was it something in your head to do for many years or was it some idea you came up with after finishing “Doomsday”?
Marshall: No, I actually had the script written before I did “Doomsday” and I had the idea about 10 years ago when I first heard about the legend of the 9th Legion. They had supposedly marched into Scotland to battle the Picts and then vanished without a trace, and this really isn’t an urban legend, but it’s definitely a historical myth. I first heard about that from a friend and then immediately, it just hooked me completely. I just thought, “There’s gotta be a film in there somewhere,” and I wasn’t quite sure what it was then. I didn’t know whether it was gonna be supernatural or what. I decided to go down more of a historical route and to figure out what might have actually happened to them.
CS: So did you already know a lot of stuff about the era or did you have to do a lot of reading to pull from a lot of different theories about what happened to them?
Marshall: I had a little bit of an idea, but mostly I just did a lot of research. The idea of 3 or 4,000 Roman soldiers just vanished without a trace is definitely intriguing with historians. The more research you do, the historians kind of disproved the myth, but I kind of figured that when the legend becomes fact, print the legend, because it was much more interesting. (chuckles) So I went down that route, and my idea was to make the world in which the story takes place as authentic as possible, even if the story is essentially fictitious. It’s based on truth, it’s based on elements of truth. Yes, the 9th Legion did go into Scotland, and they were attacked by the Picts, they just weren’t necessarily massacred to the last man. As an embarrassment to Rome, they were disbanded and sent off to various parts of the Empire to join up with other legions. I took elements of that and made it a full-scale massacre and then kind of made it a cover-up by Rome, which makes sense that they would be embarrassed by this and want to cover it up. All this stuff was researched. I researched the Romans, I researched the Picts. There’s a couple of characters in the story that are based on real characters which are Governor Agricola was the Governor of Britain at that time and the General played by Dominic West is based on a real General as well who was command of the 9th Legion. Everybody else in it is purely fictitious.
CS: I’m sure you must know that there was another movie being made around the same time, not sure if it was before or after. Had you heard about that while you were making the movie, or as you were finishing the movie?
Marshall: Oh, yeah. We’d been well aware of it for some time, because we were kind of in a bit of a race to get our film made first, and we managed to beat them to the post. Other than that, I don’t know anything about it.
CS: I was curious if you ever felt the urge to check in on it or see if it was very different from your take on it.
Marshall: It’s kind of weird because we both deal with the same subject matter of the 9th Legion, but ours is for all intents and purposes, a prequel of their story while theirs is a sequel to ours because theirs takes place like 30 years after our story. In some ways, our story fills in the background of theirs. So I didn’t see them as massive rivals, but I would love to find out what they’d done with the subject matter.
CS: Well, if people like your movie and are interesting in knowing more then their movie will come along and tell more of the story. What’s interesting to me is the fact that you have the Romans depicted as the good guys. I’m American so I don’t live there, but I’d think the people in England would think of the Romans as the enemies or the bad guys because they were invading and they were fought off.
Marshall: It was important to me to deal with the kind of shades of grey that war is usually about and it’s not so easy. There are heroes and villains on both sides, and yes, the Picts are defending their homeland and therefore, for all intents and purposes, they’re the good guys. The Romans being imperialistic and invaders are the bad guys. We tell our story from the point of view of the Romans, but not necessarily their ethos. I don’t consider it a pro-imperialist film. It’s about survival, it’s about a group of guys who are just trying to get home. That’s the way I always saw it. It’s about the individuals, it’s not about the group mentality. Actually, the central figure, the Centurion himself, starts out as an imperialist and ends up as a fugitive, so he kind of changes heart as the story goes on.
CS: Michael Fassbender is great as Quintus. I assume he had just done “Hunger” so had you seen him in that? What made you think of him to play the lead role in this?
Marshall: Well actually, I know of “Hunger,” but we cast him before I’d seen it. There was some good word of mouth about “Hunger” and I think I watched it just prior to the shoot. But yeah, I mean, I had actually auditioned him for “Doomsday” a couple of years before, and just kept him in the back of my mind really. I wasn’t able to work with him on “Doomsday,” so the opportunity came for this movie, and I thought he’d be really really great in the lead role.
CS: He’s obviously a great dramatic actor and that’s the case with a lot of the people in your movie, but then you have them doing a lot more action stuff. How did you prepare them for that and how do you get them into that sort of thing? The dramatic stuff would be easy but I would think the action would be a new thing for many of them.
Marshall: I made sure I warned everybody that the shoot was going to be really tough, because I intended to film it in the worst weather conditions I could find. So I made sure I said to the entire cast, “Look, I’m going to put you through hell,” and I did, and none of them complained because they had all signed up for it really. But, they were all very willing and able to get stuck in. There is only so much preparation you can do for that. I wanted to make sure that onscreen, when you see them shivering, when you see their teeth chattering, that’s all real, that’s not acting. They were really that cold. It just enabled them to concentrate on the performance and not concentrate on having to fake shivering as a distraction. They may argue that they’d be fine, but I think it looks better when they don’t have to fake that stuff (chuckles). Plus the environment that we were filming in just lent such authenticity to it. You can’t argue with that, that’s the real thing. That’s what the Romans were in 2,000 years ago, so we’re definitely not faking that. No, but training, almost all the guys are in pretty good shape anyway. We put them through some fight training and sword fighting and some fights and that was it, really. We just let them loose.
CS: A historical war epic like this with such big set pieces, normally they’d be done with a studio because they involve so much money, but you ended up doing this independently. Can you talk about your decision to do it independently and how you managed to do a movie like this without having $100 million?
Marshall: Well, it would’ve been nice to have $100 million, that’s for sure. (Laughs) No, it was the same production company that I had done “The Descent.” Off the back of “The Descent,” they commissioned me to write this script, so I knew I was going to do it with them, and I thought there was always going to be budget limitations on it. It’s kind of funny that people look at it and assume that it’s my biggest film to date, but actually it’s only about a third of the price of “Doomsday.” We just happened to spend our money very carefully. I had to make sure that every single penny was on screen. It just requires a lot of clever work with the camera, clever work with visual effects to give it that scale. I think shooting it on location in that landscape lent a lot of scale to it as well, but it was tough. I would have very much liked $100 million. (Laughs)
CS: Locations play such a central part and the fact that you found such amazing locations. I talked to Nicholas Refn and Louis Letterier who both shot their movies in Scotland–or maybe Louis was Wales–but they were both doing these movies that were period pieces and find locations not touched by humans and recreate those times. How hard is that finding those locations that are untouched by humans that don’t have logos and road signs?
Marshall: Well, it’s not as difficult as you might think. Once you get up into those “diamonds” of Scotland, there isn’t much trace of civilization up there. It doesn’t take much to get off the main road and find that stuff there, because it’s pretty inhospitable. It doesn’t necessarily look that way, but it’s kind of real boggy and marshy and it’s pretty inhospitable for most people. You can actually get away from humanity very very easy up there. We had an entire system of valleys that were private property that we could use. From there, we kind of had 360 degrees of wilderness. I know that Nicholas Winding Refn went slightly further north to do his stuff, and it gets even more kind of wild and difficult up there as well. Yeah, it’s not as difficult as you might think.
CS: When I talked to him and his actors, the hardest thing seemed to be convincing the crew to bring all the equipment up there, so was that the case with your movies as well?
Marshall: Yeah, well, I suppose if you have the budget of a “Lord of the Rings” movie, then everything’s taken up by a helicopter. We didn’t have that. All we had was these Norwegian troop transport things that are like little tanks and we had to drive up the mountain in these things. It took an hour-and-a-half to drive up the mountain each morning in these little tank things, and they were pretty uncomfortable. Every second they looked like they were going to tip over and roll down the hill with us inside. So it was pretty interesting and it was difficult. We were filming in temperatures of like minus 18 in blizzards on top of a mountain where you don’t know where there’s shelter, there’s nowhere to go. You can’t suddenly nip down the mountain, ’cause it takes three hours to get there and back. So once you’re up there, we had to commit to being up there all day no matter what the weather. Yeah, that was fun. (Laughs)
CS: How familiar was your cast and crew with the history about that time period? Was that very important for them to know about that stuff or did some of them already know this story?
Marshall: Like me, everybody from the different departments did their own kind of research. The costume department had the advantage in that they had just come off the TV series “Rome,” so our costume designer knew his stuff inside and out and that was great. The rest of the crew, especially like the production designer and myself, we had to realize everything from the ground up and it was a fascinating education for us both.
CS: Did you see a through-line between the Picts and the marauders in “Doomsday” and did the influence for the savages in “Doomsday” come from the Picts?
Marshall: That’s kind of a weird by product because I wrote about the Picts before I actually did “Doomsday,” but the way obviously the films have been made is that one comes after the other, but the Picts are the authentic tribes people of Scotland. Their face paint and stuff like that is all very authentic, but I guess for the barbarians in “Doomsday,” I took a lot of ideas from other kinds of tribes and cultures of society around the world, so there’s some Native American stuff in there and barbarians from Germany, all thrown into the mix together. I just took the best of everything for that one.
CS: Have you always generally been a fan of movies like “Apocalypto” or “Braveheart,” or those historic movies with big epic battles?
Marshall: Oh yeah, absolutely. When they’re done well, they’re amazing. I love that. It’s just as interesting a thing exploring the past, as it is science fiction or fantasy or something like that. I think the worlds are equally amazing and spectacular and eventful.
CS: “The Descent” was present day, and then with “Doomsday” you went to the future, and this one is set in the past. Do you know which era you might want to explore next?
Marshall: Oh, I have no idea. I wouldn’t mind doing something contemporary, that would be okay. (Laughs) But I’m interested in exploring all kinds of periods, all kinds of genres, and just finding a really good story to tell.
CS: Do you have anything else that you’ve been developing or had an idea to do for a long time?
Marshall: Well, the next thing immediately I want to do is producing a film that’s being written and directed by my wife Axelle (Carolyn) and I’m producing that, a film called “The Ghosts of Slaughterford.” We’re going to be shooting that in the next few months. That’s my first attempt at producing stuff, and I’m also attached to a project called “Burst” which Sam Raimi’s producing. We’re going to shoot that in 3D, it should be fun.
CS: Is that also going to be ready to start shooting this year or are you still developing that?
Marshall: Well, I was working on the script at the moment, so I don’t expect it will shoot until next year.
CS: Has your wife directed anything before? Is she also a director?
Marshall: No, well, she’s in “Centurion” as one of the cast members of “Centurion,” so she does all sorts of things.
CS: But is that something she’s been developing that you’re finally getting made? What’s that movie about?
Marshall: It’s a ghost story, obviously, and she’s been developing it for like the past year or so.
CS: Is that going to be a smaller scale than some of the stuff you’ve been doing?
Marshall: Oh, it’s quite a small scale thing. It’s a very intimate horror story with kind of a romantic angle to it as well.
CS: Do you have any thoughts about doing more horror? Is “Burst” also horror?
Marshall: Yeah, “Burst” is full-on horror. It’s all about people exploding in 3D. (chuckles) Yeah, with me doing it and Sam Raimi producing it, it’s 100% horror.
CS: Is it anything like “Scanners” with mental powers making people’s heads explode or what’s the general premise?
Marshall: I can’t give away too much at the moment. (laughs) That’s all I can say.
CS: But it has people exploding in 3D. That’s the selling point right there.
Marshall: Yeah, it’s to do with a psychic ability, but it’s not like “Scanners,” it’s an alien technology.
CS: Who’s writing it? Are you writing that yourself?
Marshall: No, it’s being written by Brian Nelson who wrote “30 Days of Night.”
CS: Are you writing anything else by yourself, because obviously, your last few movies are from your own scripts.
Marshall: Yeah, I’ve got a couple of projects that I’m working on myself. I’m developing a couple of horror ideas. I’m just trying to figure out which one I want to necessarily write next, but yeah, I’m definitely working on my own stuff at the same time.
Centurion is currently playing on Video on Demand and is available on iTunes, Amazon, Xbox Marketplace and the PlayStation Network, but it’s opening theatrically in select theaters on August 27, and that’s really the best way to get the full sense of scope and scale that Marshall captured on film.