EXCL: Interview with Christopher Smith

Director of UK horror-com Severance

In a year oversaturated with sterilized horror spoon-fed to the PG-13 crowd, no film has racked up the sort of body count Severance boasts in unadulterated R rated glory. You’ve got the “guy with the leg,” the bus driver, a few other folks, oh, and then there’s the f**kin’ plane carrying God knows how many people. “I had to fight and fight to keep that in,” director Chris Smith beams wide-eyed not getting too spoiler-heavy. “It’s tricky because in that one scene, in that one shot, it sums up the whole movie. Weapons fall into the hands of idiots and idiots give them to idiots.” How true, Chris, how true. But still, a plane?! That’s awfully harsh. “Listen, they did it in ‘Die Hard 2,’ and that movie has a happy ending! Today, it’d be like this national tragedy – instead [Renny Harlin’s sequel] ends with John McClane kissing his wife and the credits come up!”

There’s absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about Smith, physically. His unkempt brown hair stands atop a distinguished forehead; his gaze sharp as a bird of prey. He’s a talker; not in the ‘oooh, look at me’ way though. But when he has a good laugh over tossing a pair of hookers into a bear trap you know the friendly looks are just a ruse. This guy is as twisted as we are. There’s something manic about him, but in a crowd he could also represent your everyman – a store clerk, a drinking chum, maybe. What Shock is most grateful for above all else is the man’s desire to talk about his latest horror-comedy (opening in limited release May 18th from Magnolia Pictures) hasn’t diminished after two years of work. Severance opened last year in the UK and our interview is at the tail-end of a two year journey for Smith.

This writer sits down with Smith in the lobby of Beverly Hills’ La Meridien Hotel. Neither of us is hydrophobic, so the ungodly amount of fountains around us is no bother. The last time we spoke he was in the editing room finishing up 2004’s Creep, a serviceable throwback to ’70s Brit horror like Death Line that has one helluva mean streak. Franka Potente (Run Lola Run) stars in the film as a self-important socialite who is en route to a party where she hopes to score with George Clooney. She takes the London underground only to get trapped in the dark with rats, a rapist, the homeless and a feral, hairless humanoid creature. All in a night’s work. Creep didn’t sit well with critics and Smith suspects it’s because he took a few missteps in its execution.

“There were a lot of things that I got slightly wrong in parts,” he says. “Like having characters saying funny lines that shouldn’t be funny and played straight.” But the viscous black humor that does permeates the film was a warm-up to the steady, dead-on balance of horror and laughs Smith juggles in Severance. Written by James Moran, the lifeblood of Smith’s second feature is a political satire flowing through the heart of a slasher pic. Danny Dyer and Laura Harris (The Faculty) are Palisades employees enjoying a team-building retreat sponsored by the weapons conglomerate who writes their checks. Things go awry when they are misdirected to a ramshackle house in the woods and members of their group are knocked off by Palisades-hatin’ rogue soldiers who have gone ape-shit crazy.

As Smith is right to observe, you know what you’re in for from minute one when two buxom, bare babes (those aforementioned hookers) run screaming through the woods while some poor schmuck gets himself gutted like a deer. “You know it’s gonna be mad,” Smith laughs. It was important, however, to break genre stereotypes. “I got the script and felt, to make it fresh, we’ve got to do a lot. We’ve seen ‘kids in the woods’ before so [that knowledge] made me dig deeper in a way. It’s a tired genre, this ‘people in the woods thing.'”

Following Creep Smith wanted to challenge his comedic chops not unlike what Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg did in Shaun of the Dead, however, “I gave myself very clear rules like, characters can’t have one-liners just for the sake of being funny. They have to play it straight – we can’t be doing a scene just for the sake of comedy,” he continues. “What happens, of course, is that something happens that’s so funny you have to really restrain yourself. There’s some stuff we cut out but then there was other stuff we knew we could afford to keep,” such as a beat when the disembodied head of one character sees his torso lying a distance away. The moment is a brilliant and morbid punctuation to a line of dialogue set up earlier. You know, the whole chicken-with-its-head cut off bit. “When he gets his head cut off and he raises his eyebrow I was like, ‘Oh, let’s let him have it!’ Also, when I got into the sound mix, I made the irony of the music prevalent so it further pulled and tightened the boundaries of the tone. Lock it in a bit.”

For the fear factor, Smith realized Severance‘s butchers as an anonymous lot, crazed brutes dressed in military garb and armed to the teeth with guns and machetes. Smith plays this threat straight as a razor. “There’s nothing scarier to me than the idea that there’s someone out there that wants to kill you for who you work for or which country you come from. Something that you really have nothing to do with,” Smith says, finger on the pulse of today’s new headlines. “Of course it’s very relevant today where there’s this idea of ‘What is a legitimate target?’ To some people it’s because you pay taxes to your government and that makes you a target, it makes you the same as a soldier to them. This idea of where the boundaries blur is very scary to me and I tried to put that into the movie.”

Finding the right cast to reckon with and react to this foreign danger in a authentic way took precise casting, especially for the role of the ‘shroom-noshing Steve played by Dyer, a British actor and “Grand Theft Auto” video game staple. (Slice of trivia: Dyer voiced the part of Kent Paul in both “Vice City” and “San Andreas.”) “Danny’s character really has no place in a Palisades office like that,” Smith explains of Steve. “But not because he’s a stoner, because he’s an East End boy, a working class kid. Why would he be in this company? Then I thought a lot of stock brokers in London are East End boys who were cheeky chappy spibs in a way. They’re not posh, so why can’t Danny work for this company? There was going to be a line about him putting up the stands, he goes to the conventions and sets up the booth. I probably should have put that in but I felt like if I did then I was saying people like him can’t work for a company like this. I’m being judgmental.”

Smith’s characters weren’t the only fish out of water. Severance removed the director from his familiar England surroundings – where he lensed Creep – and plopped him smack dab in the middle of Hungary. “The weird thing about that place is the little differences but the little differences made it better for me because it’s rough and ready. Just like the stunt men. There was one scene where we had the huge bus crash – it was supposed to be that the coach just tipped over on its side but we ended up with this stunt man who said, ‘The coordinator wants us to go up this ramp at 30 miles per hour.’ The stunt man took it over 60! I was like ‘F**kin’ hell!’ We had cameras all over the place and the bus skidded to a stop three feet before one camera. The camera team ran.”

For his next, Smith says he’s venturing into Triangle (read more about that here), a narrative challenge steeped in more scares. Raised on what video nasties he could get his paws on and, of course, Hammer horror, Smith says, “I’ve got no intention of going on to become a proper director and not make horror anymore.” Music to our ears. “There’s this vibe – horror director…porn director. I don’t view it like that. I think genre movies and I consider horror part of ‘the genre thing.’ I think genre is where the best stuff is. Very cutting edge, I think, and you get to speak about a lot of things subtext-wise without being heavy-handed because it hides beneath the veneer of horror.”

As long as we have to wipe away the blood and sort through some body parts to find the meaning, we’re happy.

Source: Ryan Rotten


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