An Interview with Director Neil Marshall

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Director Neil Marshall has helmed some of the best loved films and TV shows of recent years. He talks to @Roger Crow about his new movie The Reckoning, and projects such as Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Game of Thrones and the TV remake of Lost in Space

Hi Neil. Your new movie is rather impressive. How did you get involved in The Reckoning?
It came to me through an old friend of mine, Edward Evers-Swindell. A few years ago I worked on one of his films, Dark Signal. He’d been developing this idea with a friend of his about witch hunts in the same period, but it deviated into a more sort of Carrie-esque vibe to it of: “I’m not a witch… I’m not a witch. Hey, I’m a witch!” And then zaps everybody with lightning bolts from her eyeballs. It was at that point my interest waned a little bit. I was really into this concept of the witch hunts, so I said, ’Let me and (actress/writer) Charlotte (Kirk) take it and we’ll run with it a bit’. And we did a lot of research about the period and witch hunts. And the more we got into it the more interested we became. I wanted to make another horror film and another genre piece in the vein as Dog Soldiers, and The Descent and things like that. And this was an opportunity to do that. But I also wanted to make something that had something to say. The more I looked into the witch hunts, the more I thought, ’This is really relevant to today, even though it’s a period piece’. It’s so striking the comparisons. I’m not talking about the plague here. We made it in 2019, so there was no plague. We wrote it in 2018; shot it in 2019. It was primarily to do with the witch hunts and the misogyny all that kind of stuff which seemed very relevant. We live in an age now where witch hunts still exist. They’ve just taken on a different form; Cancel Culture and stuff like that. And I thought, ’This has got something to say’, but it was also, ‘I haven’t seen this world for a long time; post-Civil War England’. It’s rarely touched upon, with the odd exception like Witchfinder General and A Field in England. So many more medieval things are done than this kind of period. So it evolved from there really. I was trying to tell a story based on true events, but not specifically a real person.

Charlotte Kirk gives a fabulous performance. You really put her through her paces.
Absolutely. Thank you for saying that. In some respects it was like, “Well, she only had herself to blame”. (Laughs). It was really tough; she was virtually in every scene; a very intense shoot. She spent a lot of time strapped to various torture devices, so yeah it was tough, but she was up for it.

“I stuck to my guns”

Take us back to your movie breakthrough. How tough was it getting Dog Soldiers made?
Once it was made it became a hell of a lot easier. It took six years from script to screen. And during that six years there was a lot of ups and downs. Back then the market was not swamped with horror films. There were very few horror films being made, and certainly in the UK… the response I received very quickly was everybody turned their noses up at it. Nobody wanted to do horror films. It was like “If it’s not Jane Austen, we’re not going to make it.” Everybody said it was way too ambitious for a first feature. But I stuck to my guns and I thought, ’I can do this; It’ll pay off somehow’, and it eventually did. Once we got it made and Pathé came on board, it kind of took off from there.

It’s always great to see Sean Pertwee in projects such as Dog Soldiers and now The Reckoning.
Yeah, he’s like a lucky charm. It’s just such a joy to work with him. And he brings so much energy and life. He loves what he does, and he brings that enthusiasm to the set. I love what I do, so it’s a good meeting (of minds). And it’s nice to do something different with him. Dog Soldiers was one character. Doomsday was something different again. This is something very different again. He’s playing a villain for the first time, but playing a villain that has different dimensions to him. He’s a very interesting character and Sean enjoyed diving head-first into that. It was like a week’s filming in Hungary. I think he’d been a bit spoilt doing a comfortable three or four years on a US TV series… and to be thrown neck-deep into a British independent film… a genre film was a bit of a wake-up call, but he loved it. So it was very refreshing.

When you worked on Game of Thrones, did you have any idea how big that would be?
Not on season two. By season four it was starting to become part of the zeitgeist, but in season two when I did ‘Battle of Blackwater’, it was really just finding its feet. And maybe ‘Battle of Blackwater’ helped it do that. It took it to the next level and really gave the fans what they wanted. But what an incredible project to have been a part of. Even to be a small cog in that machine. And it was such a pleasurable kind of ‘machine’ as well. Such a lovely bunch of people involved in it all the way through, from beginning to end, and made it a joy to work on.

neil marshall director interview portrait“Things just fell into place”

One of the things I like about your projects is the gritty realism. Is that a key thing, to have that authenticity?
If I’m making a project from history I like it to be dirty and gritty and real. And to be honest where I got that from is watching Monty Python movies. What Terry Gilliam brought to the look and feel of those Python movies was dirt and mud and smoke and fire and things like that. That really is a massive inspiration to me. I treat period stuff the same way I would any sci fi or fantasy genre. It’s just as much of an alien world to most of us if it was on an alien planet. So you want to make it feel as real as you can, and people buy into that. Messy, muddy… and all the costumes are tattered and worn. Yeah, I love all that stuff.

I loved your take on Lost in Space. Some of the scenes with the robot were especially moving.
I’m really, really pleased you feel that way. It was great to a) do a science fiction thing. ’We had our own spaceship to play with!’ Things like that. The robot was a key part of that. And I fought tooth and nail to make sure we did it practically. We had an actor in a suit on the set acting with all the actors, and it takes it to the next level having that interaction, and giving that robot personality. I wanted to do a thing where the robot would do double takes. I managed to get a few of them in but they got cut out.

I’m a big fan of Hellboy. Was the reboot a dream to work on?
No, quite the opposite. It was an absolute nightmare to work on. It was a classic case of interference from the highest level. I sold my soul a little bit to do a big movie and have all the bells and whistles. But the price that you pay for that was… I don’t really feel it was my movie in any shape or form. It’s part of the reason why I wanted to do something like The Reckoning. It was like, ’No money, but full creative control’, and I can invest myself 100%, whereas I couldn’t do that with Hellboy.

The Descent is one of the scariest films I’ve seen. Did you get a feeling you were working on something special when you made that?
I think so. Things just fell into place just right on that, you know? From the writing of it, through to the casting of it, the shooting… it felt good all the way through. What we were creating was something terrifying. But things worked out just perfectly.

When you watch it does that terror come across, or are you too close to it?
I don’t get the same vibes that other people get from it because I remember being there on the set and how we shot things. I try and disassociate myself from my own films to try and enjoy them. That’s part of the reason I made them in the first place. Because they’re movies that I wanted to watch. But you can never really enjoy your own movies on the same level. It’s still a buzz. I still enjoy watching films like Doomsday and things like that for the excitement of it all. But I can’t feel the same way about it as audiences do.

What are you working on next?
I’m just about to start prep on a new movie called The Lair, which again is in the horror genre. A bit more in the vein of The Descent, Dog Soldiers. It’s monsters. It’s set in Afghanistan and yeah, it’s going to be very intense. Horror, gore, blood, guts. The works.

Thanks for your time, and I look forward to your next projects.
Thank you.

‘The Reckoning’ is in cinemas and on digital platforms from 16th April

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