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INT: Neil Marshall

08.03.2006by: JimmyO

Ever since the release of DOG SOLDIERS, writer-director Neil Marshall has found success on a cult status. But with his latest film, THE DESCENT, set to hit theatres in the US on August 4th, he is bound to become a major force here in Hollywood. His talent at writing strong, layered characters and his uncanny ability to create tension-filled “smart” horror movies will certainly put him in the big leagues. Very rarely does a genre flick get the kind of award nominations this has been getting across the pond; including a Best Film nomination at the British Independent Films Awards (BIFA’s).

THE DESCENT follows the adventures of a group of women on a daredevil caving trip. As they descend deeper and deeper below the earth they find they are not alone. Yes, this may sound like a ton of other movies but trust me that it transcends way above those films sharing more in common with ALIEN in mood, atmosphere and scaring the living shite out of you. And for once, it ain’t all hype. For more on the greatness that is THE DESCENT, check out The Arrow’s review

I was lucky enough to sit down one on one with Neil and talk about THE DESCENT, DOG SOLDIERS and the state of horror today. He was charming, intelligent and really damn funny. This is a guy who believes that a film is all about collaboration and not relying on one man’s ego. And after meeting him I have a feeling the man is going to continue making some really fantastic movies. And it’s refreshing to meet someone who truly loves the horror genre and respects the folks that support it. And seriously, I’m begging you, go see this movie! You won’t regret it.

Neil Marshall

How did you as a “guy” write these six very smart, very interesting women? How hard was that?

It was important to get it right. So first of all I wrote it and rewrote it countless times in order to achieve that. But I also consorted with a lot of women along the way. Friends of mine, other actresses, people like that to get it as authentic as possible to see if we were going in the right direction. And finally when we actually went to shoot the film I was collaborating with the actors themselves and anything that didn’t work for them, we just made work, really. So that it would become more like female speech or whatever you would call it.

Yeah, there was one scene… a really high drama scene that I’d written. It just wasn’t quite working; it was too much dialogue, too much going on. And talking to Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) and Beth (Alex Reid), we went out the night before and sat in a pub and had a few drinks and we just got a napkin out and we just went, what’s wrong with this scene, how can we make it better. And we wrote the scene on this napkin and the next morning I took it down to the studio and that’s what we shot. And I did get in to trouble with the producer for that… for rewriting the script over night but he kind of backed off and said okay, just go with it. I’m always getting in trouble with producers and things like that. That’s kind of an example of the process that we went through.

Let’s talk about Dog Soldier’s as compared to this one. How was it the same?

With Dog Soldiers it was like a big boy’s night out; over six weeks in Luxemburg cause we were all staying in the same hotel, it was a bunch of guys with a few girls around. And we were shooting off guns and blowing up houses and stuff like that. So it was a complete guy fest. This was a totally different thing, we were shooting in London. Most of the people were going home every night; we weren’t all staying in the same place; but at the same time me and the girls or whatever, we spent a lot of time bonding, drinking and trying to get into character; discuss the whole situation, discuss the film.

So there was a lot of difference and a lot of similarities. I was really concerned about how to achieve the same level of camaraderie with a bunch of girls that we had with a bunch of guys in Dog Soldiers. But it actually came very, very easily. They were so committed to the film; so chilled out, sort of just along for the whirlwind; so I guess more similarities than differences at the end of the day.

That’s cool. How did they prepare for the fight sequences?

Well, she’s an incredibly physical person anyway which she demonstrates by sticking one foot beside her head when she’s standing on the other foot.

It’s all real. Yeah, she demonstrated that first early on… that’s incredibly impressive; we were going to get that in the film somewhere. But in terms of the fight sequences, what I wanted was a raw brutality that didn’t look rehearsed and didn’t look staged so we didn’t really do that much choreography on it. What we said was, to the crawler, your objective is to basically rip her throat out and now your objective is to stop him. And then it was like…go! And what we got out of it was something really frenetic and pretty savage. And the way it was cut together as well really added to that and that’s exactly what I was after.

Well, when you’re watching it you think, these girls go on these adventures, they probably took self defense courses, they probably know their way to survive.

But also I just wanted to get down to what would you or I, people who don’t have self defense courses, if we were attacked by something, what would we do?

And that’s another thing that really worked, these characters are so layered. There’s no one here that’s really a “good guy” or really a “bad guy”. Could you talk about that, especially with Juno.

Yeah, for me, I didn’t just want good guys or bad guys, I just wanted a bunch of humans who are capable of making mistakes, you know, and have frailties. And Juno is [perfect] for that, she’s mentally strong on one hand, but her weakness, her Achilles heel as it were is just that she kind of lies to cover up things that, she won’t admit she’s capable of making mistakes and that just kind of gets her into worse situations. She thinks she can handle anything and she can’t, because she’s only human. And that humility kind of defines itself more in Juno because it’s more extreme, but everyone has it.

Let’s talk a little bit about the “crawlers”, where did those guys come from?

But they also came from logic. I wanted to have something in the cave with them, I wanted to… the cave itself was going to be a character in a sense that you’re going to get to know it’s horrors; we have claustrophobia, we have heights, we have drowning, we have all these things… and I’m going to milk the cave for all it was worth and that would kind of take us half way through the film and then what I wanted to do was; just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does.

And there’s something in the cave with them and it was like, okay, where do I go from here? What’s going to be in the cave with them… come up with something, really logical thing here, but I also… for me, the scariest thing going is human, no monster on earth is nearly as scary as what humans are capable of. So I kind of wanted to rein it in, I wanted some logic to it; what if people like cavemen instead of leaving the cave like the rest of us and evolving; they kind of devolved when they stayed in the cave and become something else entirely.

An offshoot of humanity and apply that science to it, which they’re going to be blind because they’ve never used their eye’s for millions of years, be great at climbing in caves, have great hearing, kind of a sonar thing that bat’s have to negotiate their way through the darkness; all these things, and that was kind of how they ended up looking; that with a combination of the visual appearance of Iggy Pop.

How do you feel about the horror genre and how it’s going right now, good, bad?

At the moment I think it’s pretty good. I’m pleased that horror has taken a turn for the dark again.

It’s getting nasty again; it’s actually getting pretty horrific again. Part of what The Descent was all about was a response to horror films for kids, PG-13 horror films. What’s that all about?

It’s pointless. It’s nice to see movies like Devil’s Rejects, The Descent or The Hills Have Eye’s kind of take the reins again.

You know, that’s what I wanted to achieve and we got it.

Now, I was reading that you like to go into the theatres with the audience [for your movies], how often do you do that?

Oh, it’s not like some sick, twisted hobby of mine. It’s only like if I’m at a screening because quite often the director shows up to introduce the film and then just leaves at festivals or whatever. Different countries, different audiences react differently and it’s constantly [educating] me because I don’t like watching my own films that much, I very rarely watch the film, I just watch the audience because I’m trying to learn from them. What’s working, what isn’t working, what are they jumping at. It’s a way of improving what I do.

With this film are you shocked at the critical success, which usually doesn’t happen with this genre?

I’m amazed, overwhelmed by the critical success. I’m very pleased, obviously. But yeah, takes me by surprise. Dog Soldiers did pretty well with the critics but this has got amazing critical response. I don’t know whether it’s timing or what, but I am incredibly pleased with it… especially in the UK where horror films, commercial films are really kind of frowned upon even with our heritage of Hammer and all that kind of stuff, nowadays your making horror films in the UK everyone kind of turns their nose up at you… that’s not real filmmaking, you should be doing Jane Austin or some rubbish like that, you know, I’d like to stick two fingers up at them. But the fact that the critics [got] the film, that’s great.

And also, obviously the commercial success, it’s doing very well in other countries…

Are you nervous about how it’s going to do in the US or are you feeling pretty confident?

I’m terrified. I don’t know… I’m scared of being confident; I’m scared of being optimistic because that kind of hexes it in some way. Secretly, God yeah, I’d love it if it was a huge hit but we’ll just wait and see.

The ending; there’s an alternate ending coming out to the US. Who’s decision was that and how do you feel about it, are you excited about it?

I’m excited about the possibility of getting a second chance in a way. The original ending we stuck with… we tried out the alternate ending in the edits way back when and tried to stick with the original ending and stick with what our vision was and what was scripted. To just see how it plays. I’m not going to go… get artistically upset because it’s got this ending here, because the real ending is also out there. I get both.

Hopefully we’ll get to see it on DVD possibly.

On the UK version right now there’s storyboards, there’s trailers, outtakes, bloopers, deleted scenes, there’s two commentaries… there’s a whole bunch of stuff.

Yeah, it’s a forty minute documentary which is really good.

Hopefully we’ll get a nice two-disc addition out in the states.

Can you tell us about that?

And sadly she died right in the middle of the shoot for The Descent. We were two weeks into the shoot, we had a break on Christmas.

I’m sorry.

She was only a year old and she was struck down by epilepsy, quite rare in dogs but it was enough to kill her unfortunately. And then I had to go back to work and finish the film… and she, you know she was very, very special to me; my first dog. I asked the producers if I could dedicate the film to her and they let me.

You know, we have to show that us horror film directors aren’t completely cold hearted, there’s something ticking beneath that skin.

They are, aren’t they? Not talking about me but all the ones that I’ve met, the ones I’ve been introduced to, they are. I think it’s something about our dark sides are promoting our films but we’re really big soft cuddly teddy bears, really.

Well, maybe it’s the fact that you’re able to get it out, so all the bad, evil stuff is out there already so…

So repressed; they can’t get rid of they’re angst, or they’re hate… whatever.

Ah, yes I am, it’s called Doomsday and it’s post-apocalyptic action, sci-fi action adventure.

Fun…

It’ll be a lot of fun, yeah; dark and pretty brutal as well.

Send questions and comments to jimmyo@joblo.com.

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