Q & A with Writer-Director Neil Marshall

Neil Marshall — Director of “Centurion”

Neil Marshall — Director of “Centurion”

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to Neil Marshall, writer–director of the thriller “Centurion,” opening Aug. 27 via Magnolia Pictures.

Written & Directed by Neil Marshall, the Pathé Pictures, Celador Films and Magnet Releasing presentation was produced by Christian Colson and Robert Jones. It was executive produced by Francois Ivernal, Cameron McCraken and Paul Smith. Starring are Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, David Morrissey, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, JJ Field, Liam Cunningham and Imogen Poots.

The Story (no major spoilers): “Centurion” is set during the war between Roman soldiers and Pict tribesmen during the 2nd century Roman conquest of Britain.

In AD 117 the Roman Empire stretched from Egypt to Spain and East as far as the Black Sea. But in northern Britain, the relentless onslaught of conquest had ground to a halt in the face of the guerrilla tactics of an elusive enemy &mdash the savage and terrifying tribes known as the Picts.

Quintus (Michael Fassbender), sole survivor of a Pict raid on a Roman frontier fort, marches north with General Virilus (Dominic West) and his legendary Ninth Legion, under orders to wipe the Picts from the face of the earth and destroy their leader Gorlacon.

When the legion is ambushed on unfamiliar ground and Virilus is taken captive, Quintus faces a desperate struggle to keep his small platoon alive behind enemy lines, evading remorseless Pict pursuers over harsh terrain as the soldiers race to rescue their General and reach the safety of the Roman frontier. The Romans find themselves hunted by a seemingly unstoppable group of the Picts’ most vicious and skilled warriors, led by a beautiful and deadly tracker (Olga Kurylenko) and hell bent on revenge.

Neil Marshall was born in Newcastle in 1970. He began making films at the age of 11 with his mother’s Super 8 camera. Driven by a love of all things cinematic, he went on to film school at Newcastle Polytechnic in 1989 where he completed a 20–minute zombie action film as his degree project and graduated in 2002.

He was quickly spotted and employed as an editor by local director Bharat Nalluri and worked for the next eight years as a freelance editor in Newcastle. In 1995 he co–wrote and edited Nalluri’s first feature film “Killing Time“ and continued to write and develop his own projects.

Marshall’s debut feature as both a writer and director, “Dog Soldiers“ (2002), was a soldiers vs. werewolves horror comedy released theatrically in the U.K. to positive reviews and healthy box office grosses. His second feature, the critically acclaimed and award–winning underground horror film “The Descent,“ was released in 2005 in the U.K. and in 2006 in the U.S. via Lionsgate on more than 2,000 screens. “The Descent“ went on to win numerous awards, including a Saturn Award for Best Horror Film, British Independent Film Awards for Best Director and Best Editor and the Empire Award for Best Horror Film.

Marshall’s next film as writer and director was the apocalyptic science–fiction horror action adventure “Doomsday“ (2008).

Q: Going back to the silent days of movies, some of the biggest and most expensive films were set during the Roman Empire — like MGM’s 1925 “Ben–Hur.” These were always big, big movies that cost a ton of money. I suspect that you didn’t have a ton of money to spend on making “Centurion.”
A: You suspect right.
Q: How do you make a costume period piece like this without having a lot of money to spend on it?
A: With a great deal of difficulty, but also a great deal of passion and a great crew around me as well. One of the things that in a way has plagued this project is that because it’s about Romans it’s always the term “epic” that’s applied to it. And it’s not necessarily an epic. I don’t think of it as an epic. I think of it as being quite an intimate story about these seven guys who are just on the run for their lives. It’s a chase movie. It’s an action movie.

I think we tend to associate epics with vast expanses, vast themes and vast battle sequences — and, obviously, we weren’t able to do any of that kind of stuff. But the story doesn’t necessarily require it just because we set it in Roman times. We actually made something that’s more akin to a western, I would say. That was certainly what was on my mind when I was making it. It’s more like a John Ford western where the landscape is as much a part of the story as anything else and our characters are within that. That is how it all plays out.
Q: How did you get the idea to write the film?
A: I’ve grown up my entire life surrounded by Roman history. I was born and grew up in the town of Newcastle in Northeast England that is actually at one end of the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall. So all my life I’ve known this. There’s Roman ruins everywhere so I’ve been surrounded by all this. When I was at school I had to go on trips to Roman forts and things like that. So it’s definitely been part of my heritage, in a way. At some point I was told the story and the legend of the Ninth Legion, who marched into Scotland in 117 AD to battle the Picts and vanished without trace.

As soon as I heard this myth I was just instantly hooked. I thought there has to be a movie in there somewhere. This is about 10 years ago. I started coming up with a storyline based around what might have actually happened to the Ninth Legion and took it from there. After “The Descent” I was commissioned by the same production company and the producers to write this story into a script and eventually we got to make it.
Q: How long did it take you to turn it into a movie?
A: I wrote the first draft of the script in about three weeks. That was about five years ago now. But then I ended up making another film first. I made “Doomsday.” When I finished on that I came back to Celador and said, “Are you still interested in making ‘Ninth Legion?’” And they said, “Yes, let’s make that story now.” So from script to screen it’s probably taken four or five years, but I made another movie in the meantime so it wasn’t all waiting.
Q: You referred to it before as being a kind of western. How do you mean?
A: What’s interesting about it for me was that it’s kind of morally ambiguous in that we actually tell the story from the point of view of the invading army. It’s not that I’m suggesting to the audience that they have to sympathize with the invaders. It’s the individual soldiers within the invading army that we actually care about, not their politics per se.

The way that ties into the western for me is that what it reminds me most of is the old John Ford cavalry movies, which would be seen to be incredibly un–PC now, telling a story from the cavalry point of view. The Romans are very much like the cavalry and the Picts are very much like the Comanches or the Apaches, the war party. The major comparison I found was the moral ambiguity about it, telling the story from a very kind of un–PC point of view, but I like that. It’s the shades of gray that warfare actually has where there are heroes and villains on both sides. It’s too easy just to paint one side as being the good guys and the other side as being the bad guys.
Dominic West as Virilus in “Centurion”

Dominic West as Virilus in “Centurion”

Q: In a film like this you typically need a lot of extras and a lot of horses, all of which tend to be expensive. How did you handle that?
A: Well, the Legion, itself, should technically comprise anything from 3,000 to 6,000 soldiers. Obviously, we weren’t in a position on our budget to afford that many extras and the costumes and the props that would go with them. So what we had to do was get as many as we could — I think we had a few hundred — and through the use of digital composition replicate those numbers to make up the full set of 3,000 in a few shots.
Q: Ridley Scott told me a similar story when “Gladiator” came out about how he’d digitally created one level of the Coliseum seen in the film.
A: We used that same principal of digital replication. All the people you see on screen are real except you’re seeing the same people over and over again, but because it’s like a hundred people you can’t tell that it’s the same people.
Q: What sort of budget did you have to work with?
A: We did this for £7 million. At the time that we made it, that would be about $10 million. (Laughs) Probably about the same size as Ridley Scott’s catering budget or something like that! We stretched our budget to the limit.
Q: How did you raise the finance to make the movie?
A: It was all done through one company, Pathe in the U.K. Pathe had distributed my first few films, but they came on board as the producer and financier on this one.
Q: Did you create the costumes you needed or did you find them in a costume supply house?
A: All the Roman costumes we had specially made for the film. They actually get made in India. There are factories in India that specialize in doing chain mail and armor and they mass produce these costumes. They’re a lot cheaper than we can get them anywhere else. We had an expert costume designer who’d just come off the TV series “Rome” so he knew an awful lot about how it all works and that helped us a lot. He had the contacts to get the costumes made for us. We had Roman re–enactment guides involved, who actually re–enact being part of the Ninth Legion. We brought them on board because they knew all about formations and marching and how Romans fought in battle so that helped save on research on our part, as well.
Q: How do we know how the Romans did things?
A: Well, the good thing about the Romans, unlike the Picts, was that they documented all this stuff. They wrote it all down and preserved it and passed it on for years and years. So there is a record of all of that kind of stuff. But with the Picts it’s a totally different story because they didn’t write anything down. The only evidence that we really have about them is a lot of stone carvings that they did that luckily are still preserved to this day.
Q: Where in what is today Britain did the Picts live?
A: What the Romans called Caledonia and we call Scotland. The Picts were the indigenous tribes at that time.
Q: When did you begin shooting, for how long and where?
A: We shot in February of last year for seven weeks. It was in the highlands of Scotland in the middle of winter. It was very, very cold. Our first day of filming we were shooting in a blizzard 3,000 feet up a mountain and it was minus–19 degrees — that’s Centigrade, not Fahrenheit! It was extremely cold. (Converted to Fahrenheit, it was about –2.2 degrees.)
Q: So this wasn’t an easy shoot.
A: It was the most physically difficult shoot I’ve done and that I think the cast has done, as well. I did warn them in advance that it was going to be very, very tough. From shooting in blizzards, they also had to do some stuff where they went into a river which was icy cold and a lot of them suffered quite badly for that. The entire shoot was pretty much outdoors. It was all locations. It was all during winter conditions. It all involved running and falling and jumping and so forth. Everybody got pretty beaten up on it.
Olga Kurylenko on the set of “Centurion.” In theaters Aug. 27th.

Olga Kurylenko on the set of “Centurion.” In theaters Aug. 27th.

Q: Looking back at production, what were some of your toughest challenges?
A: We had to do this really big battle sequence that takes place halfway through the movie and we only had a very limited time to do it. The comparison I use is that for “Braveheart” while shooting the Battle of Stirling, Mel Gibson had six weeks to shoot that entire battle. We had a day and a half to do ours. We had seven weeks to shoot the entire film. I’m really impressed that what we were able to get on screen works pretty well.

What I did was come up with an idea whereby in order to get our leading actors fighting within this battle sequence with a few hundred extras battling in the background, rather than change the cameras and the lights and the extras and everything else each time we needed to do a set–up, I just set up the cameras and the lights in three different positions and left the background actors where they were and just literally swapped the actors over.

Because we’re doing something different every time and because the lighting changed and because the actors in the background were different every time you really couldn’t tell that the cameras basically hadn’t moved. And once it’s inter–cut into the battle sequence you cannot tell at all. It looks like something different every time. That saved us so much time, not moving the cameras around. It was really coming up with ideas like that that allowed us to pull off what we did in the time that we had.
Q: Any other big challenges?
A: The actors suffered quite a bit, especially having been in the ice cold water. One of the cast members came out of this river, which was about as cold as water can get before it freezes, and half an hour later he turned a sickly shade of green and started projectile vomiting everywhere. Basically, what happened was that his body had gone into shock because of the cold water so we had to rush him off to hospital. He actually was fine and an hour later he was back on set. He was absolutely fine, but his body just totally rejected the whole thing.

We had a few scares like that. One of our actors got the first symptoms of frostbite in his feet, but luckily we caught it in time. Again, we had him taken to hospital to check and he was absolutely fine. It’s just when you’re doing something for real and not doing it in a green screen studio that these dangers exist, but that’s what helps make the film look all the more real. When our characters are freezing and their teeth are chattering and they’re shivering on the mountainside, that’s all real because it was that cold. I think it lends authenticity to the movie.
Q: You also have lots of very authentic looking blood in the movie.
A: Well, I figure that if I’m going to do a movie that deals with this kind of combat of swords, axes and spears and stuff I want to be honest about that and be true to the nature of my previous work, as well. Also, it’s a lot of fun when you’re splashing blood and guts around on set. That’s the kind of film I set out to make, which was going to be very gritty and very realistic about the violence of those times. I didn’t want to do a softcore movie.
Q: What did you use for blood?
A: Our makeup effects supervisor uses some kind of colored syrup. It has a sugary syrupy base with red coloring so it actually tastes really sweet. So it’s edible. If you have too much of it you get really sick!
Q: So you’ve accurately reflected the violent nature of the Roman times.
A: Absolutely. These were really savage times and I think it’s only honest for a filmmaker like me to depict them that way. I don’t think there’s any other way of doing it when you have thousands and thousands of people hacking each other to pieces with swords and axes. There is no nice outcome for a battle like that.
Q: But happily you qualified for an R rating.
A: I haven’t had to cut the movie at all because of the violence in it. I think the violence is very honest. I don’t necessarily think it’s offensive in any way unless you’re particularly squeamish to blood and guts. It’s not outrageously violent.