One of the highlights of the inaugural Newcastle International Film Festival this weekend is a screening of the 2008 cult fantasy adventure Doomsday followed by a Q&A with writer/director Neil Marshall, himself a son of the North East.
As a preview to the event Neil Marshall spoke exclusively to me about Doomsday and its legacy, as well as some of the other work he’s done on the big and small screens.
He broke through with the outrageous and much lauded horror/comedy/action hybrid Dog Soldiers, followed up with The Descent and then gave us the aforementioned Doomsday and Centurion, based on the legend of the lost Ninth Roman Legion.
Most recently he has helmed a reboot of Hellboy and has plans to film Eagle’s Nest, a long-cherished project about an attempted rescue of Rudolf Hess by Fifth Columnists during World War II.
Neil will be in conversation on Friday, March 30, at 6pm. Buy tickets here.
Tony Earnshaw: Doomsday seems to have become a cult movie. Was it ahead of its time, because it doesn’t seem to get the recognition that it deserves and it never really has? Was it too original and people just didn’t ‘get’ it?
Neil Marshall: I totally agree! It’s funny… I’ve never really thought of myself as being ahead of the curve, generally speaking, but I kind of think that I am in some things. The Descent was ahead of the curve in terms of its treatment of women in films and stuff like that. It was a very pro-feminist movie. And Doomsday was ahead of the curve as far as the homages to the ‘80s. Everybody’s watching Stranger Things and stuff like that now. Doomsday was doing that almost ten years ago now. The whole film was like a tribute to ‘80s video classics. Why it doesn’t get the respect it deserves? Look, the critics didn’t love it and it didn’t do that well when it came out, especially in the States where they got the marketing completely wrong. They didn’t really get the sense of humour in it or the outrageousness of it all. They tried to market it as a straight action movie, which it’s not. It is wacky and outrageous at the best of times. I think that’s maybe got a lot to do with it.
What I have found over the years is a growing fan following for the movie. I get more and more people coming up and saying that they like Doomsday, which is very rewarding for sure. I really appreciate that. So when it came to choosing a film to screen at the festival I chose that one because it doesn’t get screened very often and because Craig Conway [who plays Sol] is one of the guys that set up the festival and he’s the lead villain in it. There’s a few other North East actors in it as well so it has a strong North East connection in a way. It’s also fun to play with a crowd; it’s a good audience film.
I agree. I always felt that it out Mad Maxes Mad Max, really.
NM: It was a lot of fun, for sure. And I think it’s very self-aware. We knew going in that we were making a movie that was a tribute to Mad Max, a tribute to the works of John Carpenter, Excalibur and all of those post-apocalyptic ‘80s things that we all loved so much.
Where did the project come from in terms of your headspace? What was the gestation of it?
NM: The origins of the movie were that I had this image in my head of this knight on horseback facing off against this futuristic soldier. I got an artist to draw it up. Then I thought, “How can I make this scenario happen without resorting to time travel as a means for the story?” [laughs] So that was very much the origin of it, and it grew from there.
Was it always in your mind to have the central character be a woman surrounded by men who might not be as strong as she is?
NM: Yeah, that was always the initial plan, for sure. I came up with this character Eden Sinclair as a soldier or whatever. I was heavily inspired by Alien and Terminator and having a strong female lead in a science-fiction film was a really cool way to go. So that was where it came from.
You populated it with actors from Dog Soldiers but you also had Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell and David O’Hara, who I think is the creepiest thing in the film. Was it the beginnings of a repertory company?
NM: It was question of bringing together a lot of people from Dog Soldiers: Darren [Morfitt] and Sean [Pertwee] and Chris [Robson]. A lot of the cast of Dog Soldiers are in there – and Emma [Cleasby] as well. So that was a big deal for me because I like working with good people who are friends and who are also good at their jobs. David O’Hara was a bit different because I’d not worked with him before. I’d seen him in Braveheart and he had such presence, you know? And that voice. What a voice. I just thought he’d be brilliant in that role and we managed to get him so we were very, very lucky.
How important is it for you when making a movie to have people who are on the same wavelength?
NM: Casting is intrinsic. There are so many things you have to take into consideration when casting and one of the factors is whether the people you put in the movie understand what it is you’re trying to achieve: whether they get the vision. It’s all very well putting them in front of the camera and telling them to play the part but if they don’t understand the tone and the world and everything else that you’re trying to create then it’s going to get lost in the mix somewhere. It’s not going to work. Craig Conway and I – as well as some of the other actors I’ve worked with – have always been on similar wavelengths about what we have been trying to achieve. Certainly where Doomsday is concerned he hooked into it right away as that outrageous fool that he plays. And at the end of the day he’s a really great mate, he’s a smart guy and it’s just easy for us to talk. That’s the bottom line: you talk to your cast and you connect with them and are able to communicate your ideas more easily with them. Ultimately there’s nothing me and Craig can’t gas on about over a couple of pints.
Alan Grant wrote a comic strip called Makabre and used the term dog soldiers to refer to werewolf gangs. It ran in a short-lived British comic called Toxic in about 1991. Did that have a bearing on your use of Dog Soldiers as a title?
NM: I’d heard the term dog soldiers in relation to the Cheyenne tribe. That’s where it originates from: the Cheyenne dog soldiers. That was the term that I’d heard somewhere, from western movies or something like that. That’s where I picked it up from. It’s a term that exists already. When I was writing a werewolf movie I thought, “I’ve got soldiers, I’ve got werewolves… okay,” and somewhere Dog Soldiers just came into the mix. I was like, “Of course, that’s the title. What else is it going to be?” I just thought it was a really cool title for a werewolf movie. But I don’t know the comic you were referring to. I’ve never heard of that.
It was kind of similar on The Descent because we made that movie under a different title but in post-production I changed it to The Descent. Then when it came out people were asking was it based on this book by somebody that I’d never even heard of before which was also called The Descent. And I was like, not at all. At the end of the day you’re doing a journey about people going down into something and the chances are that you might come up with the title of The Descent.
What was the original title?
NM: Of The Descent? We shot it under the title Crawlspace. When we were filming it was called Crawlspace and then very shortly afterwards we changed it to The Descent. It may have even been during filming.
When Dog Soldiers came out people instantly referred to it as a werewolf movie and you said that in fact it was an action film: that it was a story about soldiers that had werewolves in it.
NM: Yeah, I always sold it and touted it to everybody as a soldier movie with werewolves, not a werewolf movie with soldiers.
You have a track record of making scary movies but you also create these epic action sequences. Some filmmakers can make scary movies and some can make action movies. Not everyone can do both. You can and have since done it on TV. When you started out in film what kind of director did you want to be? Was it from the Carpenter stable or the Spielberg stable or lumping everything together and just being the best that you could be?
NM: Probably the latter. I’ve always said that the one thing ideally that links all my work is action rather than horror. I think primarily I’d love to be an action director on the basis that the film that made me want to make movies is Raiders of the Lost Ark. That said, shortly after that I was equally inspired by the work of John Carpenter and got into horror stories in a big way and suchlike. I’m very proud of the work I’ve done in horror but I never wanted to be pigeonholed as a horror director. It happens so easily that when a director does some horror films and suddenly they’re “a horror director” whereas you do other genres and you’re not pigeonholes as being just that. Horror directors tend to get pigeonholed as horror directors. So part of the reason I did Doomsday was to not do another horror film. But I always wanted to be seen as an all-round director. A lot of the directors that I admire the most are dab hands at pretty much anything. It’s a shame to say of any artist that they’re only good at doing one thing.
The type of TV that we’ve been able to watch in the last few years is almost bigger than cinema. The Walking Dead is a phenomenon. TV is giving people opportunities to make things that they might never have done for the cinema and might not get. Does TV give you more freedom, is it restrictive in terms of content or can you let your imagination run riot with the budgets?
NM: It depends on the shows as well. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been asked to work on a lot of the biggest TV shows out there starting with Game of Thrones and suchlike. Very, very lucky with al that stuff. What’s been great about TV is that I’ve been able to do a broad spectrum of stuff. I’ve done Game of Thrones, Constantine, Timeless, Black Sails, so I’ve done pirates, sci-fi… I’ve done all sorts of stuff within the TV world and luckily working at the highest levels of television so the production values are great, the money’s great – there is more money going into TV shows now than a lot of independent features. So there’s a lot going on and it’s an exciting world to be in. The revolution over the last few years has meant the advent of Netflix and Amazon. It’s completely revolutionised television and the way we watch it. And so just being a part of that while it’s been happening has been amazing. It’s a different kind of thing because you just go in as a jobbing director to fulfil somebody else’s vision – or a combination of your vision and their vision. They’re the creators of the show and you have to go in. It’s their baby. It’s not like one of my feature films that I wrote and directed, because that’s my baby. So it’s their baby and you have to respect that. But that’s easy because you park your ego at the door and you do the best job possible. You bring whatever you can to the table and make it the best it can be, and bring lots of ideas. Sometimes they want them, sometimes they don’t. And then you go home at the end of the night and you get on with your life unlike a feature, which can take up to a year to do and it’s your whole life for that time. With a TV thing I can dip in and do three or four projects a year of totally different styles and bring something to the table. It’s a different way of doing things and it’s very satisfying in its own way.
How useful is it to have this stuff on your CV?
NM: It’s very useful. It’s a great way of showing my range. So I’ve done a western now. I’ve done pirate stuff. I’ve done serial killer stuff, time travel and sci-fi. I find it very satisfying, a lot of fun, you get to work with some great people and I think it’s very rewarding.
Does it allow you to flex your muscles again in the field of feature films? I’m thinking about Hellboy.
NM: I can’t really say anything about Hellboy, actually.
What can you tell me about Lost in Space?
NM: What do you want to know? [laughs] What I bring to it is a sense of scope and spectacle and drama and excitement and action. I was very heavily involved in Lost in Space right from the start. I worked with the writers to bring a sense of scope and scale and cinema to it, in a way. That was a big deal for me. It was a huge adventure. We spent eight months up in Vancouver. I shot the first two episodes, which is the first two hours on a ten-hour thing and got it running. And then I was like a producing director on the show. I directed some second unit as well, just to be around there. I had a huge amount of input into the way the show looks and the design of everything. And the way we shot it was to shoot it like a movie, not think of it as TV in any kind of way. That’s the big deal with TV now and that’s the way that I see everything.
You mentioned second unit. I understand that you shot some footage for The Descent 2. Why didn’t you direct the sequel but why did you direct that small element within it?
NM: I didn’t direct the sequel because I didn’t think the story warranted a sequel. Ultimately I wasn’t that happy with the script that they went with and the story that they went with. I tried to say, “Don’t do a sequel” but ultimately they were going to do it regardless. Dog Soldiers could have done with a sequel but not The Descent; it kind of wraps itself up depending on which version you see, I suppose. The thing was that the sequel that they made didn’t really pick up from either version. But when they were making it they needed to do a day’s filming with the original cast, like camcorder footage that appears in the movie, and I felt just for continuity’s sake that I should go in and direct that day’s worth of stuff. And that was it. It was one day’s filming.
In terms of the two endings to The Descent, which ending do you prefer? As the originator, which is your favourite?
NM: I prefer the original ending, the UK ending. The thing is, to my mind the American ending for want of a better description, I don’t see it as a happy ending. She gets out of the cave, sure, but she’s completely insane, all her friends are dead, all her family’s dead… I don’t see that as a happy ending for her! [laughs] It’s just a question of different perspectives, I suppose.
Back when The Descent was released you had a slate of possible projects. One was Battle of Hastings, another was Eagle’s Nest and then there was Outpost, which you described as “zombies on an oil rig”. Are those scripts in a shoebox under your bed waiting for the day when they will be made?
NM: I suppose they are in a way, yeah. Probably not Outpost but definitely Eagle’s Nest is very much on the cards and I want to get that made one of these days.
What’s the possibility of doing it?
NM: Who knows? I couldn’t possibly say.
Have times changed so dramatically that that kind of movie isn’t possible anymore?
NM: I don’t see why not. I actually think maybe it’s more possible thanks to Netflix and stuff like that. Whether or not it would be a theatrical feature, I don’t know, but I think it’s entirely possible.
I enjoyed Tales of Halloween and I understand it was pretty tough because of the time constraints.
NM: Yeah, it was brilliant. Not easy. We had to shoot the whole thing in two nights. It was pretty full-on. It was made for so little money [so] there was no choice in the matter. [laughs] That’s what you’ve got to do.
How did you come up with the concept of the killer pumpkin?
NM: I knew I had to do a little ten-minute segment and I was struggling for ideas. At some point I just came up with this killer pumpkin concept and it all fell into place from there.
When you’re part of an anthology film with multiple directors do you have to set aside any sense of ego and muck in with everyone else?
NM: Pretty much. I mean, I don’t think I have much of an ego anyway but maybe that’s to my detriment, who knows? [laughs] I think there is a world where plenty of people misbehave on movies. I don’t choose to do it. I like to enjoy the process, have fun and work with good people. That’s my particular preference. Not everybody feels the same way.
I understand you expressed interest in doing a Black Widow movie a while ago. That project is now in development. What were your ideas and is it a missed opportunity for you?
NM: I think just in principle everybody was doing comic book movies and I thought if I was going to do one I’m less interested in superpowers in movies and I thought Black Widow was an interesting character. I liked her background, I liked her storyline but she actually hadn’t got superpowers beyond just being a really good fighter.
So you’re not into the Captain Americas and the Avengers and that sort of thing?
NM: Look, I think they’re extraordinarily well done. I think they’re great to watch. I just don’t know that it’s something that I’d want to direct. I had no ideas beyond that: if you had to direct a superhero movie, which one would you do. And I said, “I think I’d go with Black Widow. It’s female-driven, I like the character, I like the story.” But I didn’t really have any ideas beyond that.
Do you have a dream project that you want to do?
NM: Yeah, Eagle’s Nest! [laughs] That’s absolutely my dream project.
Do you have it all sorted out in your head: who you would cast, where you would film…?
NM: Absolutely. Oh yeah… I’ve shot the film 50 times in my head already. I know who I’d cast. I mean, that changes from year to year for some roles. But I know exactly where I want to shoot it, how to shoot it… that’s a very personal project for me and one day I’m determined to get it made.
Is there anything you can share with me or do I have to mind my own business?
NM: Well, there’s nothing to share at the moment. It’s an on-going thing. I’ve met somebody recently who may be interested in trying to raise money to do it. I don’t want to hex it by getting too excited about it.
Which actors do you have on your wish list for people that you’d like to direct either on TV or film?
NM: Oh, I don’t know. That’s a tricky one. That’ is a really tricky one. At the moment I’m a really big fan of Tom Hardy, I think he’s awesome. At the same time I would like to direct Meryl Streep in something, or Tom Hanks. I’d like to work with Tom Cruise. There are a lot of bright stars out there. I’d like to work with Liam Neeson, Harrison Ford, Kurt Russell… there are so many actors out there that I’d like to work with.
Quirky question: which is the better monster? Crawlers or werewolves?
NM: Ooh, gawd. Werewolves. [laughs] I don’t know. No! I should say crawlers because they’re my invention and they only exist in my movie, I suppose. So I’ll say crawlers.
I’m not knocking TV but we all want to see you making movies again, Hellboy notwithstanding.
NM: Absolutely. That’s my plan too and I’m prepping to do another movie this year. So that will happen and I’ve got a few lined up for afterwards. So fingers crossed, yeah?
Anything you can talk about or you don’t talk about it until it’s done?
NM: Don’t talk about it until it’s time. Way, waaaay too early! [laughs]
Good luck in Newcastle. It’s good to see you home.
NM: It should be fun.