Quantcast ICONS Interview with Neil Marshall, writer/director of DOOMSDAY, THE DESCENT & DOG SOLDIERS

Neil Marshall!!!

If you're a devoted genre fan, then like us, you've probably been following the career of writer/director Neil Marshall. After all, his 3 films to date offer interesting ensemble casts usually set in unique locations. From DOG SOLDIERS to THE DESCENT to his epic DOOMSDAY (Out March 14th, 2008), we chatted with him about all 3 of his films, as well as about all things horror! Read on for our FRIGHT exclusive interview with Neil Marshall! - By Robg. (w/ contributions by Jsyn, Adam Barnick & John Torrani) - 3/08

Neil, what are your earliest recollections of the horror genre? Do you remember the first film (or films) to really scare or have an impact on you as a kid and open you up to the world of horror?

It was really a combination of things, but my earliest recollection was being 5 or 6 years old, and being woken up by my dad, he took me into the living room and sat me down in front of the TV, and said, “There’s something on TV that you’ve really got to see!” And I thought, “What’s this going to be?” It was FRANKENSTEIN. It was Boris Karloff in black and white, I was instantly hooked! I was terrified, but I was just instantly hooked into that world of horror.

I assume from that point on, you were a horror fan?
Very much so. My uncle had this big book all about horror movies and it was full of all these amazing photographs from all the classics. THE WOLF MAN and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, you know, all this kind of stuff. It was full of monsters and creatures, so every time I used to go over there, I always used to look at that book for ages. And both my dad and my uncle were both artists, so they always used to draw me monsters and castles and all kinds of stuff like that. So, I think I was absorbed by it and surrounded by it in those days. And then I started to discover it for myself with the advent of VHS in the early 80’s. And people started getting those tapes, watching whatever was available. At that time in the UK, this was prior to the “video nasties” scandal.

A lot of people here in the US aren’t familiar with exactly what the “video nasties” means. Can you talk a bit about that? It’s technically a lot of notorious movies that were banned in the UK, correct?

Yeah, it was a government crack-down on… When the video market started up, it was basically just a free for all. But instantly, the independent video rental stores caught on to the fact that everybody wanted to see horror movies and this allowed them to put more and more material in the shops that could never be shown at the cinemas. And there was lots material out there and it was cheap. So, stuff like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and… well all the classics, basically. (Laughs) And a whole lot of shit as well, a lot of bad stuff was pretty much all they had to offer. So, yeah, I saw ZOMBIE FLESHEATERS and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and a whole bunch of other stuff then. Then this government compound came down and there was a list of 40 films drawn up, which were going to be banned. Some of the ones on the list, the majority of the ones on the list were pure exploitation shit. But, unfortunately amongst those films were things like TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and THE EVIL DEAD. We couldn’t see those films anymore either. Luckily for me, I was able to see those before they were banned. And then through out the 80’s, while they were still banned, it was quite a pride to get VHS pirate copies of these films. Just to watch TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and stuff like that.

I was a film student by then, so it was quite an adventure to do that. But all the time, I was going after horror movies. That’s what it was all about.

What was the pivotal moment where you made the transition from being a fan of films to being a filmmaking? For a lot of filmmakers we talk to, they often say it started with a fascination for special FX make-up and how it was created. What was it for you that make you realize people made movies and you could too?
Um, I went to see RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. I think it was the very next day, the making-of was on TV. And I just saw what an adventure it was, and what fun it was making that film. And every facet of it just fascinated me and I decided then and there that I wanted to direct movies.

Ok, your next film is DOOMSDAY, out here in the States on March 14th. What were the origins behind the project? How did you choose to make this particular story your follow-up to THE DESCENT?

Well, DOOMSDAY was always going to be a big project, it could never be done pretty cheap. So, although it’s been sitting on the shelf for 4-5 years as an idea, there was just no way I could get the budget together to make it before THE DESCENT had come out. The backer of DESCENT, Rogue Pictures asked me what else I had. And I said there’s this treatment I have called DOOMSDAY, and I showed it to them, and they said “Ok, we’ll try to find the money to make this. It’ll be small, but we’ll do our best.” And they commissioned the script and we took off from there.
The idea itself when I first came up with it, it was a few things. This is about 6 years ago when I first came up with the story. Where I lived at the time was near Hadrian’s Wall in the UK. I came up with this thought, what’s an area that would exist where Hadrian’s Wall would have to be rebuilt? I mean, in its day, 2000 years ago, Hadrian’s Wall was like The Great Wall Of China. It was this huge wall that stretched right across the UK and separated Scotland. I thought what could possibly happen that this exact scenario would happen again? And that’s when I came up with the idea of a virus, and quarantining a whole of the country.
I was inspired by things like the Berlin Wall, and the walls on the West Bank that they built, also Chernobyl. There’s no wall around Chernobyl but just saw some photographs and articles about that, and seeing this world that is basically empty and diverted for 10 years and what it looks like, I was just fascinated by that concept. So all of these things fell into place to create the DOOMSDAY idea. Also, I had this image in my head of futuristic soldiers facing off against evil knights on horseback. It’s like James Cameron by way of Terry Gilliam or something. (Laughs) How could I make that happen that wouldn’t involve time travel? So, all these things came into place. What if this quarantined area of Scotland had been left deserted for so long that any survivors there kind of regressed and turned into these savages and tribes. And utilized things that remained there, like suits of armor from castles and museums and things like that, just taking them for themselves to live a medieval life style…

That’s… pretty awesome! Just so you know. (Laughs)

(Laughs) Well, it just kind of grew from there.

In your film, the virus is referred to an “infection” which causes the quarantine. What is the “infection” in DOOMSDAY? Because I saw the front cover of the new FANGORIA. It’s absolutely disgusting! I want to know what the hell that is?!

It’s called the “Reaper” virus. But unlike too many other viruses in movies these days, it doesn’t turn you into a zombie, it doesn’t turn you into a mutant. It kills you! And it kills you pretty quick, but it kills you in a pretty horrendous way. Obviously, you get all these fistulae’s and sores and scabs on your skin, then you start bleeding from every orifice, and your insides basically liquidize until you die.

Oh, that doesn’t sound good at all.

No, it’s not a good way to go!
Doesn’t sound that way! Looking at the trailer and reading what I have so far, it seems like it’s got little elements of films I grew up loving. Films like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, and THE ROAD WARRIOR and THE WARRIORS. And I see little bits of all those. Was it a conscious effort to let your influences shine in DOOMSDAY? Because they just don’t make movies like that anymore!
Well, that was precisely my point, and I’ve worn this on my sleeve ever since I came up with the project was it is an homage to those movies. There are so many people on the internet who seem to say it’s just a rip off. I’ve never said that it wasn’t! And it’s not a rip-off. I mean, it’s paying tribute to those movies, and it has elements of them in it, but it certainly doesn’t match any one of them or all of them as a whole. When you watch the film as a whole, you’ll see it’s vastly different from those films. But there are little sequences and moments in the film that will remind you of them.
That’s the nature of doing an homage! It’s not more a rip-off then saying HOT FUZZ is a rip-off of POINT BREAK and those kind of movies. It’s an homage. It’s paying tribute. So, yeah my view was that no one was making films like that anymore, and that’s what I loved when I was growing up. I loved the gritty realism, the stunts, the action. It wasn’t CG heavy, and I loved the characters. It was just one of those ripe ideas worth revisiting. A post-apocalyptic environment.

Obviously, this is your biggest film in scale. What were the differences between going from DOG SOLDIERS to THE DESCENT to now this? It looks huge! Did doing those first 2 movies give you the confidence to tackle something on the scale of DOOMSDAY?

Oh absolutely. My whole theory is that if I’m making a $3 million dollar movie, I want to make it look like a $10 million dollar movie. And that’s what I did with the previous two. For this one, we had a $25-26 million dollar budget, I wanted to make it look like a $50 million dollar movie. I don’t see any point in just working to your budget, I think you have to try to push the envelope all the time. And put as much on the screen as possible. I loved the scale of this. I loved it!
I really got into doing the elaborate action sequences, and choreographing all the mayhem and chaos there. Doing it in South Africa enabled us to do it in a much bigger scale then we would’ve been able to, because we could afford more extras and more stuntmen and more gadgets and more camera-gear. Just everything we could sort of throw into the pot to make it look as huge as we possibly could. I wanted to make an epic movie.
You just mentioned you shot this in South Africa, what was it about that location that it fit your film aesthetically as well as financially?

Well, we were incredibly lucky. Primarily, it was a financial incentive to go there, but we wouldn’t have been able to do it had it not matched the locations we were looking for. Because of the nature of Cape Town, it’s quite old, and it has some old buildings in it, we were able to double London and Glasgow there. We were probably able to get away with a lot more because it’s at night.
And then, the countryside outside of Cape Town looked remarkably similar to the Highlands of Scotland. A bit sunnier perhaps, but it does look very, very like it in its geography. So, we were able to double the whole of Scotland as well. You can do so much more there. They let you close major highways for weeks on end. We shot a big action sequence without any major problems. They’re incredibly film friendly. And we just got so much for our money there.

How important was casting for this particular piece? Because you’ve got actors like Malcolm McDowell and Bob Hoskins; I love these actors. And I assume you do too! You’re probably a fan of their work too.

Oh yeah.

Well, what was it like both working with actors you’ve admired and casting this piece?

Well, the great thing about a movie of this scale is that it’s not so big that you have to cast a star name in it. What I did, and what I was able to do was cast an ensemble of really, really high quality actors. A few of them that are familiar to audiences, or might be familiar to audiences of my films. I was lucky enough to get Malcolm McDowell and Bob Hoskins in there, they’re both seasoned pros. They’re just so much fun to work with because they know what they’re doing! They don’t need to stick with it anymore, but they do it because they absolutely love it.
So, they made my job a lot easier because they were so helpful. And I was a little bit daunted working with people like that for the first time, because I’ve only ever essentially worked with unknowns before. So, yes, a little daunting at first, but they just made it easy. And I also managed to get people like David O’Hara and Alexander Siddig in the movie, some of the guys from DOG SOLDIERS and a couple of the girls from THE DESCENT. It’s just like a big family reunion with that lot, ya know? They come in, but what’s very important to me and to them is that I’m not just having them come in and just repeat their performances from previous films. I’m only interested in them working with me again (and vice versa) if its new characters and we can do something different. We had a lot of fun.
What’s interesting and what seems to apply to all your films so far is you always have these big ensemble casts. There’s the group of soldiers in the DOG SOLDIERS, then the group of girls for THE DESCENT and now this. What kind of rehearsal process do you have when it comes to preparing a group of people to work on your films and what are the challenges of directing an ensemble?

Yeah, DOOMSDAY was on a scale so different from anything else. The most I’d dealt with before were 8 people, and we had something like 50 speaking characters in this movie. So, it’s a totally different kind of thing. I don’t do read-throughs. We did very little rehearsal, we just talk an awful lot about it. And then, block it out and ham it out on set, which seems to work ok so far!

With the first two films, because they require the work of an ensemble cast, do you cast the first person first and then try to build the rest of the cast around them? How does that work? What’s the casting process like when you’re trying to find the right group of people to take part in one of your films?

You try to get a bunch of names together and you see which ones are going to make the most interesting group. You’re looking for difference in characters, difference in looks. Difference in style. You don’t want to cast everyone that’s the same height and has the same build, and works the same. So, there’s any number of reasons but there’s that combination, and there’s also who’s available, who you can get, who’s interested in being in your movie. There are so many facets to casting, it’s quite a lottery. But eventually you work it through and you get the cast that you want, and we got an absolutely amazing cast in this.
I absolutely love THE DESCENT. The Icons crew and I got to see an import of it before it made it over here to the States. I remember sitting in the theater watching BATMAN BEGINS for the 3rd time and getting a phone call from Jysn in the middle of it, interrupting me to tell me that he’d just seen the best horror movie of his adult life, and it was THE DESCENT. He told me I had to come over right after BATMAN to check it out…


I loved it! One of the weird tweaks you had to do for THE DESCENT’s release here in the States was altering the ending a bit. I prefer the original ending, I believe you do to. In retrospect, what do you think of that decision to alter the ending? And also, I know it was partly because of the “testing” process here. I know you’ve had to test DOOMSDAY as well. How weird is that to have to “test” your movies here?

Generally speaking, I hate the testing process! But it’s a double-edged sword. You can benefit from it as well. If universally, the audience thinks “Yeah, it’s good but it could be a little bit better.” Then maybe they’re got a point, so maybe it’s worth listening to them. It just depends entirely on what they say. It’s such a tricky thing. I love it and I hate it. I mostly hate it. (Laughs) It’s a nerve-racking experience and I trust my own judgment to it much better. With THE DESCENT, the only difference was the change at the ending. That was the only difference.
And the reason for that was… at the time, I wasn’t really allowed to say it, because LIONSGATE didn’t want me to. But the truth of the story was that LIONSGATE did test it in the States. They tested it with the original ending on. And then they had the idea of cutting it a little bit so that basically Sarah ended up out of the cave at the end of the film, and they tested it again and it scored much better! Now, they couldn’t cut the film themselves, they had to come and get our approval to cut it. So, we thought about it for a while and we said, “Ok, we’ll let you cut it… as long as you give us the widest possible theatrical release. We want a minimum of 1000 screens.” And at that point, there was no guarantee we were even going to get a theatrical release at all. But they said OK. So, we agreed to do it and cut the ending on the basis of getting a wide theatrical release, which we got. And I knew all along the UK ending would be seen on the DVD, one way or another.
So, it was never going to be a big secret. And it helped them, it got released on the DVD, so it’s fair for everybody to see it. And the rest of the world has seen that ending as well, as I wanted it to be seen. So, I figured it was a good deal to make at the time. By that point, the film had already been out for a year in the UK, so for me it had already proven itself and the audience that I primarily made it for had already seen it, so it wasn’t such a big deal. I didn’t feel like I was betraying my artistic integrity by doing that.
No, it sounds like you got the best deal out of it! And us die-hards in the States had already seen the import. I still paid and went to see it on opening night though regardless!

Exactly! Then it becomes a talking point. It was an odd one, because the only difference is it means Sarah’s physically out of the cave, but it’s no less ambiguous then what we had, and it’s certainly not a “happy” ending with that.


It is a strange way to cut it but whatever. The process with DOOMSDAY has been… interesting? Enlightening? The response to it has been great. So, I’ve been happy and we didn’t have to cut anything out of it.

Good! The thing I love about all of your films is they’re always set in unique settings, or at least settings I’m not used to seeing in the genre. With THE DESCENT, where the hell did that come from? Are you a cave-diver?!

No! I’d never do anything as stupid as that! (Laughs) I don’t remember why, I think I saw some documentary footage from cave-diving. I literally couldn’t believe a horror film had not been set in a cave before! I mean, it’s dark. It’s scary. What more do you want?
Yeah, and the whole claustrophobic angle of the first act… you already had people long before the creatures showed up!

Yeah, yeah, certainly! I figure 2 out of 10 people would suffer from the claustrophobia, and it turned out more to be 8 out of 10 people. I really hit a nail with that one and people really were freaked out by that.
It definitely freaked me out! Then you throw in bat-people or whatever the hell they were supposed to be to up the anty! One of the most interesting things about THE DESCENT was the whole look of the film, the way you lit it and really exaggerated the green light and the red light, etc. I’m curious if you can talk about your working relationship with your cinematographer Sam McCurdy, who’s been with you on all your films? How do you two both establish the look of each film?
Well, we have an excellent working relationship, we’ve been working with each other for 15 years now. What’s great about that is that we have a real short-hand about what it is we’re trying to achieve, which helps us work fast on set. We don’t want to repeat ourselves either, so we don’t want to just make the same films again and again. The look we came up with for THE DESCENT, we set ourselves a challenge, a good year or so before we actually made the film. We said “I only want light in the cave from sources that the girls take with them.” I didn’t want beautiful shafts of light coming in to make it look gorgeous.
That doesn’t exist in a real cave, I wanted to make it like a real cave. If you’re not shining a torch in there, its pitch black. And if we can get that across, we thought it would really enhance the claustrophobia, but also the fear factor, because you don’t know what you’re going to see when you turn your torch to the right or left! Anything could be there. And I just thought that made it so much scarier.
On DOOMSDAY, we wanted to go for a much bigger scope and scale for that movie. So, we did it in 2:3:5 ratio and we tried to film it in an epic kind of way. But we had a lot more toys to play with on this shoot as well, because the money was there for the steady-cam and just more gadgets. We had a lot of fun with that. We have a great working relationship and it’s just always a pleasure. I think Sam’s actually threatened to strangle me if I attempt to do a film without him.

(Laughs) Cinematographers don’t get enough credit for helping with the overall look of a film!

No, no, and a wise-point, Sam didn’t get the BIFA for THE DESCENT, probably because it’s a horror movie and they look down on that kind of thing, but I think he did a splendid job on that movie.

How much involvement do you have in THE DESCENT as a franchise now? Meaning, obviously THE DESCENT 2 is in the works with your DESCENT editor Jon Harris directing. How much say do you personally have in what happens with THE DESCENT 2 and beyond? We were always curious why filmmakers like… say Wes Craven have little say in what happens with the NIGHTMARE franchise when he created that character and series.
It’s dependent on the producers involved. Certainly in the case of DOG SOLDIERS, in order for me to get that film made, I had to sell all my rights in it to the producers so they would fund it. They weren’t going to fund it unless they owned the rights to it. So, that was what I had to do, and as such, I made the film, but I have no right to that material or that story or those characters or anything anymore. So, they can go ahead and do DOG SOLDIERS 2 without me, which they’ve been trying unsuccessfully to do for ages.
THE DESCENT is exactly the same story. The production company owns the rights to it. But they’re a bit more sensible then the DOG SOLDIERS guys, because they presume that if they want to do a sequel, then it’s better to have me attached to it then to not have me attached to it. So, I’m not actually attached to it at all, but I am looking over shoulders and things like that. Because Jon’s directing it, he’ll ring up every once in a while and ask “What do you think about this? What do you think about that?” And that’s about as much involvement as I have. I’m too busy at the moment to do more. But we’ll see.

Going back to DOG SOLDIERS, I always wondered what your connection was to the characters of your movies. Like before when I asked you about cave-diving for THE DESCENT. Do you have any military experience? Because you’ve got an authentic military unit in DOG SOLDIERS!

My dad was in the army. My granddad was in the army. And I think if I hadn’t ended up making films, I would’ve ended up in the army myself. It was just a desire on my part to capture a British military unit as authentically as possible. Especially when facing off against such a fantastical enemy. I thought it’s going to work better if they look as real as possible and behave as real as possible. I did a ton of research about that to get it right.

What about the look and design of the werewolves? Because they look fantastic! They’re the type of werewolves I remember as a kid, only exaggeratedly tall! What were you looking for with the look of your werewolves in DOG SOLDIERS?

I was looking for my idea of a perfect werewolf, which to me is a perfect hybrid of man and wolf. Um, I was always deeply unsatisfied with the one in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. And THE HOWLING ones look great but they weren’t on screen very long. So, I kind of liked the way that they walked on two legs, it was always scarier that way. With the production designer, I told him to make the set so small that the werewolf couldn’t fit in. I didn’t want him to fit into the set. I wanted him to have to bend over to get through the door. I just thought that would make it much scarier.

Yeah, and definitely more psychically imposing! Recently, there’s been rumors that you took meetings on CONAN and THE WOLF MAN. Do you consider those types of films dream projects? Would you want to try to tackle an established property in the future and give it your own spin? Or would you prefer to continue making original films like you have been doing?

Um, I think in an ideal world, I’d just prefer to continue making my own original films. But sometimes it’s not easy to get those off the ground, and it’s easier to get something that’s pre-established. Something like THE WOLF MAN was a long-shot. And I kind of felt that I would’ve been happier had I been there from the beginning and started it from scratch. Because the way it’s set up now, it’s only 5 or 6 weeks away from shooting. It would be going in and filming with somebody else’s crew and somebody else’s cast and using somebody else’s storyboards. It’d be like vicariously shooting somebody else’s movie. So, I didn’t think that was going to be a good idea. But, I wouldn’t mind revisiting the werewolf genre.

I know in the past year, you’ve traveled several times to the States and met the very friendly and supportive group of horror filmmakers in LA and NY. What’s the filmmaking “scene” like in the UK? Is there a core group of people & filmmakers that really support genre pictures? How is horror and your work regarded back home?

Um, well generally speaking, there’s no support whatsoever. The best things are the festivals. Like Frightfest and Dead By Dawn are here, and they’re pretty supportive. That’s the best source of meeting other directors and meeting the fans. When they’re not happening, then there’s nothing at all. I’m not really in contact with any of the other horror directors in the UK. Generally speaking, horror is still kind of looked down at, kept at arm’s length in the UK. It’s not “real filmmaking”. (Laughs)
Well, they think that here too, but as soon as one of them makes a lot of money, every studio wants to copy it.

Of course.

Lastly, what non-horror films inspire you? What are among your favorites that you consider influences?

Oh, well other then RAIDERS, JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS? That’s the holy trinity! (Laughs) I love Sam Peckinpah films, THE WILD BUNCH. I love John Boorman’s films, DELIVERANCE and EXCALIBUR. I love westerns, RIO BRAVO and THE PROFESSIONALS, Richard Brooks THE PROFESSIONALS. Fantastic movie. I like Ridley Scott’s stuff – ALIEN, LEGEND, BLADE RUNNER, GLADIATOR. I think he’s just a fantastic filmmaker. I like all sorts of stuff!

Thank you so much for your time, Neil!

Thank you!

Special thanks to Axelle Carolyn, Jsyn, Adam Barnick & John Torrani!
Official DOOMSDAY website:
Neil Marshall on My Space:

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