Since his debut feature, Dog Soldiers, in 2002, Neil Marshall has carved somewhat of a niche for himself in the British film industry as a director who provides big, shameless entertainment for surprisingly small budgets.
Back then, a handful of soldiers on a training exercise in Scotland found themselves being hunted by a family of werewolves. Now, eight years on, hundreds of Roman soldiers are being ambushed by dozens of marauding picts.
In eight years, there’s a sense in which while the size has clearly grown, as far as themes are concerned, he hasn’t really come a long way. “I’m back in Scotland, being attacked by things again!” he laughs. His 2008 semi-post-apocalyptic film Doomsday was also set in Scotland, with the whole country walled off to contain a virus. “The Scottish Highlands landscape just proved to be a huge inspiration – as was Hadrian’s Wall – on Doomsday and Centurion. It felt like a big deal that the Roman’s built this wall across the country. It makes you wonder why – what was so terrifying that lived there?”
Marshall likens Roman Scotland to the Wild West. “It was their furthest frontier – they considered it to be the roughest part of the world they were having the hardest time with – Centurion resembles, for me, a Western. But instead of the cavalry and the apache – it’s the Romans and the Picts.”
One interesting question that arises from the film is who he sees as the bad guys. Are they the Scots, killing the Romans, as they fight for their freedom, or are they the Roman leaders who ultimately abandon the eponymous Centurion, Quintus, despite his bravery, on his return?
“Everybody’s capable of both good and bad – it comes down to the individual, rather than taking any sides – the picts are fighting to protect their homeland, so they’re not bad guys because of that – the Romans are an invading army, but it’s not Quintus’s decision to invade Scotland – he’s just been sent there as a soldier. As an individual, he learns to admire the Picts – and of course ends up falling in love with one and his whole history changes because of it.”
Centurion is very much a film that depends on the powerhouse performance of Michael Fassbender at its heart. “Michael was absolutely integral to my vision,” insists Marshall, “partly because of what he’s willing to do as an actor. He doesn’t mind suffering for his art and his character really needs to suffer quite a bit! Michael is so dedicated to his craft and such a joy to work with as a director. The subtle nuances and the broad strokes are perfect in so many ways. His timing, his physicality, his delivery – as a director, that’s exactly what you’re looking for.”
But while Fassbender’s performance is key to the success of Centurion, it’s set against the background of another running theme through Marshall’s work – strong women. As in Doomsday and The Descent, Marshall gives women strong roles, where other action directors often cast them as secondary characters. “I tend not to think of it that way – to me they’re just characters and whether they happen to be women or not is irrelevant. In this context, what’s interesting about it is it’s an age before sexism. This was the age of Boudica, who took on the Roman army herself. If you are capable of wielding a sword or spear, and you were capable of fighting the Romans, then everyone mucked in. There wasn’t that kind of differentiation with sexes, so I find that period of time very compelling, because you don’t have to worry about that – you just tell a great character. Having said that, I like strong women in movies – I like strong women generally – I’m just doing what I like doing.”
What Neil Marshall is doing, with film after film, is delivering big films that belie their small budgets. “I do that by making sure that all the money is up on screen,” he observes, “by surrounding myself with brilliant creative talents. I don’t want to make a low budget film that looks like a low budget film. I want to make a low budget film that looks like a big budget film. A lot of the people who’ve seen this film assume that it’s a much bigger budget than Doomsday, but it’s actually a third of the budget. It’s not that much bigger a budget than The Descent. We just stretched it as far as we could.”
So what are the tricks of his trade? CGI can be used to replicate the number of extras they could afford or make things look bigger than they are. And one of his proudest moments was realising that he could get away with building just three walls of the Roman fort that features as one of the key sets. “If we did need to point in another direction, we’d just shift the actors around and pretend it was one of the other walls. It’s the oldest trick in the book, but not building that wall may have saved us twenty grand, or something, so we could spend that on something else.”
Churning out an average of a film every two years over the past eight years, Geordie Neil Marshall is just happy to be making films in a tough market. Still making anything, he feels, is a privilege. He never really had any expectations beyond the next film, he insists. Even now, he says, he’s not sure what the next film will be. “There are a few things on the cards. I’m working on a project called Burst, which is going to be a 3D horror which Sam Raimi is producing. I’m meant to be doing that in the summer, but you never know, because these things get pushed around.”
Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before a director, comfortable in the horror genre, turns to 3D. “I think it’s a great tool,” he enthuses. “It has its uses and it can be a lot of fun, but if it becomes a prerequisite, we’ve got problems, because so many great films won’t be enhanced by being in 3D. If that’s what it’s going to take to get people to go to see films, then films are going to suffer for it.” Marshall concludes that as with all great tools, in the hands of a great craftsman, 3D can be great.