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Centurion - Neil Marshall interview

Neil Marshall directs Centurion

Interview by Rob Carnevale

NEIL Marshall talks about some of the many challenges of making Roman chase movie Centurion, including tackling the freezing conditions and researching period detail.

He also talks about the possibility of a sequel and working with former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko and rising British star Michael Fassbender…

Q. How hard was it to get Centurion made?
Neil Marshall: Very hard in so many respects… trying to do a film of this kind of ambition and scale on what is essentially a pretty small budget by Hollywood standards. We really had to make every penny count. So, that was hard. And obviously logistically we only had seven weeks to shoot it. Whereas, on Braveheart I think Mel Gibson had six weeks just to shoot one battle! The re-shoots of The Wolfman were eight weeks. So, how much we had to do in just seven was nuts. So, it was tough on everybody and it was definitely the most difficult shoot that I’ve done – physically as much as anything.

Q. Likewise, for the terrain. It’s breathtaking but I imagine it was pretty hard to shoot in?
Neil Marshall: Yeah well first day of shooting we were 3,000ft up a mountain in a blizzard, it was -18, and our cast had to dig into this snow drift with their bare hands. The scene was basically them sheltering from a storm, but they did it for real [laughs]! Dig… or we’re going to freeze. All the shivering is for real. So, they suffered, they really suffered! But the crew suffered too because the actors, when they finished the take, would go off and hide in the van. We all had to stand out in it all day! So, it was balanced. We had our parkas and our thermals on. But after you’ve been standing in the snow all day your feet start to get a bit nippy!

Q. When did you first hear about the legend of the Ninth Legion?
Neil Marshall: It was a mate of mine told me in a pub in Newcastle one afternoon. He said: “Have you heard about this legend?” So, I asked him what it was and he said: “They marched into Scotland to deal with The Picts and they vanished without a trace.” I was intrigued. And I’d grown up surrounded by Roman history; I lived in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall and such like, so I found it immediately compelling. I wanted to know more about it. But the more you research about it… that is the myth! There’s not much more to it. And the more you find out, the more historians have debunked it and spoiled everyone’s fun. The 9th didn’t really disappear. But I like the myth and I stuck with that.

Q. So, having been a fan of that period in history, was it fun to research further and get the detail right?
Neil Marshall: It was but there’s not a lot you can do because there isn’t anything to research about the myth. I did a lot of research about Romans in Britain, but the actual specifics of the 9th Legion once they set off to deal with The Picts are a bit vague. We know that they were attacked but probably not massacred. As for The Picts, there is no written history at all. So, what we do know about the Picts we then had to embellish, or conjure up some kind of realistic concept of what The Picts were. It’s great because it leaves a lot to the imagination. But I also tried to apply logic to it because I didn’t want to make them some kind of hackneyed bunch of bikini-wearing lunatics. I think I applied logic to it… it’s the middle of winter, we’re in Scotland, so what are you going to do? Are you going to run around half naked, or will you wrap yourself up in deer skins and wolf skins and try and keep warm.

Q. It’s also a very interesting film in that there’s no clear good or bad side? Michael Fassbender is clearly the hero, but both the Romans and the Picts are as capable of acts of evil as they are good…
Neil Marshall: Yeah, I thought it was about shades of grey really. We’re telling the story from an invaders point of view. And yet, half the soldiers within that army basically just want to get home. They’ve had enough of this place and probably never wanted to be there in the first place. So, you root for them in the same way that you support our boys over in Iraq at the moment. If you want to make those comparisons, they’re just soldiers following their orders and they’re stuck in this really shit situation. But they’ve got these highly motivated Picts who are totally justified in wanting to get them out of their country. So, that makes the edges very blurred, which I love about this kind of genre.

Q. Do you think the Pict women would have been as ferocious as Olga Kurylenko’s character? Or is that embellishment?
Neil Marshall: I don’t doubt it for a moment. This is the age of Boadicea [or Boudica] and she didn’t hold back when it came to killing Romans. If Boadicea was doing that in the south of England, then I think that the hardy Northern girls would have been getting stuck in as well.

Q. You have a reputation for portraying women as kick-ass heroes who can give as good as the men, and sometimes better…
Neil Marshall: Absolutely, and I think they should be the equals of the men within certain limitations. I think you’ve got to keep it vaguely real. They use different skills against the men, whether it be speed, agility, all that kind of stuff against brutal strength. They’re not going to win an arm wrestling competition but they might stab you in the eye before you have a chance to think about it! It’s just cunning and guile and stealth.

Centurion

Q. Did you surprise Olga with how rigorous the training was beforehand?
Neil Marshall: I think she was taken aback by the level of violence initially and she as a bit coy at first about that. But then she really got stuck in and loved it. There was a scene where she has to chop a guy’s head off and she found that tiring but a lot of fun [laughs]. We did it as close to real as you possibly can, because we had this wonderful mannequin that our make-up effects guy had hired, which had this fleshy kind of skin on the outside and silicone. Inside of that is blood and foam that looks like flesh. But as soon as you hit it with a real axe, the blood just pumps out like a real body.

Olga had to get in the river, hold it by the hair and hack this guy’s head off… and it must have taken about 30 or 40 chops. She had to stop halfway through because she was exhausted! We were like: “Keep going! Keep going!” At first, she wasn’t keen on being sprayed with so much blood, but then she really got stuck into it and ripped the head off. She then tripped and the head dropped in the river and it looked kind of messy and awkward. I was like: “That’s going in the movie… I love that!” But she said: “Can I do it again to make it look really neat?” But I said: “No, I don’t want neat; I want messy!” She was great to work with.

Q. When did you get Michael Fassbender? And what appealed about him?
Neil Marshall: Hunger was definitely coming up but he was already attached by then. He got attached very, very early and stuck with us through thick and thin while we were trying to get the money in place. That took a little bit of a while, but he was there and dedicated to it. He’s just one of the finest actors of his generation… he’s just astonishing and the fact that he was so passionate about doing it was wonderful in return. He just lives that part.

Q. I gather he wanted to do all of his own stunts?
Neil Marshall: He wanted to jump off a cliff… the idiot [laughs]! It was a huge cliff to jump off into this icy cold river and you had to jump four metres out before you were able to drop because there was a shelf in the river that if you landed on, you’d break your leg. So, you had to jump out far enough to hit the deep water. The stunt guys were doing it and were terrified and Michael was constantly going on at me, saying: “Can we do it, can we do it? I just want to do it.” I was like: “No, you can’t. If you miss, the movie is screwed.”

Q. Talking of that jump, as well as the obvious nod to Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Centurion is as much an homage to the Westerns as it is a swords and sandals chase movie…
Neil Marshall: Butch Cassidy definitely, pretty much all of John Ford’s cavalry movies… She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache. The Romans are the cavalry and The Picts are the Apaches. The comparisons are pretty obvious but, to me, Roman Britain was the equivalent of the Wild West. That was their wildest frontier, so the Western analogy works perfectly in that sort of sense.

Michael Fassbender in Centurion

Q. Would you revisit it? Would you do a Centurion 2?
Neil Marshall: I’d love to do something more in the world. I’ve no idea what… but definitely something. Perhaps The Picts attacking Hadrian’s Wall or something.

Q. Has anything been discussed? Or does it depend on box office?
Neil Marshall: We’ll see what happens, yeah.

Q. Did you ever imagine that one of your earlier movies, The Descent, would get a sequel?
Neil Marshall: No, because I wrote it with the intention that it should never have a sequel [laughs]! The idea was that it rounded itself up… I didn’t think it would have a sequel. Its success caused that but I wasn’t involved in the sequel at all. It is an odd one though.

Q. Do you find it fortuitous to be releasing Centurion now given the revival of the swords and sandals movie… with The Eagle of the Ninth and Clash of the Titans among others headed our way?
Neil Marshall: There does seem to be this year, but it is just a weird coincidence because nobody is hopping on anybody else’s bandwagon. You don’t try and do that… you want to be the only one in the marketplace, not one of many. Ourselves and Eagle of the Ninth deal with the Ninth Legion but are totally different stories. They’ve been running in parallel for the past six years and it was pure chance as to which one got into production first. As it happened, we did and they quickly followed, but we’re out first. If there’s an appetite for these movies, then great… I just hope that people see Centurion because the tone of it is very different from anything else that’s out there.

Q. What’s been the most pleasing or surprising reaction you’ve had to Centurion so far?
Neil Marshall: Well, any reaction that is positive. I love the fact that everybody is responding to it. I met Harry Knowles in Texas… he’s obviously a legendary figure right now but I’d never met him. So, he came along and did the Q&A of the screening and he loved it as well. So, that was great… a really nice response to get. But generally, I’m just overwhelmed that everyone seems to like it.

Read our review of Centurion