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Severance - Chris Smith interview

Severance

Interview by Rob Carnevale

CHRIS Smith, the director of comedy-horror film Severance, talks about the joy of making the film, that 747 scene and why horror is so appealing to him as a film genre…

Q. This is a horror film with obvious political overtones, especially in light of recent security alerts. Did you have to think twice about including the scene with the 747?
A. Well funnily enough it’s a bit worrying at the moment. When we were putting that airplane stuff in we were always told: “What if something happens?”

I said: “Well, if something happens, it’s going to happen anyway. If we can’t laugh at how crazy the world is now, then we might as well just get ourselves in a bunker.” I think it will appeal to all senses of humour, whether that’s British or East Coast/West Coast America. The Democrats will think the film is hilarious but the Republicans might not. But that’s kind of where we’re at.

Q. Have you had any reaction or feedback to that scene?
A. Only complimentary because of the audacity of it. We’ve had no one complaining – but we have had a round of applause.
Danny Dyer: That’s because it’s so naughty. They clap because of the audacity of the scene. I mean, you’ve got to have some bollocks to put that into a film.

Q. Did you have to fight to keep it in?
A. Of course. I have nothing but admiration for Michael, the financier from Qwerty films. He pushes you, saying: “Do you really want it? Do you really want it? You’ve got to live with it forever.” But if you keep saying “yeah”... if you sort of buckle and say “maybe not” then it’s gone. He won’t cut it out if you really, really want it. With scenes like that, you have to be sure because it is a nutcase scene. But I was sure from the start that it was hilarious.

It actually brings it back to comedy, funnily enough. It’s a horrific scene where 380 innocent people are destroyed by a missile. But everyone laughs and we’re back on track with the comedy for the last reel.

Q. Where did the inspiration for the film come from in the first place?
A. I only got involved writing it later on. The original idea was from the writer James Moran who wrote this terrific little script. He was on a Tube, actually, and a load of yuppies came in and really annoyed him. So he decided he was going to go out and kill some yuppies in a script and wrote this. Then he started to realise there was some life in it, he realised we’d not seen a group of office workers in this kind of situation before and he just wanted to tear it up a bit.

When I read the script I thought: “Wow, okay, this is something really fresh, we could take this really mad.” So I got together with him, we both started writing together and we didn’t have to change much. What you see on screen, certainly structurally, is what was in the original draft. What I did was make it a bit dryer, we put in some more girls, the airplane and turned the subtext of what he had – weapons manufacturers getting their weapons turned on them – to more of a kind of war on terror, corporations, political slant.

Q. What is it about the horror genre that appeals to you?
A. It’s freeing. I’ve always loved horror but I love the fact it’s so freeing. It’s a genre that has genre conventions and rules – but as long as you understand them, you can bend them, break them and twist them. You can then do whatever you want. I once described it as being like there’s proper directors, horror directors and porn directors – that’s how it used to be viewed. But I don’t think it’s viewed like that anymore. I think there’s such good horror movies being made now that horror directors are now part of the mainstream. And I think the porno boys are going to be joining us!

Q. Would you agree that the best horror films of the moment are coming out of places other than Hollywood – such as the UK and Japan?
A. I still think there’s some good stuff, though. I think with America it’s just got a bit dried up – but it all comes round in circles. 90% of my favourite movies are American. Sometimes it goes through a stagnation and they run out of ideas and then “boom” they come through with something and they change it all again.

Q. You must be pleased with the critical reaction to the film so far because it has been overwhelmingly positive?
A. If I got knocked over outside today I’d feel that at least I’ve left some kind of legacy to be proud of. I absolutely love this film. Some people say they make personal films, about growing up on a council estate and the sort of life they had. This, for me, is a personal film. This is how my brain works – it’s all over the shop [laughs]. But this is about as close as you can get to the sort of movie I’d love to make for the rest of my life.

At the end of the day, it’s a dream come true for a director to get good reviews. They pretend they don’t matter but they only don’t matter when you’re not getting good ones.

Q. Creep was your first film, of course, but that wasn’t so well received. How much did you learn from that experience?
A. The thing is, you learn a lot. I love Creep but I look at it and think I was playing it in a straighter manner. When you look at what I was trying to do, it’s still quite edgy and there are similarities between that and Severance.

But it’s not just about directing and working with actors, you learn the game. When someone says to you, “you’ve only got five minutes to shoot this”, you just say “no”. We had a sequence in this movie where the props department had given Danny a really shitty knife that didn’t work. So when he pulls the knife out, it was going to look fake. When I was making Creep, I was trying to please everyone, including the money people and they’d say: “Why don’t you just give it a go and we’ll have something?” But now what I’ll say in reply is: “Yeah, I’ll give it a go but we’ll have something shit and you’ll say I’ve got to use it in the film – so I’m not going to shoot it.” It’s helped to create that tougher me, if you like.

Q. How did you go about creating the group dynamic?
A. We shot the fun stuff first. We picked people that all worked together. There were no weak links in the team. For instance, it was Babou Ceesay’s first film role but I was aware of that and kept an eye on him and so were the actors and they looked out for him. They knew he was a good actor but it was his first film, so there was a lot of rallying round by everyone.

Q. It’s a 15 certificate. Was that always the intention, or is there going to be a bloodier, 18 version on DVD?
A. There is a gorier version but the tone wouldn’t work as well because it’s too much. It was always a 15 in our eyes – and it is a very gory 15. We were told by the BBFC that it was a split vote to get us through. It was really on the edge. A few years ago it would have been an 18. There are gorier scenes but for me, this is the director’s cut – I got the cut I wanted. There are some shots I wish I could have shown off that I had to cut for pace, but I may show them on the DVD.

Q. What’s next for you?
A. I’m doing a sci-fi thriller set on a boat called Triangle, which is kind of a Memento-style, weird horror movie.

Read our review of Severance

Read our interview with Danny Dyer