Neil Marshall is one of the most well-known names in modern British horror. Having burst onto the scene with Dog Soldiers, the Newcastle-born director followed that success up with The Descent, a movie that made huge waves across the globe, and fantastic efforts like Doomsday and Centurion. With recent years having included directing gigs on genre favourite TV shows Constantine, Hannibal and Game of Thrones, Marshall has now served as executive producer on Dark Signal, the Welsh-set tense horror from Ed Evers-Swindell. With a killer at large and a mysterious spirit appearing, the film takes place in stunning North Wales and features a fantastic cast that includes the likes of Siwan Morris, Gareth David-Lloyd, Joanna Ignaczewska, James Cosmo, and Fulci favourite Cinzia Monreale. We caught up with Marshall to discuss the chilling Dark Signal, whether he felt any pressure coming off Dog Soldiers and The Descent, how it’s now so much harder to stand out in the horror genre, what went wrong with the now-canned Constantine, and much, much more.
STARBURST: You served as executive producer on Dark Signal, which is a job title that can sometimes be extremely hands-on or can sometimes be a little vague. How hands-on were you with the film?
Neil Marshall: Well I’d known Ed for nearly twenty years now and had been pushing him and mentoring him as best I possibly could in trying to help him get his first feature made. So in that sense, I guess I was very hands-on in pushing him and giving him a good kick every once in a while and just helping him be as stubborn as you need to be to get it done. Also, I introduced him to Jonas , the producer, who I met at a BAFTA event. He said he was looking for a project, and I knew Ed had a project, and it was just a case of putting them together. Amazingly, more often than not when you do that it doesn’t stick, but they connected immediately. Ed’s project was something Jonas wanted to do and it all kind of clicked from there. So I was very involved with that process. When it came to making the film, as luck and timing would have it, I was shooting something so I didn’t get directly involved at all with the shooting. But even if I had been free, I wouldn’t have. As a director myself, I know what it’s like to have people coming in and kind of getting in your face and telling you what to do when you’re trying to do this kind of stuff. I wanted to afford Ed the respect I get from my producers and give him space to do it. I know he knows what he’s doing, and he sees movies in the way I seem them, which is kind of why we’re mates. We’re into the same shit. There’s no textbook on how to do this, no right or wrong on how to do these things; you have to go on your gut instincts, and I can’t tell him what his gut instincts are. If I was to tell him what my gut instincts are, it’d probably be wrong. I wanted to support him as a mate and as a producer in doing his job. After that, I looked at it and had a watch of the first cut and gave some notes on that, but that’s something that’s a bit more tangible as you can see it and express what it is; it’s out of Ed’s head. From that point on, I just helped steer it to where it is now.
You’ve worked with Ed as far back as The Descent in 2005. Did you always see him directing his own stuff?
I knew he always wanted to. We both started out making our own little movies. Mine was Super 8 films but he was on video or whatever because he’s a bit younger than me; he was the next generation. So he always wanted to direct, and I knew he was a great editor as he’d been working as an editor for a while; he’s got fantastic skills in that department. But I could see it in his work. He had directed a very, very low-budget film that he and his friends had done over a number of years, but what I could see from that was that he was great at doing action stuff, great at editing, and clearly had the skills to do it. It was clear that was what he wanted to do, so it was a case of whatever I could do to help that happen.
Dark Signal itself is a very unique movie in terms of the plot and also because of the fantastic setting, with the film being entirely set in North Wales. Was it always the plan to shoot the film on the North Wales coast?
I think Ed always wanted to film in that part of the world. He lives in North Wales, it’s with a bunch of people from North Wales, so it made sense to shoot it in North Wales. And North Wales offered up some fantastic scenery, which is instant production value. It looks beautiful so why go somewhere else to shoot it. The idea had been germinating for years. I know it grew from this idea of somebody stuck in a car, being haunted by a ghost. There was a hill up to his house that we were driving on one day, then he pulled over by the road and talked about what if there was a ghost out here in the moors at night, and I thought it was brilliant and unique for a ghost story. I told him to go ahead and write it, and he did! Then it grew from there.
Siwan Morris in Dark Signal
The cast that was put together was fantastic, but the chemistry between Siwan Morris and Gareth David-Lloyd is a particular highlight of the film. From what you heard, was that something that came naturally or did Ed have to work on that with them?
Well I wasn’t on set to get any direct experience of that. I know Ed worked hard casting Siwan and Gareth and then working with them when he was directing. I definitely got a sense that he helped create that chemistry. It was important to get that natural chemistry between them, but it pays off handsomely as it’s a great relationship. I love the whole radio station setting. I think it’s definitely a little wink to The Fog, and why not!
You mentioned The Fog there, and there’s also Fulci favourite Cinzia Monreale in the film, but would you say that there are a lot of influences from elsewhere on Dark Signal or was it more a case of Ed just trying to make his own vision?
I think a lot of it is very much Ed’s vision and using the very Welsh influence in it. It’s very unique as you don’t actually see many Welsh-based horror films or Welsh-based movies. He’s certainly a Fulci fan as well, and he’s been a Fulci fan for years, so he was so happy to cast somebody from the Fulci movies. That was a huge deal for him and to get a bit of horror heritage in there as well. Then there’s James Cosmo, who’s a brilliant actor and perfectly cast in this role; he’s so threatening the moment he walks on screen. It was getting some faces in there that people know; that always helps with this sort of thing. But I’m glad Ed went for the Welsh flavour with this. It makes it unique and makes it stand out from the crowd. It’s not an obscure Welsh language film, though. It’s very much just a flavour, and that makes it very much Ed’s film.
And with yourself, when you were first making your steps into filmmaking, what were the films that made you want to become a filmmaker?
It’s something else that Ed and I share a passion for, but the movie that made me want to make movies was Raiders of the Lost Ark. You might ask how that led to me making horror movies, but Raiders of the Lost Ark has guys melting and people getting stuck on spikes, people getting into propellers. I’d say that my influences are very much there, but then I was also influenced by Halloween, Escape from New York, The Fog, American Werewolf in London, those sort of horror movies. And horror was very much a way-in. It was easier to do a low-budget horror movie that do an adventure movie. Let’s face it, I think for our generation and beyond, John Carpenter is a living God and a massive inspiration to so many of us out there. That played a massive part in how I got into the industry, and it’s rubbing off on generations still.
When you were putting 2002’s Dog Soldiers together, how easy did you find it to get that picture made? Was that a tricky process or was it maybe easier than you were expecting?
Well it took me six years from writing the script to actually getting it made, so it was a long process. It went through stages of almost getting made and collapsing twice before it actually got made. But I was younger then and just really stubborn. I don’t know if it ever occurred to me that it wouldn’t get made, but it was an uphill battle because horror films, at that particular time, weren’t fashionable. Especially in the UK, no one was making horror films. Then suddenly myself, Danny Boyle and Michael Bassett made horror films at the same time. Then it suddenly grew. At the time, there wasn’t a cheap way to make these things. We still relied on professional editing or professional cameras. Danny broke the mould with 28 Days Later, but it was part of the aesthetic of the film. At that stage digital just hadn’t come on that far so you required a certain budget. You couldn’t make films for the cost that you can make them now. It was too expensive. Then you look back now and you think the budget for Dog Soldiers was $2 million. Now, that would be a really big budget to do a low-budget horror movie with. Then, that was the bottom line; you couldn’t get much cheaper than that unless you asked people to work for free, which we didn’t want to do. All of that took time. Then the attitude we were getting from the British establishment was “We don’t do horror movies. That’s not our cup of tea.” So we ended up getting our finance from America and Luxembourg.
Neil on the set of The Descent
Of course, you followed up Dog Soldiers with The Descent before then doing Doomsday and Centurion. Given how much of a splash you made with those first two films, how did you find the pressure put on you coming off The Descent?
I think the best part of it being at the beginning of my career was that I didn’t really feel the pressure. I just went with it. I had these ideas and I went with them. I made Dog Soldiers partly because I always wanted to see a feature movie where soldiers were werewolves. Nobody else was going to make one so I made one. Then I always wanted to see a horror film set in a cave. Nobody else was making one so I made it. The same with Doomsday. It was stuff that I wanted to see in movies and nobody else was making them. It’s kind of selfish in a way. I make movies that I want to watch. I think that’s a very, for me anyway, kind of an unjaded way of looking at things. In a way, I wish I still had that. Now I’m constantly thinking of the art of filmmaking and the practical aspects of filmmaking. All that’s just what I have to deal with. You just want to make the film you love but there’s so much pressure in getting the money involved and getting it released. The industry’s changing and there’s way more competition out there because so many films are being made now. You have to kind of break out. I think that’s why the Welsh angle helps with this as it makes it stand out from the crowd, because the crowd is way bigger than when I started out in terms of horror movies out there.
One thing we couldn’t not talk about is Constantine. You directed a couple of episodes of that but the show ultimately got cancelled after just one season. How gutted were you to see that get axed?
Oh yeah, I was really gutted. I think the show was kind of hamstrung from the start. Constantine is a cable character; he should not be on a network show because you have to alter the character to fit the network profile. And that just kind of pulls it apart. So we were left with a fairly shallow version of what Constantine could’ve been, because the reality is Constantine’s supposed to be this total bastard; he smokes, he drinks, and he’s horrible to people, and he’s awesome because of that. We had to take away the smoking and the drinking and the horrible part, so what does that leave? I think that we made the best show possible under the limitations. I think that Matt Ryan, another Welshman, is the best guy to play the part and did an amazing job. He is John Constantine now. It would be so good if he could carry on the character. I know he has – he made a cameo in Arrow – but it would be great to see more of that. I just think it’s a shame when the kind of build that there was for this show, to transform this character was such a waste.
Even in the build-up to the show it was announced that Constantine wouldn’t be smoking, which put some fans immediately on guard…
We did everything in our power to kind of crowbar the smoking in there. I think by the end of it we did actually have him smoking, but I got the feeling that if the show had run for a couple of years then it would’ve evolved into something darker and richer and we could’ve taken it in a different direction.
What’s up next for you then?
I’m still working on several movie projects and will hopefully get them off the ground. Mostly I’ve been doing TV recently, and I directed an episode of Westworld last year. I’m really excited to see the finished product with that. I did a pilot for NBC and that got picked up, a thing called Timeless, which is sort of a great time-travel adventure sure, kind of Back to the Future meets Mission: Impossible. That literally got picked up a couple of weeks ago. Then I’m just about to embark on a future project for Netflix, but I can’t really say anything about that yet. It’s a science-fiction thing, though.
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