Neil Marshall is an English film and television director responsible for some of the most significant horror films of the past 20 years. Notable for The Descent and his work on shows such as Game of Thrones and Lost in Space, Neil took some time to speak to us about Dog Soldiers ahead of its 4K Remastered release.
STARBURST: We’re here to talk about Dog Soldiers. So, you’re a young filmmaker looking to make your first feature. Why werewolves?
Neil Marshall: Because they were always my favourite monsters, of the classic monsters. And I also felt they were woefully underrepresented given the slew of vampire films at the time, and you can’t move for zombie films now. Werewolf films are still few and far between and part of the reason for that is that werewolves are not easy to do and are not cheap. Given that horror films are largely a low budget medium that makes things tricky, and it made things tricky for us. The first thing everyone said to us was that it was too ambitious for a first-time feature, but we persisted.
Were there certain tropes you were keen to avoid?
This was never going to be a curse of the werewolf movie, which so many are about. The werewolves here were going to be the enemy and that was that. But I was determined they should be practical and they should walk on two legs. I almost got into a bit of a ruck with Rick Baker [won the Academy Award for Best Makeup for An American Werewolf in London] about that one. An American Werewolf in London had and always will have the best transformation sequence in but I was always slightly disappointed that the werewolf didn’t walk on two legs. I think Rick took a little issue with that and when I bumped into him a few years later he picked me up on it, but after a long, painful pause he actually agreed. I suppose it does differentiate that werewolf from the ones in The Howling that walked on two legs and in Dog Soldiers, and it is an amazing werewolf, but for me they should always walk on two legs.
There is a similarity between the creature in The Howling and yours…
Yes, if I had to choose they’re more inspired by The Howling. And I knew going in we were never going to try and do a transformation sequence if we couldn’t do it right so rather than try and imitate An American Werewolf in London or The Howling. And we didn’t want to go down the CG route as even though it was a few years after Jurassic Park it was still relatively new and not capable of the quality needed. So, I decided to take Carry On Screaming as my inspiration and do the old ‘fall behind the furniture’ ploy! Do the sound effects then all of a sudden the werewolf pops up! I hoped no-one would notice.
That’s brilliant! And there are a lot of other film references from Zulu to Aliens.
There are a lot, a lot!
Was that key for you? As rather than out-and-out horror you have a siege movie in essence?
It was always pitched as a soldier movie with werewolves and not the other way around. It was focussed on the siege with the werewolves outside and I’d always wanted to do a siege movie like Rio Bravo, Zulu and Assault on Precinct 13; I love a great siege movie. And Zulu is a British movie with a lot of British humour so I threw a lot of that in there.
There is a lot of humour and I wanted to ask if that was all scripted or did it evolve through production with the actors and certain scenes?
The foundation of the humour was definitely on the page, getting that trench humour in there was important to me to make it authentic. At no point are they ever going to mock the situation, but they find humour in themselves and we find it in the characters, but I never wanted it to undermine the situation. As the terror mounts and the more ridiculous the situation the more humorous it is. When the actors came in they brought a lot to it too; they really got into it. With Sean, he improvised the ‘hit me properly you pussy’ scene and it was so good. They just got it.
On that Sean Pertwee scene, we wondered what direction you gave him, from when he’s first attacked to when he’s knocked out. It’s a hell of a performance.
It’s phenomenal. It’s a combination of several things. A lot was in the script, on how you deal with it when your guts are hanging out and you’re trying to shove them back in. Sean had this bag of sausages around his waist for half the film. He came to be before we did the operation sequences and asked if I minded if he had a couple of drinks, just to loosen up. Not drunk but enough to feel it. I said go for it. I think it lent some real authenticity to the scene, with Kevin [McKidd] and Emma [Cleasby] working against him as he starts to blither.
Did you film chronologically as you do trash the rooms and sets as you go along?
Yes. We shot all the exteriors first and then went into the studio, and we shot all that stuff in linear order from them on. We had to as we literally when from room to room trashing each one. It helped with continuity and it meant that when each actor was killed off they wrapped and left set. We did the same thing on The Descent too. It serves a practical purpose but it’s heart-breaking to see each character go.
In that short period you made two of the most significant horror films in recent times. You’ve wrapped Dog Soldiers and are planning your next movie The Descent. There are similarities between the two but there is a distinctly different tone. There’s more story.
That’s exactly right. In The Descent the big difference is that everyone is not in it together. If Dog Soldiers is about a group of people who bond and will fight and die for each other The Descent is the opposite. This is group who think they’re all friends but fractures appear and it all falls apart.
So was it a conscious decision to have an entirely different dynamic and a full on horror movie?
Originally, I was going to do a zombie film but it was considered too ambitious and too expensive. I left a meeting in London with Celador who wanted something cheaper, got on a train to go home to Newcastle and by the time I got off I had the idea for The Descent.
Must have been some journey…
[Laughs] It was mainly about how I could keep things contained. Could I do something in the darkness and in caves and also somehow affordable? I’d just done a macho movie so the flip side was an all-female horror movie. There was also a review somewhere for Dog Soldiers that I read, which asked when a British filmmaker was going to make a truly scary horror film so I thought let’s give it a go. The whole agenda for The Descent was to make the scariest film I could possibly make.
We won’t ask about the Dog Soldiers sequel as you’ve spoken on that before but there’s always the feeling that there’s a larger world out there in your films, whether it’s Centurion or Doomsday. You’ve spent a lot of the past ten years in television. Is there something you’d look to expand on in the future?
I would love to. A few years back someone mentioned the notion of a Doomsday television series, which I would be keen to expand on, especially now! I’m not sure about The Descent but Dog Soldiers certainly.
You’re recently gone back to films from television.
Ideally, I’d like to do both. Being part of the television world and the revolution that has happened has been amazing. Being involved in Game of Thrones and such like is great, I don’t want to lose that but I’d like to have more creative input. I’m developing my own shows but I’d also like to do more movies.
Having done those large budget productions on television, and recently Hellboy, do you still crave that earlier way of filmmaking; in camera effects and working a budget to fit the film?
Definitely. No matter what I’d done I would always want to do in camera effects. And with my next film, The Reckoning, I’ve gone back to working with no money but with complete creative control. It was really was a case of coming up with creative solutions. I like to be paid but there’s also a real pleasure figuring your way through things. I need a halfway solution where I get paid and can also be creative!
Dog Soldiers in re-released in cinemas on October 23rd and The Reckoning screens at Arrow Video FrightFest on Friday, October 23rd at 9pm.