Exclusive: Neil Marshall talks about tackling swords, sandals and ‘Centurion’
BY TODD GILCHRIST
Among the most highly-anticipated films screened at Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest Film Festival are the surprise screenings – midnight shows that allow filmmakers to premiere their work and introduce them to audiences for the first time. On Monday night, acclaimed horror director Neil Marshall (The Descent) showed his latest film, the swords-and-sandals epic Centurion, to a capacity crowd at the Alamo Drafthouse as this year’s worst-kept “secret” screening.
On Wednesday, Hollywood News sat down for an intimate discussion about the film with Marshall and his Centurion co-star (and wife) Axelle Carolyn. In addition to talking about the process of conquering this particular genre after tackling several others, Marshall explored his decision to create dialogue that felt more modern, even in this classical setting, and revealed the process by which the men and especially women of Centurion came together on screen in brilliant, bloody battles.
Hollywood News: There’s obviously an established visual lexicon for these kinds of movies. When you went in to direct it, how did you decide what the color palette and the visual style and structure would be?
Neil Marshall: Well, it was kind of the polar opposite. Sword and sandal movies tend to be kind of hot and dusty and have a warmth about them because they’re set in warm and dusty climates. Or sort of like in 300, they’re super-stylized but still essentially have a warm palette to them. I knew going into this I wanted it to be bleak and cold and blue and grey and that side of things.
Hollywood News: How do you balance wanting to be authentic to a time period and still having to make concessions in order to tell a good story?
Marshall: It all comes down to compromise. I mean, we’re not making it a total history lesson; it is meant to be an entertaining movie and telling a story, so there has to be a degree of flexibility on it. We got that degree of flexibility with the Picts, especially, because there is no recorded history for the Picts. There’s no recorded language, there’s no written history for the Picts. We know of them through various rumors, but who knows if that’s true. So I approach them from a practical point of view; it was like these people did live in this environment, so how would they have dressed? The idea of them running around in fur bikinis was kind of ridiculous, because it was -18 [degree weather] we were filming in.
Axelle Carolyn: The traditional view of the Picts is that they used to fight completely naked just to show that they were scared of nothing, which obviously was a little hard to film.
Marshall: I kind of figured that in some circumstances they would have done that, maybe in the summer. But I don’t think they’re stupid in the same way that the Romans aren’t stupid like when people say, well, why do the Romans wear their skirts and have bare legs and stuff like that? They didn’t do that, they adapted to the climate and they wore these kind of leggings and made better boots to survive in the mud and the rain. And the Picts did the same thing: they dressed up in fur and things to stay warm.. I mean, it doesn’t take an idiot to figure that one out. So we had free reign there to a degree. But also, people first really saw what woad – blue face paint – was in Braveheart, but it was totally out of context in there. Maybe he did wear it and maybe he didn’t, but that’s not where it came from, it came from the Picts, and they used to both tattoo themselves with it but also wear it as this war paint. I took a little bit of liberty with this character Etain who mixes war paint with the ashes of her enemies; people that she burned, she takes their ashes and mixes them in and she paints her face. I thought that was kind of a ruthless gesture on her part.
Hollywood News: How carefully did you have to create adversaries for the Romans that were formidable but weren’t purely villainous?
Marshall: That’s the point. There are no evil people in it, with the exception of maybe Aeron, who’s kind of pure evil (laughs). Everybody is motivated; everybody has a total justification for what they’re doing. The Picts are defending their home and fighting for their lives just as much as the Romans are. That was the key for me – getting into what motivates each of the characters, and everybody wants to survive. Everybody wants to live out this thing.
Hollywood News: In the post-screening q&a, you talked about how the time period of the film preceded certain gender hierarchies – sort of pre-misogyny. How much of the decision to feature fighting women was fueled by history and how much was maybe motivated by the coolness of having empowered women fighting alongside and against men?
Marshall: It was a little bit of both. I mean, I like working with strong female characters, but the historical backdrop allowed that to be there without taking liberties with history. Queen Boudica was queen of the Iceni, battled the Romans, kind of about 50 years before our story took place, so it’s not like we’re making this stuff up. So it allowed that, and I wanted to make it a more even-footed thing where there were strong women amongst the strong men. It’s a fascinating part of history; it’s like you say, pre-misogyny, and it makes it all the more interesting because of it.
Carolyn: I think that the strong female character has to a degree become a kind of cliché in many action films, but I think in this case, because of the context and historically speaking, because of the stunt guys and the fight choreographers put a lot of emphasis on trying to make it believable. Olga and I are not built like the strongest women, so we know that you can’t just go and have a fight where it’s going to be about my strength against a man’s strength, so it had to be about knowing where to hit, it had to be about knowing which weapons to handle. We made a point of having neither of us using huge swords because you couldn’t lift them in real life. Those giant things are just way too heavy for a woman or for most women, anyway. And using weapons that were adapted, knowing where to strike, knowing how to move, we had to try and run around the Roman that you were fighting and finding the weaknesses, and trying to make that believable somehow.
Hollywood News: It was interesting to me that the main foe that Quintus fights at the end of the film is a female. Was that a deliberate choice, as opposed to, say, reintroducing another male character from earlier in the film and having them square off?
Marshall: It was always the case that I wanted this highly-motivated character that was going after the Romans. The fact that she’s a woman is kind of irrelevant; it’s just that she has this really bad history with her family being massacred by the Romans and being raped and being mutilated and having her tongue ripped out by the Romans, she’s totally justified in her quest for revenge. I just felt like that was a strong motivation, and an interesting culmination of these two characters coming together head to head. The fact that she’s a woman is kind of irrelevant.
Hollywood News: There’s a tendency in historical epics to write dialogue and characters in a more arch, dramatic manner. How tough was it to inject these sort of contemporary reactions or asides into that kind of measured, formal language?
Marshall: I made the decision very early on that I wanted these guys to speak in a very naturalistic way, because we can’t go back and have them all talking in Latin or make it some kind of weird authentic thing like that. They’re from different parts of the Empire, so I thought, okay, we’ll have them speak in English, but we’ll have them speak in a milder version of their own regional accents so they all sound like they come from different places anyway. Visually they all look like they come from different places anyway. But the way that I wanted them to speak was just very natural, like soldiers would now. Because I don’t for a minute believe that soldiers weren’t as bawdy and finding some kind of humor in their situation and ruthless and all of these things [that soldiers are] now. I don’t think that’s changed in thousands of years. I think they’re a bunch of blokes, and if one is getting on with a girl and the other are nudging each other and having a bit of a laugh about it, or if they’re swearing like troopers, I don’t know what the equivalent curses were back then, but we have to do something that the audience can relate to now. There are going to be those people who have issues with it and say it’s not authentic, but what is authentic?
Carolyn: The thing is that the only record we have of the way they used to speak is what people wrote, and if we were to judge the way people speak nowadays on what is written in books, it’s just completely different.
Hollywood News: Ultimately, what were the things within this genre you felt had not been explored or executed that you particularly wanted to bring to the screen?
Marshall: I’d never seen anything about the Romans on Hadrian’s Wall and why that was built – you know, what could have been so bad that made the Romans build a 60-foot long, 30-foot high stone wall across the country to keep the Picts out? What have they done? And I’d heard about the myth of the Ninth Legion, this Roman legion that marched into the Scottish mist to deal with the Picts and just vanished without a trace. Where I grew up was at one end of Hadrian’s Wall, so we used to go on school trips there and I was surrounded by this history from a very early age. My dad’s a big history buff and I just absorbed all of this, and I was always fascinated with the idea of these Romans coming in from wherever, from Italy or North Africa or some hot climate and ending up at the farthest-most frontier – the driving, horizontal rain, bleak Scottish frontier or Caledonian frontier. It was intriguing to me as the setting for a story, so I just wanted to explore that myth and uncover the truth behind it.