'The Reckoning' Director Neil Marshall on Returning to Low-Budget Horror and Why His Hellboy Reboot "Sucked" [Interview]
Neil Marshall is returning to his roots. The director began his career with the one-two punch of Dog Soldiers and The Descent and while neither is 20 years old yet, they’re already endlessly rewatchable classics in the eyes of many horror movie fans. Marshall went on to direct bombastic post-apocalyptic mayhem with Doomsday followed by Centurion, a lean chase film set in ancient Scotland. For Marshall, this was his last true movie.
Over the last 10 years, the director has been on a roll in television. He helmed one of the more unforgettable episode of Game of Thrones, “Blackwater.” Outside of Westeros, Marshall directed episodes of Hannibal, Lost in Space, and Black Sails, just to name a few. In 2018, his name finally returned to cinemas with a new adaptation of Hellboy. “There was no way it was ever going to be half-decent,” he told us.
Now, Marshall is back with a horror movie he is proud of, The Reckoning, which he co-wrote with its star, Charlotte Kirke. Set in the 17th Century in Northern England, the film is about a widow who must fight for her freedom during a deadly plague and witchhunt. We spoke with Marshall about this new film, and he told us to expect more horror movies from him in the future.
You’ve said The Reckoning is the first true Neil Marshall movie in over 11 years. How satisfying is it to have another unfiltered vision out there?
It’s very satisfying. I suppose at the core, I am a filmmaker, an artist, and a storyteller. All the reasons that things didn’t work out on a project or whatever, the fact that on this one I was making it for an ultra-low budget, and making those sacrifices, it was much more of a satisfying experience because it was a creative experience. Having no money to do it, which I would have loved to have had, I got to make the film I wanted to make without any interruption or interference. As a filmmaker, that’s way more satisfying.
Stretching the resources and time you did have, how does your experience in television help you there?
I was probably kind of spoiled by a lot of the TV stuff that I did because they had endless resources. Yes, you do work long hours on TV and you work on tight schedules, but the budgets on shows like Lost in Space and Black Sails, and of course, Game of Thrones, were as big as if not bigger than an awful lot of my movies. I think if anything, I brought my having done a lot of those independent films before I went into TV. I brought the ability to work fast and be creative to television, so far. And then on the new projects, how can I make this look like a mega-budget movie, but make it in a hurry on a fraction of the budget?
Over the last decade, the genre shows you directed became the mainstream and were very much aligned with your taste. Were you fortunate in that regard as well?
I guess so because TV used to fill in that blank of mid-budget films that I started out in. That’s really how those films are. Nowadays, it’s like they’re ultra-low-budget films or mega-budget films and maybe mid-budget films. It’s not a concrete rule, but a lot of the genre films that were being made for the cinema are now basically TV projects.
Not necessarily as films, but they kind of reinvented themselves as TV shows. I think that’s exciting. I felt honored to be part of the vanguard of that revolution in the last 10 years or whatever. It would be more than that now, over the last 15 years, with shows like Game of Thrones and being a part of those kinds of things that have changed TV history forever.
It’s so exciting because, within the scope of a year in the TV world, you can do maybe three projects, whereas if you’re doing a feature, that takes up an entire year of your life, if not more. So I would jump from doing pirates to doing Constantine to doing Hannibal to doing Lost in Space or whatever. Within the space of a year, you could do three different things in three different genres. It was great fun.
Some directors say with television you sometimes are more of a work-for-hire, but you seemed to experience a lot of freedom in TV.
In my personal experience, with one exception which I won’t say, I found them to be very creative and never felt that I was a director for hire. People brought me in because they wanted my input. Actually, specifically on Game of Thrones, they were really, really embracing my ideas. All the directors coming in and bringing stuff to the table, and the writers, they’re meeting the directors halfway. I think that’s why it’s such a show of striking vision. I had a lot of ideas to bring to the table at Game of Thrones, they incorporated them, and there was never any resistance there.
It’s pretty much the same on a lot of the other shows. Certainly, it’s shows where you’re directing the pilot, like Lost in Space, where you’re setting the visual palette, setting the style within the first couple of episodes. The only difference I would say is that you learn to park your ego at the door because you’re not going there to visualize your own baby. It’s not your baby. It’s somebody else’s baby. Usually, it’s the showrunner or the author, or something like that. Once you accept that, it gave you the freedom to just go in and direct the shit out of it.
[Lagush] With The Reckoning, it was two or three years between conception to completion. Was that a rare experience for you to have a movie come together that quickly?
Very rare. It was written in 2018 and we shot it in 2019 and we had finished post-production pretty much at the beginning of 2020. So it’s taken a little while for it to roll out. Obviously, COVID has played a massive part in that. In terms of the actual turnaround from writing it to getting on the set, that was like a year, which that’s never happened for any of my films. Yeah, that was fast.
I imagine over the last 10 years you’ve had original horror projects that for whatever reasons didn’t come together. How has your experience been trying to make original horror movies?
Yeah, there were certainly some tricky times. It’s not the reason why I was working in TV, though. I was invited to work in TV and it was great, but at the same time, I was still trying to get features off the ground and for whatever reason, it just proved tricky until eventually, Hellboy came along. I was always trying to make films, and I wrote horror films then as well. Now, it’s like I just wanted to go back and really embrace my roots and get back into the horror scene.
The irony being is that one of the things I really wanted to do with directing was getting back on to the festival circuit because I love horror festivals. The genre festival circuit was great. Not only the interaction with the fans but also as a filmmaker, the inspiring people you meet along the way, it’s a great thing to be a part of. Of course, all that went down the drain with COVID. We missed out.
On the directing, it doesn’t necessarily have to be horror, but at least genre. But likely, horror movie one every two years would be just fine. One every year would be even better.
The Reckoning depicts a plague similar to Doomsday, and just like that movie, they’re stories about social order collapsing. Is that a personal fear of yours?
I can’t say it’s a fear. I think part of me is like, that shit would be really cool. There has to be that part of you that watches these movies thinking that might actually be quite cool. Now, it’s horrible. In reality, it would be bloody awful, you know, social disorder and chaos and panic and misery, but honestly, yeah, it’s pretty cool for a movie.
There are some very striking, painterly images in The Reckoning. Are you influenced by any particular painters at all?
I have to say a lot. In fact, my grandfather and my dad were both painters or artists. I was growing up with that around, with art and me watching. For me, I don’t think there were any specific painters, but I do tend to look at paintings and look for inspiration and that kind of thing. It’s really creative. My part to be a little bit more artistic and visual because of the editing and the way the story was told.
You’ve edited some aggressively paced movies, like Doomsday, but with The Reckoning, it’s more about patience. Any key similarities or differences in the editing room creating those two different paces?
I was pretty much of the school of fast all the time. Like, it’s just cut, cut, cut all the time. I think I’ve kind of matured as an editor to know that, to know when to go slow. You can’t go fast all the time. I love the relationship with the editor. I like that interaction that you get with the editor. I’ve always embraced that. I did a year of working with an editor. They bring so much to the table when they’re a really good one. So, I always wanted that relationship. In this case, it was maybe to save on money and things like that. I hadn’t edited a movie for a while, so I thought, what the hell, I’ll give it a go again.
Did you miss it?
I did miss it, yeah. I mean, the thing is that I don’t want to be editing very heavily and what I will do is work with the editor very closely. On something like The Descent, what I did was I would go in the edit in the morning and the editor would be working, and we’d go out for a really big lunch. And in the afternoon, he’d fall asleep on the couch, and I’d take over. And then, we would just review each other’s work.
Like that film, you have a very cool creature design in The Reckoning. How was it creating that practical devil?
It was a combination of a lot of elements. One, I got to do the devil, this is a first. I refused to have a red guy with horns, that wasn’t going to happen in this movie. I always thought of him being sickly and almost riddled with disease. It’s just like, he looks gaunt and like he’s got a fever and all this kind of stuff. I pitched this to a designer, Paul Gerard, who came up with the initial concept. And then when we did the movie, the makeup effects designer, Cole Palmer, took that design, ran with it, and came back with a more embellished design, I guess. That’s the one that’s in the film and he made it practical.
And I’d worked with Ian White on Game of Thrones. I’d known him for years because we’re both from the Northeast. I thought he’d be perfect for playing the devil. His voice is really like Christopher Lee. He’s got that baritone like Christopher Lee. I just thought that I couldn’t get any better. I’ve got a seven-foot guy. He’s going to play the devil. And he sounds like Christopher Lee. It’s like, oh, that’s a dream come true.
Always go practical in horror, right?
A hundred percent.
Did Hellboy influence your decision at all to make a movie at this scale again? Did that experience inspire the kind of movies you want to make in the future?
Absolutely, yes, it did. It made me think about the things I want to do. With Hellboy, I was kind of lured by the money and possibility of having the freedom to make a good movie, but… I’d chosen to do it for all the wrong reasons. There’s actually something Frank Darabont said to me, it all comes down to the scripts. If the script sucks, don’t do it. I made the mistake of doing something that sucked.
I did. There was no way it was ever going to be half-decent, so yeah, I learned a lot from that. Now, it made me think more about the way I look at the kind of films that I want to make, the work I want to do, and how I want to do it. There’s just nothing worth sacrificing both you and your creative integrity.
The Reckoning is now available on Shudder.
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