Marshall followed the critical and commercial success of "The Descent" with the post-apocalyptic thriller "Doomsday," in which murderous cannibals wreaked havoc in futuristic Scotland. But his latest film steps even further away from the horror genre. Set in 117 A.D., "Centurion" explores the legend of the Ninth Legion—more than 4,000 soldiers who disappeared when they marched into Scotland. In Marshall's telling, the soldiers are attacked by a savage band of warriors called the Picts. A few survivors, led by Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender of "Inglourious Basterds") struggle to reach safety while pursued by a mute and vengeful Pict huntress ("Quantum of Solace" Bond girl Olga Kurylenko). Marshall recently chatted with Back Stage about his previous movies, getting respect for the horror genre, and casting calls.
Back Stage: I know that "Doomsday" wasn't technically a horror film, but I feel like this is your first time making a movie without creatures—unless you consider the Picts creatures.
Neil Marshall: Well, the Picts are beastly.
Back Stage: And yet they're actually kind of sympathetic.
Marshall: Absolutely, that was very much a point, to make them sympathetic. It would have been easy to go the other way and tell the story from their point of view. That's the "Braveheart" story, the heroic rebels kind of thing. This was more tricky, by playing it from the invader's point of view.
Back Stage: Were you consciously trying to get away from making a film with creatures? Was that even a consideration, or were you just drawn to the story?
Marshall: I was just drawn to the story. I still love doing creature features and things like that, but this was just a great story that had its own horrific elements to it but was not a horror movie. I think it's actually a Victorian-based legend, the myth of the Ninth Legion marching into Scotland and vanishing without a trace. I was just instantly hooked as an idea for a movie.
Back Stage: What did you initially think happened to them?
Marshall: When I first heard about it, I think I was just coming off the back of doing "Dog Soldiers" and "Descent" and still had a supernatural fixation going on, so I was thinking, "Were they gobbled up by the Loch Ness Monster or something like that?" It's something inherent—when they say they marched into the mist and they vanished, you immediately think supernatural. But the more I researched it, the more I looked into it and read about the Picts and them fighting for survival, I thought I wanted to make it more of a human story.
Back Stage: So there was an instinct early on to put a creature in it?
Marshall: Yeah, early on; I think at one point I even considered it as like a sequel to "Dog Soldiers" by having Romans versus werewolves.
Back Stage: Horror isn't always considered a critically acclaimed genre, but you've done pretty well.
Marshall: I've been very lucky.
Back Stage: Do you have any theories as to why that is?
Marshall: I concentrate on trying to do character-based horror. I also have the patience to do a slow build-up, where I think a lot of horror films tend to want to start off level 10, and then they leave themselves nowhere to go. With "Descent," we really made a point of starting off at level one or two and then building, building, building until the last half hour was just fully intense, and I think that left the audience feeling better about that movie.
Back Stage: Lots of people say they love that film and would have enjoyed it even without the creatures. They mean it as a compliment.
Marshall: Yeah, a lot of people say that, but I also think that if it had just been a cave-in movie, it would've only worked to a certain extent. It was like, "I get where you're coming from, but that's not the movie I wanted to make." I wanted to make it as really, really bad as it could be as a cave-in movie and then make it worse.
Back Stage: You have a great eye for talent, starting with Kevin McKidd in "Dog Soldiers." How did you find him?
Marshall: Well, I knew him from "Trainspotting," but had I just seen "Trainspotting," I never would've cast him, because he just seemed, from that film, so wrong. But a casting director persuaded me to meet him. He was very, very different in person, when he first walked in, with his hair kind of cut short and he'd filled out a bit and looked so much more the part, and he's got that great scar between his eyes, which adds to the character. But he's a phenomenal actor. He's so natural with it. So I was very, very lucky getting him and the rest of the cast of "Dog Soldiers." It was that mix of having people like Sean Pertwee and Liam Cunningham, who were experienced, and people who'd never been in front of a camera before but were really, really hungry, and that showed, and everybody just upped their game and had a great time making it.
Back Stage: Do you ever get resistance to your casting? Does working on a lower budget give you more say?
Marshall: I've definitely experienced resistance to casting.
Back Stage: Do you always win?
Marshall: No, not at all. I think if you're working on micro-budgets, then maybe you get to cast who you want, but then you haven't got to pay them. "Descent" was actually the easiest thing to cast because they were all unknowns, so that made the big difference in that one, and there was never any pressure to put bigger names in there. But on other projects, I've had interesting "debates" about casting, sure.
Back Stage: How did you decide on Michael Fassbender for "Centurion"? Was there concern that he could carry a lead role?
Marshall: I had auditioned him for "Doomsday," so I knew of him, and I'd seen him in another film called "Eden Lake." I knew he was an actor of talent, and obviously it was kind of taking a chance on putting him in the lead, but I didn't think it was much of a gamble, to be honest. "Hunger" had come out, and people had seen that, and I think everybody rated him already as being something a little bit special. So the word was good. It's an interesting thing when suddenly word gets out about somebody and then all the casting directors start putting forward that name for meetings or for auditions or whatever; then they suddenly get their breaks.
Back Stage: What's your style when you're on set? Do you like input from actors? Do you enjoy improvisation?
Marshall: I don't do much rehearsal, and I don't do many takes. I work fast, but if actors want to have their input, I want them to talk to me and throw in ideas. I'm not the kind of director that says, "Stick to the lines; don't deviate." That's not how I work. One of my favorite parts of the process is that collaboration with the actors of exchanging ideas and thoughts and throwing things around and trying new stuff. You never know what's going to happen; that's the excitement of it. They could come up with something completely new that you never considered before. But my job is also to be able to say no to them if it's a bad idea, so I have to censor. And that's when it becomes interesting.