English director Neil Marshall has become a cult-film hero on these shores with exciting genre favorites like the werewolf thriller Dog Soldiers, the terrifying spelunking shocker The Descent, and the ultra-violent post-apocalyptic action film Doomsday. His latest movie, the violent and bloody historical epic Centurion, dramatizes the ill-fated Ninth Legion of Roman soldiers who marched north in England to try to obliterate a tribe of Scottish Picts and their leader in the year 117 A.D. We sat down with the 40-year-old director—who is four for four in our book—for a candid chat as Centurion is about to open in limited release in theaters and is currently available on On Demand.
Movies.com: Tell us about growing up near Hadrian's Wall in Northern England and how that inspired Centurion.
Neil Marshall: I was born and raised in Newcastle on one end of Hadrian's Wall, and the ruins of the wall are still there. When you grow up in that part of the world, you can't avoid Roman history—there are forts everywhere, ruins and Roman roads. It's really part of the culture. My dad's a big history buff as well, so I used to go to school trips to Hadrian's Wall. I'd stand up there on a bleak and rainy miserable day and wonder what these Romans must have thought when they stood watch there.
Movies.com: What do you know about the legend of the Ninth Legion?
Marshall: I heard the myth of the Ninth Legion about 10 years ago, this idea that an entire legion of Roman soldiers marched into Northern Scotland and vanished without a trace. It just instantly intrigued me. It was a hook, and I knew there had to be a film and a story in there somewhere. I did a lot of research and put together the story from that. The myth itself is nothing—it's as simple as the soldiers marching in and disappearing. I had to fill in a lot of blanks.
Movies.com: It looks like a lot of Centurion was shot in actual remote locations. What environmental hardships did you endure while shooting?
Marshall: We encountered pretty much every kind of environmental hardship you can imagine with the exception of a forest fire. We were filming in freezing conditions –the first day was -15 degrees Centigrade. It was tough, like being in a blizzard on top of a mountain! That set the standard and it was rough on everybody.
Movies.com: Were you ever tempted just to use a lot of green screens and fill in the scenery with CGI effects?
Marshall: I wanted to do the anti-300, in a way. I want to film on location and sets if I have to, and the last possible choice is a green screen. A film like this is all about the landscape and being in that location, and the fact that the environment was trying to kill these Romans as much as the Picts were.
Movies.com: What made you want to cast up-and-comer Michael Fassbender as your lead, Quintus Dias, the only Roman soldier to survive the Pict attack on a Roman garrison?
Marshall: I hadn't seen Michael in Inglourious Basterds when I cast him. The main reason is that I auditioned him for Doomsday and wasn't able to cast him in that. I knew he was an actor of some talent and that he was cast in Tarantino's movie, so he seemed like a pretty good catch.
Movies.com: What was the most challenging aspect of creating specifics about a culture—the Picts—that there is very little recorded history about?
Marshall: That's the thing, you've got to invent the society based around some very thin physical evidence like stone carvings, but they had no written history or recorded language. What we do know about them is mostly from the Romans, so that's a bit biased. We had to create how they would dress, speak, live and fight against the Romans. That was a lot of fun.
Movies.com: You always have very strong female characters present, if not the focus, in your movies. If you could pick any American actress to be the female protagonist in your next movie, who would it be?
Marshall: Sigourney Weaver, because Alien is a tremendous inspiration. I never want to have just a male character in a skirt—they have to behave like real women.
Movies.com: Fans appreciate the unrestrained violence in your movies. What would you have said if a studio asked you to edit down your violence to a PG level?
Marshall: I would hope that they would mention it earlier on [laughs]. I think that violence is essential to the stories I have been telling. I don't think you'll see a Neil Marshall romantic comedy anytime in the future, but you might see a 3D horror film. Right now, I'm happy to be working in my comfort zone.