Director Neil Marshall chats to us about bringing Dog Soldiers back to the screen, plus how he landed his work on Game Of Thrones at the very last minute.
It’s always good to look at positives during a difficult time and for cinephiles, one such joy this year has been the time given during lockdown to revisit beloved movies, with Josh Gad’s Reunited Apart being a particular highlight (while also raising money for a variety of charitable causes).
It was an unexpected delight then, to be given the opportunity to speak to Neil Marshall about his directorial debut from 2002, Dog Soldiers, a film that has become a genre classic for many and remains an absolute favourite for me. Its combination of gallows humour, referential and quotable one-liners (“Sausages!”) mixed with some glorious gore, make it a re-watchable delight and the endearing characters elevate the film by scrapping the notion that they’re simply cannon fodder.
We discussed Dog Soldiers, a variety of work from his career and the current state of cinema…
How has this year been treating you?
Well, I think it’s the same way it’s been treating everyone else – it’s just like a big kick to the balls isn’t it! It sucks. If we could write off a year, I think we should write off 2020! It’s just been bloody awful hasn’t it?
It has been pretty unrelenting, but some good news though – Dog Soldiers is finally being released on 4K as you finally found the original negative and hasn’t that been lost for years?
It was – it was like looking for the lost Ark of the Covenant, I think it was buried in the Well of Souls somewhere! I was approached about five years ago by Shout! Factory in the US to do a new Blu-ray remaster of the film and so we set about trying to find the negative and it was nowhere to be found. We looked in the labs in the UK, we looked in the production company, the distributors – everywhere. Nobody knew where the neg was, which was a terrifying thought that low budget movies from that particular time, that didn’t have a studio behind them, that things like the negative could just vanish without a trace and that would be the end of that.
I’m sure it’s happened many times that films are literally lost and will never be found again, so I was terrified of that possibility. Thankfully, at the time Pathé contacted me and said “We don’t have the neg, but we have a 35mm print, would that help?” and so I got that from them and we used that for that Blu-ray release and while it’s good, it’s not as good as it could possibly be. Then about a year later, the producer contacted me and said “I’ve found the neg!” – I don’t know here he found it, but he found it somewhere and he then organised for the 4K restoration. Not just making us a 4K version of the neg, but cleaning it up and making it the best it could possibly be.
I haven’t actually seen it yet, as I haven’t got a 4K TV, so can’t watch it!
There’s a certain irony in there somewhere.
It’s strange as I think of Dog Soldiers of being semi-recent, so it was a little terrifying that it’s been 18 years…
Tell me about, that’s scary! [laughs]
When people have mentioned Dog Soldiers over the years, what’s the first emotional reaction you have?
It’s certainly a very warm, comforting feeling just to know that people are still talking about this thing eighteen years later, that people know it, that it’s been passed around from generation to generation as it were – and that makes me feel old, just thinking about the people that first watched Dog Soldiers are now showing it to their kids! It’s like “Oh God!” I just feel very, very proud of what we achieved.
I had to give a synopsis of Dog Soldiers to my six-year-old, as this interview was happening at his bedtime and his main reference for werewolves at this point is Harry Potter. But what’s funny is that where you stuck to practical effects and avoided CGI all those years ago, Dog Soldiers holds up better than something with the budget of Harry Potter.
Which has a terrible werewolf!
It does, doesn’t it!
And that’s precisely why I fought so hard to do it practically, was knowing that and you could see it even then, with films from the 80s that still held up in 2000 perfectly, but stuff from even a few years earlier that had bad CG, looked bad, whereas the werewolves in The Howling and An American Werewolf In London still looked great.
So I said we had to go practical and also I think I’d seen American Werewolf In Paris, which had a CG werewolf in, which is now long forgotten really and it didn’t hold up then, yet alone now, which is most unfortunate really. So I fought hard for that and got it and thankfully the werewolves still look as good as they do.
Absolutely and I always think of Blade from around that time, which is a movie I love, but the CG blood at the end had the same issue and it’s a shame.
Yeah, but as you say big budget movies, things like Harry Potter or Van Helsing, had all the money in the world and they still did these really dodgy CG werewolves. I can’t quite figure it.
I always think it was such a bold move for you to pick werewolves, because if you look at horror, traditionally people pick zombies or vampires for their debuts, especially when working with such a tight budget…
Yeah because they’re cheaper! [laughs]
What made you pick what is probably the most difficult monster to depict?
Because I’m stubborn and maybe a little bit foolhardy and certainly ambitious. I think that was the thing, everybody said “It’s way too ambitious for a first feature, it’s too big! Werewolves are too ambitious!” and I liked that, I took it as a compliment rather than an insult. Thinking are they trying to warn me off, or encourage me, because I’m taking this as encouragement – that I want to be seen as ambitious, because that’s not a bad thing is it, in a creative environment?
I also thought that werewolves were woefully underrepresented in terms of screen monsters at the time, there’s been a few more since then and that’s great and I’m glad to see that, but at the time it was like no one really touched upon werewolves, since the great werewolf movies of the 80s. So it felt like a gap in the market, as at the time vampires had literally been done to death – and that’s not even ironic. Zombies hadn’t quite come back yet, but they were on their way, they were close, so I was like let’s do a werewolf movie, no one else is and made it difficult for myself that way, but it worked out.
Otherwise we wouldn’t be here now!
No, that’s true! [laughs]
I love Dog Soldiers – if you don’t mind me making a comparison, I think that while The Descent is one of the greatest horror films …
Well, thank you.
Not at all, I got very desensitised to horror movies for a long time and The Descent is one of the few that managed to break through and have an impact, at the point I was immune.
I know the feeling!
So much like Alien, The Descent has that iconic scare factor status, but it’s Dog Soldiers that I’ll watch time and again much like Aliens, as it’s just a joy on every level, as so many films try and fail to capture a similar spirit of having such a great team dynamic, regardless of whether the characters are soldiers. How much work did it take to get not just the actors, but the dialogue to really click?
I know exactly what you mean, going back to that because Dog Soldiers is a busier film, there’s a lot more going on in it with a lot of the characters, the dialogue, there’s a lot more to notice than in The Descent. The Descent is very linear, very pared down, there’s just a few people in the darkness half the time! So I can see that there’s more to see when you’re watching Dog Soldiers again.
With those characters there was a combination of things, one of them was that I had six years to develop the script, as I first wrote it 95-96 and we didn’t make it until 2001, so I had a long time to rewrite that script and work on those characters and do research and listen to stories and things like that. I wanted to get the soldiers to be as authentic and realistic as I could possibly make them, that was the big thing, even more so than the werewolves – I pitched it to the actors as a soldier movie with werewolves, it’s not a werewolf movie with soldiers. I wanted them to understand and get performances out of them and characters out them, as they were never going to be just machine gun fodder, or werewolf fodder.
So the second stage of that, after working on the script forever and ever and ever, was casting. I knew I wanted Sean from the very beginning, I’d always been a big fan and thankfully he came on board, then we got Kev [Kevin McKidd] and the others in place and that went through a little bit of a weird process.
Like with the Kev role, I initially offered it to Jason Statham a year or so before we even made the movie – I’d seen him in Lock, Stock and thought ‘that guy’s going to be a big star’ – so cast him in Dog Soldiers. Then while we were waiting for the finance he got offered Ghosts Of Mars and I couldn’t fault him for wanting to do a John Carpenter film, so I was like ‘Ahh go and do it, man, it’s John Carpenter! He’s my hero, go do it!’ So he went and did that.
And then at one point as well we were auditioning for Spoon and I offered that to Simon Pegg, because again I’d seen Simon Pegg on TV and I was like ‘that guy’s gonna be a big star’! So I offered him the role and he was so gracious and said “I love it, I’d love to do it, but I promised Edgar [Wright] that my first feature would be Shaun [of the Dead]”. So he went off and did that and I couldn’t fault him and ultimately we got lucky because instead we got Kevin McKidd, who’s absolutely fucking amazing and we Darren Morfitt, who was built to play that role of Spoon.
Each of those actors came in and with the rest of the cast brought so much to their roles and collaborated with me and I never wanted to be too precious as a writer/director, though the beauty of being both of those is that you can be more flexible and be open to collaborating with someone and adjusting the script according to that. But they brought so much to the table and I think very early on it was quite obvious that they connected with each other and started looking out for each other.
And there were a couple, like with Chris [Robson] and with Les[lie Simpson] that were really inexperienced actors in the group, but the more experienced actors really took them under their wing and helped guide them along and looked after them – it felt exactly like the military unit I was trying to create, Sean was the leader, Kevin was second in command.
By the end of that shoot, I swear those guys would’ve fought and died for each other. I mean they were so tight and solid as a group of guys and they still are, they’re all still mates – we created something there and it was a joy to see and a joy to work with.
I think I remember reading at the time Dog Soldiers came out, that Sean Pertwee signed on before funding was even in place and said he’d wait for you to be ready, is that right?
This is one of the things I love about Sean, is that he was so loyal and so committed to it. It was maybe two years before we actually got it made and Sean said “ I wanna do it, come back to me when you’ve got the money. If having my name attached helps you get the money use it, but I’ll be there, just give me a call when it’s ready.” And we did and he was there, exactly as he said he would be! Absolute trooper.
When you re-united with Liam Cunningham again on Game Of Thrones, was that just happy coincidence?
It was happy coincidence, absolutely. I mean he was already in the show when I joined and I had worked with him since on Centurion, but that was the first time I’d seen him in a long time. And yeah, I got to blow him up! [laughs] I didn’t kill him, but I did get to blow him up, but it was good fun!
And Sean Pertwee doesn’t have the best track record of surviving in your movies either!
No, he never made it through to the end credits!
Well I wonder if that will change for The Reckoning. That’s due to hit the festivals soon isn’t it?
Yes, we’ve got our UK premiere at FrightFest, which I’m gutted is not going to a live event, because I was really hoping to come along to London and watch it with everybody, but it’s still playing on the 23rd October. Then I think we’re doing a few more festivals in the UK – Grimmfest Abertoir and we just got invited to the Leeds International Festival as well, so great to screen it there. Then I think it’s going to be released January/February next year.
The question is – are there going to be any theatres to show it in, but… that’s the plan.
It’s impossible to know, but it’s planned for cinematic release, which is all we can hope for at this point.
Yeah, that’s the plan, we’ll see.
[at this point we were out of time, but he graciously gave us more!]
Where you mentioned spotting Pegg and Statham as talents early on and then Centurion – you did at least get Michael Fassbender before his career rocketed!
Yes, Fassbender came about because he almost was in Doomsday, there was a role that he almost got, that he auditioned for, but I knew he was a talent to watch. So when I got to do Centurion I said “I think that guy would be great for it” so he came and read for it and was amazing and I think he had just shot Hunger, but it hadn’t come out yet. So I don’t know, it was just like I sensed something again! ‘This guy has got something going’! And a same with a lot of the others, like Dominic West and Riz Ahmed and Olga Kurylenko – they’ve all gone on to amazing careers.
When you directed on Game Of Thrones, was that helped by and linked to Centurion in any way?
It was absolutely linked. I think after I’d done Centurion I’d approached Game Of Thrones, because even though I didn’t know much about it, I saw some trailers and thought ‘that looks right up my street’ so had approached HBO about it and they’d gone ‘No, we have our group of directors that we use and we don’t bring in outsiders’ kind of thing and I never heard anything about it again for another couple of years.
The suddenly I get a call on a Saturday morning from the producers saying “Would you like to come and direct an episode of Game Of Thrones?” and I said “Absolutely, I would love to – when’s it going to be, next month? Next year?” And they’re like “Umm you start Monday morning and you’ve got a weeks’ prep. Oh and by the way it’s our biggest episode ever”! And I was like “Amazing!”
And the reason that had come about was because the stunt co-ordinator and a whole bunch of stunt people from Centurion, as well as the horse master had all gone on to work on Game Of Thrones and they’d got into a pickle on Season 2 as they were about to do the battle of Blackwater, the biggest episode ever at that time and their director had had to drop out for personal reasons, at the last minute and left them right in the stink.
So thankfully either the stunt co-ordinator or the horse master, literally walks up to the producer with a telephone and says “Give Neil a call”. They said “Look at Centurion, look at what he did with the money he had there with this big battle scene over two days, give Neil a call.” And they did and I got the job so, perfect.
I remember with Centurion, especially at that point in your career, being blown away by how impressive and spectacular those battle sequences were, especially considering again the budget.
It was just a case of spending the money on a few carefully chosen shots and the rest of it is all cheating it all in camera – it was funny to read the reviews, that a lot of them assumed I had a bigger budget than I did on Doomsday, whereas actually it was quarter of the budget, it was very small for what we were trying to achieve.
But when you see that battle sequence, there’s a few shots where I step back and show the whole battle, with a little CG to expand upon and then everything else was literally on a long lens, we packed everybody we had into the frame – literally a foot on either side of that frame there is nobody there! But you make it feel like there’s a huge battlefield, just by condensing everything we had in and we had air cannons just shooting dirt and things into the air, just to make the frame look busier and just for the hell of it! So those kind of tricks.
I love Centurion and it made me laugh years ago, as I’d mentioned Simon Bowles’s production design in a review, saying he was no relation and he messaged me to thank for the kind words.
But there is an uncanny resemblance between the two of you right now actually! He’s spawning the beard!
I feel like our generation now has no choice, but shave our heads and grow beards!
I’m the same, beard below, nothing on top! [laughs] The trouble with people like Simon and with Simon himself, is he’s gone on to such great success since the likes of Descent and Centurion, that every time I go back to him to ask if we can do another movie together, he’s too bloody busy! He’ll reply with “I’m too busy doing this for the next year and I’m like ‘for fuck’s sake!’ [laughs]
Maybe this can lure him back?
I mean I want to work with Simon again, I want to work with Sam (McCurdy) again – John Harris, who edited The Descent, an amazing editor, but he’s always bloody busy, I can never get him back again now! If I was able to plan movies a year in advance and say “Look, I’m definitely doing that in a year” then I could probably lock people in, but the movie business just doesn’t work that way.
And where we were talking about the Dog Soldiers funding, I’m guessing it’s a little easier to get funding now, but not much?
No, it’s not that much easier. It’s gone through different stages – it was easy after Dog Soldiers, it was much easier after The Descent, it was much harder after Doomsday! [laughs] And now it’s gone back to being hard again with money to make the films, it’s a crazy business we’re in.
With the recent news that Cineworld has shut its doors, do you feel like, while things were already moving towards a subscription model, with the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ etc. that there is now more security in TV and films funded by those companies?
There’s an inherent security in streaming and TV and suchlike because, and I think I’ve said this before, but the beast needs feeding. They need new material, they cannot function without it, they are running 24/7. Cinemas and films, as much as cinemas need new films to run, there isn’t the same need to make films for the cinema, there’s not that demand in the same kind of way, so people can take or leave making movies that way.
But they have to make TV shows, so there is more security in that sense, but that doesn’t make it easier to do it as there’s still a handful of people that are making everything and everybody else is just trying to pick up the scraps and stuff from around the edges, but that’s the same with the movie business. So right now I want to keep my feet in both pools as it were. I’ve been lucky enough to work at the cutting edge of television and seen that revolution, and I want to be a part of that and stay a part of it, but I also want more creative control of it so I’m developing my own TV shows.
At the same time, I want to get back to my roots of making these wonderful – it’s not for me to say they’re wonderful! – but making low budget, independent, genre movies, which I loved doing when I started out and I want to keep doing, no matter where they end up. I think the only difference is not being precious about where they end up, whether it be streaming or not – the main thing is that whoever gets behind them, gets behind them properly. The worst thing is if it goes to streaming and it doesn’t get an announcement or any kind of coverage behind its release and it just vanishes.
Because there’s so much stuff coming out now, being pushed to streaming, or iTunes, or whatever, you just drown in the mire of it all – how do you get your film to stand out anymore, that’s the trick. And that’s really tough. Cinema will go on, in some form or another, even if it has to reinvent itself somehow – the shared experience of going and watching a movie on the big screen, with an audience is so unique and so special, that it cannot be replicated at home watching it on the television and it never will and we have to fight for that.
It’s important when fighting for that, that independent films and suchlike be allowed to get theatrical releases still, it can’t just be dominated by Disney and whoever, it cannot just be that from now on. Anyway, that’s my rant! [laughs]
Not at all, I think it’s absolutely just and it’s strange that independent cinemas could actually end up doing better in the long run, because they weren’t reliant on the big blockbusters.
Maybe it’ll flip around and cinema will be more for the independent thing, like in the 70s with the over thirties going in to the cinema to watch films, so they can watch really, really good stuff, beautiful cinematic movies, without having someone on their fucking phone next to them! Whereas the kids will stay home and watch Marvel on their big TV and be texting and tweeting all the way through it as much as they like and nobody will care! [laughs]
It doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Yeah, maybe it’ll become more like a theatre experience, but I don’t know. But I want to watch all the movies, the blockbusters and everything on the big screen.
Well good luck for The Reckoning…
Cheers, I hope you like it!
Dog Soldiers gets its shiny new 4K digital release on 12th October and will be re-released in surviving cinemas October 23rd. #DogSoldiers
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