Complete interview: The Descent director Neil Marshall on phallic caves, Iggy Pop-like troglobites, and good old-fashioned horror
(Caution: slight spoilers ahead!)
Director Neil Marshall (kneeling, left) on the set of The Descent. Photo credit: Alex Bailey
Doing publicity rounds for The Descent (in Bay Area theaters Fri/4), British writer-director Neil Marshall called from -- appropriately enough -- a cave-like environment somewhere deep within darkest Hollywood. (“I'm just stuck in a small room with no windows at the moment. Serving my time.”)
SFBG: You’ve said that you don’t want The Descent to be seen as a chick flick -- which it’s clearly not, of course. What inspired you to make a horror film with an all-female cast?
NM: It’s unique in this genre, certainly. It was very contemporary, and nobody’s tried it before in an action-horror movie. The story wasn’t about them being women, it didn’t hinge on them being women -- it just, simply, they were. It’s perfectly believable in this day and age that women would go off climbing, go off caving. Why not? I didn’t think it threatened the believability in any kind of way. I just thought it’d be interesting, and be a lot of fun to do. It had the potential to be a lot of fun, but it also had the potential to be a complete nightmare.
SFBG: There’s definitely a tradition in horror of having one strong female character who survives the film’s events, like in Halloween or Alien. The Descent puts a spin on that.
NM: I think if you had one women within the group, it might suggest that she’s going to be the one to survive, but by having them all be women, you’re less likely to sort of second-guess [who will live or die].
SFBG: Sarah [played by Shauna Macdonald] is the cinematic equivalent of an unreliable narrator. You’re supposed to identify with her, but you’re never sure if what she’s seeing or hearing is really happening.
NM: You can’t entirely trust the world through her eyes.
SFBG: On the commentary of the British DVD version, there’s some joking about how womb-like the caves are. Was that intentional?
NM: It wasn’t intentional when I was writing the script, but it kind of developed when we started to realize it and started to come up with the production design and things like that. People started throwing these ideas in and we ran with it, just to see how far we could take it. When I was writing the script, I gave it to the actress who was in [Marshall's previous feature] Dog Soldiers [Emma Cleasby], just to get her take on it, and she came back and said I'd written basically a horror porn movie, that the whole thing was about sex as far as she was concerned: all these women going down a dark slimy tunnel and being chased by little white guys. I was like, “OK, I hadn’t seen it from that point of view before.” From then on, I thought, “Right, I'll just push this as far as I can take it.” I just thought it added more dimensions to it, made it more interesting, and I like doing that kind of stuff.
SFBG: How did you emphasize those elements?
NM: Some of the designs of the cave were quite phallic at some points. The thing is, when we designed them and made them look like various orifices and things like that, the way that you see them in the film -- because it’s mostly in total darkness -- none of that comes across very well. So a lot of the suggestions were missed. But that’s fine. It doesn’t really matter.
Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Beth (Alex Reid) and Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) from The Descent. Photo credit: Alex Bailey
SFBG: The ensemble cast works really well together; the friendships feel very realistic. What kind of bonding did the cast go through before and during filming?
NM: None of the actresses knew each other prior to casting, and I knew I wanted to get them on the same kind of level. We did a few things -- they all did climbing training for a few weeks, they all did white water rafting training. But the main thing we did was we all went caving together. I went too. It was a real adventure; I'd never done that much caving. So it was a great way to bond the team together. And of course the best bonding experience was we all went out and got really, really drunk together. And that always works. By the time we actually started filming, they’d pretty much forged really strong friendships between them, with interesting dynamics within the group: almost inadvertently, the people who were supposed to be closest friends within the film ended up being the closest friends in reality. Shauna Macdonald, who plays Sarah, and Alex Reid, who plays Beth, are supposed to be best friends in the film, but they ended up being really, really close friends in reality as well. To me, it was almost like justification that I cast the right people, that they were supposed to play friends but that they would’ve ended up being friends anyway.
SFBG: How did you cast the film?
NM: I was looking for really strong actors and realistic people. I wasn’t looking for a bunch of glamour girls to go down the cave. They had to be strong-willed and independent. There was, in the back of my mind, the idea that visually they had to look a little bit different, because I knew I was going to be filming in the dark, and we has to be able to distinguish who was who. So I kind of went for a little mix of types, but that was secondary to casting good actors who could bring something to their roles. We were really thorough with the whole casting process. Shauna Macdonald, we must have auditioned her about four times before we finally went with her, and she fought tooth and nail to get that part. She was really eager to get it. Natalie Mendoza, with Juno -- we were having trouble finding somebody to play Juno until she walked in the room. It was just right from the start, you just knew it. And I warned them all: very, very strictly I said, “It’s gonna be a nightmare shoot, it’s gonna be physically torturous for everybody.” And they all said, “No, that’s fine. We can deal with that.” And they were true to their word. They never complained.
SFBG: Even though the The Descent was filmed on sets rather than in a real cave, it was clearly a very physical shoot.
NM: At the end of the day, there’s not a single real cave in the whole film. It’s mostly sets. There’s a few miniatures and matte paintings, things like that, but we decided early on that it was going to be highly dangerous and totally impractical to try and film in a real cave, to find a real cave that fit the bill. Very specific actions take place within the story, and just trying to find somewhere that fit it would have been virtually impossible. So, we knew that we were gonna have to do it on set, but that didn’t necessarily make it easy, because we were filming in January in the UK, and it was freezing. There was no heating in the studio and these caves were small and wet and cold and pretty miserable. We only had enough money to make six big cave sets and a few small connecting chambers, and then we had to use them again. One particular set we used about 12 times for different areas of the cave, and each time we used it, we’d kind of re-dress it, move the rocks around, spray it a different color. Of course, because of the nature of the lighting in the film, based around where the actors happened to move their torches at any one time, it was never the same twice. So we got away with murder down there, just by turning out the lights.
SFBG: The lighting in the film is very creative -- everything is sourced within the reality of the film: flashlights, fire, a video camera’s infrared viewfinder, and so on.
NM: I was adamant that there should be no gratuitous shafts of light coming down tunnels to make the place look spectacular. I didn’t want any of that. I wanted to capture the true essence of being underground, which is, the only light source is what you take with you. Anything that’s not in the light is pitch black. You can’t see anything. I thought, that’s gotta be better for a horror film.
SFBG: What you don’t see is scarier than what you do see.
NM: It’s not scary if you can see what’s in the shadows. It also creates the environment to get subliminal glimpses of things when torches sweep across them. That stuff is really, really scary.
SFBG: The film really delves into both external and internal horror, as reflected by the title’s double meaning: descending into the cave and its physical challenges, as well as descending into madness.
NM: It was really important to me that this be rich in depth and texture and it wasn’t simply about some girls trapped in a cave. It had to also be about what was going on in their heads and their psychological breakdowns. Seen through the eyes of one character, but everybody’s going through their own kind of traumas and breakdowns in their own way, as anybody would who’s trapped underground with these killer beings down there. That was really interesting to me to explore. I love human nature and I like exploring the idea of how primal and savage somebody will go in order to survive. And certainly when you’re doing survivalist horror, that’s what it’s all about. It’s how far can you push these people.
SFBG: In the vein of survivalist horror, you’ve called The Descent “Deliverance goes underground” -- and the film is full of homages big and small to other horror films. Are there any filmmakers in particular that you look to for inspiration?
NM: John Carpenter is a massive influence. His early work really inspired me and the direction I’ve taken. With The Descent, it’s probably a collection of four films. Obviously Deliverance, a massive inspiration for this project. The Shining, just as an exercise in watching somebody go insane, it’s brilliant. Alien, again, hugely inspirational just in creating a realistic environment, which is what I wanted to do with the caves: treat them in the same way Ridley Scott treated the inside of the Nostromo, make it totally believable. Once you believe that, then you’ve got the world in which to set your story. And Texas Chainsaw Massacre, just its level of ferocity. Again: what will somebody do to survive? What can we put these characters through to drive them insane?
SFBG: The Descent also has that Texas Chainsaw feel of, like, outsiders trespassing where they don’t belong, so maybe they actually deserved what they got ...
NM: There was a joke about it on set: This isn’t a movie about six girls being attacked by all these crawlers. This is a movie about this happy society of crawlers that live underground being brutally attacked by these six girls! And it works both ways, because the girls kind of mete out as much punishment and death and brutality as anything that the crawlers do.
SFBG: One of the most interesting things about the crawlers is that while they’re monstrous, they can be killed. They’re not supernatural, and they’re played by actual humans. There was this pretty horrible US movie that came out a year or so ago, The Cave, with totally CG creatures.
NM: Yeah. I'm well aware of that one. I'm got the anti-CG revolution thing going on in my films. I try and avoid it all costs. I come from the same school as Ridley Scott and people like that. There’s a reason why films from 20 years ago with really good effects, really good physical effects, stand the test of time much better than films from two years ago with really bad CG effects. I just think it works better, it looks more real, it’s tangible. You feel that you can kind of reach out and touch these things. Also, when you’re on set, the actors have something to work with as well. They have something to react to. So I just prefer it that way for this kind of thing. I think CG is a great tool, but it shouldn’t be something that you rely on too heavily. And certainly not with horror.
SFBG: How did you come up with the look of the crawlers?
NM: It was kind of based around practicality more than anything. If there was this hypothetical offshoot of the human race -- as in, when we were all cavemen, most of us left the cave and evolved and became what we are now, but a little offshoot stayed in the cave and evolved in a different way. I was like, well, how would they evolve? They’d be evolved like bats. They’d be blind and kind of pallid and white because they never see the sunlight. Within their environment, they’d be great climbers. They’d have a kind of sonar capacity and use their smell to hunt, and things like that. I thought, let’s take them down that route but at the same time maintain the fact that they’re human. They have a society down there. It made them more terrifying to me.
SFBG: How did you cast the actors who played the crawlers? How did you direct them to act?
NM: A couple of them are from my previous film, Dog Soldiers. They’re all guys that I’ve worked with -- there’s actually a theater group that I know from where I come from, up in Newcastle in the UK. And I’ve seen them do a lot of very physical theater. They’re kind of acrobats. But I also wanted them to be actors that would deliver. I knew they were going to be under a degree of make-up but nothing too much that would stifle their performance. And I wanted to get a real performance out of each of them. They just brought everything to it; physicality was really important. I wanted them to be kind of lithe, not overly bulky or muscular. More like -- I think the description I used was, more like Iggy Pop. Kind of muscular but also really kind of scrawny. And that’s what we achieved. They were great. I think if Peter Jackson had used that method for Lord of the Rings he could have saved himself a fortune.
SFBG: The crawlers don’t have dialogue, but they do let loose with some horrible screams...
NM: Yeah, the sound effects were really important. It was quite interesting how a lot of them tried to do those kinds of sound effects on set. They got really into it. But we did a lot of rehearsal with them. We practiced ways in which they might hunt, how they’d bring down their prey, and how they’d actually kill their prey. I worked with them a lot to get as much out of them as I possibly could on-screen, to make them believable.
SFBG: Is it true that you didn’t let the six women see the crawlers until it was time to film the first big reveal?
NM: Again, that just kind of evolved. I didn’t have some grand master plan until a few weeks into the shoot. I realized that the girls hadn’t seen any of the sketches or the designs or the sculptures or anything like that -- they had absolutely no idea what the crawlers were going to look like. And they kept asking me, “What are they gonna look like?” And I thought, I'll keep this a secret. I'll see what we can do with this. It also occurred to me that the first time they ever encounter a crawler, with the exception of Sarah, is in a darkened room. I thought, this a ripe opportunity here. I'll just keep the crawlers totally secret, and the first time that they ever encounter one in reality will be during a take. I'll get their genuine reaction to it. And we managed to do it. During that take we had all the lights off in the studio, and we kind of snuck the crawler in through the back door, and got him onto the set with the lights off in position. Called action, ran the take -- and their reaction to him was genuine. They just, like, screamed and ran. It was great. Over the course of the weeks leading up to it, it built up this real palpable sense of tension. They were constantly hassling me: “What are the crawlers going to look like? You’ve gotta tell us!” They were expecting me to just stick a crawler in a tunnel at any moment, you know, to surprise them. I was like, “No, just read your script and you’ll know.” It was worth it to get their reaction and it was worth it to get the sense of tension that they were feeling. It kind of inherently came out in their performances beforehand.
SFBG: You shot it in chronological order, right?
NM: For the most part. There’s one tiny little bit that we did out of order, but everything else was shot in story order.
SFBG: Was that because of the way you re-used the sets?
NM: It became absolutely necessary; according to the story, they never go to the same cave twice. It’s a linear journey through the caves. But once we finished the one cave, we could redress that set and use it for something further down the line. In that sense it just became really practical to do it that way. It’s easier for the actors as well. They’re following a more linear journey as characters. And it’s easier for me to sort of get a grip on what’s happening as well. It’s an ideal way of doing things, and it works financially as well.
SFBG: How long was the shoot?
NM: Seven weeks in all. Two weeks on location and five weeks in the studio.
SFBG: The shot where you see the crawler through the viewfinder of the video camera -- not to give any spoilers away, but this is in the trailer ...
NM: (Wordless exasperation.)
SFBG: I'm kind of disappointed in the trailer, I have to tell you. It gives away a lot.
NM: I know. I did say to them, that we kind of felt we give away the best shot of the film in the trailer. But they argued against that one.
SFBG: People just scream at that shot no matter what, I think, even if they know it’s coming. As a filmmaker, are you constantly planning ahead, thinking, what can I do to really scare people?
NM: Totally. I was aware of that whole infrared-viewfinder-thing-in-the-dark -- I’ve seen it on a few programs before, and I thought, this has great potential for creating a scare, how can we do it? I thought, what would be really spooky is if you’re just looking around at the girls, and in the background of the shot there’s just this thing standing there -- that’s really gonna freak people out. And it did. We ran it different ways. On the first few takes, I actually had the crawler reaching out. It looked like he was gonna attack her. And I thought, no, it’s not working somehow. There’s something wrong with it. And then I just thought, I know -- he should just be standing there, just, like listening. Almost like he’s part of the group. I thought, that’s really, really disturbing. And that worked. And that’s the one that’s in the film. I just think, more subliminal stuff -- things you catch out of the corner of your eye, things in the background or in the semi-shadows -- that’s the stuff that really freaks you out more than anything. And that was a perfect example of it.
SFBG: The Descent does have some “Gotcha!” moments, but it’s also fully infused with an unshakable feeling of dread. There’s an anything-can-happen-and-probably-will vibe. The film’s opening car accident, which is so shocking, leaves no doubt about that.
NM: That was a kind of warning sign: there’s no holds barred in this one. Anything can happen at any moment. Even to the point where we decided to have the accident in the middle of the credits, because it’s perceived that there’s kind of a safety net with the credits. When the credits are rolling, nothing really significant is going to happen until it gets to the director credit, and then the story begins proper. We thought, let’s put the crash in the middle somewhere, where nobody’s gonna expect it to come. I was always thinking about that: how can we catch the audience off guard? There’s also a bit where Sarah dreams of the pole coming through the window ... the sound guys did this wonderful little touch of putting on this ever-so-slight sound bite of her daughter speaking. And it’s very whispered -- you can’t quite tell what she’s saying. You almost instinctively lean forward, to kind of say, “What was that?” And that’s when the pole comes through the window, so then you get thrown back again. Little tricks like that along the way make it pay off.
SFBG: It’s interesting how you used the soundtrack to build suspense in that way.
NM: The caves lent such an opportunity there, because they’re like big acoustic chambers. I thought, we’re gonna have a lot of fun making a really three-dimensional soundscape for this film: the dripping water, the howling winds, and all sorts. And then you’ve got the crawlers on top of all that with their weird clicking and screeching sound effects.
Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) from The Descent. Photo credit: Alex Bailey
SFBG: The poster that’s all over the MUNI stations here advertises the film as being “From the studio that brought you Saw and Hostel.” What do you think about being categorized with those films, which are very different kinds of horror films?
NM: I didn’t really see it as a direct comparison, to say it’s the same kind of film as those. They’re both very successful horror films, so it can’t be a bad thing to be compared to them.
SFBG: What’s your take on contemporary horror? I read in another interview that you’re kind of baffled by the recent wave of PG-13 horror films.
NM: In the past six or seven months, things have sort of changed. Now we’ve had a few really good hardcore horror films come out. I'm glad to see a return to form. The films I grew up with, the horror films of the 1970s and 80s, I like the fact that they played it straight, they were pretty dark -- they’re the ones that stuck in my mind for 20 years, whereas other films, PG-13 horror films and stuff like that, I don’t really understand who that’s for. The hardcore horror fans really aren’t going to be interested in that kind of stuff. So, that kind of wound me up. But it’s taken a turn for the better now.
SFBG: What have you seen lately that you’ve liked?
NM: I really like the remake of The Hills Have Eyes. I watched the original recently, and as much as you cherish it a little bit, actually it doesn’t really stand up the test of time so much. But it’s a really interesting concept, and I thought that the remake handled it really really well. I liked the remake of Dawn of the Dead as well. I thought that took that in the right direction.
SFBG: You don’t mind remakes, then...
NM: Only when they’re well done. I thought the Omen remake wasn’t really an improvement. Like the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- that didn’t really improve on the original. If the original hadn’t existed, it would have been OK, but, you know, it did exist, and you can’t get much better than that.
SFBG: The Hills Have Eyes is similar to The Descent in that it’s about civilized people regressing into primitive behavior when they’re isolated from society, and they come under attack.
NM: I think it’s a fascinating story concept. The idea of the suburbanite family turning into savages to survive is equally compelling. I’ve heard rumors that the sequel may be sort of set in caves or something, which is quite funny.
SFBG: You mean, there’s going to be a remake of Hills Have Eyes 2, or are they making a new sequel to the Hills Have Eyes remake?
NM: I don’t know if it’s a remake of Hills Have Eyes 2, or just a new sequel.
SFBG: Wow. The original Hills Have Eyes 2 -- that’s the one where the dog has flashbacks to the first film.
NM: Oh right. (Laughs)
SFBG: Over the years, horror films have traditionally reflected social and political concerns of the times. George Romero kind of trademarked this with his Dead films. Do you think that’s still true?
NM: No, not really. That was in the 1970s and 80s, when I think that was kind of high on the agenda. You could hardly say that about something like [the new] Hills Have Eyes, because it’s a remake anyway.
SFBG: What do you think scares audiences today?
NM: The ability to try to tap into real primal fears still works. I didn’t realize quite how many people suffer from claustrophobia until I watched audiences watching The Descent. That really touched on something and made people uncomfortable. And that’s great. As a horror film director, that’s what I'm after. I think that’s the trick, is to try and reach that kind of stuff. If you’re just doing a slasher movie, people have seen it all before. It’s hard to come up with something that will be new or original or scary.
SFBG: The primal fear concept works really well in The Descent because the characters seem so real. You fear for them. They’re not like Paris Hilton in House of Wax.
NM: They’re just regular people. When you’re watching a film like that, no offense to Paris Hilton, you’re kind of willing the people to die instead of actually willing them to survive, which is kind of the whole point.
SFBG: Can you talk about the reasons behind giving the film two different endings? [The film has a different, slightly longer final scene in the UK version, which was released everywhere else around the globe except the US and Canada.]
NM: It was something that I toyed around with in the edit in the first place. Although the UK ending was what was scripted, and that was the intention, and that’s why we went with it at the end of the day, the producer and I said, “We’re gonna have the courage of our own convictions and stick with what we set out to do,” which was a really, really dark ending. Along the way, we had tried the US ending as an alternative. We thought, “Ok, it works, it’s a different kind of thing but it does work.” Having the US release gives us an opportunity to try that. Obviously Lions Gate has been testing the film like that, and it did play a lot better. So we thought, “Yeah, let’s give it a try.” At the end of the day, the ending that I originally set out to make has had a UK cinema release and is being released in the world. That exists, and nothing’s gonna change that. But [the US release] gives us a very rare opportunity of a second chance in a way, of just trying something different. Based on the response that we’ve had, we said, “Let’s run with it. Let’s see how it goes.” With the DVD revolution and all that kind of stuff going on, at the end of the day, everyone’s gonna get to see the original ending, so it’s not like it’s gonna be a big secret.
SFBG: Do you think the two endings change the meaning of the film at all? I interpreted the US ending as, Sarah gets out, she’s free, but she’s so far gone into madness there’s no coming back, like Sally at the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
NM: I wouldn’t say that it’s a happy ending. The only vaguely positive element of it is that she’s physically out of the cave. Whereas in the UK ending, she’s trapped in there forever and she’s still out of her mind.
SFBG: The UK ending, to me, implies that she’s either died in the cave, or the whole thing was made up in her head while she’s in the hospital after the car accident.
NM: We even discussed that as one possible ending -- maybe she wakes up and she’s in the hospital. But I thought, no, we’ll never get away with that. In the UK ending, she’s kind of achieved as much of a happy ending as it’s possible for that character to achieve, because she’s with her daughter. In her own psychotic mind, she’s with her daughter again, even though in reality she’s completely lost it and she’s trapped in a cave. It was kind of like Brazil -- how can you define that as being a happy ending? Because in the character’s head, he’s in paradise, but in reality he’s a vegetable. I really thought that was an interesting exploration. But the US ending is no less ambiguous, because it ends on a point that leaves you thinking, what does it mean? If she’s out, is that Juno, alive? Is it a ghost? So, it’s interesting. I thought it was interesting to try.
SFBG: I'm sure everyone’s been asking you to compare The Descent to your first film, Dog Soldiers, which has some similarities -- small group isolated against the elements, facing monsters, etc. -- though Dog Soldiers has a mostly male cast, and has far more humor in it.
NM: I can see the obvious comparisons. Six guys as opposed to six women. But I set out to make a generally dark, scary film, whereas Dog Soldiers had become more of a black comedy. But the idea of casting all women was not done as a counter to Dog Soldiers. That was just an interesting way to go with it. Other than that, I don’t think they’re very similar at all. I think they’re totally different films.
SFBG: Dog Soldiers played in San Francisco, but didn’t get a wide release in the US, like The Descent is getting.
NM: No, unfortunately not. It’s found an audience through the internet. It was really championed by [Ain’t It Cool News’s] Harry Knowles -- they tried to mount a campaign to get a release, but unfortunately it didn’t come off. On DVD it’s found a kind of cult audience. Which I'm really kind of proud of.
SFBG: Do you see a resurgence of British horror films lately, with 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and films like that (none of which are at all like the Hammer films of the 1960s and 70s, of course)? I read that you’re anti- “going Hollywood” -- like, you don’t want to make Scary Movie 5.
NM: I'm gonna wait and see where fate takes me. I don’t want to make Scary Movie 5. Somebody will, absolutely. But I'll just see what happens. There is kind of a resurgence in British horror films, but there’s not, like, a flood of horror films coming out of the UK at the moment. There’s a few and I'm happy to be part of it.
SFBG: Are you concerned about being typecast as a horror guy?
NM: I'm definitely going to make other kinds of films. I'm already underway on making a different film at the moment -- a thing called Doomsday, which is more of a science fiction, dark action piece, not really obviously horror. That said, I do love making horror films as well. I just don’t, just wanna make horror films. I want to mix and match a little bit.
SFBG: What’s Doomsday about?
NM: I'm in pre-production at the moment. It’s kind of in the same vein as things like Escape from New York and Mad Max, a post-apocalyptic adventure story. Something that we haven’t seen in awhile.
SFBG: What draws you to horror? Why does it inspire you?
NM: Because I like scaring people. I get a real kick out of watching an audience scream and shout and kind of run out of the cinema in hysterics.