The "Roman Wild West": chatting with "Centurion" director Neil Marshall

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Genre junkies, rejoice! Neil Marshall — 2002 werewolf thriller Dog Soldiers, 2005 cave-monster chiller The Descent, and 2008 post-apocalyptic actioner Doomsday — has a brand-new film: Centurion. The latest from the man some call "the new John Carpenter" is getting a release with actual fanfare (however humble in comparision to, say, The Expendables or whatever), though you'd best hustle to the theater if you care to see Centurion, about a Roman soldier doing battle with tribal Picts in what's now Scotland, on the big screen. (It's also now available On Demand, but c'mon: the big screen is always better.) Evident in Marshall's films is the fact that he himself is a movie fan, which makes him all the more pleasurable to talk to. [Spoiler warning: there are some. Just so you know.]

San Francisco Bay Guardian: Centurion takes a documented event, the building of Hadrian's Wall, and creatively fills in some of the history surrounding it. Why did you write the story this way?

Neil Marshall: It was kind of a case of compacting a couple of dates, which weren't that far apart anyway. The myth of the Ninth Legion is based around 117 AD, which is when the film is set. That was when the entire Ninth Legion marched into Scotland and supposedly vanished without a trace. Historians have since been spoilsports and disproved that, and proved that they were attacked but they didn't get massacred, they were dispersed, and such like. But then, in 122 AD, Hadrian's Wall started being built. And I just thought, "Well, couldn't I tie the two in together somehow, that logically, what happened to the Ninth Legion could have been part of the reason for Hadrian to build the wall in the first place?" So, yeah, it was a question of kind of condensing that slightly.

In terms of the Ninth Legion legend, I kind of went with that old adage: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Because it's far more interesting! But the story was kind of book ended: yes, my Ninth Legion goes into Scotland, and at the end of it, it becomes a cover-up by the Romans. Which is kind of what happened in truth, that they disbanded the legion to avoid the embarrassment of having lost so many people to the Picts. So I was playing around to a degree, and I know that to a large extent the story is a fiction, a hypothesis of what might have happened to them based on the legend, but I tried to make that within the most authentic world I could create.

SFBG: The historical setting is new for you. Had you been wanting to do a period film?

NM: I'd been itching to do a historical movie. I love those kind of movies. I love watching those kind of movies. What guy wouldn't want to make a movie about Romans and Picts, and ancient history, and battles, and stuff like that? It's great fun! I'd grown up with all that history as well. In Newcastle, it's one end of Hadrian's Wall. So I was surrounded by Roman history — ruins of forts, Roman roads, and all sorts of stuff. You can't avoid it if you grow up in that part of the world. We used to go on school trips to these places, and my dad's a big history buff, and all that kind of stuff. I think it was kind of in my blood that I would want to make a movie about this stuff, one day or another.

SFBG: Unlike your previous films, Centurion doesn't have a supernatural element. Did you decide that ahead of time, on purpose?

NM: It was very tempting. When I first came up with the story, I'd just made Dog Soldiers. And when I heard about the entire legion vanishing without a trace, initially I went down a supernatural path. I was thinking, was it gonna be some monsters? An alien abduction? Were they eaten by the Loch Ness Monster or something? And then I quickly thought, "I don't want to immediately repeat myself. What might have actually happened to them? Who are these Picts?" I mean, these Picts sound pretty scary, because the Romans built this 60-mile wall to keep them out. So I figured maybe I didn't need to go down a supernatural path to find a terrifying opponent or enemy. And that's when I kind of based it more in reality, I guess.

SFBG: Something else that's new is Centurion's romantic subplot. It softens the tone of the film somewhat. Why did you decide to include that?

NM: Yes, it's new for me. Um, I don't know. It just felt right. I thought, maybe it's time I do have a bit of a romance in one of my films. It's a long way from suddenly going down the route of turning to romantic comedies, but a little bit of a love story going on seemed like, I don't know, a step for me. Getting older, maybe maturing as a writer. I didn't really think about it that much. It just naturally fell into place.

The other thing is that, in the original draft of the script, there was more to [Imogen Poots'] character [Arianne] than just being a love interest. In the original ending of the film, it's revealed that she's half-sister to [Olga Kurylenko's character] Etain, and it was Etain who in fact gave her the cut on the face, and there's this really kind of issue between the two of them. Originally, Etain survived until the end of the film, when it was Arianne who killed her and not Quintus. When I was writing the film, it seemed like less of just a love story and more of an integral part of the plot.

SFBG: Why did you change it?

NM: It was under producer pressure. I don't know why they wanted to change it, but they kind of pressured me into changing it. Those are the perils. Even in a low-budget film like this, the idea that I have absolute control is a myth. [Laughs.]

SFBG: Even with a low budget, it seems like you got a good cast together.

NM: We were incredibly lucky with timing. When we cast Michael [Fassbender, who plays Quintus], I hadn't seen Hunger (2008), and Inglourious Basterds (2009) hadn't been released yet. But we knew that he'd done this stuff. I'd actually auditioned both him and Dominic [West, who plays Virilus] for Doomsday. Due to scheduling difficulties I wasn't able to get either of them in that movie but I still wanted to work with them. So when the opportunities came to have them in this movie, I just jumped at the chance. So that just fell into place perfectly. The rest of was just getting the best caliber of actors that we could in those roles. We were very lucky. Somebody like David Morrissey — I never figured he would take what is essentially a supporting role, but he was just really itching to do an action movie, and, you know, play a Roman soldier and hack people to bits with swords. So, he jumped at the chance. Same with everybody else, really.

SFBG: Were you a fan of [Dominic West's TV show] The Wire?

NM: Oh yeah. I'm a huge fan of Dominic. Amazing work in The Wire. Really phenomenal stuff. So phenomenal, I think, that many people forget that he's an English guy. [Laughs] He's such a larger-than-life presence as well, and it was perfect for the role of Virilus.

SFBG: When I talked to you about The Descent, we discussed how the movie was incredibly physical though it was shot mostly on sets. With Centurion, it seems like you actually went out and shot it in the elements. Did that present any particular challenges?

NM: The first day of filming, we were 3,000 feet up a mountain in a blizzard, and it was minus 18 degrees. That set the standard for the rest of the shoot. I deliberately went out to get the most miserable, hard conditions that we could find. My ethos in this film was to kind of do the anti-300. It was never gonna be on a soundstage. It was never gonna be green-screen, and all kind of in slo-mo. This was gonna be in the rain, in the mud, in the snow, and it was gonna be tough, very very tough for everyone involved. And everybody embraced that. The crew, the cast. I warned everybody beforehand: "You know, this isn't going to be easy. This is gonna be tough." And everybody signed up for it, and nobody ever complained because they were just 100 percent for it.

SFBG: You said that there were four films that influenced you when making The Descent: Deliverance (1972), The Shining (1980), Alien (1979), and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Did you have any touchstones like that when making Centurion? Braveheart (1995) or Gladiator (2000) ...

NM: Actually, I tried to put Braveheart and Gladiator to the back of my mind as much as possible. With this one, it was like The Warriors (1979), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Fort Apache (1948), Last of the Mohicans (1992). Stuff like that. I actually saw a lot of Westerns, and not many Roman movies at all. Chase movies, things like Figures in a Landscape (1970) which is a kind of obscure movie about people running across mountaintops.

SFBG: What elements of the Western do you think you brought to Centurion?

NM: I see this as a Western in two ways. Historically, it's a Western, because this frontier, ancient Britain, was the equivalent of the Roman's Wild West. It was their furthest Western frontier. It was lawless, it was violent. They were battling the natives. So it was their Wild West. As a film, I consider it to be akin to John Ford's cavalry movies. The Romans are the cavalry, the Picts are the Comanches, and the landscape is absolutely integral to everything. I kind of had that in the back of my mind all the time. And also from the point of view that, if Ford was trying to make those movies today, they'd be seen as incredibly un-PC, because you're telling them from the point of view of the invading army. Which is exactly what I'm doing here, telling it from the Roman point of view. I was never saying the Roman point of view was right. I was just saying, that's what it was.

SFBG: The main Roman character has a change of heart from beginning to end.

NM: Absolutely. It's primarily about the individuals. I'm not asking the audience to sympathize with the Romans. I am asking the audience to sympathize with Quintus and his band of brothers as it were, because they kind of get left in the lurch and are disillusioned by the whole system. They basically just want to get home.

SFBG: There's also a more contemporary subtext within the film, since the invading-army story mirrors the current Iraq war in some ways. Did you set out to make that parallel?

NM: I didn't write it with that in mind, but it became really obvious when I was writing it that there is a subtext there. Things are happening today that were happening 2,000 years ago. This is about a superpower marching into a country and being held back by a guerrilla fighting style. The comparisons are screamingly obvious. But, once I recognized that fact, I made a conscious decision not to turn it into a political allegory, to ram it down the audience's throat, or make that kind of movie. It had to be seen first and foremost as a historical action-adventure movie. And if people read that into it, if people see that, that's fantastic. It's certainly there. But it shouldn't distract from the story.

SFBG: What's next for you?

NM: I'm producing a film called The Ghost of Slaughterford, that's being directed by my wife, Axelle Carolyn [who plays a supporting role in Centurion]. For myself, I'm attached to a project that Sam Raimi's producing, called Burst. It's gonna be a horror movie, it's in 3D, and it's all about people exploding.

SFBG: Ah, I was going to ask you what you thought of the 3D trend. Obviously you're in favor!

NM: I'm gonna give it a go. I'm dubious about the 3D trend. I'm worried that it's going to be applied to anything and everything, when it should be very specialized. But it's a great tool, and I want to have a go at seeing what I can do with it.

Centurion opens Fri/27 in Bay Area theaters.

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