The Collider Interview: Neil Marshall

     August 3, 2006

Some directors just don’t have the time for the sophomore jinx, and Neil Marshall is certainly one of them. Though reasonably entertaining on its own low-budget merits, Dog Soldiers, but there was nothing in it visually to suggest that Marshall had a film as technically assured and downright terrifying as The Descent lurking within him. When word started to spread rapidly late in 2005 that Marshall’s second feature compared favorably in terms of relentlessness to classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I scoffed. Even worse, I had to wait over seven months to finally see the fucker for myself, by which point I was sure it had been spoiled several times over thanks to overzealous fans online. And, yet, when I stumbled out of a Beverly Hills screening room in mid-July, I actually felt as if I’d been unprepared for the sheer fury of this spelunking-gone-horribly-horribly-wrong horror flick.

The premise is simple enough: six chicks go caving in the middle of Appalachia without a map, get lost and get hunted by pack of Gollum-like creatures that are actually a screwed-up breed of humans that evolved underground. Though one of the girls is overcoming a tragedy (which makes spelunking a particularly bad choice), the girls plunge headlong into the darkness hoping to name the cave for themselves, and it isn’t long before the vicious “crawlers” are all over them. Seriously, if you’ve ever felt the least bit claustrophobic, you might want to find an aisle seat. I’m not joking. I haven’t white-knuckled a film like this since Immediate Family.

This is why I verily leapt at the opportunity to chat with Marshall at Comic Con a couple of weeks ago. And I had an enjoyable time geeking out over the horror films of your respective youths, while berating him for having induced an in-theater panic attack (again, so not joking). Give it a read, but be mindful of spoilers. As always, I suggest you see the film first, though all the spoilers in the world won’t cushion what transpires in The Descent.

(l. to r. Neil Marshall, dudes)

How are you enjoying Comic Con.

Uh, I got here a half-hour ago, so this is all I’ve seen of it thus far. Where is it?

It’s over there. (Indicating outside to the convention center.) I don’t think you can miss it.

Oh, good.

First thing, I’m fiercely claustrophobic, so I hate you.

(Laughs) I got you, then.

Oh, you did. But that interests me, because this is the kind of movie where I wonder how many people might be streaming for the exits before it’s through. Do you view that as success?

I think a lot of directors would consider that a badge of honor. At the very, very first press screening in London, there was a girl that had to be carried out by her friends she was just in complete distress. And I was in the back of the theater going (pumping his fist), “Yes! Result!”

Why did you decide to send them to Appalachia?

It was a combination of reasons of looking for a geographical area that fit with the plot, and in terms of a remote area that’s known for its caves somewhere that’s remote enough for the crawlers to exist in there without being discovered. Appalachia works, and tied in perfectly due to the fact that whole film is hugely inspired by Deliverance.

Appalachia is a hugely spooky area.

I think it’s well known for being spooky. It just has the feel about it. Everything from The Waltons

(Laughs) The Waltons was one of the scariest shows to ever air. But Appalachia isn’t exploited nearly enough, so I really appreciated that you thrust us into that environment first before going into the cave.

Well, we shot the whole Appalachian sequence in Scotland.

But the second unit stuff. Was any of that Appalachia?

No, we shot that all in Scotland.

Wow. Good work.

(Neil laughs.)

Obviously, the choice to use all women is unique. Were you trying to say anything beyond simply capturing a different dynamic?

Somebody suggested it to me early on. It was originally going to be a mixed group, and then a friend suggested to me early on, “Why don’t you make them all women.” It was an offhand comment, but I immediately thought, “Yeah, that’s a really good idea.” In a film of this nature, a brutal action-horror sort of story, I’ve never seen an all female ensemble cast. I wasn’t setting out to cast scream queens, or anything like that they were going to be real, dynamic, individual and independent characters. And I just thought, “That’s really contemporary.” Women are out there doing this kind of stuff, so why not do that? I also thought it could potentially be a complete nightmare working with six women, but it turned out to be a complete blast.

They were cool taking direction from you?

Yeah, they kind of took me into their group, and I was an honorary female for a while. I’m not quite sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. (Laughs) No, we all went caving together, and they’re good drinkers, so we could all go out and get drunk together.

That’s vital. Seriously. For bonding purposes.

Totally. That’s one of the first things I do with any cast I go out and get drunk with them. It’s the best way of bonding. And they were just game. But what I also realized was that nothing in the film hinges on the fact that they’re women. It’s not about them being women they just are. It’s not like Steel Magnolias, or something like that. It’s even more contemporary to treat them as characters and not treat them as women.

I also think it’s a great choice because whenever you throw a male into the group, the dynamic is skewed. He immediately becomes the go-to guy, so to speak.

Try to do the same thing with a group of men and one woman, and see how that works. It was interesting.

[The following exchange contains huge spoilers. Do not read if you have not seen the film. To be even more of a pest, I’ve continued the exchange in the second page, so, like, start reading when you see the dog. That sounds weird, but you’ll know what I mean.]

The ending has changed slightly for the American release. But in both versions, I still feel like Sarah’s earned a victory. I kind of want her to get out and be free of her tortured past.

It really split the audience in the U.K. a lot of people did feel cheated by it. The ending that we’re using in the U.S. was something that I’d toyed with in the editing suite early on and thought, “Oh, that might really work.” But then I decided, “Let’s go with what’s in the script and push it all the way to eleven.” I certainly wouldn’t call [the American version] a happy ending. Yes, okay, she gets out okay, but she’s completely insane, and has lost everything that ever meant anything to her. Where does she go from here? It’s pretty ambiguous in terms of what happens in the last seconds of the film. But it was a good opportunity to give it a try. As a filmmaker, it was a second opportunity to try this other ending, which I never could the first time.


It’s interesting that you say she’s gone completely crazy, because I read it that she’d finally become a survivor.

She has, but she’s operating on all cylinders. She’s regressed so completely that, after that experience, she’s going to be completely unable to relate to anybody in the outside world without major therapy. There’s not much hope for her.

But it is an interesting way to end your movie, because I remember hearing Danny Boyle say, “You always have to take care of your audience.” He said that about 28 Days Later, and I actually wished he hadn’t taken care of us at the end. But there does seem to be that impulse sometimes in horror, where you take them as far as you can but give them a little bit of daylight at the end.

To a point, but horror really is one of the few genres where you can put on the bleak ending and get away with it if you’re allowed. Luckily, the producers were totally behind me on that. I said, “I want to make something with a completely downbeat ending. I want to go back to movies like [John Carpenter’s] The Thing and stuff like that – leave them hanging in a way.” And they were really cool with that. Thank goodness. Nobody said, “Oh, god, you’ve got to have a happy ending.”

Well, The Thing has one of the great all-time bleak endings.

Absolutely. It’s a horror story, not a love story. (Laughs)

[Told ya.]

If you’re reflecting what’s going on in the world, then it’s got to be pretty bleak. And horror has become progressively bleaker in the last few years.

It certainly has, recently, gotten that way. And, for my money, that’s good to see, because the horror films that stick in my mind are all from the 70s and early 80s. They’re the ones that have stuck with me throughout my life. I can’t really think of anything notable from the 90s.

And those movies had an extra stigma in England thanks to the “video nasty” legislation.


So those were harder to see for you, correct?

Well, I started going to horror films before the video nasty law came in. I was fortunate enough to catch loads of them on video when I was about eleven or twelve: I Spit on Your Grave, Zombie Flesh-Eaters [aka Zombi 2] and all that kind of stuff. Clearly, it effected me.

Was horror always your genre?

From an early age, when dad was letting me stay up to watch Frankenstein and The Wolf Man on TV, and then when I first got a [VCR], I watched Alien, The Thing, An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. I just grew up on a steady diet of horror.

One thing I really liked about The Descent was that it at least felt as if it earned its high gore quotient, because so many films nowadays are celebrating torture.

Totally. On this film, anything that happened in the story had to come from the characters. And there’s a logic behind it as well. The blood pool in the lair and stuff like that obviously, these creatures have been down [in the cave] for a long time, so there’s going to be a bit of a mess there. (Laughs) That’s what we were depicting. And the violence level had to do with the characters becoming savages in order to survive.

The toughest thing for any horror movie nowadays is creating a distinctive monster. How did you come upon the design for the crawlers?

The trick for me was to make them less monster-like and more human, because that’s what they’re supposed to be. They’re supposed to be an offshoot of humanity that’s evolved in the caves. And their look was based purely on the science behind that: they’re going to be blind, they have [enhanced] hearing like bats, sonar, and so on. I also had this idea that they should look like Iggy Pop in a way.

(Laughing) I don’t know if they have enough scars to match Iggy.

No, probably not. (Laughs) But it was their behavior that was going to be important. I was interested in exploring those kinds of things.

And I do want to compliment you on the reveal, which is one of the most effective reveals of a monster I’ve seen in recent memory.

That was fun to do, because the first time [the audience] sees it was the first time the actors saw it ever. I kept it all hidden from the actors. I kept the designs, the actors – no one was allowed to see them. So when we shot that scene, which was in the dark, we called action and sort of snuck the crawler into the shot behind them. They knew that that was the scene when it appeared, but they didn’t know what to expect. So when they turn around and run screaming into the darkness, that was the actual reaction. It was a lot of fun to do it that way, but when we shot it… I knew the infrared thing was going to work I knew that there was something inherently creepy about this thing in the background of the shot. But I couldn’t initially figure out how to work it. I was initially going to have it reaching out toward her I did a few takes like that, but it just wasn’t happening. I thought, “Skip that! Let’s just have it standing there. It’s just so much creepier having it stand there doing nothing.” So when we played that, as soon as I saw it I said, “Oh, fucking hell! That’s the one!” And the reaction that everyone has when they see it is the same. It’s like, “Whoa!” And the way that we did it with the sound mix as well – there is a loud sound effect inevitably that comes in, but we hold off on it for a second or two after you’ve seen [the crawler].

I felt that. And I appreciated it because it didn’t rely solely on a jarring sound effect for a cheap jump scare.

Jump scares are easy. Anybody can do a jump scare it’s all about the sound effect. They always say the way to survive a horror film isn’t to cover your eyes but to cover your ears. But they are a lot of fun to do. Like the pole coming through the window early on in the film we put that in there partly because I was looking at it and going, “No horror film things happens for an hour in the film, so we ought to put something in there to keep the audience on their toes.” It was a good scare, too. But to keep on doing that is a shame. It should be coming up with better scares and milking the tension.

So what’s this thing you’re doing next?

Doomsday. It’s an apocalyptic action film set thirty-seven years into the future.

Is this suggested by any previous movies like The Descent?

Um, yes. It’s Escape from New York meets Mad Max 2. (Laughs)

Those go well together.

There hasn’t been a post-apocalyptic movie for quite some time, and I love those movies.

So do I. And I also really enjoyed The Descent, which will be available for your viewing discomfort beginning Friday, August 3rd. Beware.

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