Centurion: An Interview with Director Neil Marshall

Neil Marshall wanted the world to know that even though his first two features were horror films—the well-received werewolf opus Dog Soldiers and the spooky girls-in-the-cave film The Descent—he was not a “horror movie director.”

“I’m a genre director,” states Marshall, 43, from a Philadelphia hotel. “I like all sort of genres. And, yes, I was scared of being pigeonholed as a horror director after those movies.”

As his next project, Marshall tackled Doomsday, a futuristic Mad Max/Escape from New York/Resident Evil mashup which met with mixed results with critics and at the box-office. But Marshall is hoping to rectify this with Centurion, his latest effort, an historical adventure epic centering on the battle that occurred in 117 A.D. between the Picts, the savage natives of Scotland, and the Ninth Legion of invading Roman soldiers, led by General Titus Virilus (Dominic West), centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) and Amazonian mute female tracker Etain (Olga Kurylenko), who doubles as a lethal Pict assassin.

“I would like to work in all different genres,” says Marshall. “I see this as an adventure film, but in a way, it’s my western.”

Marshall has been known for not veering away from violence in his projects, and Centurion is no exception. Blood, sweat and spears are commonplace in a story in which marauding gangs in pelts go head-to-head against marauding gangs in armor. Plasma spurts freely—no wonder Marshall names violence maestro Sam Peckinpah one of his favorite directors (along with John Carpenter and John Ford) and The Wild Bunch one of his favorite all-time movies.

“Of course, I’d love to direct a traditional western, but this is the closest I can get at this time,” jokes Marshall.

The idea of Centurion and Marshall’s fascination with Hadrian’s Wall—which also had a place in Doomsday—dates back to his childhood. “I grew up in Newcastle, so I wasn’t far from one side of the wall,” says Marshall about the fortification that was built by the Roman emperor Hadrian and stretched 60 miles into Northern England. “We used to go the trips there from school when I was a child, so I’ve been around its history for a long time. But the idea for Centurion came to me 10 years ago.”

Even though the film is physically impressive, with striking battle scenes, rugged Scottish locations, and authentic period costumes, it was shot on a modest budget over a seven-week period. The state of the British film industry didn’t aid matters.

“The film industry in England right now is in horrible shape,” says Marshall. “That certainly didn’t help to get the film made.”

But what did help was the success of 300 and Troy at the box-office. “They showed that there was interest in historical movies,” says Marshall, who is married to Centurion co-star Axelle Carolyn. “Of course, 300 is heavily stylized, and Troy did better overseas. But I guess the whole trend started with Gladiator.”

Marshall, who notes the Centurion “was the most difficult film I’ve made,” recalls watching such gladiator-oriented films as Spartacus and The 300 Spartans when he was younger.

He is also thrilled to have enlisted Fassbender, the up-and-coming performer of 300, Hunger and Inglourious Basterds, for the lead role. “He’s incredibly dedicated and into his work,” says Marshall of Fassbender. “He’s with you 200% and he’s a consummate professional.”

As Centurion reaches theaters (and VOD), Marshall has several projects in the works. He is producing a supernatural thriller wife Carolyn wrote called Ghost of Slaughterford, and has several other films in different stages of pre-production. The one that he believes will most likely happen first is Burst!, a 3-D film “about exploding heads” for producer Sam Raimi.

Other possibilities include Outpost, about zombies on an oil rig, The Eagle’s Nest, a World War II mission movie,  and Sacrilege, Marshall’s “real” western, only with a healthy dose of horror.

Here’s Irv’s review of the film: