British director Neil Marshall - who helmed the siege of King’s Landing in ‘Game of Thrones’ second season highlight ‘Blackwater’ – has just wrapped filming on the penultimate episode of the show’s fourth season, featuring an immense battle on an even larger scale.
With production based at Paint Hall Studio and Magheramorne quarry in Belfast, Marshall assembled an army of stuntmen for sword fights, explosions and high falls from the Wall - against the cinematic canvas of the largest painted backdrop in Europe.
A world away from Westeros, Marshall honed his craft directing such genre fare as ‘The Descent’, ‘Dog Soldiers’ and ‘Centurion’ - all films which endeared him to a cult following drawn to his preternatural ability to create memorable onscreen deaths for his characters.
More recently he shot two episodes of Michael Bay’s new pirate drama ‘Black Sails’ in South Africa and will next head to Scandinavia for the English language adaptation of the much-loved Norwegian folklore horror ‘Trollhunter’.
IFTN caught up with Neil Marshall for a chat about past, present and future projects, and to glean advice for aspiring filmmakers eager to follow in his footsteps…
Mr Marshall, thanks very much for speaking to IFTN. Beginning with your return to ‘Game of Thrones’ for season four - and without delving into spoiler territory - can you tell us a bit about the scale of the production in terms of stuntmen, visual effects and shooting on the Wall in Paint Hall Studio?
What I can say is that it’s a huge episode - a huge production. As far as I know the episode hasn’t been named yet but someone online suggested it might be called ‘Castle Black’ but all I know is that it’s called episode nine! It’s kind of the same as ‘Blackwater’, in a sense, in that these episodes are bigger than most of my films! They’re on the same scale as something like ‘Centurion’, if not bigger. We have huge sets that they build - in the case of ‘Blackwater’ it was a section of King's Landing. For this episode we didn’t have to build Castle Black, we already had it. But it’s an amazing set. They built another inside the Paint Hall for the top of the Wall, and that was so big it took up the entire studio. We got a special backdrop made for it and one of the things about Paint Hall that makes it quite unique is that it’s much taller than most film studios. The backdrop went around almost 360 degrees and it turned out that it’s the biggest backdrop in Europe. The outside stuff for the battle was shot at the Castle Black set, which is built on the side of a huge quarry North of Belfast. We had about 200 hundred or so extras. We also had a very large team of stuntmen including this amazing bunch of Hungarian stunt guys, and they were absolutely fantastic! Really great. This episode is loaded with stunts, effects gags and visual effects. It’s a very, very action-packed episode!
In keeping with the carnage on display in ‘Blackwater’, did you get to fire catapults, set people on fire and have characters’ heads chopped off this time round?
Pretty much all of the above! There are a few beheadings in there, as is my wont! And yeah, we got to blow some people up, set people on fire and do quite a few high falls. There’s a lot of very physical action and a lot of fighting - sword fights and physical fights. We pack quite a lot of stuff in there.
You were offered the chance to direct ‘Blackwater’ with little time to prepare, when the first director was forced to pull out only days beforehand. Did that lend an extra spontaneity to the production and force you to improvise in your directing style?
In a weird way, ‘Blackwater’, despite its scale, was kind of simpler than my fourth season episode. It was kind of linear in that we started on the ships and then we went to the beach landing, the battle on the beach and the castle assault. It was like moving the army from place to place, but the Castle Black episode has three different battles going on at the same time in different places. So it’s a bit more complex from that point of view. But ‘Blackwater’ was a challenge in many respects. Some of the prep was in place already, so I wasn’t starting from scratch a week before the shoot. Obviously the sets were already well on the way. When I came in, I restructured the battle more than anything and made logical sense of that and the strategy of it all. I brought in things like siege ladders and designed this kind of boat that turns upside down and becomes like a shell for the men storming the castle. That wasn’t included in the script but I brought that to the table. And I certainly think that my coming in late did give it an impetus. It gave it a certain speed, even with only a week’s prep. By the end of that week, myself and the director of photography were itching to start shooting it! Whereas with the Castle Black episode, there are a lot more visual effects involved which take a lot more time to prepare. We had a good four weeks to prep for this one, which is like feature film time. My DOP this time was a fantastic guy named David Franco, who worked on a lot of episodes of ‘Boardwalk Empire’. He was a real pleasure to work with.
Given that most of your films are based on screenplays written by yourself, do you find it challenging to work within the boundaries of someone else’s material?
No, because the guys on ‘Game of Thrones’ are so willing to collaborate and so open to ideas. I don’t mess about with their writing at all. They’re such brilliant writers and the scripts are fantastic. The first thing that I’m invited to do when I come onboard is to give them my ideas about the physical action or gags that we can put in that will help or enhance the story in some way. They take all of that stuff onboard, so that works brilliantly. But I don’t tamper with the material at all. In some respects, it’s quite liberating because the script is set in stone so I don’t need to worry about it. I just need to concentrate on the directing side of things. And I think that’s incredibly rewarding! It's such a supportive and creative environment to work in.
From ‘The Descent’ to ‘Dog Soldiers’, ‘Doomsday’ and ‘Centurion’, you appear to have mastered the art of killing characters in increasingly inventive and gory ways. Can you explain your fascination with genre horror and trace it back to your film influences growing up?
My style is definitely influenced by films I watched growing up as a kid! There are certain films that got me into watching horror like ‘An American Werewolf in London’, ‘The Howling’, ‘Jaws’ and ‘Alien’. And there were other films - such as ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’, which I saw very early on - that horrified me at first but then really got me interested in the gore effects and how they achieved that. John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ is another very good example. So I became really fascinated in that side of things. When I started doing it in my own movies – by coming up with new and inventive ways to kill and mutilate people - you realise that it’s a lot of fun when you’re doing it on set! It’s like being a kid playing with mud. It’s messy and funny, and there’s always good humour about it. So I suppose that’s part of it. When I was at film school I did a short film in which I animated somebody’s eyeball melting and running down their face. And I remember the audible reaction that it got from the audience. People were really grossed out by it! And I loved that response. I want to get that response from people - for them to go ‘urrgghh!’ when something horrendous happens. So you have to keep on challenging and topping yourself.
One Irish actor you have worked with many times - on ‘Dog Soldiers’, ‘Centurion’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ - is Liam Cunningham. Will the two of you collaborate again in the near future?
Liam is certainly a good friend and somebody that I want to continue to work with. He brings a mixture of extreme professionalism and a great richness of character to the roles that he plays. He’s dedicated to the craft. He’s a fantastic actor and I’m itching to give him a lead role. I’m trying to write a project now specifically to work with him as the leading actor, but I can’t really talk about it. It’s very early days! But it’s kind of a dream project to try and work with him even more. I think he’s a good laugh! He’s got the art of the craic down pat!
On the TV front, you also recently shot episodes of Michael Bay’s new pirate drama series ‘Black Sails’. What can you tell us about it?
I shot episode one and three of the series down in Cape Town in January. They’ve taken over Cape Town Studios and built this enormous set on the backlot. It’s absolutely massive! It’s kind of this Caribbean town circa the 1700s. But it’s not Pirates of the Caribbean, that’s for sure! It’s a very gritty take on pirates. Tonally, it’s certainly akin to ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Deadwood’. We’re telling it from a pirates’ point of view and exploring that world in the way that TV drama can do. It’s gritty, realistic and certainly violent. But there are great characters and a great story, and I’m really proud to be a part of it. I think it’s going to be huge. It airs in the US in January.
Troll Hunter’ is a hugely-anticipated remake, given the cult following garnered by the Norwegian original. In re-writing and directing it, how much of the source material do you hope to retain and what changes do you intend to make in adapting it for an American audience?
The thing is I’m also a huge fan of the original. I think it’s a fantastic film. It’s truly unique, so my challenge is to try and bring something new to it without damaging anything from the original - which you couldn’t anyway because the original still exists no matter what. I just want to broaden the world and scope of the story a bit. It’s still going to be set in Norway, as it’s based on the culture and mythology of Scandinavia. We’re not changing that at all. And certainly I’d be an idiot to ditch some of the amazing ideas that were in the original. It’s just a question of exploring those ideas further in many respects and seeing if I can bring more to the table - to delve deeper into things that were touched upon in the original. We hope to start shooting early next year.
Are there any other projects you have worked on recently that you would like to mention?
I’ve recently produced my first film, which my wife Axelle Carolyn directed. It’s her feature debut - a beautiful ghost story called ‘Soulmate’. I'm incredibly proud of it, and what Axelle has achieved. We’re just starting the festival circuit with that now and are hoping to get a release for it next year. We shot it in South Wales last year.
Would you have any advice for young filmmakers trying to make their own horror or action films on a shoe-string budget, in the hopes of becoming the next Neil Marshall?
It’s a combination of being ambitious but knowing your limitations. So don’t try and do a film with 20 characters in it for your first feature. Try and do a film with three or four characters. Keep it in one setting, instead of spreading it over 50. But within that context, you can still be ambitious! Ideas don’t cost anything. The currency of directors and writers is good, fresh, original ideas with strong stories and characters. Those are the things that we have to strive for. But beyond that, my advice is just to be determined. Bitterly, brutally, stubbornly determined to get where you want to be!
‘Game of Thrones’ season four will air on Sky Atlantic in Spring 2014.