I first saw Neil Marshall's The Descent when it screened at the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year. Graham Leggat's endorsement that the movie had made him pee his pants at Sundance was enough for me to risk soiling my own clothes. All throughout that memorable screening I had to keep apologizing to the young woman beside me for screaming like a little girl. I was genuinely terrified.
When I saw it again last week at a press screening I thought for sure—knowing the story and where the scares occur—that I would be adequately prepared. Not so. I screamed just as loud just as often. Every now and then the horror genre is ratcheted up a notch—Psycho, Alien, and, now, Neil Marshall's The Descent. Neil took time from his first visit to San Diego's Comicon to answer some of my questions by phone.
Michael Guillén: I have to start at the beginning, Neil, and flat out ask you where did this story come from?
Neil Marshall: Looking back at Dog Soldiers, I thought it wasn't particularly scary. It came out as a black comedy more than anything else. I still had this fundamental need in me to make a horror film that genuinely terrified people. In the same way that I was genuinely terrified by the likes of Deliverance or Alien or The Shining, all those films from the '70s that I grew up with and have haunted me ever since. There was also a need to make a horror film that took itself seriously, that played it straight. So the story emerged from that desire really.
MG: The reason I ask is I was a student of the late mythographer Joseph Campbell who used to speak a lot about mythic descent motifs so I was wondering if you had any mythic precedents to the story?
NM: No. Well, not consciously anyway. The main story that I wanted to tell was about one specific character's descent into savagery and madness and insanity and the rest of it followed on from there.
MG: It was interesting that you played with the multiple meanings of "descent", not only the physical descent into the cave, but the spiraling psychological descent into madness of one of the main characters Sarah (Shauna MacDonald). Were you also playing with the idea of lineage? I got the sense that these crawlers were horrific ancestors of ours?
NM: Absolutely. That's totally what they're supposed to be. They're the ancestors of the human race; an offshoot or splinter group of the human race. When we were all cave men, we left the cave and evolved and they stayed in the cave and they went the other way.
MG: I'm glad to hear I was correct in that perception. Your script is so tight that I didn't think there was any reason for something to be there that didn't have any importance. The scene where they discovered the cave paintings is what brought that alternate meaning of "descent" to mind.
NM: In the first cut of the film there was a very brief scene later on where one of the characters tries to guess what these creatures might be and suggests this whole theory. I thought, "Naw, just leave it ambiguous." The clues are there—like the cave paintings—the clues are there for people to figure out.
MG: You're characteristically attentive to the importance of dialogue and character in your films, and in The Descent particularly the script is tightly developed. It's my understanding you spent over two years working on the script with producer Christian Colson and went through 10-15 drafts until you felt ready to film?
NM: It wasn't so many as 15, it was about 8, but we did take the time over it because we were determined to get it right. One of the things that happened quite early on—I think it was in the first or second draft—we had the physical journey of the film sorted out, the cave description and the journey we were going to make, the geography of the cave. It was from that basis that we then proceeded to develop the characters, to make the characters as real and as genuine and as 3-dimensional as possible.
MG: They were sound complex portraits of women, unlike the usual caricatures of women in horror films.
NM: I think as a couple of guys it was really important to us to get it as accurate as possible and not make it condescending to women or derogatory in any way. It had to be authentic. These were strong-willed independent contemporary women that we were trying to depict. We had to get it right. I, personally, as the writer, consulted a lot of women that I know just to get their feedback on it. Hopefully, it paid off. I'm very happy with the result. Also, when I was filming it, I was working with the actresses a lot along the way.
MG: How did you end up finding the actresses? What process did you go through for that?
NM: We did a very thorough casting. In some cases—like the character of Holly played by Nora-Jane Noone—I'd seen her work in Magdalen Sisters and I just thought she was a really strong amazing actress. Once I met her, I just cast her immediately, we didn't bother reading anyone else for that role. Whereas some of the other characters, like Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Sarah, they were the last to get cast because we met so many people and it was really important to get the absolutely right one for that part. Shauna MacDonald fought tooth and nail to get the part [of Sarah] and totally deserved it. She really brought something to it, which is both the gentle nature of the character at the beginning that's in direct contrast with the absolute insanity and lunacy of the character at the end. What a transformation she made throughout that film!
MG: That's what caused me to ask about the possible mythic underpinnings of your story. What I was thinking about was the original descent myth of Inanna going into the underworld and fighting with her sister, the Death Queen of the Underworld. One of the premises is that, in order for Inanna to return above ground, she has to become like her sister, as death-dealing as her sister. I felt that with this movie. Sarah had to become as brutal as the "crawlers" in order to get out of that cave.
NM: Absolutely, she had to become as primal, and as savage as the "crawlers", and I loved the idea. When she's standing there with the fire in one hand and the bone in the other, I just thought, "That's symbolic of her journey." She's almost becoming one of the "crawlers" in a way.
MG: I grew up being scared by Britain's Hammer Studio Films. There now appears to be a resurgence of the British film industry, horror in particular. What's your sense of that? You clearly enjoy scaring the pants off people, is this a genre you hope to remain within?
NM: At the moment I want to take a break from it for a little while. I feel like I've kind of left myself nowhere to go at the moment. I've achieved two things that I wanted to achieve with the horror film. I made a black comedy horror movie which is kind of like some films I really loved when I was growing up, the Evil Dead 2 and the Pete Jackson movies and things like that. And then I've gone and done this straight horror movie which again is an homage to the other films I love as horror movies, The Shining, Alien, The Thing and Deliverance. Now I want to tell some different genre stories, I want to explore some new territory, and then come back to horror with a vengeance next year or the year after. I have too many stories to tell and they're not all horror. But I love the genre so much that I'm not going to desert it.
MG: Well, you have certainly revitalized it. I have to be honest and say that I was screaming like a girl in this movie.
NM: [Chuckles.] That's a fantastic thing for you to say because that's absolutely what I intended to do. I wanted people to be quivering wrecks by the end of the film. Either you go into it thinking, "Well, I've got an idea of how that might happen", but you never know if it's actually going to work or not. To find out that it has worked and that people are responding to it that way is the ultimate reward for a horror director. It's fantastic. I love that.
MG: Do you link your horror film into the recent trend of "survival horror" or "torture horror"—Saw, Hostel, Wolf Creek, etc—did you have any of that in mind?
NM: Not deliberately, no. I mean I guess "survival horror" because that's a term that's been around for years. If you want to categorize it, The Descent would be a "survival horror" film, I suppose. This "torture horror" thing is a recent development. When the film was made and released in the UK, I'd never even heard the term "torture horror". I think it's only this year that it's really been talked about that much, probably specifically with Hostel more than anything. So, no, that was never a deliberate thought in my mind.
MG: The Descent has been released theatrically with two different endings; the American release being slightly shorter than the British. What necessitated the alternate ending? Is it much different from the original?
NM: It is shorter and it is very different. It puts a whole new light on the film in a way. It has a real big impact on the end of the film. So it's worth tracking down just to see what you think. But you have to see it in context, you have to watch the whole film to understand it. The reason for the change came because I toyed with the alternative ending in the UK in the edit but we decided to go with the longer version, the descriptive version and our original vision. I'm glad that I did that. It was fantastic. It's an ending that I really love. But when it was released, it split audiences down the middle. Some people loved it, some people hated it. Given almost a second chance with its release in the U.S., I thought, "Well, let's just try the other ending." We had nothing to lose in a way because the original ending already exists and is already out there so we just thought, "Let's try this" and Lionsgate was keen to go with it.
MG: That's a rare opportunity to have both endings out there like that.
NM: It is. At the end of the day it's the dvd age and I'm sure the original ending will turn up on the dvd. It's not like no one's going to get to see it if they want it.
MG: The pacing of the film—it's my understanding that the actresses were never allowed to see the "crawlers" until they were actually filmed with them? There's an exquisite slow burn and buildup of suspense. In fact, The Descent is like three different horror films. First, there's the horrible car accident and the shocks associated with that. Then the claustrophobic feel in the cave. Then the full-out rampage of the "crawlers".
NM: Absolutely. It was deliberately a three-act concept of introducing the characters and getting them into the cave. Then spend the second act just exploring the horror of the cave and caving itself, the claustrophobia and all these other elements. Just milk that for all it's worth, milk it for all the tension that we can get out of it, and just when you think things can't get any worse; let's make them worse. [Laughs.] Let's just take it even further down the descent. It was fun to do that. That was entirely deliberate.
MG: How were the "crawlers" designed? Were they an image that you had in your mind or did that come up through Paul Hyett doing the prosthetics for you?
NM: The actual construction of them and, I suppose, the physical design of them had a lot to do with Paul Hyett and his sculptors that he used. I basically took them the science behind the creatures. I said, "They're humans but they've evolved underground. They live in the pitch black so they're blind. They use their hearing to hunt. They use this kind of sonar like bats. They're going to be pretty rough and ready but they're also going to be pallid, the pigmentation of their skin's going to be gone because they never see sunlight." I put all this stuff to Paul and I also said, "I have these guys [Craig Conway and Les Simpson] I want to use as the crawlers who are really physical, theatrical actors." And he applied all his thinking to that and came up with the designs that we have. We had a whole row of heads—what I call head designs—I just went along and said, "We'll have that one, that one, that one and that one." It was great from then on. That was it.
MG: They're terrifying. Towards the final scenes Sarah is drenched in blood and she reminded me of Carrie. Was that intentional? Or do blonde-haired women always look like that when they're drenched in blood?
NM: I think blonde-haired women are bound to look like Carrie when they're drenched in blood. I was well aware of the obvious comparison but it was like, "What am I going to do about it?" I'm not going to deny that it's there; it's just there. I love Carrie. I think it's another one of the great horror films. This film is loaded—much like Dog Soldiers is loaded—with visual references to other films that people will either get or they won't. A whole new generation of kids who are going to see this film will never have seen Carrie. It doesn't matter a drop to them. They're just going to take it at face value. Which is fine but there's people like me out there who are movie geeks and we like to see that kind of stuff. Sarah's head coming out of the water is like Apocalypse Now. There's various other things along the way. Dog Soldiers is full of references to westerns and war movies and all sorts of things that no one will ever get except me. [Laughs.]
MG: Will there be a sequel to Dog Soldiers?
NM: I don't know. There's rumors of it. I'm not going to have anything to do with it myself.
MG: Finally, I understand your next project is going to be Doomsday, due out next year? Can you say anything about it? Has it been cast at all?
NM: I'm casting as soon as I get back to the U.K. but, it's all very exciting, we're going to start filming toward Christmas and, yeah, it should be fun.
MG: Well, Neil, I thank you very much for your time. I love The Descent, I've seen it twice already and I'll be seeing it again. Thank you very much and congratulations.
* * *Cross-posted at Twitch, where Todd Brown has written the Twitch review. This piece has also been published at Entertainment Today.