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British director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Doomsday) will be gracing the Fantasia stage tonight, to host the Canadian Premiere of his new film Centurion, with one of the film’s stars (and his wife), Axelle Carolyn (author of It Lives Again! Horror in the New Millennium). A gritty epic sword-and-sandal flick packed with bloody guerrilla warfare, Centurion follows the Roman Empire’s ill-fated Ninth Legion as they attempt to suppress Scottish tribesmen the Picts in the 2nd century, as part of their conquest of Europe. It was an initiative that brought the classical era dangerously close to the middle ages (which would officially begin three centuries later). Both Neil and Axelle took a moment to answer a few questions about the film, about balancing multiple areas of interest and expertise, and most importantly, about what the heck a Pict is.
Neil -Your film is about the Roman Empire’s Ninth Legion invading Caledonia – what is now known as Scotland – to wipe out the Picts. The only thing I know about Picts is that they appear in the title of the Pink Floyd song Several Species of Small Furry Animals gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict. What can you tell me about the Picts?
NM: The trouble with the Picts is that they have no recorded history other than the stone carvings they left behind. Most of what we know is what the Romans recorded. So we had to fill in a lot of blanks. They were the indigenous people of Caledonia and they must have been totally badass since the Roman’s could never defeat them, and ended up building Hadrian’s Wall (spanning 60 miles coast to coast, 30 feet high and 8 feet thick) to keep the Picts out! As a precautionary measure, that’s pretty hardcore, and tells us a lot about the Picts and how much the Romans feared them. They were very similar to the native Americans, and equally ruthless and savage, and that part of the world, at that time, was the Roman equivalent of the wild west.
It seems like a Roman Empire movie is the kind of movie every little boy wants to grow up and make. What were the most fun accoutrements of making a film like this?
NM: Marshalling (literally in my case!) a whole legion of Roman troops and Pict warriors into war was definitely one of the perks of this job. I got to plan battle strategies like how to defeat an amoured Roman column using fireballs, axes and spears. Working with horses for the first time had it’s challenges but was also a great thrill. It was as much liking making a western as it was a Roman movie. So yeah, I had a lot of fun.
Speaking of childhood fantasies, I read that all the extras in the film were recruited from historical re-enactment societies. They must have been stoked.
NM: A lot of the extras were from re-enactment societies, and a lot of the guys from within those societies were ex-army, so I had the best of both worlds. These guys know their stuff. They know the formations, how to wear their uniforms and armour correctly, how to hold their spears and swords. This kind of knowledge saved us so much work in training extras from scratch. One of the hardest things to can do is try to get a bunch of people to march in formation and in step, but these guys have been doing it for years. They were a massive help to the production.
As a director you’ve moved from these very insular, claustrophobic environments to larger, more apocalyptic terrain, and the films I’ve seen listed as being “in development” are all similarly large-scale period projects ranging from westerns to war movies. Can you talk about your upcoming projects and your goals as a filmmaker? Were Dog Soldiers and The Descent stepping stones?
NM: From a certain point of view, every film you make is a stepping stone, a learning experience, a progression, the only trouble is you don’t know where those stepping stones lead to. You can only see them as stepping stones when you look backward at the path you’ve taken so far. As a filmmaker and a storyteller I have so many ideas floating around my head, and so many projects in development all the time, but you never know what’s going to be next until it happens. One thing I’ve always said is that I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a ‘horror director’, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to make horror films. I simply don’t JUST want to make horror films and I think my slate so far shows that I’m just as interested in exploring other genres, and yet I may return to horror at any time, right when you least expect it! As a filmmaker, it’s good to maintain the element of surprise and not become predictable. So, yes, i have a number of projects I’m working on, including several horror projects, as well as a WW2 adventure, a medieval heist movie and a couple of adaptations, to name a few. I’ve also made no secret that I’m out to make large scale commercial movies, and if the opportunity presents itself to make even larger scale movies then I certainly wouldn’t say no. It’s often frustrating to be limited by time and money, so the change to stitch those boundaries and push the envelope would be one I’d welcome wholeheartedly.
Axelle, can you tell me a bit about your character?
AC: I play a Pict warrior called Aeron, she’s part of the posse chasing and hunting down Michael Fassbender’s group of Romans. She’s a pretty nasty piece of work and is responsible for a good amount of gore in the film, which was brilliant to play. The part was very physical, so I went through some gym training, horseback riding, archery lessons and stunt fighting. I also get hands down the best death in the film!!
You’ve been incredibly busy as an actress lately, and that’s only one facet of your work. How do you balance all your different careers – modelling, acting, journalism, screenwriting? You don’t meet that many models who are also horror journalists!
AC: I’m first and foremost a huge movie and horror fan, so whenever I get an opportunity to work in horror films, I just embrace it. Modelling is not something I’ve really pursued, I just have been lucky enough to be offered the odd job or photo shoot here and there. Journalism I’ve pretty much stopped when I started acting; my book ‘It Lives Again!’, on horror movies in the 2000s, was kind of my swan song to non-fiction. Now acting leaves a lot of free time, so I’ve been writing fiction and scripts between jobs. End of last year I had a script optioned called The Ghost Of Slaughterford, with Neil attached as exec producer, and I should hopefully be directing it before the end of this year! In a way, getting to direct a feature would be the culmination of all the different jobs I’ve done in the film industry and all the facets of it I’ve experienced in the past ten years… It’s incredibly daunting, but I’m really, really excited about it!
Neil -I’ve heard there is some historical ambiguity concerning the fate of the Ninth Legion. Can you talk about your approach to the story?
NM: Historians, as is their way, have long since disproved the idea that an entire legion vanished without a trace in the Scotch mist. The truth seems to be that they were attacked and beaten by the Picts, and that Rome, embarrassed by their failure, disbanded the legion as a cover up. My story picks up on some of these elements and embellishes them, more in keeping with the legend. My approach for this story was, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. The truth (or at least the historians version of it, because let’s face it, who really knows the truth) may be interesting, but the legend, in this case, is much more compelling.
CENTURION screens Saturday July 24 at 7:00pm in the Hall Theatre, hosted by Neil Marshall and Axelle Carolyn. A second screening has been added July 28th at 3pm in the Salle JA De Seve.
More information including film description, credits, images and trailer on the film page HERE.