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Neil Marshall on ripping off heads and making Game Of Thrones set people on fire

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Even if you don’t know him by name, the odds are increasingly good you’ve seen something Neil Marshall has directed. In 2002, the English director wrote and shot his first feature film, the cult werewolf flick Dog Soldiers. For the next decade, he continued to create inspired genre work like The Descent, Doomsday, and Centurion. Starting in 2012, however, his work was seen by an entirely new audience, as he directed the “Blackwater” and “The Watchers On The Wall” episodes of Game Of Thrones, the latter of which earned him an Emmy nomination. When The A.V. Club spoke with Marshall, he was busy promoting the new horror anthology film Tales Of Halloween, in which he directs the final installment, a funny and deranged story about a killer pumpkin with a penchant for biting people’s heads off. When we proposed the idea of exploring his filmography by talking about all the different ways he’s killed people on screen, Marshall was more than happy to participate. (“My favorite pasttime,” were his exact words.) Below, we provide an example of a gruesome murder scene from each of his works, and the director talks about his memories of that particular cinematic death.

Tales Of Halloween (2015)

Death: Decapitation via sentient pumpkin

AVC: Your entry in this anthology, where we get probably the most fun kill of the whole movie, begins with death by pumpkin.


NM: [Laughs.] Yeah, well, as soon as I came up with the idea of a killer pumpkin, it just seemed like a natural thing to have it bite somebody’s head off. And so I had to design the pumpkin so that it was big enough to get our actor’s head off. The irony being, the guy with his head bit off was the horror director Greg McLean [Wolf Creek]. It was a nice little cameo and he had fun spending a night with a pumpkin on his head. And again, I want to do that as practically as possible—that’s the way that I like to work—so we built a pumpkin that could go on his head. And then what we did was we had a dummy, a headless dummy, that had arms on it, and we attached the arms to the pumpkin, and then there was a rod attached to the pumpkin as well, and then I basically pulled the rod up at a certain point, so it looked like the guy was pulling his own head off—that was the plan. I wanted it to be like he’s trying to get the thing off his head so much, and then it bites down and there’s a good second more and he’s still pushing and snap, his head comes off. And we did that in camera and then just removed the green rod afterwards. Then, of course, there was an explosion of blood when the head comes off. So yeah—fun and games with pumpkins.

AVC: It also shows a pretty common technique for you, which is, even in moments that necessitate CGI, you combine the CGI with the most practical effects you can do.


NM: Yeah. I think the best way to work with CGI is to enhance reality, or it’s great for compositing, it’s great for wire removal and rod removal and stuff like that, so if you can do something as practically as possible and it doesn’t matter if the rod is in the way or in the shot if you can get rid of them, then that’s the way to go, for me. Like, I’d much rather have a real creature in the shot with a few rods coming out of it, and then use CG to get rid of the rods, than create a CG creature. Because it’s better for the actors, as well. It’s better for everybody. And frankly, it’s just more fun on set, you know, when you’re doing this stuff and you actually have a monster and you have the blood and guts around. It’s great fun. Whereas if you’re just doing it with a tennis ball and a stick, what’s the fun in that?

AVC: You always hear directors talk about what a grind it is to make a film, but it seems like just by making choices of things that would make it more fun, they could really enjoy their work a lot more.

NM: Yeah. A hundred percent. It should be fun. It’s what we go into this game for, is to have fun.

Dog Soldiers (2002)

Death: Head ripped off by werewolf

AVC: So on that note, a similar death happens all the way back to Dog Soldiers—one of your very first kills in film—where you’ve got a character in a garage being eaten alive by a werewolf, and again you get a head ripped off.


NM: Yeah, I mean, that’s my first decapitation. The first of many.

AVC: It does seem to happen in a lot of your work.

NM: Yeah. Which has become a bit of a theme. That was kind of like, how nasty can I get it? I thought, well, what if it bites his head off, and it’s like a practical werewolf with the real guy, and then you cut away and when it cuts back it’s the dummy, and snaps his head off, and I thought, well, what can he do with it then? What’s he gonna do with the head? I thought, wouldn’t it be awesome if he throws it at him? Because these werewolves—it’s like they’re human, they’re part human, so there should be some sort of attitude to that. They’re not animals so they don’t behave like animals a hundred percent, so throwing the head at them is like—and it’s his best friend as well—there’s something vindictive and deliberate about that action. And it just came across as really nasty. But what that enabled us to do was, for the rest of the scene, you have this head bouncing around on the hood of the car while he’s trying to escape, and it’s his best friend looking at him also. [Laughs.] That’s just twisted. And fun!


AVC: Since it was your first time filming something like that, do you remember what your feelings were at the time? Like, “Holy shit, I can’t believe I’m getting to do this,” or…?

NM: Oh, I’m like that every day at work. I’m always like, “I can’t believe I’m getting to do this kind of shit.” Because it just puts a big smile on my face. I was just disappointed I never got to keep the head. I don’t know what happened to that head.


AVC: Do you usually try to keep a gruesome memento of your shoots?

NM: Well, I wish I could, but it doesn’t seem to work out that way. There’s a lot of severed heads in my work but I don’t have them all. I guess they get re-used—you know, the makeup companies put different hair on it and reuse it for something else. Or they also deteriorate. The latex and stuff like that deteriorates over the years.


The Descent (2005)

Death: Pickax in the neck

AVC: In The Descent, you’ve got more heads being crushed, but you’ve also got a surprising one, which is death by accidental pickax, when—


NM: Through the neck.

AVC: This one was solely practical effects. Do you remember putting that together?


NM: Yeah—well, in Dog Soldiers there isn’t any CGI at all. It’s all practical effects for the werewolves, so… there’s some dodgy shots of the moon, but there’s no CGI effects with the werewolves. And the same with The Descent. It was all real guys. The thing with that particular death was playing around with audience sympathy for the character, in that we’d just had Juno fighting the Crawlers for the first time, and everybody else is running for their lives, but Juno defends her friend, she does something honorable, she defends her dying friend. She fights like an absolute tiger, and eventually kills this thing, and so the audience, at that point, are just wired. They’re like, “fuck yes!” And they think another one’s coming in and they’re like, “get it!” And then whap, bap, it’s a character’s neck, and it’s just like—you can hear the audience just go, like, “Oh, fuck! I didn’t want that to happen!” [Laughs.] And I really loved playing around with that. That always got a good reaction. And it’s a pretty graphic thing, you know.

AVC: So much of that film takes place in such darkness—was part of the struggle finding ways to make these deaths stand out with so little light?


NM: Well, when writing the script, the biggest issue I had was tracking who had which lights where. How we were going to see these scenes. Because myself and my DP, we set ourselves a rule which was the only light that could be in the cave comes from the characters. And whether it’s torches or snap lights or flares or fire—whatever it is, that’s the only light we see. So it was trying to juggle who had which light source where, and how we were going to see stuff. And I think when [that character] gets it, we see it because of the flare in the background that kind of lights up that scene.

Game Of Thrones, “Blackwater” (2012, season two, episode nine)

Death: Mass deaths by fire


AVC: There’s lots of death via burning in that initial boat sequence in “Blackwater.” What do you remember of filming that?

NM: Well, we were kind of limited on the scale of the set that we had. We had one boat but it had a very small water tank next to it, but I wanted to try and do as much graphic burning—the wildfire was a big part of it. So it was like, how many people can we set on fire? And I guess it enabled me to go a bit further than I normally would, knowing that if they got into trouble they’d just jump over the side into the water tank. That’s kind of what the stunt man said, like, “You know, if I think I’m in trouble, I’ll just jump over the side.” So I said, “Okay, let’s see how far we can push this.” So we really torched some people, or tried to have people catching fire in the shot. And some of the shots, you’ve got to rig the stunt men for burning and then you’ve got to accidentally hit them with something and set them on fire. Or make it look like it’s accidental, anyway. And then start setting sets and things on fire.


You know, when you’re ever dealing with fire, it’s dangerous. Everybody knows it’s dangerous. One of our guys, he’s on fire running up the beach toward the Hound and he had this arrow sticking out of his head as well, and it was just like, for God’s sake, don’t trip up. [Laughs.] That would end badly. But they’re so good these days, you know.

Game Of Thrones, “The Watchers On The Wall” (season four, episode nine)

Deaths: Bomb blast, giant arrow through chest


AVC: That’s the kind of thing where you say, “We’re going to be working with fire all day,” and most people think, “Oh shit, can we not?” But stunt men are the people who probably rub their hands together and were excited to do it, I imagine.

NM: Well, that’s because they get paid a lot more if they do fire [work]. On the second Game Of Thrones I did [“The Watchers On The Wall”], we did this sequence where we’re dropping this bomb and these five guys get caught in the blast and they get set on fire, and we did one take of it and it was spectacular—and it’s like full-body burns for these guys, so not only are they getting blown up but then they get set on fire and they’re supposed to die from that.


We did one take and it was pretty good, and then I said, “I think I need another take on this, I just didn’t get quite what I wanted.” And it was the first time ever that I can think of, where it was like, I have to get the producers on the phone. And so they go, “Okay, you realize that another take is something like $10,000 to $15,000 dollars it’s going to cost us just to pay the stuntmen to do the burn again, because you’ve got five people doing full body burns, that’s very expensive… do you really need it?” And I said, “Yeah, I think I really need it.” And they said, “Well, you never ask us for stuff, so you can do it.” So we got to do it again. The stuntmen, of course, were just like, “Yeah, sure! We’ll do it again.”

AVC: Since we transferred to “Watchers On The Wall,” you’ve also got that giant arrow that gets fired that takes a guy through the chest and shoots him dozens of feet into the air. Was that similarly difficult in terms of coordination for shooting that?


NM: Well, there’s a lot of elements involved in that. First, there’s a giant shooting [the arrow], but then we have a guy on a bungee wire that gets ripped off the top of the set and flown through the air, and then we have another guy who’s on this weird device that makes him look like he’s impaled into the ground, and that’s where we kind of use careful CG, just to meld them all together. The whole idea of it was a way of linking the battle on one side of the wall, the battle on the top of the wall, and the battle in Castle Black together with one action and tying them in that way. That’s where that came from.

It also came out of the idea that originally the giants didn’t have bows, which—there’s no danger to the people on top of the wall, it’s 700 feet up, no normal bow could reach them. So I said, “What if the giants had bows? They’d be like heavy artillery bows. They could reach much further.” And the Game Of Thrones people were like, “Yeah, that’s an awesome idea!” And that kind of enabled us to do the whole thing. It meant there was some jeopardy for the people on top of the wall, who up until that point were safe as houses. There was no danger. And so we did that.


Doomsday (2008)

Death: Burning someone alive and eating them

AVC: How difficult is the coordination of large scenes where you’ve got all these extras? Here, you’re burning the guy alive and then eating him, he’s suspended over the pitch or oil or whatever, and there’s tons of people involved.


NM: Yeah, that was pretty much the biggest scene I’ve ever shot. We had nearly a thousand extras in there, and rarely do you get to do things with that many extras anymore. The location was like the food court of a theme park in Cape Town. And it had this big auditorium and it had this big stage, and we’re like, okay, let’s just make it work in here. We dressed it all up to make it look Mad Max-y, and I knew that the scene kind of divided into two. There was the stage show and then there’s the floor show, you know, with the audience. And so what we did the first night was we just shot the audience, knowing that we had the actors on stage running their whole show. And we just shot all the stuff with the audience when it was fresh and when they’d really appreciate it, we got all the reactions that we wanted to get, shot the hell out of the audience, then on the second night we kind of turned the cameras around and shot the stage show, which then led into the feeding frenzy as well and it was just… it made sense that way.

And then of course the stage show did its whole thing with the dancers, and then everybody jumps into the crowd, and then the body comes out and he’s cooked. I think we barbecued a side of pork or something like that, and gave it to them to eat and they were all just grubbing this stuff and eating it. The extras really got into it. And it was injecting humor, by having them throw out paper plates at everybody. Yeah, it was how could we do cannibalism slightly differently. At the same time, for a lot of people it’s really a shocking moment. And I think the fact that I had real flesh being ripped apart for the close-ups, it was like, ooh… that’s a bit close.


AVC: Do you think that’s why that ended up being one of the more divisive films in your filmography? Because I think a lot of people go in expecting some sort of gritty, hard-edged gruesome thing, and instead you’ve got this almost gonzo style of filmmaking.

NM: I think people were thrown by the humor in it, definitely, and it kind of gets more wacky as it goes on. It starts off fairly straight, 28 Days Later, and then it goes into Mad Max territory and then suddenly it’s like, there’s knights in armor, and that was half the point for me. It’s like my sense of humor is showing in that film. It verges on Monty Python at times. But at the same time, it’s a big adventure story.


Hannibal, “The Great Red Dragon” (2015, season three, episode eight)

Death: Reenacted murder of a family

AVC: This has a much more languid and abstract type of violence than you usually shoot.


NM: The challenge was to be a little bit more artistic about it. And I had a lot of fun with that. I tried to do something different with the death scene with the family, you know, the murder scene—because it’s a scene that’s been done, it’s depicted twice over on movies before—and trying to come up with different angles on that, and play around with it. So yeah, it was a real challenge artistically. But it was the nature of the show, and the aesthetic of the show, that things had that kind of slower, more precision kind of feel to it. But what that did was enabled me to be a little bit more artistic, I guess.

AVC: Had you watched the two films as a way to make sure you’re not just repeating things?


NM: I don’t know if I watched them directly before I did it, but I’m very familiar with them. I’ve seen them both several times. I knew what I was getting into.

Centurion (2010)

Death: Beheading/Stabbing/Slicing (army battle scene)

AVC: Was this your very first traditional battle scene?

NM: Yeah, it was my first kind of “two armies clashing” battle scene. Absolutely.


AVC: You’ve got so many heads chopped apart, arrows into bodies, beheadings, axes into necks, et cetera.

NM: It was an orgy of violence. [Laughs.]

AVC: Is there a point when you’re writing it out, and say, “All right, how do we make sure that all these kills are different? How do we make sure that all the axes into heads aren’t just looking the same?”


NM: I don’t know. It’s just, it’s one of my central preoccupations. How can I kill somebody different every time? How do I find a new way to chop somebody’s head off? And even when I came into “Blackwater,” you know, I did a guy getting his head cut off, but it’s just above the eyes, so it was just like, okay, that’s a bit different. With Centurion it was the same thing. It was like, how can we keep the variety? Actually, there’s a lot of ways to do these things. You have knives and axes and lots of different weapons, and you can come up with new ways to stick them in people. But it was creating that variety and also, with Centurion, for me, it was very much a case of like, I want to make the film that shows if you hit somebody with a really sharp object, this is what happens. It’s not pleasant. There’s no kind of PG-13 there. So that’s what we did. We just did not hold back in any way, shape, or form.

AVC: Did you have a particular death or kill where you just sort of took a moment and patted yourself on the back?


NM: I really like what happened with the scene where Olga Kurylenko traps a Roman soldier in a river and proceeds to hack his head off with an ax. We did that as a practical thing, we had a dummy and we used CG to kind of comp the actor’s face onto the dummy. So it looks very real. It looks like he’s getting chopped up. And as she was doing it, she lost her footing and slipped, and what happened was she basically—before the head had come off completely, it caused her to kind of yank the head up and it ripped off the neck. And I just—it was a complete accident, but it was one of those things that’s just like, oh my God, that’s so wonderfully brutal, and like I’ve never seen that before, so that’s awesome. [Laughs.] Accidents produce some of the best scenes.

AVC: Now I’m going to have to go back and rewatch that scene again.

NM: Yeah. She slipped. And I kept it in the film, because I just thought it was awesome.


AVC: That is awesome.

NM: I hope I don’t come off like a total psycho.