Neil Marshall – Centurion: Acting in Extremis


The director of DOG SOLDIERS, THE DESCENT and DOOMSDAY is no stranger to pushing his actors to the limit. But, as he explains, conditions on the Scottish set of CENTURION saw his cast tested at every turn.

I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the actors that I have. Not simply because of their calibre as performers, but also because of the collaborative experience I have had working with them. For me, working closely with the actors is one of the most unpredictable and rewarding parts of the whole process.

Give me a set over green screen any day, and give me a location over a set. Some people say a film is made in the edit; as a former editor, I actually disagree. I believe the film is formed in the edit, the story shaped and nuance fine-tuned. But you can’t form anything unless it’s been captured on camera first, and if something isn’t real when you’re shooting it, no amount of editing is going to give it the reality it lacks, and CG-enhancement can’t turn a bad performance into a good one. The shoot is where the magic happens, in front of the camera. I provide the setting, the circumstances and the motivation, but it’s up to the actors to make it real. Like catching lightning in a bottle, you’ve got to be able to recognise it and seize it while it’s happening.

The film shoot has that sense of esprit de corps that I imagine is only comparable to being in the military. I like the atmosphere to be one of professionalism, collaboration and good humour. I want the cast to feel that they can approach me and put suggestions my way, and I also want to feel that I can do the same in return. One of my most important jobs as director is to listen to the actors, hear their thoughts and suggestions and utilise the ones that work and discard the ones that don’t.

In the past I’ve had the pleasure of working and collaborating with amazing actors and mostly with ensemble casts on Dog Soldiers (Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Liam Cunningham, Darren Morfitt, Les Simpson, Chris Robson, Emma Cleasby, Tom Lockyer); The Descent (Shauna Madonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, MyAnna Buring, Nora-Jane Noone, Saskia Mulder); Doomsday (Adrian Lester, Alexander Siddig, Craig Conway, Rick Warden, David O’Hara, Bob Hoskins, Malcolm McDowell) and now on Centurion, with a cast that mixes established talents with new faces, and creates an interesting blend. I’ve got Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds), Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) and Dominic West (The Wire), as well as David Morrissey, Liam Cunningham, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, JJ Feild, Imogen Poots, Ulrich Thomsen and Axelle Carolyn. All brilliant actors, all very different, and they all worked their arses off to make this film the best it could possibly be. We all shared an amazing adventure together.

One thing I made absolutely clear to any potential cast member on this production was that it was going to be tough-and by that I didn’t mean a few late nights and a shortage of coffee on set. I meant tough; really tough. It was my absolute intention to make the actors suffer, because I wanted their experience to be as real as I dared make it without actually harming them. Nobody was going to come through this without a few cuts and bruises-or worse. Everyone took me at my word, and nobody backed down. They were in it for the long haul, whatever the weather. I think the experience lived up to their expectations.

We shot most of Centurion in the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland throughout February 2009. The week before we even began filming, while on a location recce, we were snowed in at our hotel under metre-high drifts. The first day of filming we were on top of one of the mountains, 2,000 feet up, in a blizzard with little visibility and temperatures dropping to -18 degrees! It was a baptism of ice for the cast, whose first scene involved digging a shelter in a snowdrift using their bare hands, and huddling together for warmth out of the biting cold wind. Little of that first day’s filming was faked. The rattling teeth and shivers of the actors are very real, and so is the slight hint of blue in their complexions—and all this wearing flimsy Roman costumes and thin leather boots. The next morning Noel asked the other cast members if they could still feel their feet. They could, he couldn’t; he had the first stages of frostbite! And this was just the beginning.

Luckily Noel soon recovered, but every day had its challenges. If it wasn’t the snow, it was horizontal rain or freezing winds. Like some kind of masochist I was loving it. A few days later we had them all floating over a waterfall and down rapids in an ice-cold river. This water was about as cold as it gets before turning to ice, and the sudden and brutal shock of it hitting their bodies was a bit too much for some: poor Dimitri Leonidas turned a nasty shade of green before he started projectile vomiting everywhere. Following a quick check-up at the local hospital he was passed fit for duty, and soon returned for further pummelling. Sometimes these actors really do suffer for their art, and I’ve nothing but admiration for them. Michael, always eager to please, had to be restrained from hurling himself off a 40-foot cliff after the stuntmen!

What, for me, is so important about these physical hardships is the effect it has on the cast. Through adversity, bonds are forged between them that could not be created via other means. They become the brothers in arms they are portraying. I’ve had this experience in my films before; certainly on Dog Soldiers where, by the time we’d finished the shoot, I swear those boys would have fought and died for each other, the bond was so strong. This is integral in creating a convincing camaraderie on screen. It allows me to say so much more with a look than with 20 lines of dialogue. You can read the life experience in the lines, the dirt, the scars on their faces, and their hollow eyes and gaunt expressions speak volumes of the hellish journey they are on- not just as characters, but as actors too.

I suppose, out of all the cast, the two people I worked most closely with were Michael, whose story the film centres around, and Olga, who had the difficult task of trying to render her performance without speech of any kind—her character Etain has had her tongue cut out. Michael is incredibly fastidious and dedicated; he knows no fear. He was an absolute pleasure to work with and brought so much weight and nuance to the role of Quintus Dias. Olga proved to be a worthy match, especially when it came to the fights. Her character is all raw physicality and expresses herself through violence. Luckily, Olga was also game and had no problem suffering grazes and scrapes while rolling around in the dust with Michael on a cold day in March.

One of the other highlights of working with the cast on this production was getting the chance to direct my wife, Axelle. She made two brief appearances in Doomsday, but the role of the Pict warrior Aeron was far more challenging. She needed to learn to ride and shoot a bow, and be convincing at both. Luckily the riding was no problem and she proved a dead shot with the longbow, spending a lot of her time in the movie ruthlessly shooting unfortunate Romans in the back. The character on the page was barely sketched, but Axelle is incredibly expressive and turned her into a scowling, cold-hearted thug, who just happens to be a woman. And why not? This was the age of Boudicca after all!

A good collaboration with actors is as much to my benefit as theirs. No two characters are the same and no two actors are the same. They each bring something different to the table and that’s what keeps it fresh and dynamic. When I worked with Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell on Doomsday, I was initially intimated by their wealth of experience, but once you get past that and get on with the hard graft, what it boils down to is that we’re each there to do a job, and that job doesn’t change depending on the actor or director. It varies, yes, but the fundamentals remain the same.

As director, I’m there to listen to them, to guide them, and to understand how the individual pieces of their performance will fit into the whole and complete the jigsaw of their character. Bob and Malcolm do what they do, and keep doing it, for exactly the same reason as I do-they love making movies. The same goes for the cast of Centurion: Michael, Olga, Dominic, Liam and all the rest. I doubt they would have endured what I put them through with such dedication and determination if they hadn’t felt as passionately about the film as I do. It’s been a unique experience and an amazing collaboration. That, to me, is what the actor/director relationship really means, and what making movies is all about. ♦

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