By Paul Risker.
Since his feature debut Dog Soldiers (2002), Neil Marshall has developed a career across film and television, directing the action and genre pictures The Descent (2005), Doomsday (2008) and Centurion (2010), while directing episodes of Hannibal (2013-15), Black Sails (2014-), Constantine (2014-15) and Game of Thrones (2011-). As executive producer of Ed Evers-Swindell feature debut Dark Signal (2016), Marshall’s name adorns the DVD packaging. The distributor Kaleidoscope has turned to an established name to lend a sense of credibility to debuting filmmaker. The presence of a name as a promotional tool is of course nothing new – the names of stars, studios and producers throughout film history have been incorporated into the publicity machine, becoming an instrumental cog in a film’s promotion. What remains worrying is the incredulous nature of distributors to not use established names, but manufacture critics and critical outlets to help them to promote films – without the emphasis of critical integrity from either side. Perhaps this is the alarming evolution of publicity and promotion that has converged with the uncontrolled democratisation of film journalism. But as for Dark Signal it is nothing but a positive sign to see a filmmaker reciprocate his success by supporting aspiring filmmakers, which if speaking idealistically, should be perceived as a responsibility of any established filmmaker.
In conversation with Film International, Marshall discussed the way in which his experiences as director guided his approach to executive producing Dark Signal, which included his approach towards allowing Evers-Swindell to learn independently. He also reflected on the filmmaking process as a lifelong education, the importance of experience and instinct, as well as the enduring nature of horror and film as belonging to the audience.
How did you first become involved in the project?
I have been friends with Ed for twenty years and so I have just been following his career. When he first came up with the initial idea he pitched it to me and it grew from there. So I have been involved right from the start.
When Ed first pitched you the idea, what was the source of your confidence in the story he was proposing?
Well it was partly because it felt like a fresh idea. The combination of the haunting of the woman in the car on her own on a dark night was something I hadn’t seen before anywhere. And when you bring in the regular stuff with those fresh elements, again it felt fresh. So that was part of it. But also my belief in Ed and knowing how passionate he is about movies and wanting to make films. An awful lot of the movies that we love are very similar, which is why we became friends in the first place – we basically bonded over movies many, many years ago. And so it was having faith in Ed to go away and do this thing to the best of his ability, which is putting your faith in a friend.
In speaking with filmmakers, they’ll often tell you how a film can take up two years of your life. So in light of this, how important is that energy and passion, and can you make a film without that deep conviction of belief?
Well, I certainly don’t think you can make a first movie without that kind of conviction. I have heard or read about many directors who seem to have grown weary or are just not as interested once they get further into their careers. But for a first movie if you haven’t got that passion, then you’re not going to get there because you say two years, but two years is optimistic. It took me six years to get Dog Soldiers (2002) made, and Ed has been working on this for at least four to get it to where it is now. So you have to be passionate, you have to have courage and you’ve got to be stubborn and dig your heels in. At the end of the day somebody has to be there to guide the ship because nobody else is going to do it. So if are going to be the writer and the director, then yes, you absolutely have to steer that ship all the way through or it will just run aground (to use that metaphor). But it’s a pretty basic thing that the director is the figurehead and so there is no easy way of doing it. You can’t just casually make a movie.
Watching Ed encounter his first film must have offered an opportunity for you to reflect on the experience of your first film? A filmmaker remarked to me recently that you can only have expectations once you have made a film. Would you agree?
I think everyone is so much movie savvy now – people know how films are made and they know about how films are released. Filmmaking used to be a bit of an enigma, a mystery unless you were in the business. But with DVD extras, documentaries and books about making movies, the veil has been lifted and it has lost that mystery. So I do think you go in with expectations, which is unavoidable. But whether those expectations are going to be met is a different thing altogether. More often than not your expectations are going to be confounded at every turn, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have them. I think you have to try to bury them deep or ditch the expectations, and at the end of the day go with your own convictions. You have to have self-belief in what it is your pulling off because as a director all you have to go on is your own instinct. There is no rule book to follow – there’s no right or wrong. At the end of the day once you’ve done it there is a good and there’s a bad, but there’s no right or wrong. And so you have to go with your own instincts because for all of the outside influences and possible expectations, you have to ignore those and just get on with it. As a filmmaker myself, the big thing with Ed was just to stand back and let him do it. I gave him script notes and then once it came to filming I let him get on with it, because enforcing my instincts on it would have been the wrong thing to do. As a director I don’t want someone else telling me what to do either. So I wanted to respect Ed as a director and just let him get on with it. Afterwards when it came to the edit I’d then try it again with notes and opinions, but then you are dealing with something tangible. But when you are actually shooting it then it’s what’s in Ed’s head, and I can’t see inside Ed’s brain [laughs]. And it is probably a dark and scary place. But you cannot not mentor too much.
From speaking with filmmakers, is the process of learning to make films structured around honing one’s instincts so that you are able to eventually function instinctively?
I guess instincts become refined the more you do. Certainly you learn tricks and things that you know will work for you. Experience counts a great deal and Steven Spielberg is an obvious example. Spielberg doesn’t know everything. He may seem like he does, but he will never know everything because filmmaking is an education for life. No two movies are the same; no two sets of challenges are the same, and every film you make is the third time you are making that film. There’s no way you can know it all and so you still have to bring your instincts to bear on it in some respects. Someone like John Ford became famous for making Stagecoach (1939), but he probably made fifteen movies before Stagecoach came along. He was part of a studio system and he directed five features a year. So he had a lot of experience to bring to his first most famous movies like Stagecoach, and then he’d go on to do amazing movies after that. But he was still working on instinct, still working on what he believes was the right thing to do, and nobody can say it’s right or it’s wrong. It’s an interesting job and for me personally I would rather fall or stand on my own instincts and choices than to have failed based on someone else’s. I would learn nothing as a director if I made a disastrous movie based on somebody else’s choices that were forced upon me. But you do learn as a director if you fuck up yourself! How you learn as a director is by ultimately making mistakes. But that’s life… It’s not just directing, it’s life in general. So I tried to give Ed the same respect and the chance to go away and do it.
Watching Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter (2015), it is remarked upon how we are haunted by our own natures. Looking to the horror sub-genres of the ghost story and the slasher in which characters are haunted and pursued, could this be one explanation as to why horror endures?
Why the hell we watch horror films has been debated since the origins of horror. Why the hell do we get on a rollercoaster? We have a fundamental desire to test ourselves and to go back to base instincts when we were living in caves and shit. To go back to being scared of the wind or the sky; wolves or bears that makes us feel alive. So horror films tap into that and it’s fun, and like roller coasters it’s a safe way of doing it. While it’s going to be scary you know there’s the end of the track or there’s the end of the book. It’s not a real terror that people want to put themselves through – it’s a fun terror. But it’s cool as it’s like a little rush of adrenaline; like a weird little drug that we maybe need to get our fix of every once in a while. Not everybody wants that. Some people don’t like horror movies or roller coasters, but most people do. Most people like that jump and it’s a good excuse to cling onto your girlfriend or for your girlfriend to cling onto you. There are various options with a horror film. But it’s ultimately from that same principle that it is satisfying a base instinct.
When you consider the circles of hell in Dante’s The Inferno and Dark Signal could be perceived to offer another representation of intersecting layers or worlds that emerges out of superstitious beliefs.
Well the radio station and the radio signals are a good interpretation of the idea of something tangible that we can’t see. There are ghosts of sound moving through the air, but we can’t see them. The radio station is a way for us to interpret those by picking them up and playing them like music. So the radio signals are very similar to the concept of ghosts in that respect. There’s a world that we can’t perceive in any way and that’s what ghosts are all about. Ghosts and horror movies tap into the same thing that all religions tap into, which is that we are basically afraid of dying and of what comes next. A ghost story taps into that directly – hey look, there might actually be something beyond life. It could be positive, but in the place of horror movies it is mostly negative. If you want to see the positive side watch Field of Dreams (1989) because if you are going to watch horror movies and realise that there is life after death, then it’s a bit more of jumping out at people and moving furniture around. What horror films tap into is all human nature… The basic stuff.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2015) she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” Would you agree and do you perceive there to be a transfer of ownership?
I think that’s inevitable. At a certain point you’ve done as much as you can possibly do on it and you have to hand it over. And then yes, it falls into the audience’s domain and there’s nothing you can do with it beyond that. There’s no point in crying about it because it’s theirs now to interpret, read, watch and do whatever it is they want to do with it. You are giving them a gift and they are either going to appreciate it or not. You work hard to do this thing for them and it’s very nice when they appreciate it.
Dark Signal is available on DVD and Digital Download courtesy of Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.