Director Chris Smith, who directed TRIANGLE, one of my "Ten Best Horror Movies of 2010" , talks about his latest film, BLACK DEATH. It is about a group of Knights in the plague riddled Middle Ages who are on a mission to destroy a demon that lives in a secluded village.
Q: First, I enjoyed BLACK DEATH. It's not quite as blatant a horror movie as TRIANGLE or CREEP but it's definitely there.
CHRIS: It's more of a drama, in a way. But you can say that about WITCHFINDER GENERAL and THE WICKER MAN, films that feel like they're in the real world.
Q: Yeah, the movie did remind me of THE WICKER MAN, in terms of the village.
CHRIS: That actually wasn't an influence for me. It was weird. The first I thought of that similarity when I was on set and Tim McInnerny is killing the Dalywag character, with the lake behind him.
Q: What drew you to the script?
CHRIS: I loved the world. The script was in two halves when I first read it. The first half of the script was very similar to the first half of the movie and the second half was much more supernatural and I read that first half thinking "I'd love to see a movie that took place in the days of the Plague". I've not done a period movie and there are so few period movies that are period horrors. Even period vampire movies are now very rare. So I really wanted to get my teeth into that, how you can use history. The sensibilities of the characters really interest me-- are we any different in our thinking now than then? That whole thing. Between six years and six hundred years, so many things are different and so many things aren't. That's scary.
Q: Talk about the characters, such as the main character, Ulric....
CHRIS: I think historically, where Ulric (Sean Bean) is coming from, he's determined and pure in his thoughts and he has one moment I love, just after Osmund is walking out of the hut with Averill in his arms there's a look he gives, which came from Sean, where he feels sad and he feels sad on a human level. The necessity of what you done and that you'll have to live with it and I feel sorry for you for that because I've done bad things and now you have, too. Ulric represents the fundamentalist side of the Church at that time. They were going through this crisis because the plague was killing half the population, people would go to church and say "Can you help us" and they'd say, "Yes, go to church more and pray more ", and that didn't work. Science didn't work, either. The people were caught up in this quandary. And they church thought they were turning away from the church because they thought it couldn't help. So any other kind of village or belief system that offers you the chance to live has to be an evil, bad place. This idea that he's come there to get rid of something--what he wants to get rid of is the choice against the church. Where he's coming from, that's a pure idea. He doesn't want the church anyway encroached by this disease. Because chances are this disease is sent by the devil to ruin the church. So all this Medieval thinking ties in and are also relevant today because the way "Evil" is often used to simplify very complex political situations. We're told "The defeat of evil" is the reason, the purpose of this, and we all know shortly after that the problems are much more complicated and long-lasting than that.
Q: What do you like most about the film?
What I love about the film, and I can talk about it in a removed way, is that it had a very organic feel to it and we shot it in order. And we had a lot of options in the edit of how we could deal with the scenario at the end. She gives everyone a chance--"If you renounce your Gods you'll be free to go, if you keep them you'll die". Someone renounces and she still kills that person and the reason for that was is to not give another world view. It's not about whose religion is right, it's about behind every religion there are people corrupting it to their own ends. And she has this belief system she sold to the villagers and ultimately she's not going to allow someone to spread another faith. So behind both sides there's darkness.
Q: I do like it that there's no "Evil" or demons in the movie, it's just that the Village simply doesn't believe in anything. It's like you're evil by default if you don't believe in god...
CHRIS: In Medieval thinking "You're either you're with us or against us". There's no inbetween.
Q: What were the main challenges of making a period piece?
CHRIS: At University I was big on Bergman films and how they dealt with it and I was big on THE NAME OF THE ROSE, the Herzog films that deal with history, AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD, they seem to get into the mindset of the characters so they act and think in a Medievel way. Often the mistake is with costume films of any kind, the period becomes about how the period looks like and how the characters look in that setting. The best ones don't care about that. They may have high production value but if you can get into the mindset of the characters a bit, then you start to make the film feel more authentic. BLACK DEATH looks and feels of a period, though the camera has a war footage feel. It adds to the authenticity. The challenge was not to do the period. The first couple of days felt a bit odd, with people in monks outfits and all, but within two or three days I'm not even thinking about the costumes. The story has started. When a film is running itself you just follow behind it and I love that when that happens. It happened in this movie all the way through. It was a very organic process like that.
Q: What about the actors. Was Sean in mind for Ulric from the first?
CHRIS: Sean was already attached and I love Sean, so that was a no brainer. So I met him, spoke about the way I wanted to approach it from a realistic standpoint. Sean liked the language, how it was old-fashioned. Sean was a real ally on the project. He was the biggest actor, but character is removed from the group, like the Nazi member of the German troops. He's on the periphery and the guys know of him but don't really trust him. We kept Sean's character and it worked within the heirarchy of the actors themselves so there was this energy amongst them from the word go.
Q: I don't want to give away the ending but that's the kicker, what happens to Osmund. I was like, "Shit".
CHRIS: It's a weird one. It was always the intention to do it that way. In the beginning he's a monk but like a modern Christian. He believes he can love God and a woman. The two were not clashing. And everything he tries to do to make that happen is taken away from him, so much so that goes through so many horrendous decisions on this journey that by the end he becomes the Sean Bean character.
I wasn't sure if I should have begun the movie that way, then the story would be how he became that guy. I think that would have been an easier in, but the destructive idea of this coda at this end is more horrible. He went through bad things and I like the film being a radicalization story. How does anyone become someone who goes around burning witches? What are they thinking. No witch ever died for being a witch.
Q: I thought it was very effective ending the movie that way...
CHRIS: Thanks. I love the fact it just ends. I've watched it at festivals and everyone goes "fucking hell". It's nice to see a movie that ends like that. The end of THE EXORCIST ends with the guy throwing himself out a window.
Q: Yeah, you never see that in movies now. I love a movie that ends dark. From the 70's they used to do that a lot.
CHRIS: Here's the great thing. In the 70's kids films can be kids films and adult films can be adult films but today everything has to be palatable. It didn't have to be all neatly wrapped up. Even if you look at a movie like ET--- it starts off with a family in breakdown. The father left, the mother is a wreck, she's drinking, the kids are fatherless and it's really dark. People forget that. They just think about cute ET. But that's what's amazing about Spielberg's stuff is that those movies had adult issues in childrens' films and that's good. Kids have to deal with this stuff and can handle a lot more than we think they can.
Q: What was your favorite part/scene of the movie?
CHRIS: I like the scene where the guy gets the plague on the journey and they kill him. It happens in a slow way. I love the whole cage sequence through the end of Sean. We shot that over five days, in order. It was a relentless sequence and finished it without a minute to spare. What we had in every step were actors who were selfless and brilliant. That was Sean's last day and was off to do a movie the next day. Never once did he get cross or lose his temper.
Q: Anything you want to add about the movie?
CHRIS: When I watch a movie for the first time, even if I made the film, I'm always acutely aware of what I made. I hope this is true-- I think it has legs. It will be one of those films, because it feels as if it was made in the 70's, it will live on. It won't feel dated. That's what I really like about it. Kids will talk about it like THE WICKER MAN. Maybe in 20 years kids will talk about this really cool old movie and it's not that old. I hope it goes down well in the States.