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Interview with director Christopher Smith on his film Black Death by Magnolia Pictures

Interview Conducted Febuary 2011

by James Klein

Christopher Smith

One of the many rising talented directors out there is British director Christopher Smith. Smith has worked in many genres since his debut film Creep in 2004. He has done a monster film (Creep), a horror/comedy (Severance), a suspense thriller (Triangle) and his newest film Black Death is a period piece about England's black plague and a small band of Crusaders and a young priest on a quest to find a village that has yet to be infected by this plague.

All of Mr. Smith's films has been very unique and different. Speaking to him I got the impression that he is foremost, a movie fan and his passion and love for making films shows in not just this interview but in his films as well.

Being this was my first interview, it was such a treat to speak to such a class act, a very down to Earth kind of guy. Special thanks go out to Brandon Nichols for allowing me the chance to interview Mr. Smith. An also special thanks goes out to Adam Bielawski for bringing me on to write for UnRated Magazine.

Hope you all enjoy this. There are some spoilers for those who have yet to see Black Death. ---James Klein


James Klein: Mr. Smith, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me. I really appreciate it.

Christopher Smith: No problem at all, mate.

JK: Well I wanted to jump right into Black Death, which by the way I really enjoyed.

CS: Thank you.

JK: How does Black Death compare to your first film Creep? Meaning, how are you different as a filmmaker now than you were back then?

CS: Wow, that's a very good question. Well, when I first started out I had alot to learn. It was an entirely new process for me. I was working with a new crew, producers, actors...it was all very new and different and I learned quickly at a fast pace. I still learn alot on every film I make. This reminds me of what Martin Scorsese once said, who I admire quite a bit. He said that we are all film students while we direct. There is always 1% here or there that could change everything on your film. That 1% can make it or sink it if you do one little thing right or wrong.It's about choice and what you do with that obvious choice and that is still where I am at now. I always try to take a choice, right or wrong, I try to go for the flip side of the coin rather than hitting the nail head on. I think there are alot of things that are still the same. It's just the way you can handle things such as budgets and all that other stuff that goes along with moviemaking. I think that's the stuff where I have definitely grown.

 

The thing is when I was just a film lover and yeah, I still am a film fan you don't quite realize that...you see a movie, a big budget movie that's been shot for six months and if you see a small independent movie that's been shot for just over five weeks with no money. But when you are a viewer you don't realize that or care about all that. You only care if for example that one movie has got loads of flying aliens and that other movie doesn't got any (laughs). You kind of then go, "Well, if that's what you are thinking, we can't compete against that." because you can only make the movie with the money you got and you can only shoot it the way you shoot it. And I think that the ideas I get that I see from movies are what I love about movies. And the films I love the most are regardless of the budget, if they got great ideas in them, those are the films I think last the longest.

JK: What sort of research did you do for Black Death? How much of Black Death's facts regarding the plague is based on fact?

CS: It was as close as you can get. We researched it heavily. We didn't want to show just the titillating side of how they died. It's not in the way they died, it was in the numbers. I wanted to shoot it in the way that this event happened say ten years ago instead of something that happened 600 years ago. If it happened just ten years ago, we would be filming it with respect for the absolute human tragedy that it was. That's why I shot as if you were watching war footage rather than how I shot say Severence, the kind of Sam Raimi style where I think that wouldn't be right for it. The reason I think this feels authentic...weirdly there was a talk show in England today that I heard while I was driving in my car and the film was actually being discussed by these historians. I didn't even know the film was going to be discussed. They were very, very positive about all the things we had done. There were a few niggling things that only a historian would pick up that even we hadn't realized. Things like the sequence when the flagellant soldiers, whipping themselves having to cross up the river. Actually, they would only walk on land because the purpose of the flagellant soldiers was to make other people join them by flagellating themselves, they would please God and punish themselves and keep the plague at bay. Visually, we wanted to do the sequence in the river so I said, "Ok, what they are really doing this for is they are giving themselves as big of a burden as they can by actually walking against the flow of the river." That factual incident is wrong but what they all commended us on that I am most proud of is that it feels as though the characters have Medieval thinking and are behaving in a Medieval way. But that atmosphere comes alot from the script and from the way the actors are performing as well as the way it looks with all the costumes and make up.

JK: That's funny when you mentioned that you shot it like a WWII movie. I thought the same thing when I was watching it, that it was very different from the way Creep, Severence, or Triangle looked. I was thinking to myself that this is nothing like, say Braveheart or Conan the Barbarian...

CS: Yes, its got that certain feel like when you watch the History channel and you see the way WWII was filmed. The footage these soldiers shot wasn't the most clear, not the best stuff ever shot. Spielberg made Saving Private Ryan based on this idea, that the footage that has been captured and shown in documentaries of people being gunned down is so much more shocking and brutal and it's not just to do with the fact that it's obviously real people. Even if you reproduce it in a movie, you get that same sense and feeling as that horrendous footage, it kind of creates this immediacy. I think alot of modern cinema today has come from that. Just look at the amazing first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg is just amazing. I think that film affected everything that has came out after in terms of this kind of style of immediacy. I also think the way we view the internet and the way we can now see this footage that we never had access before...the language of cinema has really changed as a result of all that.

JK: What was the casting process like for Black Death? Was it easier or harder to cast than your previous films?

CS: Actually it was the easiest film I have ever casted. I worked with a wonderful casting director who...well, me and her just clicked. I said I wanted these guys to feel like they are from the period. I don't want it to feel like these guys just got off Oxford Street and just came back from shopping, covered in their moisturizers and looking pretty for the cameras. I want these guys to feel and look like real guys and to have skin that looks aged and I want them all to be brilliant actors (laughs). That was a must. They all got to look and feel different and have different identities visually rather than long back stories. In most cases with the exception of Carice van Houten, Tim McInnerny, and John Lynch all of which I suggested, everybody else came from her suggestion. Sean (Bean) was already attached. Eddie Redmayne who plays the monk is such a brilliant actor..

JK: Oh, he's great! He was fantastic.

CS: Yeah, he is a young actor and he's really breaking through now. There was another director attached to the project before me and he (Redmayne) wasn't at the top of the list so when I started looking through all these audition tapes that they had done, I looked at Eddie and he was like, "This guy is amazing!" And some of the sequences we had done, like the sequence when he finds the bloody clothes and the horse, I think we shot that whole sequence within an hour. He would just turn on the emotion, like he was an on/off switch. He was amazing.

JK: Ok, I gotta know, what was it like to work with David Warner? I am a huge fan of his.

CS: (Laughs) It's funny ya know, I have done four interviews today and everyone wants to know about David Warner. He's one of those actors who...if you see him reading lines in a room, David has so much gravity...he almost feels too big for the screen. It reminds me of a story that Sean Bean told me that when he was making the film The Field. Richard Harris was performing and he does this scene where the director was worried that Harris's performance was just too big and Richard Harris said, "No, just go watch it back in the rushes, you'll love it. It's brilliant, darling." And as it turns out he won an Oscar for that performance. David Warner is one of those similar actors. If people really spoke the way he speaks on screen or in a room, you would go, "What? That guy is ridiculous!" But on screen when you put it back on playback, it's just brilliant. It was just a pleasure working with David. Every line would just be...he could give you 15 different versions of the same line. It was incredible.

JK: That's awesome. Now, Black Death seems to have a theme regarding organized religion in that if any religion is taken to the extreme it can become dangerous. Would you say this is correct?

CS: Absolutely yes. That's the film. It's about the way people can corrupt religion and use religion on people. Not so much the religion in itself, but just the corrupting influence of people.

JK: Your previous film Triangle is very different than Black Death. Was it hard for you to jump from a modern day psychological thriller to a dramatic period piece?

CS: No, no it was great (laughs). It was just lovely to do something that I could shoot in order. We shot the film in order. The first thing we shot was with David Warner, the last thing we shot was with Eddie Redmayne. Scene by scene, day by day we shot the film in order. It was lovely to do that where everybody knew where they were in the film. One of the hard things about making Triangle...I knew exactly where we were because I had written it but it was very hard for everyone to know which loop we were in and for the crew to know which loop we were in. This was alot easier in that way. The only moment where we "spun out" or at least I spun out was during the first couple of days when I was filming people all in costume and it all seemed so odd. But you literally forget that straight away because once you deal with the realism of the situation and then you are up and running.

JK: All of your films have been very unique in that you have worked in numerous genres. Creep was a monster movie, Severance was a horror/comedy/satire, Triangle was like a mystery/thriller similar to a Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode and Black Death is an action/drama which was also a period piece. Would you say this has been intentional on your part?

CS: Yes and no. I think that certainly the decision to make Triangle was by design in the sense that I wanted to do something more challenging, well not so much for me but for the audience. I am a big fan of The Shining and what it did in terms of the certain moments that just unravel you, it almost scars you. Again Memento is a similar film. I loved the film La Jette, which was I think the main influence. I love those kind of movies and as you said I love the kind of "Twilight Zone" feel and put that in a feature. The other films has just been a project that has come along that excited me. I find it very hard to fake an interest. I can never be the guy who needs a job just to have a job and fake an interest which is why I write my own material for the most part. It's so obvious what I am passionate about. I am fortune enough that I have kept myself busy and not have done a film just for the sake of making a film. I hope I never will. I certainly don't intend to. I'll just write myself something interesting if I can't get a job from someone else's script.

JK: The ending of Black Death ends on kind of a downer with what happens to the character of Osmund. Was this always the original ending? Were you ever at any point asked to change the ending?

CS: No...it was...well, the original script I read was entirely different. The second half of the movie was entirely supernatural. At the end of that script before I got involved, he (Osmund) was actually in Hell and Hell being in the physical place. And that was when you find out that Carice's character was actually the Devil reincarnated. I loved the idea of Osmund ending up in Hell but I wanted to...well Hell for me is the Hell you are in within yourself. That's what Triangle was about, being trapped in guilt and Hell. I wanted the character to be in Hell at the end so I wanted to come up with an idea for that. That's when I came up with the epilogue which we did put in. And all the way through there was not an appetite for this ending because it was so dark, they did try to cut it from the script. Then they tried to cut it from the shooting schedule. Eventually they realized they needed it to show Osmund's radicalization. Suddenly with just two days to spare, everyone wanted the epilogue. But for me it was a closure, the whole point of the movie is in that epilogue. It's hard to watch the first time when you see it but when you know it's coming and you see it again it makes absolute sense that someone has become the embodiment of evil. No witch was ever guilty of being a witch and thousands and thousands were killed. Why? Was it just for money? For power and corruption? Probably. But there were other people who passionately believed in this evil so...why? And so Osmund almost becomes worse than Sean Bean's character.

JK: All your films seem to use more practical effects for the most part. What is your opinion and stance on CGI and how it is used so frequently in films?

CS: There was alot of CGI in Triangle.

JK: Really?

CS: Oh yes. It really depends on the film. I think CGI is great when you have no idea how they did it and you assume it's real. When CGI does that, it's brilliant. But often when it doesn't do that...I don't like it so much. See, if you're in a fantasy world it's all ok to use CGI, take Avatar for example where it looks amazing being in this other world. But when you are in the real world and you use it, you have to use it in a clever way because that way you don't know. I don't like being pulled out of a movie. I don't want people to stop and say, "Wow, what a great effect." because then they are pulled out of a movie and not thinking about the movie anymore. The films that are the best films are ones where you are submerged into the drama. I don't want to think about what good CGI works in the movie, I want to just assume it's perfect. But in this film (Black Death) there is some CGI effects but we did it in a clever way. If you were to have a blood spurt in a movie, don't make the blood spurt exactly in the right direction that suits the framing of the shot. Blood doesn't work that way, gravity doesn't work like that. Always try to do the illogical with it and it will look more real. For instance, when Sean Bean throws the sword in Black Death, the sword flicks past the camera. We did it so many times and I kept saying, "It doesn't look real!" The CGI artist did a brilliant job because it went so close to the camera and looked realistic, there was no way you could ever do that for real. We put it in just so it misses the edge of the frame and you wouldn't think it's CGI but it is. That's the key with CGI; to not do the logical but to do the illogical. And then it looks more real.

JK: See, this must have fooled me because I didn't think there was much CGI in this...

CS: Oh there are lots! (laughs) I am very proud people have said this but there are lots. You're not looking at it though. Whenever I noticed it, I would take it out.

JK: One of my favorite parts in the film and one of the most brutal scenes I thought in the film which didn't involve any effects is when Sean Bean's character rescues the witch and he takes her to the side and yet kills her himself. I thought that scene was so gruesome with the sound effects...

CS: Part of what that is, is the way he kills her...it feels as though how you would cut someone's throat. It's not a slash, it's hard work, like you are killing a pig. Again, the sound effects on that took ages to get right because we wanted it to feel real and not over the top. He throws her down and she's dead and it's just brutal and it happens in a long shot instead of a close up. The mixture of the sound and the distance from the killing make it much more real. If you look at the battle scenes as well, we made the swords feel heavy, we took out all the sound effects of those "Swish, swish" noises you hear in most sword movies where you hear the wind almost cut through. That's in samurai movies but it seems like it fits in everything now. You can even punch someone and you can hear the wind move, man. It's ridiculous. That's a movie sound, not a real sound. When you punch someone you don't hear the wind. (laughs) We tried to create sounds that would fit for what we think is real.

JK: What my final question is: what is next for Christopher Smith? What is your next project?

CS: Well I don't know what my next project is but I'm working on a film noir that's got horror elements. It's a road movie set in America, going from L.A. to Vegas. I am also working on a werewolf film...

JK: Oh nice!

CS: It's going to be awesome to get that film made. It's going to be funny but not a comedy, just twisted. Still scary. What else am I working on? (pause) I am working on a kids film that is different, kind of like Gremlins, ya know that sort of tone. Naughty but still for kids. Who knows what else will come. (pause) I...I just love making movies. Please...the sooner I work the better. (laughs)

JK: Well that concludes all my questions, thank you so much man. I really appreciate it.

CS: It's been a pleasure man!

JK: This was really cool. It was an honor to be able to do this.

CS: (laughs)

JK: I am a huge fan of Creep. The first time I saw it, it was one in the morning, lights off, very badass. I had to tell you how much I liked Creep when I was invited to interview you.

CS: Thank you very much, man. I appreciate it.

JK: Thank you again.

CS: Pleasure to chat with you!


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