Interview: Christopher Smith Talks ‘Black Death’
Interview with Christopher Smith, Director of Black Death
Interview conducted by Marc Patterson – February, 2011
Black Death is the latest film from Christopher Smith, who had everyone talking last year with his mind-twisting film Triangle. He follows it up this year with a medieval horror film set in the midst of the Bubonic Plague. It’s a tale that follows a young monk named Osmond (Eddie Redmayne) who is struggling to reconcile his love of God and love of a woman and in doing so finds himself in the center of a larger war being waged – a spiritual war of sorts. He prays to God for guidance and what God delivers is a group of Christian mercenaries, led by fiercely fundamentalist Christian soldier Ulric (Sean Bean), who have been tasked by the Catholic Church to seek out an isolated village that is unaffected by the plague, and capture a necromancer, who holds sway over the village. Osmond joins Ulric’s group under false pretenses and when he discovers their true intentions is forced to stay with them if he should want to save the woman he loves. Ideologies clash brilliantly under the backdrop of one of mankind’s darkest hours creating a wonderful horror film that speaks volumes about the inherent danger of abuse of religion, standing for what you believe in, and the transitioning of boyhood to manhood. With Black Death hitting America’s shores today we got the opportunity to speak to Christopher Smith on the crafting of this epic tale.
Brutal As Hell (Marc Patterson): We just watched Black Death and this was a great film – very bleak, but powerful.
Christopher Smith: It’s hard for a director to be objective because I’ve just made four films, but this is the film I love the most because I just find the actors brought real theatrics to the atmosphere. I think there’s something real authentic there. I think the worldview of the film is interesting. We shot the film in order and it’s interesting to what happened there, because we got to the scene in the film where Ulric (Sean Bean) killed the witch, I think it was day four or five. And there’s something amazing in the worldview where the audience watches as Ulric kills this girl and you think he’s a horrible savage killer and then in the next scene he explains why he did it. and I think in that moment and the audience will go “Okay, I agree with you for doing that.” You suddenly get in a medieval mindset and I think that’s the moment when the film really begins for me.
BAH: I agree, because I was watching it and at first when I sat down to it, I wasn’t sure this was a horror film. It’s obviously a very dark film and it’s set in the middle ages, but one that’s done in a very realistic way,and not fantasy based. At that moment you’re referring to you really sink into it and get the seriousness of it. Here’s this man of conviction and he’s on a mission.
CS: It’s true. Subconsciously I think that scene alludes to the scene in Apocalypse Now where Willard kills the girl on the boat. I don’t know where the scene is, but they stop this boat and you suddenly go “this guy’s fuckin’ serious” and we allude to that scene.
BAH: Let’s talk about religion. At first there was an aspect of the film that seemed very anti-Christian, but at the same time never went and glorified paganism either.
CS: Absolutely not. It’s not anti-Christian. It’s not anti-paganism. It’s about fundamentalism. If you look at the worldview of the film in the beginning, you have a young Christian monk who wants to love God and love a woman equally and he’s told he can’t. So right away to try and resolve that, he devises a way that he can still love God and still have his girlfriend. And then he’s influenced by Sean Bean’s character in having experiences on the road. What I think is interesting is when you get to the village it is in no way like the world that they’re told, that it has demons and it’s a horrible village, so much so that it creeps them out. But like in any cases both religions are being manipulated by people for selfish reasons and that is what the film is “anti”. It’s not anti any religion.
BAH: Well it was very smartly done.
CS: Well I knew I was treading water and didn’t want to get robbed. Christianity is sort of a soft target. People can make jokes in movies about Christianity that they wouldn’t make of other faiths, so I was very keen to give every religion the same respect. I didn’t want to come down on any side. I think it’s a film that at the end says “innocence has become radicalized by a series of events”, and I thought that was a very modern dilemma.
BAH: I do want to ask about Sean Bean. Sean was simply alive in this role. He did Lord of the Rings and again here he is in a medieval piece, though this character was very different from that other character.
BAH: And many times we ask actors how it was working with a director, but I might turn the tables here and ask how it was directing Sean?
CS: Well obviously in England Sean is one of the most famous actors. In all sides of the film world. He’s also done a lot of television work as well. Sean is the kind of guy you can go with for a beer in the pub. And because he’s a working class kind of guy he’ll have guys come up to him and pat him on the back. I’ve always loved him as an actor. He’s kind of like our own Robert Duvall in that he’s an actor that’s always good and you always like him.
On the very first day, on the very first scene that you see on the film, he’s with David Warner and he comes in, you know he does this scene when he’s talking to the Bishop. Sean does an amazing first take and he comes up to me and I say “That was great Sean”, and he says “Should I try it a bit quicker?” And I say “Yeah, try it a bit quicker.” I didn’t think it needed to be quicker, but we tried it and it was also great. And then he did another take, and it was also great.
We were lucky in that all of the actors were of that quality, but when you have all these good actors they can do anything and suddenly your role as a director becomes that they want you to give them a note because they want to feel that you can have a view of their performance.
The first note I gave Sean was that “You’re a man who shouldn’t have to rush because you’re a man of conviction and whoever this man is, on your part he’s a fraud and he has a view of Christianity that’s softer than yours, so you can make him work for you.” And obviously that happened to be good direction because suddenly from that point on we were very close, and I think Sean’s amazing in the film. I think the scene in the end when Sean says “Take off my shirt” and he’s there whispering at the boy is one of the most beautiful scenes, honestly. I was there hugging him saying “Thank you”. I think Sean’s great and it was an amazing experience for me. It taught me a lot working for someone as good as Sean.
BAH: And I want to give the cinematographer huge respect as well. It was just a stunning looking film and full of atmosphere.
CS: It was a strange one because we were under such amazing time constraints. We shot on 16mm because we wanted it to have an immediacy, almost like a war picture. But the greatest thing that he (Sebastian Edschmid) did was that, and he came up with this, we spent a lot of money on smoke. And even in scenes where you don’t see smoke it just fills the air with this atmosphere, which I think lifts the performances. What he did was amazing because I think it has a lot to do with the thickness of the air, it creates this amazing look. But yeah, I’m glad you noticed that. He did an amazing job. I think it’s a beautiful film.
BAH: I’m glad you mentioned the 16mm, because I wanted to ask you about that choice.
CS: It’s a difficult choice because obviously handheld 16mm grainy is not 35 mil, or 35 mil super wide. It’s a choice, and it’s actually a brave choice because it’s not an obvious way of doing it. But it has an element to it, because we didn’t try to put everything on a crane and make everything your traditional way. We kept everything behind the ear of the character so you really felt you were walking on the road along with them. We didn’t have helicopter shots. That wasn’t just budget. That was choice. Because we wanted to travel on the cart with the men and it makes you feel really claustrophobic. And I think that was a good choice.
BAH: I want to talk about the nasty stuff for a moment. I remember from history classes, and books I’ve read that the bubonic plague was really horrible stuff. I’ve often thought it the perfect model for what modern post-apocalyptic horror should be. However, it was REALLY brought to life in your film. The lumps, the bloody mess. You could practically smell it from the screen. Can we just talk about the look of the film and your approach to bringing death so alive?
CS: I tried not to make a feature of it in the sense that when I first read the script it would be pretty easy to do it in, not a gory way, but there’s certainly something vile to that disease and there are swords and costumes and it’s hard not to want to show it off in a gruesome way, in a titillating way. And what we did we said okay let’s imagine that this this is a disease that we still have now, that is still prevalent, and in fact you can still get this disease, in certain areas it’s still possible to get this disease. You wouldn’t show a movie now about Avian bird flu, you wouldn’t titillate with those, you would show them with respect. So we tried to sort of show it as if it was something killing people today. And in that way it has a sort of seriousness to it, So there’s nothing titillating the way we do it. You just see these piles of bodies in the road. It could be a shot from a movie of genocidal war. It has that image, which is a modern image that make us think of World War 2 and the Holocaust, so that’s what we tried to give it was a real authenticity.
BAH: Yeah, it came off as very authentic – again as something historical, almost as a period piece. What was your approach in maintaining the accuracy of the approach? You have this bigger story going on, but want to make it accurate to the period?
CS: Yeah that’s a tricky one because obviously my job is to make films that will still work in the genre. I’m not here to make a documentary about that. My job is to still to give you set pieces and excitement and so forth, so it’s a delicate balancing act in a way. I recently watched a film called The Town, Ben Affleck’s film. And I love that film because what he does in that movie is to have real characters in the film, but to have big set piece with bank robbers. And what we had to do in this was balance realism with the need to still give you scenes where characters fall apart or battle sequences and all the things you expect in a guys on a mission movie.
BAH: Everyone seems to want to know about the cage, that keeps getting highlighted in the trailer and the film. Can you talk about the creation of that, and if there’s any cut footage we didn’t see in the film?
CS: Here’s the thing. We wanted there to be a cage and what happened is we came up the idea, and the cage was in the script, and that is what we liked, the idea that they are going to capture this person and bring them back in a cage. And it was designed by the production designer, the writers and me, of coming up with ideas of what would be a cool cage and what it would look like and the thing ended up costing us $15,000 to build this thing, and we wanted it to feel realistic, but also make the audience anticipate something. But when you get to the scene in the end and you go “Well how are we going to use it?” Because if we use the things we thought about using and we got the audience’s mind going, we certainly crossed the line and you end up in that world of “this scene is now about how cool it is to torture someone” instead of how uncool it is to torture someone. And the way to film torture is not to titillate, certainly not in this film, not like in Saw. So we ended up doing a strange thing. We wanted to use it. And we thought, “Should we put Sean in the cage? And what could we do with Sean if we put him in the cage?” So ultimately, we only used it to a certain degree, which is probably not as much as some people would expect, without giving too much away but we still used it, but used it in a way keeping with the tone of the film.
BAH: Season of the Witch recently came out recently here in the States. It was a horrible, shambling mess I might add. Have you seen it yet? I have to imagine you were up to speed on this film while you were making yours? They’ve come out now so close together.
CS: We used a large number of the same crew, because it was filmed in the same area as our film. We were very aware of their film and were very conscious, certainly in England, to get our film out before that film. I haven’t seen it. It’s a tricky one for directors because I know how hard it is to make movies so if it hasn’t worked then I actually feel sorry for the filmmakers. I know the film I made will never compete with that film on one level because budget and the fact that they had Nicolas Cage, so we didn’t try to compete with it in the sense that trying to make a film that deals with it (the subject) the way they did. Our film was always much more realistic so I knew we were coming from a different standpoint. So, although they are similar in some ways, which is the period, I knew they would be very different.
BAH: Well again – it was great talking to you. Thank you for the film and we look forward to telling our readers about it.
CS: Thanks very much indeed. Thank you Marc
You can now watch Black Death, from Magnolia Pictures, starting today, February 4th via your Video On Demand provider. Black Death will get a limited theatrical release on March 11th.