‘Constantine’: Neil Marshall talks Hellblazer, horror, future movie plans

Oct. 23, 2014 | 9:00 a.m.
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Harold Perrineau as Manny and Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)

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Lucy Griffiths as Liv and Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)

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Harold Perrineau as Manny and Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)

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Harold Perrineau as Manny and Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)

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Lucy Griffiths as Liv and Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)

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Lucy Griffiths as Liv and Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)

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Lucy Griffiths as Liv and Matt Ryan as John Constantine in "Constantine." (Quantrell Colbert/NBC)

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Harold Perrineau as Manny, Matt Ryan as John Constantine, Angelica Celaya as Zed and Charles Halford as Chaz in "Constantine." (Paul Drinkwater/NBC)

Is director Neil Marshall pleased to see John Constantine reborn for the small screen, personal demons and English accent intact? In a word, yes.

“I’m very happy that it’s gone back to its roots, having a British guy with the blond hair and a few nasty habits. That’s how it should be,” Marshall said recently over coffee in a downtown Los Angeles eatery.

It’s true that the supernatural investigator played by Matt Ryan on NBC’s new series “Constantine” bears a much stronger resemblance to the paranormal detective of the “Hellblazer” comics than did Keanu Reeves in the 2005 big-screen horror adventure of the same name. Perhaps a bit of credit for that transformation goes to Marshall, who directed the pilot for the show, created by executive producers Daniel Cerone (“Dexter”) and David S. Goyer (“The Dark Knight” film trilogy).

But the British filmmaker was quick to praise Welsh actor Ryan for his take on the tortured character, known for his cynicism and foul-mouthed snark.

“He’s made the part his own,” Marshall said. “It’s difficult to see anybody else in the role now. He’s a lovely guy and a pleasure to work with, a pleasure to direct.”

The director, whose feature film credits include the horror films “Dog Soldiers” and “The Descent” and the wild futuristic adventure “Doomsday,” is enjoying success in television these days, having helmed two of the biggest episodes of HBO’s wildly popular fantasy “Game of Thrones” — Season 2’s “Blackwater” and Season 4’s “The Watchers on the Wall,” the latter of which required at least 100 extras and an army of stuntman to properly stage a Wilding attack at Castle Black.

Marshall sat down with Hero Complex to discuss his experience on “Constantine” and working in television versus feature films — and he addressed the rumors that he might be interested in helming a Black Widow movie for Marvel, were the opportunity to arise.

Director Neil Marshall. (Courtesy of Neil Marshall)

Director Neil Marshall. (Courtesy of Neil Marshall)

Hero Complex: Were you a fan of the character of John Constantine? Did you read “Hellblazer”?

NM: To be honest, I only really became a fan of the character after the movie came out. It was more to do with, I was fascinated by this sudden uproar that they’d made him American, they’d made him black-haired and all this stuff. I was like, “Well, who are they talking about,” and I got a bit into researching it and was like, “Oh, wow, this was a British comic book hero that I’d never heard of before.” There’s very few British comic book heroes around, so I’m really interested in this character. When the chance came to do the pilot, I was so pleased they wanted to go back to the roots and do it according to the character. We got to do that. There’s a bigger story with Constantine as well. So as much as it is procedural to a point, and it’s interesting procedures, because there’s witchcraft and sorcery and demonology, but there’s a strong story thread going through the whole thing as well.

HC: When you go to direct a pilot like this — or really anything — after the two “Game of Thrones” episodes that you’ve done, is everything else easy?

NM: In terms of scale and things like that, then yes? Although invariably you get less time to do things on network shows. We had 15 days for the pilot, which was just right. We packed a lot into those 15 days. This is the first pilot I’d done. The writers, Daniel and David [Goyer], were incredibly open to my contributions. I think that they were familiar with my background in genre, horror in particular, and wanted me to make it scary. They gave me an awful lot of freedom. I had a similar thing on “Game of Thrones” as well where they kind of deferred to my knowledge of battles and action and military strategy to bring to both of the episodes that I did.  The challenges with “Constantine” were very different to the challenges with “Game of Thrones.” Every single project you do presents a new series of challenges. You never film the same thing twice under the same circumstances. That’s what I love about it. It’s an education for life.

In some ways, there’s more freedom doing a pilot because it’s not pre-established. “Game of Thrones” is very pre-established. You can’t go in and rock the boat or do anything drastically different. You have to conform to the style they’ve set and that’s fine. At the end of the day, you’re just trying to do the best job possible in the time provided with the material you’ve got. As with everything you’re always trying to push the boundaries with network TV and see things you can try and see what you can get away with.

HC: I think doing a series about a chain-smoking character feels transgressive.

NM: For the series, he’s not going to be a chain-smoker. On network, you can’t do that. What we’ve done is implied that he smokes. I think it’s too inherent to the character to ignore and I think the fans would not be happy if you suddenly had him smoking e-cigarettes. That’s just wrong for him. He’s damned to hell, what does he care if he smokes a cigarette or not? One of the most important story lines stems from that and it would be a shame to lose that down the line.

HC: Are there specific things you enjoy about working in television as opposed to feature films?

NM: At the moment what I enjoy is that it happens. A friend of mine recently said, “Everyone talks about movies but they actually make TV,” and I think he’s got a really good point. The TV projects that I’ve been involved with have happened, all the feature projects I’ve tried to get off the ground have stalled or dragged on. It’s not like I haven’t been trying to make features for the past three years. I’m itching to do another feature. But it’s really not easy at all. At the same time, I’ve been very fortunate to get my foot in the door with some of the best TV shows being made today, if not ever, in the case of “Game of Thrones.” I love being in that world now. I also think that the attitude has changed massively over the last 10 years. TV always used to be seen as a step down. That’s not the case anymore. The quality of the writing and the production values and everything on TV are so awesome now that there is virtually no difference. I’d like to create my own TV series — as a filmmaker, I’m a writer and director so I like to be in as much control as possible. I’d like to do that with TV and retain a heavy creative involvement. The best way to do that is to create your own shows. I’m developing something now, the pitch is that it’s “Game of Thrones” meets “Downton Abbey.” It’s going to be part history, part horror, which I’ve never really seen before. It’s just being fine-tuned at the moment.

Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), in foreground, and Holly (Nora–Jane Noone) in "The Descent." (Lionsgate)

Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), in foreground, and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) in “The Descent.” (Lionsgate)

HC: What about any of your upcoming movie projects? Are any of those further along?

NM: I’ve written the story for one and the script for another. I’m keen to get back to doing something scary again. After I did “The Descent,” I did “Doomsday” and “Centurion.” I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a horror director. If I’m going to be labeled as anything, I’d rather it be a genre director or an action director, something like that. Horror’s achieved more respect, but it’s essentially frowned upon. Horror is still the distant second cousin that nobody really wants to talk about in the family of genres. Every so often, a film comes along that breaks the boundaries, an “Exorcist” or a “Silence of the Lambs,” and achieves general respect throughout the community, but it’s not very often. Obviously it’s not helped by the fact that there’s an awful lot of not very good horror movies that get made. But then again, there’s an awful lot of not very good comedies and dramas that get made. It seems to get all the bad attention. [Horror] fans are good fans, and they’re loyal, and I kind of want to deliver the goods for them.

HC: “The Descent” was recently named by the British Film Institute as one of the 10 best horror films of the last 10 years. That has to be gratifying.

NM: Part of the reason I didn’t do a horror film straight after “The Descent” was I never came up with an idea as good. It was one of those fortuitous things where you come up with this idea, I knew it at the time, this is a good idea. This is a good story with good characters, there’s something fresh about it. Why has nobody done a horror film set in a cave before and why not a film with all women? I was thinking I’m onto something here. It worked out pretty well. Then you think, “I don’t have another idea like that so I’ll do something wildly different.” Then everybody hated my next film.

HC: You’re referring to “Doomsday”? That movie seems like one that will love on as a cult favorite.

NM: I certainly see its flaws, but I love it and I wouldn’t change it for the world…. Even I think its failure with the critics and at the box office was a great learning experience for me as a filmmaker. It helped me mature, and I applied to that “Centurion,” and the way that was made. There was a lot of subtext I was trying to put into “Centurion” about imperialism and invasion of small countries.

Rhone Mitra in "Doomsday." (Universal)

Rhona Mitra in “Doomsday.” (Universal)

HC: But looking ahead, are there any other details about your upcoming features that you can share?

NM: I’m working on a horror film set entirely in a traffic jam. I was driving from London to Switzerland at Christmas and we got stuck in a traffic jam outside the Channel tunnel and we were there for something like 11 hours. Then we had to do a 12-hour drive after it. I just got this idea, when you’re in a traffic jam and you’re on a freeway, and you’re surrounded by cars on all sides and there’s a dividing barrier between the other way, and there’s probably an embankment on one side, you can’t go anywhere. I was like, what if there was a serial killer killing people in the cars? I developed a story around that. For me, it was the best idea I’d come up with since “The Descent,” to make a dark and scary thriller. If it’s horror, it’s horror in a home invasion kind of way, like “The Purge.” It’s not supernatural. It’s dealing with humans. Then, I’m developing a sci-fi horror with Blumhouse, hopefully we’ll go early next year on that one. It’s called “Watch the Skies.”

I’m also writing a World War II alien invasion script, which I’ve been working on for a long, long time. I started writing it two years ago and then stopped and suddenly started getting into it. It’s not like thousands of flying saucers invading, it’s quite small scale. It’s played more for horror than anything. My pitch is it’s “The Goonies” meets “Aliens.” I wanted to do a Spielbergian type film. It’s these kids who were evacuated during the blitz in London and they end up in this little town on the coast. This town gets invaded by aliens and it’s up to the kids to basically organize the resistance. I think “Jurassic Park” is a great tonal example — you can make a family film but make it really scary. Then again, I might get carried away. [It’s called] “Invaders.”

HC: What about superhero films? Any of those on your horizon? There was some talk about Black Widow not long ago…

NM: I like the superheroes who aren’t really superheroes. I like Batman and I know that everybody thinks I want to make a Black Widow movie because it was all over the headlines. That was one of those things that just came up in conversation — sure, if I could make a superhero movie, something like Black Widow makes sense to me because it’s a comic book character and a superhero character but she doesn’t have any superpowers and I can therefore relate to her a bit better. That’s my issue with them really. I enjoy watching some of them, but there’s no drama because you know they’re going to win in the end. I thought the new “Captain America” film was awesome. And I really like the “X-Men” movies — they’re very entertaining, they’re brilliantly made. For me, personally, I don’t have superpowers. I prefer the stories where it’s a regular guy in an amazing situation. That’s why I love films like “Die Hard” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” That’s the kind of thing I want to make. I don’t think we need more superhero movies. We’ve got enough. Marvel does such a fantastic job, packaging them and presenting them. I don’t think the world is itching for my superhero movie.

— Gina McIntyre |  @LATHeroComplex

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