LAURA HARRIS and CHRISTOPHER SMITH on 'SEVERANCE' Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
May 3, 2007
In the horror comedy Severance, a group of office workers are sent to the backwoods of Eastern Europe for a company retreat, where they are terrorized by murderous stalkers with a grudge against the military weapons their corporation produces. Infused with a dark, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, the film pokes fun at some of the typical conventions of the genre, from hapless victims to killers who aren't really dead yet. While there are a few social commentaries on the business of war, none of it comes across as heavy-handed, and director Christopher Smith is quick to point out that first and foremost, Severance is just a "fun horror movie."
In this interview, Christopher Smith and actress Laura Harris (24, Dead Like Me, The Faculty) talk about the making of the film.
MEDIA: In one of the opening scenes, the characters encounter something in the woods, which quickly turns out to be a bear that doesn't care about them. Where did that idea come from?
CHRISTOPHER: I tried to put in some kind of random stuff in there. I think it was in the script already, about the idea of a bear...You know, you play on the idea of "there's werewolves in the woods" or "there's something in the woods," and then it's just a bear. And it plays on the idea of what we posit onto the meaning of fear...We played a lot on the idea of what you expect to happen and what will happen--we tried to use audience expectation a lot, and then we do the polar opposite of what you expect.
Was it difficult to balance the humor with the horror?
CHRISTOPHER: Yeah. It went through a long stage, really. From the first moment when I read the script and started working with the writer, we came up with clear rules. We didn't want the characters to be saying funny one-liners or to be doing anything that's just being said for a joke. I mean, sure, there are moments that you can see there's kind of punchlines, but they're punchlines of performance, in a way, more than they are like a Roger Moore James Bond one-liner. And then the same applied when we made the film. We cast people that we felt could just play it straight...So that they would play their characters as though they really were in a situation like that. And if they think a line is being said for a joke, they'd cut the line. And then at the end, obviously, once I was editing it, we applied the same logic. We were really hard on ourself. And then I used the music to try and blend over and sort of gel up the loose ends, in a way. So areas where I felt we were being too cliched--like at the beginning, it could be read cliched--I'd put weird music on it and make it kind of ironic.
Laura, you have a scene in which your character Maggie is caught in a trap and hanging mid-air by a rope, by her foot. How was that sequence set up?
LAURA: The actual like "snap, crank" was a stunt double...And then they put me in and "massaged" me up there. [laughs] It wasn't actually that friendly.
And you're literally dangling by one foot as you're acting that scene out?
LAURA: I am, yeah. And I have to say, I was dizzy for...I don't know, like 24 hours. Like the blood really, when you're upside down for that long, affects everything. I had never felt that way before. I had never seen life that way before, actually.
How long did it take to film all of that?
LAURA: I don't know. We shot it for a while.
CHRISTOPHER: [jokes] I dragged that out quite a lot, so I could keep her up there longer.
LAURA: [jokes] "48 hour scene!" [laughs]
CHRISTOPHER: It was half a day, I think. We'd get her up for three minutes or so and get her back down. She was so good. I mean, so much of this movie came from the actors actually really mucking in and knowing we were on a tight budget and doing that. [to Laura] Your leg almost came out of its socket.
Were there other moments that were particularly grueling to shoot?
LAURA: For me, the running was the hardest stuff. Running's hard if you don't run, if you're not a runner. Practice first! [laughs] That's all I have to say.
CHRISTOPHER: Yeah. I don't know about the other scenes. The hardest scene to shoot was the one [where] we tie [Claudie Blakley] to the tree...We were running out of time...So we had to literally tie poor Claudie to the tree and just leave her while we deal with the lights. [laughs]
You filmed this movie in Hungary. How did the locals react to a horror flick being shot there?
CHRISTOPHER: Well, they're used to it. Since the Victorian times, they've been, "There are vampires in those parts!" [laughs] They've had to put up with their fair share of it. But the crew didn't think we were making a movie that was anti-Eastern Europe or anti-Hungary. It was set somewhere in some nonspecific area of Eastern Europe...We tried to make it vague. And it's about corporations. It's not about "those people in Eastern Europe are crazy." [laughs] It's just that I used Eastern Europe because I couldn't make a movie about being trapped in the wilderness in England, because England's too small, and there's just no wilderness in England. So we couldn't do it. It's like doing something in Echo Park.
LAURA: [laughs] "We're stuck!"
How did you find the main shooting location of the lodge where the characters are staying?
CHRISTOPHER: I spent three months traveling around, actually. The first lodge we found, the one that's in the movie, was the very first one we found on the very first day. We went, "Great! There's going to be loads of spooky lodges." There were no others at all. And we went all around Hungary. You know, I went to Slovakia, Slovenia. And everything you found was either uninhabitable because it was a shack, or it was now a ski lodge--Westernized and changed. [laughs]
Maggie has a funny line about not wanting to be a typical horror movie victim who misses the chance to kill the bad guy. Is the cliche of "the killer's not really dead yet" a pet peeve you've had with the genre?
CHRISTOPHER: I've definitely had that peeve, and I actually made that mistake in [my previous film] Creep. And I had some kids on the net go, "What the f*ck? Just kill that guy when he's on the floor!" So I just said, "Okay, here's one for you. Here's one for the little kids on the net." [laughs] It's kind of like that, really. I tried to put a lot of that in the movie, in the sense that you say to yourself, "If someone was attacking me, I wouldn't just hit him twice, I'd drop a big boulder on his head." So we kind of followed that through a couple of times. [Maggie] makes no mistake. You mess with her, you die.
Speaking of which, Maggie struggles with a few boulders as weapons, but ultimately settles on a rock as her instrument of destruction. Were your weightlifting struggles just acting, or were the boulders real?
LAURA: Yeah, all the boulders were. The rock was not, but the boulders were.
CHRISTOPHER: Yeah. Although they did make a "prop rock." This is one of the problems we had in Eastern Europe. Slight translation problems, where I said, "Can you make me a prop rock?" I just shorthand assumed that the person who makes props realizes when he's read the script that we've got to hit someone over the head with it. And what they went and made was a perfect fiberglass rock that was really hard. [laughs] And I was, "Well, what's that for?" "It's a prop rock." "For what?" "To put on the floor...with the other rocks."
CHRISTOPHER: So we had to get a sponge, and that's what she has to hit him with in the end.
Do you think the new trend in horror is the horror/comedy hybrid?
CHRISTOPHER: Yeah. Well, I don't think it's just the comedy thing...With this, I just thought I've seen this a million times before. So what it made me do is really kind of think outside the box and try and do something new. And I think that it's not just going to be horror comedies. We're all getting paranoid, because we're all aware that it's going to wane. So I think people are becoming kind of inventive, in a way. And I think a lot of the stuff that's coming out, from America and Europe, has been interesting, really. I think that horror is actually not sitting back on its laurels, and it's coming up with new, ingenious stuff.