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Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

July 21, 2006

In the horror film The Descent, six girlfriends (Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza, Alex Reid, Saskia Mulder, Nora-Jane Noone, and MyAnna Buring) plan an underground caving expedition in the woods of the Appalachians as a way of escaping the tragedies of the past year. But their adventurous excursion quickly turns into a hellish game of survival when they encounter something malevolent lurking deep within the bowels of the earth.

The Descent is written and directed by Neil Marshall, who scored a cult hit with his previous entry in the genre of survival horror, Dog Soldiers. In this exclusive interview, he talks about the making of the movie, including the task of putting his six actresses through a harrowing battery of physical ordeals.

The Interview What would be your quickie description of The Descent?

NEIL: We had the joke tagline that we kind of dreamt up when we were making it, which was, "Six chicks with picks." [laughs] I don't know...It's kind of a journey into the heart of darkness, I guess, with six girls in a cave.

Do you think this is a film in which the less you know about it going in, the better?

Oh, definitely. And certainly as far as the arrival of the crawlers is concerned. The less you know about that, the better.

Would you say The Descent is the type of movie that starts off as very realistic and normal, then suddenly takes a drastic detour into horror?

Kind of...For the first hour of the film, not that much in the way of traditional horror takes place at all. It's an adventure movie, and these girls go on this caving trip, and I wanted to explore just how terrifying that is in its own right. That's why I came up with the concept of the cave--there are so many ways to die down there, and there are so many ways to scare people filming down there, claustrophobia being the main thing.

Do you prefer that type of horror film over the straightforward slasher flick?

I do, because I think you invest more in the characters and the story. It builds. I think there's a problem with films that try and go straight for the throat within the first ten minutes, because you're burnt out by an hour into the film. There's nowhere left to go. You have to ramp up the tension slowly, and then you can let loose in the last half an hour. And if you do it that way, you can sustain it. So by that point, the audience will be walking out of the cinema completely shell-shocked and a bag of nerves. But if you do all that in the first half an hour, you can't possibly sustain that. Audiences become numb to it. They become bored by it. And nobody wants to see that. There's no investment. There's characters that you don't care about, so why would you even get scared?

I first heard about The Descent in negative reviews of 2005's The Cave. Do you think the two films are comparable?

Well, it's unavoidable. They're the only two cave movies to come along in a long time. They came out after us in the UK, but before us in the US. And we were aware of it when we were in production. We knew that we were the underdog. We had a fraction of their budget and they were kind of a studio picture. But we just knuckled down and said, "Look, we're making a certain kind of movie. We're making a really dark horror piece here, and it's unlikely that that film will be the same kind of thing." And as it turns out, it was completely different.

So you feel the comparisons are mostly superficial?

Oh, totally. I kind of felt sorry for them, really, because when The Cave was released in the UK, every single review that I read of it basically said, "This is sh*t, go and see The Descent." And I was just like, "Oh God, I really feel sorry for them." [laughs] Every single review of that film was a really great review of ours.

In what way does the US version of The Descent differ from the UK version?

There's like a minute off the ending. That's it.

What prompted that change?

Because it was a very rare opportunity to do that. The ending that we played in the UK was what was scripted, and it really split the audience 50/50. Some people loved it, some people hated it. When I was editing the film, I did try it with the slightly shorter ending. And we kind of looked at it, and we thought, "Yeah, that works, but let's go with what we have in the script. Let's go with the vision that we set out to make and put the full ending on." And that's what we did. But now we've been given a second chance, and it's kind of like, "Let's try it with this one, see what happens."

If the film hadn't polarized audiences like that, would you still have tweaked the ending for the US version?

If the UK ending had been a complete success with everybody, the thought never would have occurred to me at all to even try it. But because it did split people 50/50, I thought, "Well, this is a rare opportunity for a filmmaker, so let's just try it and see what happens." And [since] the DVD will have the other ending, people are going to see it, I'm sure.

How did you handle the casting process for the six girls?

I specifically went for a pretty even-tempered cast of "not too well knowns." Because if you have six girls and five of them are unknowns, and then you suddenly throw like a really well-known person in there, it upsets the balance. It was something that we avoided with Dog Soldiers, and [that worked], so I wanted to repeat the formula in a way. And by getting unknowns into a film like this, they give 200%. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose. So there's no time or sense for egos or bitchiness or anything like that. They just all muck in. It was a long casting process, and luckily, we got a fantastic group of actresses. We cast [them] specifically because they were all very, very strong actors. And that's what I wanted, because it was all about performance. And they played brilliantly. And they're now a really solid group of friends. They all hang out together and we all go for drinks still. It was a bonding thing, I think, for everybody.

Did any of the actresses have reservations about the physical demands of the movie?

Well, that was one of the first things I had said in the audition, was that it's going to be a tough shoot. "It's going to be a physically arduous, tortuous shoot. So if you've got any problems with heights, darkness, claustrophobia, whatever, tell me now and let's get it out of the way." And they all said, "No, we're all well up for it." And of course, any actress in an audition is going to say that, but how many of them actually mean it? And they all were true to their word. There wasn't a complaint, there wasn't anything. And we put them through hell. You know, the guys in Dog Soldiers [just had to] fire guns at werewolves and stuff like that. It was pretty easy. But these girls had to do climbing, river rafting, caving...They were lying in pools of freezing cold water for days on end. They had a pretty arduous seven weeks of shooting.

Which scenes were particularly grueling to shoot?

The scene where they get stuck in the tunnel was pretty bad because Shauna [Macdonald] is actually very claustrophobic, so that wasn't particularly pleasant for her. And then the scene where Holly breaks her leg also was difficult because it was a very tight, enclosed space to get everybody into. And Nora-Jane Noone had to lie in this river for a whole day freezing, and it was raining all the time on the set as well. So that was pretty tough, because it was in January in the UK, and the studio that we were in doesn't have any heating. The crew were all in their big, thick coats, and the girls were just wet and cold.

So they really suffered for their art?

Oh, totally. I made sure they did. And Shauna suffered for her art the day that she spent the whole day in the blood...She spent the whole day in there doing that scene and going down and up, and fighting, and that wasn't very easy either.

Your film Dog Soldiers distinguishes itself from other werewolf movies by being more of a survival action flick, as opposed to the standard formula of one guy transforming, wreaking havoc, and waking up in a strange place the next day...

Well, that, for me, was the whole key. I didn't want to make a movie about what a curse it was being a werewolf. That's what all werewolf movies are about--the curse of the werewolf. Somebody gets bitten, it's their story. And I thought, "Nah, let's just have some soldiers and some werewolves attacking them, and [have them] shoot the sh*t out of each other. That'll be much more fun."

As a viewer, what are some of your favorite werewolf movies?

Certainly The Howling. And American Werewolf in London is the godfather of werewolf movies. It's also the reason why I never attempted to do a transformation scene, because I didn't want to utilize CGI. That wasn't going to work for me at all, and I knew that I couldn't get one better than American Werewolf in London, so I just thought, "Okay, let's go in the totally opposite direction." [There is] a film called Carry on Screaming! It's essentially a comedy...And when they do their transformation scene, it's just basically some guy falling down behind the furniture and coming up, and he's got extra hair. And I thought, "Let's just do it like that." [laughs] A guy falling behind a table and then he comes up as a werewolf.

Thanks for your time.

Thank you. Cheers.

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