Director and Writer talk about creating comedy in the realm of horror
With the gritty horror film Creep behind him, writer/director Christopher Smith teamed up with writer James Moran to create Severance. This film centers on an international arms dealer who rewards his six-member team with a mountain retreat in Eastern Europe. But their agenda quickly changes when they are attacked by a renegade band of soldiers.
How was James's original script P.45 different from Severance?
James Moran: It's the same but different. Essentially the same storyline and death order, these English office workers go abroad on a teambuilding exercise and there's a coach crash and all that, but I think the main difference is all the arms dealer stuff. It was mentioned that they were arms dealers, kind of a throwaway line, but the main change was to make that more central and add a whole responsibility thing.
Christopher Smith: The essence is the same, the characterizations, everything. I hadn't bought into them being arms dealers so by shifting that forwards, it made a big difference. Also the difference in the titles - Severance is more a horror-sounding title that James came up with. P.45 sounds more like it's about redundancy or something.
James Moran: In America you'd have to call it Pink Slip, which doesn't sound very horror at all!
Where did the idea for the story come from?
James Moran: I wanted to do a horror. One evening I had a really bad tube journey home and I hate yuppies on the train because they just push past you and are obnoxious, so I got home in a fury, thinking, I just want to kill some yuppies! So I thought, I'm going to write some yuppies and put them in the woods and kill them! After I calmed down a bit, I thought that might be quite funny - if I took some English office group and put them in a horror movie, just the clash of the two different things.
Balancing the tone of comedy and horror is a fine line too...
Christopher Smith: Basically James and I got together and said, let's make these characters feel as real as possible. So if there's a line where a character is saying something to be funny, make sure it's a funny character saying it. And James had already done that. There was a line with the scene where you see all the bear traps: "Either someone really wants to catch bear, or there's a hell of a lot of bears to catch." It's the kind of a James Bond line. It's the sort of thing that sounds really fun when you're writing and you put it in. but it didn't fit tonally, so I had to cut it out.
During Danny's tripping scene, he went off and found a talking deer. We shot this scene with Leslie Phillips doing the deer's voice and again, it was trying to be funny.
James Moran: It was great stuff, I mean I could watch an hour and a half of Danny Dyer tripping, but it slowed the story down. We also took quite a lot of jokes out of the third act too.
If people think of horror-comedies as something like Shaun of the Dead or Scream, then Severance does seem to work differently.
James Moran: I think Shaun of the Dead is kind of a comedy-horror and ours is a horror film that happens to be funny. Withnail & I is not a comedy - some very dark and depressing things happen to all the characters, and they're not having a good time - but to us watching, it's hilarious, because we're not them. And that's kind of the way I saw Severance - just these ordinary people in this horrific situation and they're not enjoying it, but it's funny to watch but it's so ridiculous, and they're not responding in the usual horror movie way. They react more like an English office worker would, which is much funnier in some way.
Christopher Smith: When you start to direct a script like this, you have a choice: you either make a horror movie with a smidgeon of comedy; or you make a comedy with a smidgeon of horror. I think what James has done, and what I tried to do in the direction, is walk straight down the middle in the sense that this kind of quip, "The Office meets Deliverance", those two things are really good, so let's try and be funny and scary.
Did you decide on specific strategies to make this balance work?
Christopher Smith: A lot of it was in the original script. We knew as long as we played it straight and got the right actors, we could map out the path from beginning to end.
The reason my agent sent me the script was that, there's a moment at the end of Act II where you think you've understood everything and then wallop it just changes another gear. I guess it's like the end of a rock concert when they say, "Thank you and good night" and walk off and there's an encore. Well there's about five encores in this movie.
I knew if we kept it on the straight and narrow, we could then use music and sound to balance it up. So when there might be a cliché, instead of putting creepy music on a scene, I'd put a violin waltz on it. That's what refreshing about it - no one gets up when they're supposed to be dead, with a skewer in their eye and carries on.
James Moran: In a lot of horror movies, there's a bit where you say to yourself, right if I was in that situation, I would make sure to kill the guy if I had the chance. What really annoyed me in Wolf Creek, which is a great movie, if that there's this moment where they overpower the killer and they could kill him, but they don't and it drove me mad. So I wanted to make sure in Severance that when they have the chance, it's over.
Christopher Smith: For me after Creep, I remember reading on the Net, some kids saying "Why didn't they just kill Creep when they had the chance?" So there's a line I put in for Laura Harris to say, she says, "Well I'd hate to be accused of not killing him when I had the chance." That's straight for those little kids from the Net.
What's been the reaction from audiences so far? Have they understood what you're trying to achieve?
Christopher Smith: I've been on tour with it and seen it everywhere. The test screenings tested through the roof. What we're finding is, people are getting it, and they're getting it because it's odd, and it feels fresh, because the first half is so off-kilter, and the second half, nothing happens as you expect it's going to. It does move in ways you don't expect it to.
People expect the comedy to end half way and that now it will become scary but what happens is we find enough moments every three of four minutes that are jokes that don't come from characters, but are visual gags. That's what we both worked so hard to come up with in the script.
For me personally it's a dream come true. Creep had mixed reviews but did very well in the cinema, which was great. This has been so well reviewed. I read a review that says "it shouldn't work, but it does," and I feel a bit like that. It's a very fine line. There were other actors who were attached to the project but I don't think they would necessarily have been able to pull it off. Something goes on between these seven people.
Apparently you were very specific when it came to the casting.
Christopher Smith: I really drove the casting woman nuts. I felt they needed to be good actors to do the horror stuff and they needed to have a wit to do the comedy stuff, but both in equal measure. When we started we had lots of comedy actors coming in and we thought, they're never going to be able to handle the scary sequences.
Claudie Blakley who plays Jill, the right-on leftie in the group, for me she's one of the best young actresses in the country. We get to that scene in the woods where she's concussed and being chased through the woods, she did that in about half an hour as we were losing the light. And on the other hand she's got this real warmth and comic timing.
When Tim McInnerny walked into the room - I loved him in Blackadder and I always thought, where's he been? Why hasn't he been given something meaty to do? Tim's a real geek in the movie but you don't hate him, you feel for him.
That's what we learnt from The Office. For me, The Office Christmas Special is the best British film of that year. That one-hour blew me away. When David Brent tells his mate to piss off at the end, it means for me that Ricky Gervais isn't an idiot; you just don't understand him. And I think that's what we do with Tim. He was cast straight away Danny Dyer was cast straight away. Toby Stephens - as soon as he said he wanted to do it, wallop, he was cast.
Does it help you raises your own game when you're directing actors of that calibre?
Christopher Smith: It does. I guess as a football analogy, it's like being Jose Mourinho. You can put a load of good actors in a film but if they all their worst effort, it's still going to be alright. My job is to push and push them and get them up more where they could be. So from Day 1 I was on Danny's back. Danny's worst effort is good - he's a good actor, same with Toby Stephens. But it was just pushing and pushing to let them see that I've really got their back because an actor wants to see that. I had a specific idea for each character. You have to get them to up their games. And a couple of times, I held my hand up and said I was wrong, do it your way.
By the end of Day 2 we'd all sized each other up, and I'd gone up to each of them and given them an acting note - and it's pretty hard to go up to someone like Tim McInnerny, I've grown up as a little boy and loved him, and do that, but they want to be directed. Or Toby Stephens. When we did the read-through, they were all showing off a little and you could see they were sparring but it was all about upping their game.
Considering you shot in both Hungary and the Isle of Man, the location matching looks pretty seamless.
Christopher Smith: It's the magic of cinema..! I don't notice it anymore. The real problem, though, on a low-budget film is that you're up against time. If a character walks out of frame in one scene, and you shoot the next scene the following day, it might be raining, so that's where it's tricky and you have to think on your feet.
How do you feel you've evolved as a director between Creep and Severance?
Christopher Smith: I think when Martin Scorsese calls himself a film student you really know what he means. It's not just working with actors or the obvious things. You learn how to play a Line Producer, the person who controls the money strings and might say, "We haven't got the money to do that, why don't you try this?" And on Creep, I'd say, "OK, I'll give that a go."
On this film there's a scene where Danny has to pull a knife out of his chest and the knife they gave us was rubbish and just wouldn't work. And the moneyman's next to me saying, "Well just give it a go, if if doesn't work, we can always redo it." No. I'm not even going to shoot it because if I do, I've got it. Whereas before I tried to please, you end up becoming this tyrannical, arrogant boss!
What I learnt overall from being on tour on the whole horror scene was the bits audiences loved in Creep and the bits they weren't so keen on. I love the film, it's my first baby. I love the torture scene in Creep so much, with Sean Harris and the gloves, and I said to myself, as a starting point I want the worst part of Severance to be as good as that. And I'm not going to let one of those guys on the Net outthink me! If you think you get what's going to happen next, you're not.
Have you already given much thought to the Severance DVD?
Christopher Smith: Well I've got extra scenes like the talking deer scene. It's not necessarily the scene itself I'm most proud of, we shot some beautiful stuff getting to that scene, beautiful hallucinatory tricks all in-camera, not using any CG, that I had to really bite my hand off to cut out, so I get to show off all that stuff.
What you've got to be careful of for a DVD is that everybody's got great ideas of what to include, but you've got to edit a DVD. What I'd rather do is give you less but really good stuff. We're doing a commentary. We've got a fantastic 'Making Of' made by a friend of mine who used to work for Dan Films, whose job title was 'Assistant to Mr Smith', which basically meant he got to hang out on set! But he'd worked really hard for [producer] Jason [Newmark] in pre-production and we wanted to give him something that was fun. It's a real Making Of, real nuts and bolts stuff, not some glossy Hollywood package.
We're all going to do the commentary together. The way we'll do it is that basically I'm going to be the conductor, if you like. I'll start it off and they can all butt it. But it can become a bit of a jumble otherwise on commentaries when everybody just jumps in. so we'll try and keep it funny for the kids who want that and also informative for the film students.
After Creep and Severance, does it worry you to be typecast as a horror director?
Christopher Smith: It's weird, I don't even see it as a strictly horror anymore, I think things are changing. Since the Japanese wave of movies, the Rings or Audition, I think they've kind of pushed horror movies into more of an art zone. It used to be that you were a film director, a horror director, then a porn director! I don't see that anymore. I don't think M. Night Shymalan is making B-movies, you know what I mean?
So for me, I've made my gritty first one, Creep, then I've made Severance, something really nuts and fun. The third I might do something drier and might eventually turn it full circle so that I make Creep! I'd love to make a romantic comedy but I don't think I have to get out of horror to be a success. If I'm making horror movies all my life and I'm making movies I'm as proud of as I am of Severance, I'll be very pleased.
So what's next?
Christopher Smith: I'm working on a psychological thriller, more of a Memento idea, which is something hard for someone like me. It's something where I have to be very controlled from Page 1. Severance was also very controlled but at least I could say, if I want to shoot a plane out of the sky, I can...
Severance is released to buy and rent on DVD on 8th January from Pathe Distribution Ltd.