The actor talks about what attracted him to the project, blending horror and comedy, and what it was like to shoot the film
Best known for his role as Percy in the Blackadder series, Tim McInnerny changes things up in the role of Richard in the horror film Severance. He recently sat down to discuss making this comedy/horror film.
Severance 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.
Can you remember your first reaction when you heard about this project?
Tim McInnerny: I got sent the script and read it very late at night. And actually the comedy side of it wasn't what grabbed me - I was scared when I read it and couldn't get back to sleep, I had to leave the light on! Sad, really...
What really attracted me, was that every character was very rich and very quickly set up. The first half of the film, nothing really much happens in terms of horror, you just get to know the characters. It's kind of the Alien template. And I remember when I first saw Alien, I hadn't seen a film like that before - after about forty minutes, you're thinking, "well, what's this, then?" I didn't know how to judge it at all. And this was kind of the same thing.
So by the time things start happening to people, you care about them. Whereas I think in a lot of horror films, they're just kind of cogs in the machine of the plot. And you can't tell the difference between the characters, so why should you care about them?
What do you think about the film's blend of horror and comedy? They're two genres that might seem to be diametrically opposed.
Tim McInnerny: It's always a difficult thing, and I think everyone agrees that, if the comedy is good enough, that'll take care of itself. You don't play the comedy of it, you play the reality of the situation. And because it is that bizarre thing which I don't think I've seen in any other film before, in that the horror's full on and the comedy's very full-on. It's not like Shaun of the Dead, for instance. I don't know what genre it fits into, really.
I think one of the reasons it works is that you have to try very hard not to play what you know is going to come up in 30 seconds time. You're having a gentle amusing conversation but somebody's about to have their head come off. If somebody can laugh out loud and then five minutes later scream, that would be great. But also care about the characters.
It seems to take [audiences] a little while to gauge where they're supposed to be. It means that people are actually concentrating, that the audience has to do some work, and I think they should have to work a bit. There are certain rules in the genre that people seem to have to follow - it's what you do with them. It's a very fine balance and I think that Chris is brilliant at it.
Your role, Richard, is an interesting one because he could be simply the bumbling manager but turns out to be much more complicated. How did you see him?
Tim McInnerny: Firstly, you have to like your character. Richard's got a lot of problems! One has to assume that to be in the position he's in, second-in-command in this rather serious business, he has to be good at his job, so you can't set up a complete idiot because that wouldn't make sense. But having said that, what he's not good at is dealing with people - he's not a people person.
I think this so-called bonding weekend is as much about him trying to exert his authority and turn himself into a different person, as about making the whole company bond with each other. What's impressive about him - what I look for when reading a script is whether the character has any kind of journey. And Richard absolutely does, a great journey of self-realisation to almost heroic stature.
Did you have any real-life experience of "team building" exercises to draw on for the film's premise?
Tim McInnerny: Well, good and bad things..! What used to happen quite a lot in the theatre, was, "OK, we're going to play games today..." and you'd think anything more likely to get the backs up of actors is impossible to think of! Any kind of teambuilding thing in the business is always best when it comes from the top. There's also luck involved. The chemistry of people either works or it doesn't. if it doesn't then the director's got a hard job on his hands. When it does work, and it's properly focused - and it's not just about having fun - it's tremendously enjoyable.
Without giving too much away, Richard's fate is a particularly fascinating one, almost an existential dilemma...
Tim McInnerny: That's exactly the phrase I would use. Chris and I talked about it a lot at the beginning and then he made me promise that I wouldn't do any work on it, so that when we came to shoot it, we wouldn't come to it with any preconceptions. It was another aspect of how the shoot was organised for us to do our work as well as possible, we shot that over two nights, pretty much just me but the existential dilemma is very weird. It sounds terribly pretentious but I felt that when he actually does commit to [his fate], he has to go into some Zen area, to be able to do it. I've never had to do a scene like that, it was fantastic to do.
People wouldn't necessarily associate you with a horror movie - was that a big motivation to take the role?
Tim McInnerny: Well I've never done a horror. Certainly actors like me spend their whole time ticking things off - "Well, I'd like to be in a horror movie, be a cowboy..." and I always wanted to do a horror movie. I think the horror side of it attracted me more than the comedy side of it - the comedy side, I've done before.
I didn't realise quite how much hard work it was going to be. Spending all day or all night running away from people, covered in blood, it's quite exhausting. And of course it's not real blood, it's this sticky, sugar-based thing, which in the middle of the Hungarian forest is like a holiday for mosquitoes! That side of it was quite unpleasant...
Did shooting in Hungary help you feel more isolated or vulnerable for the characters' situation?
Tim McInnerny: What really helped for the ensemble nature of the film was that we took over this very strange hotel in the middle of the Hungarian forest, an hour and a half from anywhere. The hotel was wild, like the one in The Shining, which was a little bit disturbing. The fact that we were the only people there and when you had a day off, the only place to go was the Hungarian forest, so we did go a little stir crazy. I mean, when I say we couldn't wait to get to the Isle of Man, that says a lot...!
But the whole cast and crew was living together and I always prefer that. I hate the hierarchy of leading actors in one hotel, the rest of the cast in another, the crew somewhere else, I don't think that helps the morale of the movie at all. It makes such a difference when you're as friendly and relaxed with the crew as the rest of the cast, you can feel how much everyone wants it to work when you're doing a scene. You're not just doing a job and I think it shows.
How did that affect the group dynamic amongst the cast?
Tim McInnerny: It absolutely made a difference. I think an ensemble feeling is essential in any job - or at least that's the atmosphere that should be created. I know actors always say this, but it really was one of the most enjoyable jobs I've ever done in my life, we had such a good time. Everybody kind of bonded after just three days rehearsal - and very. very different ages and ways of working, backgrounds and it was quite extraordinary. And that was mainly down to the atmosphere created on set by Chris.
What particularly did you admire about working with Chris?
The brilliant thing about Chris Smith is that, apart from being an extremely talented director who really understands the language of film - which I don't think most directors do; they're perfectly capable of telling a linear story with pictures but that's not the same as creating shots, creating stuff in the edit that has an effect above and beyond the script - he's also kind of has no ego. He just wants everybody to be as good as they possibly can be, but he's not pushing for his own personal agenda, it's about getting the work done.
So has Severance opened you up to the possibility of making more horror films?
Tim McInnerny: Oh yeah. The genre doesn't actually make a lot of difference to me, as long the character's interesting and has a journey and the acting's a challenge, that's all I'm concerned about. The jobs I don't want to do are the jobs that are easy. When I get up in the morning to go to work, I want to be excited and also a bit scared about whether I'm going to be able to do what I'm required to do that day. And I want to feel that every day.
Severance is released to buy and rent on DVD on 8th January from Pathe Distribution Ltd