Black Death is opening up this week and behind the camera is Christopher Smith. After a successful VOD run, Smith’s latest is expanding its release to ensure audiences have ample opportunity to see the director’s latest venture into the horror genre, a genre he knows very well. Responsible for great horror films like Triangle, Severance and Creep, Black Death once again takes on the genre, but this time in a medieval setting. We recently sat down with Christopher to talk with him about the film and what audiences can expect from it. Check it out below. Audio version included at the end of the page.
We Got This Covered: Hi, how are you?
Christopher Smith: Good, how are you?
WGTC: Not bad, thanks. Can you start off by telling us what draws you to the horror genre. This is your fourth horror film. Why do you like the genre so much?
CS: First of all, it’s a very wide genre, it gives you scope and provides you with big sandboxes. I’ve always liked the feeling you get when you watch these types of films. I try to be as twisted and demented as I can. For me it’s just a genre that provides a lot of artistic freedom. I’ve never been under any restrictions with horror, which is why I like it. I think that horror movies at the moment are much more pedestrian than they ever were in the 70s and we actually need to make films that are not more gory but are more psychological interesting and adult in theme. And that’s what I try to do.
WGTC: So how did you first get attached to Black Death?
CS: I was halfway through the sound mix of Triangle and I got the script and read it. I loved the world and I loved Dario’s writing, the way he describes the scene and the richness of it. I felt like this was a period in history where more people died in the space of a year then they did in any war. I thought it would be a rich period to put a story in. Plus the world was so dark and there’s not much that needed to be added in order to create horror.
WGTC: How much research went into the film to ensure that you could accurately portray and capture that era?
CS: I had done alot before because I had a general interest in certain periods of history, such as that one. So I had read a lot before. But I also started to read books from people who were around in the period so I got a sense of how writers wrote novels and how people thought in that period. I wanted characters to feel authentic in their logic and reasoning. And of course I wanted the costume design of the world to look convincing, including the cleanliness, the teeth, the complexion etc. They all fit into each other. So it’s not just one thing in terms of accuracy. You can easily create Medieval accuracy in terms of looking at it but to get the characters to feel Medieval was the thing that took the most research.
WGTC: You’ve said before that you shot the film in a style that was ‘reminiscent of old war footage’, what do you mean by that?
CS: Well, it’s not so much old war footage, it doesn’t have that look. That was just the inspiration. More of the idea of the embedded journalist. More to do with, well certain war movies in recent memory, they shoot the film with a kind of austereness. For the most part, they do things in a more serious way. The style is over the shoulder, following the characters. There are no big sweeping shots like in Lord of the Rings. It’s just walking with the men as they go into battle. I thought that style would give the film an immediacy which would allow an audience to move back into the period, at least with the visual style that feels more modern.
WGTC: Speaking of the shooting, why did you decide to go with 16mm? Was it because of the budget?
CS: Well you’re not saving a great deal by shooting on 16mm. We felt that the more grubby the film would be, the better. We did flip flop a lot on the issue. Of course there would be financial savings, but then again there would be even more savings if we shot on video, in HD, which we rejected. So it wasn’t entirely a commercial thing.
We could have shot it cheaper but we felt that the grain and texture added to the darkness of the movie. Look at The Godfather, it got an Oscar for cinematography and the joke is you could hardly see what’s going on. But it feels rich and textured. That’s what we wanted to do with Black Death, put a bit of layering into it to make it feel dirty.
WGTC: Now just to go back to the script for a minute, this is the first film that you’ve done where you haven’t directed off your own script. Was that strange for you, was it different?
CS: Well although I didn’t write it, when I got the script changes were made. The first half of the script is very similar to the movie you see. But the second half of the film was entirely supernatural and completely different. I said to the producers that I really want to shake up the second half and ask what would hell be like on earth and how can we create that. So I kind of ended up as my own writer. I worked with Dario on changing the characters and events in the second half. In many ways I was very involved on the script. I was just as involved as I was in Severance.
In Severance I got a writing credit but it was James Moran’s script that he had written. I just got involved in the writing with him. With this I didn’t get involved with the writing of the dialogue but was very much involved with Dario and the storytelling. It was a wonderful experience. It’s nice to have someone who can write such rich dialogue. So I do feel that the script was very much mine, even though I didn’t sit down and start it from scratch.
WGTC: And do you prefer directing off projects you start from scratch? Or working with a screenwriter on an already written script?
CS: I like both equal. There’s something lovely about having a pool of writers writing for you. When I’m not directing I write ideas down. Maybe in the future I’ll work with writers on ideas I’ve written myself, because it just means that you can get another perspective, which is rewarding. It comes down to whichever is the best idea.
WGTC: The script had some heavy religious aspects, some reviewers have even called it anti-Christian or too heavy handed. What’s your take on that?
CS: Someone called it anti-Christian? It must be someone who didn’t understand the film. I find that pretty odd. I’m surprised that people are saying that.
WGTC: Was it ever a concern of your that the religious aspects might put people off?
CS: No. The film is very much about religion and the period was about religion. Fundamentalism and religious law was law. That’s how it was. The most logical explanation for the plague was that it was sent by either God or the Devil. So how could I not use religion in the film? I don’t mean to be cranky but I don’t think that calling it anti-Christian is right. The movie doesn’t take any side on religion. We walked a very careful line.
WGTC: The film was released first on VOD, and only now it’s hitting theatres. Why did you choose to go this route?
CS: It’s brilliant for a film like Black Death. If it did it the other way around, cinema then DVD, a film of this size would be released in SF, LA, Boston, NY and nowhere else. 99% of America would only be able to see it 2 months later on DVD. So I’m pleased. With this model you can see it wherever you are in the US and the word of mouth from having the VOD then feeds back into the people who want to see it on the big screen.
WGTC: Now tell us about Sean Bean. How did you cast him and how was it like working with him?
CS: I think Sean is amazing. I’ve always liked him. On set I discussed with him how great I thought he was in Ronin. He’s so brilliant, he can hold his own against the best there is. He’s such a good actor. He was attached to the project before I got involved. And when I met with him I told him I wanted to push it to make it much more realistic and he was up for it. He’s a pleasure to work with. You can’t ask for more from an actor. He can do things so many different ways, and they all work. So you’re spoiled for choice in what pace should you run a scene, what intensity should it be etc. He can do anything. I can’t say enough good things about him.
WGTC: And lastly, can you tell us about some of your upcoming projects?
CS: I’ve got a couple projects. One is a film noire that I’m working on. I love those old film noires from the 40s and 50s. I want to do something like that. It deals with the dark side in a kind of cool way. I’m also doing a comedy werewolf thing, not a spoof, just something that is funny. I also want to do something a bit Severance-y, not as broad but dark and funny. These projects are just at script stage though. I don’t know which one will go first. I’ve written two scripts, myself and I’m desperate to go back in and make a film this year.
I’m still a bit cranky here though. I’m lingering on the whole religious aspect that you mentioned before. Let me explain why I’m a bit touchy about that. As soon as you deal with something, one person’s too much is another person’s not enough. I’ve had people say that the film is atheist. It’s neither of those things though. It’s not anti-Christian or atheist. And It’s not heavy handed either. It’s heavy, for sure. But not heavy handed.
WGTC: Well anytime you introduce religious aspects into a film you’ll going to have criticism.
CS: I know. And I was worried when I was making it. Especially because we were dealing with Christianity and it can often be a soft target in terms of it’s ok to ridicule or be blunt with it. I didn’t want it to be that. I wanted to give it the same respect that I’d give anything. We tried our damnedest to be as careful as possible.
WGTC: Well thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us! And good luck with the film!