REPORT: On the set of Centurion with Neil Marshall

Sword, sandals and...well, mud for Mike, who chats with the cast and crew of the forthcoming Roman epic...

On the set of Centurion

They used to say that all roads led to Rome, but for me, one chilly but clear-skied April morning, it took a bus, two trains (change at Woking) and a short car journey for me to be transported to Second Century Roman Britannia. I had been invited to visit the set of Neil Marshall’s (Doomsday, The Descent) new film, Centurion, which is shaping up to be a different, unique take on ancient history.

That day, they were filming a late scene from the picture, which took place in a ransacked, scorched fort, as well as further scenes in a meticulously-designed ancient cottage in the heart of Surrey’s Alice Holt Forest. I had the chance to have an early peek at this new flick, and asked some of the cast and crew to shed light on the whole affair.

Set in AD 117, Centurion takes place on the northern frontier of Roman Britain, where the Pict civilisation is causing the Governor much grief. To sort matters out, the powers that be send the fabled Ninth Legion, an empire-trotting band of hardened soldiers, whose disappearance from historical literature has led to much query and theory in the classical establishment over the years. In line with one of the more popular theories, Marshall casts this excursion as the legion’s last. Betrayed and ambushed, the legion is devastated and diminished to a handful of survivors, who are pursued by the Picts on their escape to safety.

“It’s a chase movie, essentially, rather than your typical sort of ‘sword and sandals’ caper,” says Michael Fassbender, who appears as Quintus Dias, one of the seven ‘Romans on the run’. Marshall’s films, especially his early low-budget horror films Dog Soldiers and The Descent, were championed for their sideways views of genre, theme and character – most notably in The Descent‘s all-female central cast.

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According to Marshall, this film has more in common with his earlier work, both in approach and style: “This project [harks] back to my first two films… we’re very much up against it with the schedule, we’re flying along here trying to make every single penny count. I was a bit of a luxury, [but] this film is much more about the characters and about the story, so we’re spending the money wisely.”

And what about the characters? For the film, Marshall has assembled an ensemble cast of familiars and hot newcomers, such as Olga Kurylenko, David Morrissey, Dominic West and Noel Clarke. Fassbender had the following to say about Quintus, an outsider to the legion: “We’re introduced to him at the beginning, he’s in another frontier post that gets over-run by the Picts… and he gets taken hostage. He’s a real believer in the ethos of Rome, he’s proud to be Roman, [but] as the film goes through he slowly becomes disillusioned. He’s been thrown into a position of command by circumstance and chance, he’s been put amongst these men and he has to lead them, and he steps up to the plate. I thought that was quite an interesting part to have, [there’s] a journey there, [and] some doubt.”

The morning’s shoot involved a particularly down-and-dirty, bloody scene, during which Fassbender and co-stars Morrissey and Kurylenko tumbled and pratfalled in the dirt, with sword-swipes and squibs coming in equal measures.

It would come as no surprise to those who have followed Marshall’s career that the film is action-filled and physically intense. It seems that the actors knew what they were getting themselves in for; Fassbender, a veteran of 300, admits that “That was the lure for me to do this – Neil is a real action-adventure enthusiast, so I knew it would be a good project to link up with him on. It’s nice to go back to your childhood but have all the cool props and toys to play with!”

Morrissey was likewise attracted to the role of Bothos, another of the centurions, by the style of the film. “This is the first full-on action film I’ve done for a long time, but I’ve been loving it. It’s very physical, very demanding, and there’s a lot of gym work, a lot of running – you’ve got to be fit! We’ve done a lot of our own fighting and riding, that’s been a real pleasure for me.” He also spoke of Marshall’s often blood-soaked approach. “Obviously there’s a lot of gore. He’s into that, and he films those sequences with a great sense of expertise… [Centurion] has horrific elements in it, but I would call it much more of an action film – and a character film. Michael Fassbender and Dominic West, they’re great actors, so the characters come through as well. It has all those elements in it.”

Pursuing, and overshadowing, the boys is Olga Kurylenko’s Etain – a vengeful Pict warrior whose tongue was cut out by the Romans. After turning heads as the strong, sexy Bond girl, Camille Montes, in Quantum Of Solace, this appearance in Centurion is decidedly more gruesome and chilling, seeing Kurylenko clothed in animal skin and streaked with war paint.

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When asked about the feministic aspects of this central character, Marshall said, “I think it is important because it is contemporary. Nobody wants to see the screaming damsel in distress anymore. And actually, there were these Picts – which was almost a matriarchal society, where women were warriors. I’m trying to be as honest to those times as possible – which seems hugely contemporary, but it is actually not, [because] when you go back to the Dark Ages and beyond, where we’re going, nearly 2000 years, there was room for women warriors, and that’s what I’m doing for this film.”

Centurion is yet to have an announced release date, but may be hitting cinemas before the year is out. Stay tuned for more details as they come down the wire.