'Black Death' director Christopher Smith talks about making his medieval horror movie (and not making 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies')
You know those medieval-set films in which every golden-hued vista seems to have been shot by the British Tourist Board and the characters all appear to use copious amounts of ye olde hair conditioner? Well, Black Death is a far more gruesome and unhygienic-looking cup of tea. The movie stars a bedraggled-looking Sean Bean as a bishop’s envoy tasked with the mission of finding out why a remote hamlet has escaped the ravages of the titular plague which, in real-life, wiped out around half of Europe’s population in the 14th century. The twisty result often resembles a medieval reworking of Apocalypse Now as Bean and his band of decidedly un-merry men make their way through a countryside filled with all manner of unpleasantness from fields packed with corpses to an attempted witch-burning that ends in tears (or horrible gurgling sounds, anyway).
The film, which is now available on VOD and will play select theatres from March 11, was made by British director Chris Smith, who was previously responsible for 2009’s tragically underseen, Melissa George-starring horror flick Triangle. Smith says that he went to great lengths to make the movie look as authentic as possible but that he was equally concerned about giving his characters a realistically old-fashioned mindset. “What I’m most proud of in the film is that we got the thinking right,” he says. “Because often you see movies where it all looks very historically accurate, but everyone has got a modern sensibility. And I think what’s successful in this is that you get a sense that they’re in a mindset which is really medieval.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You seem to have filmed most of Black Death in a swamp. Was it a hellish shoot?
CHRISTOPHER SMITH: Weirdly, it wasn’t. There was a very good atmosphere on set. There was a real sense of camaraderie. But by the time we got to the village we were all so looking forward to hanging out with girls again. Because we hadn’t seen any in four weeks.
Sean Bean and his crew carry around a torture cage with a blade that, according to one of the characters, can split a man “from his a–hole to his apple.” Did you come up with that?
Heresy cages were certainly around. But we didn’t want the film to become so tied to absolute period accuracy that you can’t have some fun. We just said, “Okay, let’s come up with a device and imagine that it’s the latest, top-of-the-range stuff.” The one thing we have is this upward guillotine which just automatically feels humorous but is not accurate — I think the guillotine was a 17th or 18th century thing — but the idea of something with a blade going up between your legs, that’s very medieval.
Sean Bean seems to have spent half his career with a blade in his hand. How good a swordsman is he?
He is an absolutely excellent swordsman and an excellent horseman. It’s no accident that you see him in a lot of stuff like that. He loves it. And I do too. Now that I’ve done one period film, I want to do another desperately. It’s such fun.
The film features a cameo from David Warner, who has been in everything from Straw Dogs to TRON. What it like working with him?
His first scene was actually the very first day of the shoot. And when David Warner does a performance, his deliveries are so amazing in the sense that they have such gravitas. You kind of think, “Is that too big and crazy? Does that seem real?” But as soon as you watch it through the lens, it’s amazing. He told me Richard Harris was a similar actor. That if you stood in a room and had Richard Harris come up to you and say lines you would feel it was the most ridiculous thing ever. But when you see it on the screen, it’s amazing. And David Warner is one of those actors. He could read you the telephone directory and make it sound cool.
Triangle is one of the best films of the past few years — that almost no one saw. Was that a big disappointment?
I was just a bit bemused really. We found an audience in certain sections of England. It’s got a very big following now on the Net. But I’m just bemused. It’s such an interesting, creepy, spin on going crazy and being trapped in a hell and I’ve never seen a film like it. But it’s getting found.
There was a rumor earlier this year that you were going to direct Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. What happened there?
I woke up at three in the morning, because my son was crying, I go on the Internet and I read that, and I couldn’t wait for the morning to get my agent to find out what was going on. I don’t know where these rumors start. But the first I knew about it was reading it on the Internet. Obviously, it’s a thing I would have loved to have been involved in.
Did anyone suggest changing the title of Black Death in America in case some people didn’t know what it meant?
In England, everybody knows about the black death and I kind of assume that’s a worldwide thing. So, not really. But it kind of feels like it could be a heavy metal movie.
Or a blaxploitation film about a hitman.
[Laughs] I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe we should change the title!
Check out the trailer for Black Death below: