Neil Marshall’s historical action thriller Centurion is the first in a wave of Romans-on-the-rampage projects to go into production. Sarah Cooper visits the set.
In a leafy suburban wood in southern England, a group of extras thunder past on horseback with flaming torches held aloft. They are dressed as members of the ferocious Pict tribe who lived in Scotland during the Roman era.
It is the set of Centurion, the $15m (£10m) project from UK director Neil Marshall, whose credits include The Descent and Dog Soldiers.
“Neil Marshall is a brilliant action director, one of the few in this country who knows exactly what he wants and how to shoot it”
He has assembled an enticing UK and European cast headed by Michael Fassbender, who made an electric debut at Cannes 2008 as an IRA prisoner in Hunger; Dominic West, star of TV series The Wire; Olga Kurylenko, the Bond girl from Quantum Of Solace; rising star Noel Clarke, whose credits include Adulthood; and veteran UK actor David Morrissey, most recently seen in The Other Boleyn Girl.
Marshall, one of the UK industry’s most bankable indigenous directors, says he has been working on the idea behind Centurion for years: “I grew up in the north east of England and was fascinated by [Roman landmark] Hadrian’s Wall, and somewhere along the way I heard about the legend of the Roman Ninth Legion.”
Set in 117AD, Fassbender plays Quintus Dias, the sole Roman survivor of a Pictish raid on a Roman frontier fort, who teams up with General Virilus (West) and his Ninth Legion to march north and wipe the Picts from the face of the earth.
Centurion sees Marshall reunited with his key collaborators from The Descent: producer Christian Colson of UK outfit Celador, which went on to produce Slumdog Millionaire, production designer Simon Bowles, and director of photography Sam McCurdy.
Robert Jones of Material Entertainment joined as a co-producer at the beginning of the year. He says he was attracted to the “gritty, character-led” nature of the script, as well as being a fan of Marshall’s previous work.
The film is set-up as a co-production between Celador and Colson’s new production company, Cloud Nine Films.
“On the back of The Descent, I forged a really good relationship with Christian,” Marshall explains. “He asked if I had any more ideas and when I told him about this one [in 2005], he was instantly hooked and gave me a deadline for the script.” Marshall delivered, in Colson’s words, “a fantastic first draft” in February 2006.
The director then went off to make the 2008 sci-fi thriller Doomsday before returning to Centurion last summer.
“We had a ball doing the The Descent together. Neil is just a brilliant action director, one of the few in this country who knows exactly what he wants and how to shoot it,” says Colson.
While Celador fully financed The Descent, this time Colson had to go out and raise the $15m budget. “We developed Centurion, but we were in the middle of producing Slumdog so didn¹t have the resources to fund it,” he explains.
Armed with Marshall’s draft, Colson turned to Mike Runagall, senior vice-president at Pathé International, who had sold Marshall’s The Descent and Dog Soldiers. Cloud Nine Films has since struck a five-year development, production, sales and distribution deal with Pathé UK.
“My particular interest is genre film-making, and in my opinion The Descent is the defining genre film of the decade. Neil is a big UK talent, with a big fanbase. I could see the commercial potential of the film,” says Runagall.
Pathé agreed to put up the entire budget in advance, based on its predicted international sales.
The risk paid off at Berlin where Pathé secured deals on territories including Germany (Constantin), Spain (Aurum/Alliance), Australia (Hopscotch), Scandinavia (Scanbox), Greece (Odeon), Middle East (Phars) and Brazil (Europa). UK distribution will be handled by Pathé and physically distributed through Warner Bros as part of the companies¹ new distribution joint venture.
The latest push was at Cannes where Pathé showed off early footage, securing more sales including Italy (Mediafilm), Russia (Cinemax) and South Korea (Showbox), although not the US. “The US is a more selective market. But Neil has a real fanbase there. We will sell, it¹s just a question of when,” says Runagall.
With the cast and crew in place, the UK Film Council¹s Premiere Fund stepped in with $1.9m (£1.2m) investment. The production also benefited from the UK tax credit. “Centurion was an exciting proposition because it had such an excellent blend of British skill on board,” says Sally Caplan, head of the Premiere Fund.
“Neil’s work to date has shown him to be a stand-out directing talent who knows how to use the canvas of the big screen.”
Centurion shot for just over seven weeks in February and March, entirely on location in Scotland and Surrey, with three days of interiors at Shepperton Studios. It is now in post at Goldcrest in London, with a planned UK release by year end.
Back in the woods, Fassbender, West and co are not the only ones in period costume in this idyllic patch of England: Ridley Scott is shooting his $200m Robin Hood project, starring Russell Crowe, for Universal Pictures in the neighbouring forest.
With a budget more than 10 times that of Centurion, Marshall’s crew laughs at the differences in scale of the two projects and gleeful rumours abound of how Crowe’s rock band has been flown in for impromptu jamming sessions.
Scott’s Gladiator, the film that resurrected the sword-and-sandals genre back in 2000, is one of the titles with which Centurion invites comparison. Another is Zack Snyder’s 300.
“Our biggest challenge is to make Centurion as unique as Gladiator and 300 were in their own separate rights,” says Marshall. “I think it will be, because ours is much more dirty, brutal and realistic. It’s not a comic-strip movie and it’s not a glossy epic.” “It will definitely be a mainstream movie,” agrees Robert Jones. “And comparisons are welcome.”
Comparisons will almost certainly be drawn with Kevin Macdonald’s Eagle Of The Ninth, now in pre-production, which will also tell the story of the Roman Ninth Legion, and possibly with Ralph Fiennes’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus which is set in 5th century BC. “I’m just glad we got there first!” says Colson.
Approximate production budget for Centurion
Amount invested by the UKFC¹s Premiere Fund
Approximate total worldwide gross of Marshall¹s previous features, Dog Soldiers, The Descent and Doomsday