ABOUT THE PRODUCTION: The Genesis
(Photo: left) Tim McInnerny, Babou Ceesay, Andy Nyman, Claudie Blakely, Laura Harris and Danny Dyer in SEVERANCE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
“The Office meets Deliverance” is how the first script draft of Severance was described to director Christopher Smith and Dan Films’ producer Jason Newmark when Qwerty Films asked the duo behind the hit horror Creep to consider it as their next joint project.
Following Creep’s success, Qwerty Films, the premier production company of the critically acclaimed Kinsey, I Heart Huckabees and Stage Beauty, pinpointed Smith and Newmark as the ideal choice to develop their shocker screenplay. “The thought of doing another horror film was intriguing” explains Newmark. “Severance was in complete contrast to Creep What appealed to me particularly was that we had the opportunity to apply what we’d learnt on Creep to another genre picture that was set in a completely different environment
“When we first read newcomer James Moran’s script it was titled P45” recalls Smith. “It was about these arms dealers on a weekend retreat in the Romanian mountains for a team building exercise who would lose their jobs if they didn’t pass the rigorous tests. Hence the title referring to termination of employment documents”. But coming off Creep, it wasn’t Smith’s intention to march straight into another horror picture.
”I loved what James had done in his screenplay though”, he continues. “He took seven characters you got to really like in both a human and humorous way before turning the tables and killing them nastily. Some of the humour was broader than my usual taste so I worked with the writer to make the story into something more ironic, more based in truth. That way you could empathise with the characters as well as be scared along with them when they eventually died”.
“I inserted new twists and turns and put some more girls in the character mix”, he adds. “Plus new angles on what was scaring me at that time; for one, the idea that the arms industry had power without responsibility. Those sorts of themes were necessary texture to make the plot darker and bleaker and about much more than just having your job at stake. I thought the title Severance was ideal, reminiscent of Deliverance but with a sharp, witty edge”.
“One of Chris’ greatest strengths is his characters”, remarks Newmark. “When you have an ensemble of characters, in a horror film, the biggest mistake is making them too similar. That was a danger Chris avoided by separating each character out both on the page and eventually in casting . He homed in on their differences while making ample room for key interaction. That has been one of the most satisfying parts of the whole Severance experience”.
Humour is very much the key to the driving force of Severance in Smith’s mind. “But it’s not a horror comedy in the traditional sense like Scary Movie or Shaun of the Dead. My motivation in making Severance was to further explore the areas of Creep that really interested me. When I took Creep on the international fantasy festival circuit I was intrigued to note audiences always responded most to the set-piece moments of mischievous horror, like the gynaecological torture scene. My aim with Severance is to prove that you can be continually playful within a non one-liner context yet still provide the big scares and grisly horror.”
Smith expands on this central aspect more: “It’s all down to a balance of fun grimness mixed with cliché conventions. Funny things happen, but it isn’t a sit-com, the characters aren’t telling jokes. Horrific things happen, but Severance isn’t just about extreme splatter either. The tone is pure gallows humour. You know from the get-go you are meant to laugh it begins with two girls stripping off as a strung-up victim gets knifed. In the second half, Steve tries to stuff Gordon’s severed foot into the coach fridge. That sums up the entire atmosphere - real life getting in the way of chilling craziness, and being played dead straight”.
It’s all about gaining audience respect according to Smith too. “In the horror genre, everyone has seen everything. So if you can surprise an audience with some ingenuity, they love you for it. I approached every scene in Severance with the attitude, ‘OK, what’s the best I can do? How can I kill this character spectacularly in a way that matches their personality?’ Harris’ (Toby Stephens) death scene is a case in point. Talking with Jill (Claudie Blakley) about the guillotine, he entertains her with the little known fact that even when the head is severed from the body the brain can still think for a few minutes. When Harris meets his fate and is beheaded I show him looking at his own body a few yards away with an expression of ‘I told you so’. Each character has been fully developed so by the time their deaths come they can have their own imaginative and shocking moment in the sun”.
“That dual tone was the hardest thing to get right in the script”, points out Newmark. “But I had complete faith in Chris to pull off the challenge of threading comedy through a horror dynamic. Balancing the two genres has sometimes reflected our own relationship. Chris and I are great friends but we fight a lot. We’re two very different people who trust each other’s tastes. We share some things in common and are in polar opposites on others. Somewhere in that mix is a healthy relationship. People often say it’s bizarre watching us together because we’re at each other’s throats one minute and on the same calm page the next. That’s the key to how we work we match and compensate, argue and agree with a common purpose in mind. It’s the same kind of genre collision that’s at the heart of Severance”.
Next: The Casting
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