ABOUT THE PRODUCTION: The Shoot
(Photo: left) Laura Harris and Danny Dyer in SEVERANCE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Severance commenced four weeks of shooting on June 13, 2005, in the Matra Hills of rural Hungary before moving to the Isle of Man, where forest locations included the Tholt-E-Will Glen and the Archahllagan Plantation to match the Hungarian terrain while Kerodhoo, Chibbanagh and the Poortown Quarry stood in for the concrete lodge clearing, the minefield and the bus crash spots. “We also looked at Romania, the Czech Republic and Bratislava”, recalls producer Jason Newmark. “Hungary was a great option because they already have their own film industry up to speed. We found a terrific crew there and they came with us to the Isle of Man for the second half of the schedule as per our funding agreement with the IOM Film Commission”. “It was a co-production in the truest sense”, concurs director Chris Smith. “The Hungarian crew were fantastic and they worked like demons to help put the film on screen”.
It was Creep production designer John Frankish who often couldn’t see the wood for the trees. The art director on Gosford Park remarks, “I thought a tree was a tree at the beginning of this production but it’s surprising how that is so not the case. We needed many different locations to make one cohesive forest setting because there is such an amazing variety and density of trees, land and disparate lighting effects. If there was a rule of thumb I’d say it was this: the forests in Hungary were more complimentary to each other and easier to set dress; the Isle of Man woods were great for scale but not that good for any running and chasing. It was the hardest job to get the forests to knit together and not jeopardise the film’s credibility. In the end we married seven locations in Hungary to five plantations in the Isle of Man for our single 2 km square wood”
Aside from matching trees Frankish built three main sets for his return Chris Smith engagement. “It’s funny”, he notes, “On the surface it seemed Severance would be so much easier than Creep but entirely the reverse was true. It has been far more ambitious and on a deceptively bigger scale than anticipated. The main build was the interior of the concrete lodge. There are two lodges altogether, one the team accidentally end up in and the posh main one they should have gone to. The exteriors and downstairs interiors were in Hungary, while the interiors of the upstairs levels, bedrooms and cellar maze areas were built at the Foxdale Studio in the Isle of Man. It was a difficult design job because the same space had to work between the two countries to convey the geography where the group board themselves in, how they entranced and exited and moved around the cellars.”
“Much of the ‘Szeveranz’ internment camp was built for real by the Hungarian craftsmen”, continues Frankish. “That and the constructed outbuildings of the concrete lodge in Hungary were given an old school Russian design ethic. The back-story is that Palisade, this ostensibly Western company, has exploited and brutalized Eastern Bloc communities, the reason why the killers are seeking revenge on the workers, and that culture clash was the basis for the stark military functional look. The West is already impacting on the poorer Eastern European countries and it was that clash I wanted to incorporate in the design.”
He adds, “That’s why the outbuildings feature a swimming pool that was once a death pit, a bullet-ridden execution wall and dank torture cells all tie in with Jill’s story about why the concrete lodge exists. We all had so much fun with those three versions of the Palisade urban legend. In Harris’ old black and white silent version we have the lodge on a hillside with a horse and carriage going up to it. Steve’s sex clinic romp is pure soft-core Carry On. But because Jill’s description is right on the money we keep it down-and-dirty realistic.”
“It’s Rashomon in a horror context” elaborates Chris Smith about this pivotal sequence. “Everyone’s version is a different, interpretation of the evidence yet everyone is convinced theirs is true, just like in the Akira Kurosawa 1950 classic. Harris’ tale is Nosferatu-inspired with the Gothic feel of early horror silent movies. Steve gives us his naughty nurse version a ‘Loaded’ magazine spin while Jill’s plays out like a shockumentary, with hard to watch Mondo-style footage depicting prison camp exterminations and close-up death. These speculations have a dual purpose. Each contains an element of truth that helps the audience work out what’s going on. Plus it’s far more fun than a Jeepers Creepers clairvoyant suddenly appearing at the end of a phone to explain it all!”
The overall Severance look was entrusted to cinema newcomer Ed Wild, the commercials cinematographer responsible for the long-running series of imaginative BBC TV identity promos plus numerous pop videos. “The call came completely out of the blue”, recalls Wild. “I’d never done a movie before, but Chris and I clicked and I knew immediately what he wanted, a clash of grim Soviet legacy and big screen movie glossA balance that echoed the humour and horror equilibrium Chris was striving for. Chris doesn’t like waiting around for endless light tweaking so two-camera set-ups were the norm as the initial broad comedy moved into more heavy moodiness.”
“Chris gave me this massive list of films to watch for reference”, he adds smiling at the memory. “What you don’t see in horror is what often makes them work so that was a good lesson. But the film I found most helpful was Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) for how a classic director worked with the same kind of ensemble energy Chris wanted to tap into. Chris really pushes hard because he’s always thinking about his audience. With him it’s always, no you must try and do this because the audience will love it, or, no they won’t accept that so try and do it another way. It is always about audience needs and delivering on their high expectation with Chris. That’s why his films are so organic and hit the right spots”.
“Creep was my 1970s slasher movie and I borrowed from my favourite horror films”, explains Smith. “It was my way of saying to a savvy audience, this is the horror I know and love as much as you do. But I wanted Severance to have a completely bold and fresh perspective. I don’t know a movie that’s attempted to do what we’ve done here and that’s all about the audience getting to know the characters so well that character moments shine through during even the most extreme moments of the film. And while the bad guys are definitely nasty, I hope audiences do think about whether they are the victims as much as the oppressors. I pushed the terrorist angle into that grey zone because the idea of weapons falling (or being sold) into the wrong hands is very much a contemporary fear”.
“The irony of Severance to me” says Toby Stephens, ‘Is that the Palisade sales group has come on this team-building weekend but their challenge occurs when they starts getting picked off. Here are these city types completely unused to having to fend for themselves in an outdoor, environment., let alone a hostile one It’s the absurdity of them bonding together and coping with the rawness of nature, the savagery of man, that makes it such a psychologically unsettling experience. We filmed in Hungary for the first part of the shoot and that really helped me get into the team mindset of being far away from home to mirror that stranger in a strange land atmosphere”.
Andy Nyman felt the same way. “The cast reacted exactly as anyone would going away on a short holiday. The moment we got into the coach we bonded as actors and as the characters because we were united by the same feelings of excitement and danger. I loved filming all the early stuff: our banter, the character traits, and the clear divisions. Chris is so collaborative too. I’m a writer and I’m very precious about that aspect of my work. So I don’t like changing anything unless I feel it’s absolutely necessary. But Chris is engagingly open to all, he likes to loosen up and unpack lines and I found that such a refreshing way to work”.
Danny Dyer cites a good example of Smith’s ability to listen and learn: “There were a couple of lines I asked Chris to drop from the script when the mood turns darker and more threatening. Sometimes the humour didn’t fit in with the scene or undercut its realism. You can’t say a one-liner when someone’s just had a foot cut off by a bear trap. It isn’t believable in context -- far too B-movie horror, far too ordinary, and that isn’t what Severance is about”.
“It was an absolute dream to get my foot severed by a bear trap”, enthuses horror fan Nyman about his big gore scene. “I tread in a bear trap, get my leg ripped off, then I break my arm in the coach crash and finally get dragged into a dungeon where I have my skin peeled and gouged out by a sadistic torturer! Do I feel blessed, or what? I should be paying to be in this movie because it’s my fan-boy fantasy come true.” Adds Nyman, “My lower leg cast is so eerily real. I had no idea my calves were so fat though!”
Andy Nyman’s leg prosthetic is the work of Neil Gorton (Saving Private Ryan) whose Millennium FX Ltd supplied hair and make-up designer Jan Sewell with the necessary special effects props. “I broke the script down into what would be the visually gruesome moments worth spending most time, money and effort on”, explains Sewell who also worked with Chris Smith to Creep. “The set piece with Gordon and the bear trap was far and away our most grisly sequence. Gordon’s silicone foot looked amazingly real because Neil put in metal joints so the ankle could move and we added to the illusion by punching in actual hair”.
“I love working with Chris”, she adds, “Because from his first reaction, you know if you’ve got it right. The second he saw Gordon’s foot we knew he loved it. What he appreciates more than anything is when you deliver him something that exceeds his expectations. But he isn’t frightened of telling you if something is wrong or not quite there. He’s like a sponge. On Creep he knew absolutely nothing about make-up but he knows a hell of a lot. He wants to learn, always asks questions and I appreciate that”.
To add to the verisimilitude of the bear trap set piece, Sewell accessed a resource Neil Gorton had used in the Steven Spielberg produced miniseries Band of Brothers. “They call themselves Amputees in Action”, she explains. “It’s a group of amputees, usually from the armed forces, who hire themselves out for make-up work and are well used to film sets. Paul Burns was Andy’s double. He lost his leg in the Irish troubles and we know the audience is going to gasp when he shockingly steps off the prosthetic leg”.
Sewell also supervised Danny Dyer’s prosthetic make-up for his extended fight scene with two of the killers. She continues, “He gets head-butted, his tooth falls out and his eye swells to the size of a golf ball. I made a dental cast that allowed us to give the illusion of broken teeth and the eye was a gelatine appliance. The latter gave Danny less and less vision the more he got beaten up and hit in the face. Danny found it invigorating and the more we bruised him up and dirtied him down, the more he got into the mood for the scene. You could see his whole demeanour change during the 45-minute application and then at the halfway touch up”.
Because their departments crossed over so much, costume designer Steven Noble worked closely with Sewell on these scenes. “I put all the blood on Gordon’s trousers to make sure it toned in with the surroundings”, remarks the costume designer for Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London. “And it’s applied painstakingly so the redness doesn’t scream too much on camera in contrast to production designer John Frankish’s dark colour palette. Jan works with the skin while I overlap with her on costumes. There are ten repeat copies of each character costume for the wear, tear and bloodied stages they go through. Each costume is selected after I’ve chatted to Chris about each character and then spoken to the actors for their ideas. Because Severance is set in contemporary times it’s important to think about the psychology of each character”.
Steven Noble and Jan Sewell worked very closely together on the look for the killers too. “The original script painted the assassins more like unshaven hillbillies running wild in the woods with unkempt hair”, relates Sewell.
“It was Steven who wanted the sinister ex-military feel conveyed in their costumes. Then it was up to me to give their appearances a harder, sharper, crueller edge. It makes sense for us to work together as a design team because hair and make-up must compliment the clothes and vice versa. The one person neither of us had to work too hard on at all was Laura Harris. She had definite DKNY influences in mind for her clothes and her porcelain skin needed the simplest make-up for her to look luminous on camera. The weird thing is the dirtier and bloodier Laura got, the sexier she became, but I have a feeling Chris always knew that would be the case!”
“I never used to like blood and gore”, laughs Laura Harris. “But thanks to Severance I’ve become quite obsessed. The gorier and messier, the cooler it becomes. I thank Chris for that I adore him as a director and that translated into me thinking this kind of horror is more fun than I’d first thought because he likes it so much and there must be a reason. I enjoy watching him go through the motions and I’ve trusted his taste because his passion is so true. That level of wanting to do the best until he’s too tired to move cannot be faked. Every answer he’s given about my character or the story has always been at least ten steps ahead of what I expected”.
“I do find the level of hysteria difficult to maintain in horror”, she continues. “Especially when you have something like the defining Maggie and Steve moment when they walk out thinking it’s all over and there’s another bunch of killers lying in wait to attack. That’s why I do push-ups before each scene. I know it looks silly and way too Hollywood, but it’s hard staying in that panting, things coming at you state, between takes, and it helps me get quickly into the moment. It gets the adrenaline flowing infusing my performance with energy. And I also listen to Marilyn Manson on my iPod to psych myself up. Rap used to do it for me but I need the harder stuff now! That really helped in the bus crash scene where everyone is in a panic and there’s mass confusion when it’s clear someone is indeed after us”.
“The coach was our shark from Jaws”, laughs Chris Smith. “It broke down every day but I knew for the drama to be effective it had to be done filmed on a coach for real rather than studio-controlled. Our Hungarian stunt-driver, who also plays the coach driver in the film, really went for it too he flew over the ramp at 50 mph and was unconscious when the paramedics went in. Because the crash looked so much more impressive than I had envisioned, we had to make the actors look more injured as a result. So Toby Stephens’ had his stomach split open and Claudie Blakley’s skull was caked in glass and blood, adding more credibility to the reason she wanders off dazed into the woods”.
“Shooting Severance went better than I ever expected”, adds Smith. “Steve tripping works so well thanks to Danny Dyer nailing the tone perfectly. We had a bear strut across the road in Hungary, stare at the camera and saunter on. You couldn’t have planned it any better. And Richard’s epiphany on the landmine goes beyond what I had anticipated. I told Tim McInnerny not to prepare for that scene at all. I just wanted to put him on the prop mine, go in tight with the camera on his face and see what happened when he makes the ultimate decision to finally step off. His performance was sublime”.
“You have to stay on your toes with Chris”, remarks Tim McInnerny. “There’s no relaxing because he doesn’t miss anything you’re doing even when his focus is on someone else in the ensemble. His improvisation technique is continually challenging and never patronising because he loves the whole process.”
“You have to be honest with your actors and mostly yourself as a director”, admits Chris Smith. “What I learned from Creep was to involve the actors more and put my hand up when I was wrong about something. Here I took my seven lead actors into the deep end and learned everything I could about their personalities and how they viewed their characters. Very soon it was an eight-man team completely aware of what each was doing every second of the way”.
He concludes, “That’s why I end Severance with a homage to The Deer Hunter. You have taken a thrill ride with these seven great characters through their petty squabbles, camaraderie, laughter, spooky stories and hopefully upsetting deaths. So I show them again over the final credits. As each actor’s credit comes up we play a single joyous moment from the movie for each of them and freeze frame on their smile. They appear in the order they died: Harris, Jill, Gordon, Billy, Richard…then Maggie and Steve. It’s a warm reminder of their engaging moments and should send the audience out on a high. I want them to think about the characters they’ve enjoyed spending time with as much as I enjoyed putting them in the direst jeopardy”.
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