The witching hour

Neil Marshall and Charlotte Kirk on The Reckoning

by Jennie Kermode

Charlotte Kirk in The Reckoning
Charlotte Kirk in The Reckoning

Director Neil Marshall has enjoyed an eclectic career but is probably most celebrated for his work in horror. His latest offering, The Reckoning, takes us back to that territory as it tells the story of Grace – played by Charlotte Kirk – a young woman facing persecution during the plague years, when suffering was easily blamed on witches. When I met Neil and Charlotte to discuss the film, we chatted about his work on Game Of Thrones and I asked if this film, with its period setting, had enabled him to combine two of his passions as a filmmaker.

“Yes, certainly I love period settings for things,” he says. “I suppose, you know, with Centurion as well, which is a period thing which actually paved the way for me to doing Game Of Thrones. I've always loved creating worlds and being in and being in other worlds. I kind of regard historical settings to be much the same as fantasy settings. To the majority of us they're just as fantastic. The past is just as foreign a place. So yeah, I definitely was bringing up a lot of the sort of drama chops that I've explored a bit more in TV work on Game Of Thrones and all that. It was amalgamation of things.”

“It’s a chance to completely escape,” says Charlotte. “If it's a period piece or futuristic, you know, when people watch cinema, part of it is to escape, to go into this other universe.”

“I learned to swordfight for it. That was really fun" - Charlotte Kirk
“I learned to swordfight for it. That was really fun" - Charlotte Kirk

Is that something that was appealing to her as an actor?

“The story was appealing to me,” she says, “and obviously that was part of the story. And a big part of the story also was the backdrop of the plague. It was amazing. The sets were exhilarating. Just walking on the sets with the castles and costume and everything.”

I note that I found it interesting in terms of how it deals with the plague, because it's very much in the background, whilst Neil’s work in the past has often been quite explicit, visually.

“It was always intended to be in the background,” he says. “It's just part of the setting. At that particular time and place the plague was going on. We see little glimpses like the dogs eating the corpse on the street and stuff like that. We see little glimpses of how horrific it was, but I wasn't intending to make a plague movie.”

The Devil is quite prominent in the film, Charlotte adds, and one might see the plague as part of his plan.

“That was one of the things that we researched,” Neil agrees. “There was a genuine fear amongst the populace that the plague was the work of the Devil and witches. It was unfortunately something we couldn't quite do to the extent that I wanted to, because we couldn't create enough dead cats for the movie, on the budget we had – because one of the things that we found out was that cats were killed in the thousands because people thought they were constantly working with witches to spread the plague. So they were killing the cats. And because they killed cats, literally by the tens of thousands, the rats were actually spreading the plague even more. That's a historical irony I just found fascinating.”

"We want to keep things ambiguous and open to interpretation" - Neil Marshall
"We want to keep things ambiguous and open to interpretation" - Neil Marshall

I ask if that was a factor in how they depicted the Devil, who looks ill and swollen in that kind of way.

“You know, that never occurred to me,” says Neil. “I just refused to do like a red guy with horns, so I wanted him to be pallid and have this kind of slimy quality. It didn't occur to me that yeah, he kind of looks sick. But then again, he's the Devil. He is sick. Anyway, that's a really interesting observation.”

“You didn't want to you don't want to be too on the nose. Everything was kind of that way essentially, wasn't it? The devil and the plague and everything together,” says Charlotte.

“Yeah,” says Neil. “So, you know, the Devil doesn't appear until he comes up in conversation with Sean Pertwee’s character. So it's like he plants the seed in her mind. And she's kind of being driven insane by the tortures and the mental depravations and the sleep deprivation, so that then she starts to hallucinate about the Devil. Or does she? Because if he's going to strike and try and claim her or whatever, when better do that than when she's at her weakest? So yeah, we want to keep things ambiguous and open to interpretation, because some people just immediately assumed that the Devil was a very literal manifestation. And then others found it to be much more psychological.”

One of the most obvious inspirations, probably the most famous film in this area, is Witchfinder General.

“It was certainly an inspiration,” says Neil. “But I deliberately didn't watch it in the build up to writing it. I have seen it a couple of times, many, many years ago, and I think the main thing that you'll remember is that it's one of the few films that's actually set during that particular period. Most witch films, plague films or whatever are done during the Medieval period. But this was more the Puritanistic period just after the Civil War, and the Great Plague, which is different to the Bubonic Plague, but I think it's the same disease, but they're just different names - the Great Plague was like, the second surge, I suppose, many years later. But it's a period that isn't covered a lot in movies. All I can think of is like, you know, A Field In England, Witchfinder General and stuff about King Charles the First or whatever where he’s getting his head cut off, stuff like that, but there's not a lot. And so it was interesting to me just to explore a different kind of historical England.”

Grace looks for an answer
Grace looks for an answer

“But there were other films that inspired us in pre-production, shooting and in writing,” adds Charlotte, “and that was Gladiator, Braveheart and The Scarlet Letter, very much.”

“Very much,” Neil agrees, leaning forwards so that his Jaws t-shirt looks like it’s going to take a bite out of the camera.. “With things like Gladiator I was like, ‘Okay, these are historical films about telling a story of somebody fighting back against oppression.’ It was like, okay, this is obviously relevant.” He nods to Charlotte. “I know it inspired you a great deal to try and create a sort of a female character with that kind of story arc.”

Charlotte agrees, and I ask her if it was important her her to present us with a woman who had a certain amount of physical confidence from the outset. Grace has worked on a farm so she will clearly be a bit tougher than a lot of the modern heroines we’re used to.

“We wanted her to be, I guess, someone ordinary,” Charlotte says, and explains that Neil likes to populate his films with ordinary characters forced into extraordinary circumstances. “I mean, she says she's an ordinary woman. I don't think she's too ordinary. I think she's extraordinary. What she endures and what she fights for, most women back then probably wouldn't have. We would have given up and confessed, and there’s that fine line in the very last epic torture scene where he says, ‘Are you going to confess? Otherwise, your daughter's life could be taken.’ And we don't actually quite go there. And I'm so glad because we nearly said ‘Yes,’ but I said, ‘But you can't, you can't. We couldn’t have that whole film and then at the very end, she confesses. We have to keep her that determined and that resilient. I think that's what we kind of hope for all along. But she’s an ordinary woman, a farmer’s wife...”

“She's only ordinary by our standards,” says Neil. “The things that she goes through and survives – just living in that time – that makes her pretty extraordinary. Just surviving day by day in that time might be pretty tough.”

Grace defends her home
Grace defends her home

“She's paving the way for other women,” says Charlotte.

“People are led by example,” says Neil, “and to see somebody standing up to and defying the misogyny of that time would inspire [others]. It’s a step in the right direction. It’s a very important message that she was not just doing it for herself, but the message was being spread.”

Charlotte nods. “There's another great moment with the other female character, who isn't very nice, when she inspires this woman to say ‘Are we doing the right thing here?’ It's very powerful.

“We didn't want to make all the female characters the goodies and all the males baddies. That's not what it says. As you see, we've mixed it up there.”

“There are lots of grey areas,” says Neil.

“Yeah, and I think that was really important, that Edwin is great character, and he's kind and caring, and he helps her. And Ursula isn't very nice at all.”

Was it a difficult role to play just physically in terms of the things that she had to go through, with being strapped in different positions and moved around and so on?

“It was definitely the most physically challenging role,” she says. “I learned to swordfight for it. That was really fun. Right? I really loved that, because I was saying at the beginning ‘I probably won’t be able to do this,’ and you know, ‘I’ll need a stunt double,’ and I actually loved it. And it was challenging, but I think it was more emotionally challenging. Because every day the emotion on the emotional scale had to be number ten. Every day it was just that intense, every single day. There was no ordinary scenes. I think it was more emotionally draining than physical.”

"He just brings such energy and joy to the set" - Neil Marshall on Sean Pertwee
"He just brings such energy and joy to the set" - Neil Marshall on Sean Pertwee

“But you did spend a long day strapped into that bench table,” says Neil, gratefully.

“Yeah. And being thrown in the lake.”

“Doused in cold water.”

They look at each other, taking stock for a moment.

There's a great performance in there from Sean Pertwee as well, I note. How did he come aboard and what it was like working with him?

“Amazing. He was so good!” declares Charlotte.

Neil agrees. “Yeah, I mean, just an absolute joy from start to finish. I haven't worked with Sean since Doomsday. So it's like a real pleasure just to reignite with him go back to do something very different from what we've done before. He just brings such energy and joy to the set. He loves what he's doing. And for him as well. It was a real change for him because he’d just spent nearly four years or whatever doing that US TV show Gotham, and we really kind of put him through the wringer for a good week in Hungary. I think he was like, ‘Wow, I’d forgotten what it's like to do a really intense independent movie. I've been spoiled for years, you know, being brought cappuccinos and things every day.’ And I was like, ‘Yep, you've been spoiled,’ but he loved it.”

“Yeah, getting into a meaty role,” says Charlotte.


There's a lot of action in the film too, including a scene where a house burns down? Did they actually create a building and then set fire to it?

“Yeah,” says Neil. “That was one of the last sequences we did with all the stuff with the cottage because we were building that from scratch knowing that it was going to be burned down. The art department spent intensive hours making things on the set authentic and beautiful and they just created this beautiful little house in this field and we torched the thing.”

Grace under pressure
Grace under pressure

“That was one thing he wasn't going to give up on for somebody who said, ‘Oh, can we CG it?’” adds Charlotte.

“’Can we fake it. Can we?’ Yeah, yeah, whatever,” says Neil. “I was like, ‘Nope. Build it. We're going to burn it.’ And we did that. And luckily we had three cameras, because there was no second take. It had been sitting out in the Hungarian summer heat for like, two months or something, so it was dry as a bone. As soon as we lit the match it was just like, ‘Whoosh!’” He throws his hands in the air. “The whole thing just went up in seconds. So thankfully we got the shots.”

Is that part of his way of working in general, that you prefer to do things physically and directly rather than relying on CG?

“One hundred percent,” he says. “I mean, sometimes there's no other way. But if possible, you know, give me real, do it in camera. That goes for the burning, it goes for the Devil and it goes for, you know, the gore effects and things like that.”

On the latter note, he tells me that they both spent a long time researching the various torture devices that appear in the film.

“The problem that we had was finding tortures that weren’t lethal, because they call them tortures but they're essentially a method of execution. You know, dunking in the river and things like that. There was a Catch 22 thing of like, well, if you float, you're guilty, so therefore we're going to burn you anyway, and if you sink, you're innocent, but you drown. So we have to find the devices or tortures that were non-lethal. Horrible, but non-lethal. It was quite difficult but two things stood out. Obviously we have flogging, and then there’s witch-pricking. And they're both real. Witch pricking is essentially like sticking a needle into somebody until they talk.”

Time for a reckoning
Time for a reckoning

“We researched everything as extensively as possible,” says Charlotte. “Obviously 1665 was the year of the heatwave. We wanted to shoot in the heat. Everything we just wanted to be historically accurate, as much as possible.”

How did that affect the actual shoot?

“It was very, very hot and dusty,” says Neil.

“It helped us,” says Charlotte. “Originally, we were going to shoot in the UK, where it was very cold and rainy, and thankfully we winded up shooting in Hungary.”

“I embraced that myself and the DP [Luke Bryant] really embraced that look and made it look and feel like a western for the first act,” says Neil. “You know, she's the farmstead, and there’s the corrupt Sheriff of the local town and lots of horses and big hats. It's a very western iconography. And so we just embraced that and made it dusty and scorched. Once upon a time in the northwest, somewhere.”

The Reckoning is available in UK cinemas and on digital formats now.

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