Award-winning writer-director, editor and producer, Neil Marshall, was warmly welcomed to the NFTS for an action-packed masterclass. Students were treated to clips from Neil’s work across both film and television, from werewolves in the shadows in Dog Soldiers to epically coordinated battle scenes in Game of Thrones.

The session was hosted by NFTS Executive Producer Venetia Hawkes, who kicked off by asking Neil how he got started and what inspired him to become a filmmaker. He revealed that one of the first films he ever saw was Star Wars and he became “hooked on going to the movies”, but it was Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, and in particular the making-of documentary, which was a pivotal moment in his life. He says: “I just knew from that moment on that was what I wanted to do.” After finishing film school he began working as a freelance editor in his hometown of Newcastle, which he did for eight years before directing his first feature film Dog Soldiers in 2002.

(Still from Dog Soldiers)

Venetia enquired about creating tension in Dog Soldiers after showing a clip of a werewolf chase in the woods where the audience only catches glimpses of the werewolves, a technique also used with the crawlers in Neil’s second feature The Descent.  He said: “It’s always best to keep them in the shadows, your imagination does way more work than any number of animatronics or CG can do - if you’re already afraid your mind is going to paint dark pictures, and that’s great!”

(Still from The Descent)

Neil expressed his preference for physically creating the monsters in his films: “You can’t beat the practical stuff, you can enhance it with CG but having these things on set is awesome - we built three werewolves and had an extra couple of suits. We had dancers on stilts so they were nearly 8 foot tall, I deliberately made them so they wouldn’t fit in the set so that when they came on they had to stoop over, it just made them look really cool.” He explained he chose dancers, “because I wanted the werewolves to be really elegant”.

Discussing using the same actors in a number of his films, and also regularly working with cinematographer Sam McCurdy, Neil’s long-time friend and the Director of Photography on his first four features, Neil said: “If you can get that camaraderie with people it’s great fun working with them again”.  Talking about his filmmaking process he said, “I tend not to like storyboarding if I don’t have to; I love to feel and understand the environment when I get there.  Once you’ve put the camera up and start figuring everything out, things evolve naturally, and I love that. I love that process of finding the shot” and so, finding cast and crew who can collaborate in that way means you can “work fluidly together to create something”. That’s not to say he only works with the same actors; Neil has worked with an impressive variation, especially through his work in television, including some of the biggest shows on television - Black Sails, Hannibal, Game of Thrones and Westworld.

(Still from Westworld episode, The Stray)

The students enjoyed a clip of the epic action-packed 360 battle scene at Castle Black in Neil’s Emmy nominated Game of Thrones episode ‘The Watchers on the Wall’, which Neil returned to do after directing season two’s episode, Blackwater.  For Blackwater Neil deployed his “mind-set for battle strategy”, recalling that when he read the script he thought “we’ve got to plan a strategy for the attack here - they need to bring ladders, and they need siege equipment with them.  I even invented a boat that had a battering ram on it so that you landed it, turned it upside down and it becomes a shell you walk up to the gate, I invented this thing and they built it for me and it worked - so when it came to directing The Watchers on the Wall they trusted me.”

(Still from Game of Thrones episode, The Watchers on the Wall)

Neil brought various ideas to the script for The Watchers on the Wall - “We know the wall is about 700 feet high, so I said ‘what’s the threat to the people on the top?’  What if we give the giants bows?  That would be like artillery! So … we built this thing, and he shoots the guy off the top of the wall. This guy lands in the courtyard of Castle Black and it was a way of tying the different areas of the battle together visually.”

The 360 degree battle scene was also something Neil brought to the script.  He explained, “The idea came to me when I walked onto the set of Castle Black, it’s this 360 degree set, absolutely beautiful. I knew I had to stage a battle there, and there’s this big flat area in the middle which isn’t very interesting, and we’ve got all these walkways and things around the side, and I thought wouldn’t it be cool to do a big 360 of the whole thing and do it in camera. To do it, so that the actors fighting weren’t exhausted by the time the camera got them, we gave each segment a number and as the camera went round the AD would call out a number and as each one was called they would start fighting right on camera and finish as we left”. He confessed “It’s one of my favourite shots that I’ve ever done, I was really happy with that!” The episode was so incredible that it was digitally remastered in IMAX and was screened in over 200 cinemas across the United States.

(Still from Game of Thrones episode, The Watchers on the Wall)

The students were keen to pick Neil’s brain, asking him a range of questions about his process and work in both film and television.  One Game of Thrones fan asked Neil about working on the show: “How do you find a balance between the action, the audience attention, concentration and emotional connections?” Neil answered: “If it has the right balance between the battle and the drama, a lot of that comes down to having excellent scripts and great characters”

Another student asked Neil about how he works with music: “I’m very conscious of music and composers, and wanting to choose the right composer for the job, it’s a huge part of it. I start thinking about it while I’m writing, and quite often I’m writing to music. Movie music is for mood and atmosphere and emotion so it works perfectly as a filter through that. As an example, when I was writing The Descent, I listened to the Insomnia soundtrack relentlessly on a loop. We pretty much used that as a temp track for the whole movie and then we went out and got David Julyan to score it, it all flowed and worked beautifully.”

Going back to battle scenes, one of the final questions a student had for Neil was how he prevents a “huge mash of chaos” with fight scenes on smaller sets. Neil answered, “It’s all down to working with the stunt guys and camera guys, to choreograph something that is going to hold your interest and tell the story, and be imaginative and original, and working to capture that in the best possible way. It’s a process, you go through it bit by bit, and you layer it up … My process is adapting, you’ve got to be adaptable.”

Neil’s latest series is sci-fi Lost in Space which is due for release on Netflix on 13th April, the trailer has just been released: