Interview: Director Neil Marshall Talks About Making The RECKONING

Movies In Focus has been a fan of Neil Marshall’s work since the release of his great werewolf horror, Dog Soldiers in 2002. The film was was a fantastic calling card for the filmmaker who continues to impress on the big and small screen having helmed everything from films such as Centurian and The Descent to shows like Game Of Thrones and Lost In Space. 

Marshall’s latest release, The Reckoning is an incredibly timely film. Shot in 2019, the plague ravaged dramatic horror sees its release as COVID-19 captures the headlines. Also, prescient is the film’s theme of women fighting against the tyranny of men – something which has echoes of the #metoo movement. It might be set in the past, but it’s very fitting for the present.

Set in England during the Bubonic Plague, The Reckoning sees Charlotte Kirk’s widowed farmer’s wife, Grace accused of being a witch by her lecherous landlord after she spurns his advances. Grace faces eviction as the Plague rages, but her luck gets even worse when Sean Pertwee’s zealous Witchfinder, Judge Moorcroft arrives on the scene. (Read the Movies In Focus review)

I had the opportunity to spend some time talking to Neil Marshall over the phone about The Reckoning and it’s themes. He’s a man with clear thoughts which he presents in an insightful way. It was great to talk with him about his process and I hope you enjoy reading what he had to say. 

Hi Neil, how’s it going?

Not too bad – how are you doing?

Not too bad. Thank you for taking the time today to talk about your film. 

No problem at all. 

What’s it like having made the film which perfectly encapsulates 2020 and 2021? 

(Laughs) By accident as well. It’s crazy! We shot it in 2019 and we all know what happened next. It was just bizarre – like imitating art the way it has. It could be seen as a really, really sick publicity stunt. 

That’s it – it’s obviously got the whole thing about plague and virus and there’s also the #metoo aspect which also again come into the press with Noel Clarke and everything that’s going on with that. 

There’s also cancel culture as well – which is just another form of witch-hunting.

Exactly, that’s everywhere. It pretty much encapsulates the moment – but it’s set very much in the past. What made you set it that time period?

It was predominantly in the research. At one point I toyed with doing a more medieval kind of film but the research led to to this particular time period and this particular time because during The Great Plague, Witch Hunts were at their peak because a lot of people assumed The Plague was the cause of evil. That was the time of people like Moorcroft and The Witchfinder General and whatever came out of that period and came out of that time.

There was a religious fervour at that time – it was the age of puritanism and The Quakers and The Pilgrim Fathers – they all came out of this time as well. I think that just added to the religious fervour of looking for someone to blame for this cataclysmic event.

The reason why we wanted to do it was that we really haven’t come-on that far in terms of misogyny and Witch Hunts and such like – and we wanted to make a film which is relevant now as it was then. I watching what happened last year with COVID and people not wanting to wears masks and plague masks becoming a thing, seeing people on the news saying COVID was the work of the devil and that wearing masks was against God- it was like ‘Oh my God, we really haven’t come along far at all’.

I watched them storming the Capitol Building and thinking that all they were missing was pitchforks. It was like something out of Frankenstein – the mob rising up. And then the whole Qanon thing of Devil worshipers, it’s like okay, this is really, really relevant stuff.

The film has a very distinctive visual style – how did that come about?

It was my first time working with this particular DP and we did go into it – in a way it’s my most artistic kind of film and every frame is like a painting – it’s beautiful to look at. Luke Bryant our DP did an amazing job in the way it’s photographed. I wanted that kind of natural light vibe about it.

When I first wrote it I thought it was going to be shot in the UK, in the rain and in winter sometime when it would be grey and bleak and miserable. We ended up shooting in Hungary in the height of summer where it was like 40 degree heat and dusty and hot. Once I knew that was going to happen, Luke and I sat down and thought – what if we make it more like a western? – because we’ve got characters riding on a horse, with big hats and carrying pistols. You’ve got the corrupt sheriff and homesteaders  – it’s pure western western that just happens to be set in England. I wanted to take all that sort of iconography and make it dusty and sweaty and hot, rather than go for the typical grey England look. Also, in terms of historical research, there was a heatwave that summer which served to spread the plague even further – and the following year there was another heatwave and The Great Fire Of London the following year. It was kind of a tumultuous  time – and it just seemed like an ideal setting for the movie. 

It is very much like a western  – it’s such a visually stunning movie – and each shot is like a painting and you’ve got the shots of the men in the Plague Masks – which is just fascinating and amazing imagery. 

It’s a horror film in a way – but it’s also your most dramatic film – as in a straight drama. Is that something that you wanted to do?

Yes. Absolutely. I was tackling something that I thought was very relevant and important to talk about – 500,000 women, maybe even more- that’s a conservative estimate- some people say it was a million women who were tried, tortured and executed for a crime that didn’t really exist. It was something I felt I had to give due respect to the women and what they went through. It’s not to be treated too lightly, so I did want to make more of a dramatic statement I suppose with this and I thought the subject matter called for that.

Maybe my experience working in television, working on Game Of Thrones and things like that you can do high drama within a genre context and it doesn’t detract from the drama at all.The fact there are dragons flying around doesn’t detract from Game Of Thrones being one of the most dramatic shows I’ve ever seen, never mind worked on. So, I wanted to bring that to bear, and why shouldn’t it be a drama and a horror film rolled into one.

Another dramatic horror that it has touchstones with is Witchfinder General – how large did the shadow of that film loom when you were making The Reckoning ? And what did you have to steer clear of?

It kind of did and it didn’t. I’m a big fan of the movie and I haven’t actually watched Witchfinder General in 10 or 15 years  – and deliberately didn’t watch it in the run-up to making this film. I just wanted to put it out of my mind and make my own film but it’s one of the few horror films set in that period  – it’s not a very popular period for filmmaking  – everybody usually goes medieval. The Civil War time doesn’t get touched on an awful lot  – the fact that there’s now two witch-hunt films is because that’s when they were taking place.

You’ve been in lockdown – I imagine you’ve been writing – what’s coming up next for you?

I’ve got a couple of things coming up. The same time I was writing The Reckoning, myself and Charlotte wrote a gangster movie called Duchess that we want to get made next. Well, it won’t be the next, it’ll be the one after next. It’s like a uber-violent, gangster revenge action movie which will be a lot of fun and completely kind of over the top. It’s basically like a female Scarface – that’s kind of the pitch. Before that, the next thing is another horror movie called The Lair, which I’m about to shot in Budapest in July. 

Neil, I look forward to them both. I’m a big fan of your work – and I adore Dog Soldiers going back 20 years or so. 

Awww. thank you. 

Whatever you make, I’ll always be there watching because I love your style and the movies you make are so unique to your voice. Thank you so much for making them – and thank you for your time today. 

Cheers – thanks a lot, Niall.

The Reckoning is now available on Shudder