Interview: Dog Soldiers
Director Neil Marshall and actor Sean Pertwee reflect on eighteen years of Dog Soldiers
Written by Jonathan Hatfull
Horror loves trends. Vampires boom and bust, found footage rises and falls, everyone’s sick of zombies until they aren’t, and right now it feels like we’re seeing a shift away from folk horror into Lovecraftian dread. A subgenre that has very rarely, if ever, been the flavour of the month is the werewolf action horror comedy, as perfected in Neil Marshall’s 2002 British cult classic Dog Soldiers.
“Everybody said it was way too ambitious for a first feature,” remembers the writer-director when we catch up with him over Zoom. “To do werewolves and soldiers and explosions and action. I was like ‘So? OK!’ I never wanted to be accused of lacking ambition.”
Marshall is looking back at his debut 18 years on to discuss its brand new 4K restoration, the end of a torturous journey during which he believed the original negative may have been lost forever. “It really worried me that a lot of smaller independent films from that time shot on film, the negs might be completely lost because they didn’t have a studio to archive them,” he tells us. Thankfully, thanks to the tireless work of producer Christopher Figg, a negative was found and Dog Soldiers is heading back to cinemas looking better than ever.
For those who haven’t seen it, the film begins with six soldiers on a routine training exercise in the Scottish Highlands, who promptly discover that they’ve been sent as bait by a special forces bastard (a snarling Liam Cunningham) for a family of lycanthropes in a covert mission gone very wrong. With the moon full and ammunition low, the lads are picked up by a local zoologist (Emma Cleasby), who takes them to a farmhouse where they prepare to fight for their lives until the sun comes up. The action is relentless, the gore flows freely, and it’s a film where a squaddie from Hartlepool not only sings “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!” at a supernatural monster but gets to take one on with nothing but his fists and a frying pan in the finale. In short, it was destined to be a cult favourite.
“I expect nothing less than gratuitous violence from the lot of ya.”
Horror may be booming right now but things were very different in the late 90s and the early 00s. “Getting horror films made in the UK was really difficult,” Marshall remembers. “The last significant horror film made in the UK before that time was something like Hellraiser. The response we got from pretty much every possible production company or source of finance in the UK was ‘It’s not our cup of tea, we don’t do that type of thing.’ Horror is part of British cinema as much as anywhere else and for the community to turn its nose up at horror at that time was fairly disgusting, let alone disappointing. Thankfully things have changed since then, but it was difficult.”
“People weren’t really making horror films then,” agrees star Sean Pertwee (Gotham, Event Horizon), who played the platoon’s gruff, big-hearted Sergeant. “I was doing gritty dramas in basements in Manchester, beating people up and stuff like that. The script got passed to me by Jason Isaacs who said, ‘You really should read this.’ I instantaneously liked Neil, and I said, ‘Please use my name if it will help.’ And sure enough three years later, Chris Figg and Neil rang me up and said ‘We’re on, we start in two weeks!’”
“What are we talking about here, wolves?”
Any genre fan will tell you that werewolf movies are somewhat few and far between, and good ones are rarer still. Although Ginger Snaps would end up beating Dog Soldiers to the screen by two years, a great lycanthropic film was long overdue when Marshall first started working on his script six years before cameras rolled. “They were always my favourite monster,” he enthuses. “Since I very first saw The Wolf Man on TV, and then An American Werewolf in London and The Howling helped define my love of horror films in the early ‘80s. But they’re also the trickiest monster to do because you could get away with a set of fangs for a vampire, with a zombie you could stick some porridge on their face, but werewolves are more expensive therefore there’s a lot less of them out there.”
The practical creature design in Marshall’s film really stands out (and stands up), with the werewolves more wolf than anything else, and their slender stature that gives them a truly uncanny nature. “A friend of mine drew a sketch in a pub one afternoon of a werewolf and that design ended up being what we followed all the way through,” remembers Marshall. “I had given him a list of what I wanted, it was: two legs, looking as much like a wolf as possible. He combined the two in this incredibly elegant, lithe, almost feminine looking creature and it was almost beautiful, I loved it. That was passed on to the werewolf designers, Bob Keen and his team, who took that and refined it and enhanced it. It was a long process and it wasn’t cheap, and it did eat a chunk of our budget, but it was worth it to do it practically.”
“A lot of my friends are very serious actors, and I had a film company at the time [Natural Nylon, with Ewan McGregor, Jude Law, Sadie Frost and Jonny Lee Miller] and I was always a little bit concerned that people were doing very serious work and I was doing this thing,” laughs Pertwee. “’They would say ‘What are you doing?’ And I’d say ‘Oh, I’m doing this thing with werewolves…’ ‘Werewolves! I love werewolves!’”
Wolves aside, the main reason why Dog Soldiers continues to hold up is the characters. Led by Pertwee’s Sarge and Kevin McKidd’s heroic dog lover Private Cooper, each member of the squad feels like a real person and it’s a pleasure spending time in their company. And, of course, they start getting ripped to shreds. “I always pitched it to people as a soldier movie with werewolves, not a werewolf movie with soldiers,” Marshall explains. “I wanted the soldiers to be multidimensional and interesting and loveable, because I was going to kill them off brutally. I wanted people to care.”
“It was vital to me to depict British soldiers in a very authentic way,” he continues. “I’d done a lot of reading and I was very familiar with soldiers, my dad was in the army, my grandad was in the army, and this trench humour hadn’t really been mined properly before. I love that kind of army humour, of finding something to laugh at in the most arduous or difficult or painful or terrifying experience. I thought that was exceptional and I’d never seen those kinds of characters before.”
“We were yomping seventy-pound packs and SA-80s up and down hills, we shot it chronologically, and what happened, happened and what didn’t, didn’t,” remembers Pertwee. “I think that’s what gives it that believable quality. We got very positive feedback from men and women in the armed forces which meant a great deal to us. Men and women that were serving in campaigns all over the world had it on a loop and used it to lift their spirits. So, when you get letters from The Black Watch and things like that saying ‘This gives us great joy,’ you feel like you’ve done something right. That meant a lot to us, that we came correct.”
Although the film is set in the Scottish Highlands, production took place in Luxembourg, with long nights, endless rain and a whole lot of cold mud. The chronological shooting and tight schedule meant that the cast bonded quickly, but Pertwee tells us that it’s also responsible for how well the mix of horror and comedy works on screen. “We didn’t know what the fuck we were doing, we were just doing it for real,” he laughs. “We weren’t ever trying to be funny, that’s what’s funny, I think. The only thing we were trying to do was lift each other’s spirits.”
One of his favourite moments in the film came from an in-the-moment mistake. “We didn’t have the money or the time for Liam Cunningham to turn full-blown werewolf, so Neil said, ‘Why doesn’t he fall behind a table and we see a hand come up?’ Then I was supposed to throw a burning log at him, hit this werewolf over the head. I wasn’t looking at what I was picking up and I picked up a tiny twig! And I just went ‘Fetch!’ and threw it and it made it to the cut. That’s what I love about a lot of the humour in it, of course there’s funny moments but it’s the fact that Darren [Morfitt, who plays loveable gobshite Spoon] was such a superb boxer, that why he went five rounds with a nine-foot lycanthrope. It was hilarious.”
That being said, one of Pertwee’s finest scenes was definitely scripted: the Sarge’s long monologue about a former brother in arms named Eddie Oswald. It’s a great scene that’s wonderfully performed, but the actor tells us that “I told Neil there’s no fucking way this is going to make it to the final cut!”
“No one wangs on for six minutes!” he laughs. “It’s an actor’s dream, really, it’s such a good story and we were doing so well. It felt like we’d been together for weeks, we were in the middle of the night in the snow and in the rain and the mud, and it all came together and I couldn’t believe it. And he rang me up [later] and said ‘No, you’re wrong, it’s in.’ In its entirety, in one take, unbelievable. I’m very proud of it. In fact, Robert Englund who played Freddy Krueger, he told me that he learned it verbatim! I’d love to see it!”
These days, Marshall is known for action as much as anything else, directing some of the biggest episodes of Game of Thrones. Back then, this was all new to him. “It was awesome fun!” he beams. “Firing machine guns, blowing stuff up. There’s one explosion, the barn blowing up, I was so giddy with excitement I burst out laughing and then suddenly realised we were filming at the time. ‘Oh shit! That’s not going to look good on the soundtrack!’ This was the train set and I was getting to play with big toys, it was awesome.”
We couldn’t let Marshall and Pertwee go without asking for their favourite lines from this incredibly quotable movie, and the writer-director laughs when we bring up the moment when Sarge and Cooper debate whether turning into a werewolf is like needing a piss or needing a shite. “I love the matter of fact conversation about that. What’s the nearest thing to turning into a werewolf, well, it’s like when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go, how best to explain that?” he grins. “I love ‘Sausages!’ Sean’s line [when Sarge is staring at his own intestines]. And the stuff with the operation scene, the first punch when he comes back up and says, ‘Hit me properly!’ There’s so much in there.”
“There’s loads, ‘Sausages!’ was one of my favourites of course for obvious reasons,” laughs Pertwee. “’My guts are out, Coop,’ ‘Well put them back in,’ ‘They won’t fit,’ ‘They fucking fitted a minute ago!’ I think that’s hilarious. And ‘There is no Spoon,’ it goes on. ‘Zabriskie Point.’ In fact, when we started shooting Doomsday in South Africa, I found the Zabriskie Point poster. I got all the guys [to sign it], because of course he’s very loyal to us, he tends to employ people he loves working with, so we all found ourselves out in South Africa and I found a Zabriskie Point poster in a poster shop which I was very proud of. Admittedly I think it was Bulgarian or something like that, but it still was a Zabriskie Point poster!”
“They think it’s all over. It is now.”
Dog Soldiers was met with an overwhelmingly positive critical response in the UK. “My agent at the time saw an ungraded print of a VHS down in Warner Bros or wherever it was in Soho and she rang me up and said, ‘If that’s not a hit I’ll eat my hat,’” remembers Pertwee. “I said, ‘Really?’ She said, ‘It’s phenomenal.’ And sure enough the reviews were extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary across the board.”
“I was amazed, I didn’t know what to expect but I think the critics just found something to love in it,” Marshall tells us. “They really liked the film and maybe it was because there wasn’t anything like it before, so it was a bit of a breath of fresh air and something different to come out of the UK. I was surprised to find that it did translate to the US and a lot of people there really love it as well, but I kind of specifically made it for a UK audience. I made a British film that is 100% British, I made it for lads to watch when they come back from the pub on a Friday night. Finding out that it did strike a nerve over in the US and it does have a big fanbase over there is great. That it didn’t require subtitles, because there’s a lot of crazy slang in it and I wasn’t sure if people would get it, but I think they do anywhere, it works.”
“Just reading that it’s got a release in cinemas, I don’t know how that’s going to work with the terrible things that are happening in this world, but it really did put a smile on my chops,” adds Pertwee. “The fact that it’s back on in the cinema, that very rarely happens to movies that are 20 years old. It’s a true ensemble piece from the writing/director the camera crew to the actors to the special effects to everything. It’s one of my most favourite experiences, and the fact that other people enjoy it for the fact that it wears its heart on its sleeve is very important to me because I loved it so much. I’m always excessively proud of talking about it.”
Dog Soldiers announced Marshall as a talent to watch, a reputation that was subsequently cemented by his superb cave-bound horror The Descent. “The Descent was made in response to a criticism of Dog Soldiers, some critic said ‘Really enjoyed the film, however, when’s a British filmmaker going to make a really scary film again?’” he remembers. “And I kind of thought ‘Ooh, somebody’s thrown the gauntlet down there. I always felt like Dog Soldiers, yes it’s scary on some levels but it’s so tongue in cheek and has a strong sense of humour to the characters, I did set out with The Descent just to make an out and out pitch black nasty dark terrifying film.”
“I think if there’s one linking factor to what I do it’s action more than anything,” he concludes. “I like horror action because it allows you to do action that’s even more bloodthirsty than you would normally do. I think my new film The Reckoning is returning to my horror roots for sure, I missed the idea of scaring the shit out of audiences and I missed the world of horror. Not just the people that make them but the people who watch it and festivals and things like that. I mean, unfortunately the timing couldn’t be bloody worse this year. I was really hoping to get back into the horror festival scene but it’s all gone to shit. I’ll keep on going, I do love horror films, and if I can combine them with action then that’s even better!”
Dog Soldiers is available now on digital and released in cinemas on 23rd October by Vertigo Releasing.