No epic budget as Romans fight Picts in 'Centurion'

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Since Hollywood's earliest days some of its costliest films have been set during Roman times.

MGM's 1925 epic "Ben-Hur," for instance, had a then staggering $4 million price tag. Its 1959 re-make came in for a hefty $15 million.

The tradition of ancient Rome costing plenty on screen may finally have met its match now in writer-director Neil Marshall's "Centurion," opening Aug. 27 via Magnolia Pictures.

Although "Centurion" takes place during the second century war between Roman soldiers and Pict tribesmen in what's now Scotland, Marshall ("The Descent") says it's neither an epic nor a big-budget production.

"Because it's about Romans it's always the term 'epic' that's applied to it," he told me. "I don't think of it as an epic. I think of it as being quite an intimate story about these seven guys who are just on the run for their lives."

But it's not an epic chase movie.

"We associate epics with vast expanses, vast themes and vast battle sequences -- and, obviously, we weren't able to do any of that kind of stuff."

What he wound up making, Marshall explains, is "something more akin to a western. It's like a John Ford western where the landscape is as much a part of the story as anything else and our characters are within that."

Nonetheless, the Roman setting drives Marshall's screenplay and it stems from his childhood.
"I was born and grew up in the town of Newcastle in northeast England that is actually at one end of the ruins of Hadrian's Wall. There's Roman ruins everywhere. When I was at school I had to go on trips to Roman forts."

At some point he heard the legend of the Ninth Legion marching into Scotland in 117 AD to battle the Picts and then vanishing without trace.

"I was instantly hooked. I thought there has to be a movie in there somewhere."

He began developing a story nearly 10 years ago about what might have happened. It inched forward in development as he was sidetracked by other projects.

"I wrote the first draft of the script in about three weeks. That was about five years ago. But I ended up making 'Doomsday' first."

After finishing that 2008 thriller, Marshall called Celador Films, with whom he'd made "Descent," to see if they still wanted to do his Roman project.

Financing came through Pathe in the U.K., which had distributed his early films.

"We did this for £7 million. At the time we made it, that would be about $10 million."

How do you do even a non-epic Roman movie on such a shoestring?

"The Legion should comprise 3,000 to 6,000 soldiers. Obviously, we weren't in a position to afford that many extras and the costumes and props that would go with them. So we had to get as many as we could -- I think we had a few hundred -- and through the use of digital composition replicate those numbers to make up the full set of 3,000 in a few shots.

Just as Ridley Scott did to add a tier of virtual spectators to the Coliseum in his Roman epic "Gladiator."

Roman costumes are pricy unless you know where to have them made.

"There are factories in India that specialize in doing chain mail and armor and they mass produce these costumes. They're a lot cheaper than we can get them anywhere else."
Shooting began in February '09 for seven weeks in the highlands of Scotland.

"Our first day of filming we were shooting in a blizzard 3,000 feet up a mountain and it was -19 degrees -- that's Centigrade, not Fahrenheit." Converted to Fahrenheit, by the way, it's still a frigid -2.2 degrees.

"It was the most physically difficult shoot I've done and that I think the cast has done. I did warn them in advance that it was going to be very, very tough."

Like having to work in icy cold water.

"One of the cast members came out of this river and half an hour later turned a sickly shade of green and started projectile vomiting everywhere. His body had gone into shock because of the cold water so we had to rush him off to hospital."

An hour later he'd recovered just fine and was back on set.

Marshall also had a severe time crunch to contend with.

"We had to do this really big battle sequence halfway through the movie. For 'Braveheart,' while shooting the Battle of Stirling, Mel Gibson had six weeks to shoot that entire battle. We had a day and a half to do ours."

The solution?

"Rather than change the cameras and lights and extras and everything else each time we needed to do a set-up, I just set up the cameras and lights in three different positions and left the background actors where they were and just literally swapped the actors over."

With that approach, he notes, "You really couldn't tell that the cameras hadn't moved. And once it's inter-cut into the battle sequence you cannot tell at all. It was coming up with ideas like that that allowed us to pull off what we did in the time we had."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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