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Director Christopher Smith Recreates the Middle Ages in Black Death

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Sean Bean and Christopher Smith in Black Death, a Magnet Release. (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing).
British indie director Christopher Smith is making a name for himself in edgy, politically and socially-laced horror films, like the earlier Severance, taking place during a corporate “team-building” weekend in the Eastern European woods. The corporation is a London based arms merchant; unfortunately for them, the locus of their retreat was once a totalitarian regime’s torture center, prison and ”super soldier” site – a regime once happily supplied by the corporation in question.

Believe it or not, much of that film is humorous.

The recently opened Black Death, however, takes Smith & Co. back to the Eastern European woods (in this instance, the former East Germany), and a couple of his acting troupe recur as well, though Sean Bean leads the crew as Ulric, in a tale set, as the name implies, in the plague-ridden Middle Ages. There was torture, to be sure, usually in the name of God’s wishes, and often following an unprovoked, or unproven, charge of witchcraft.

The plot in fact brings Bean from his regional Bishopric into a town inhabited by Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), a young monk who agrees to lead Bean’s men into the woods. They’re after a town they’ve heard legend of, where no one gets the plague.

The only plausible explanation, of course, is that they’re witches.

“You believe if they believe,” Smith says, of the convincingly gray-green journey through the deep woods that his characters take the viewer is taken on. He wanted audience members to feel like “embedded reporters” in another era.

In part, that was achieved through keeping a consistent tone throughout the production, a serious, muddy grittiness that suits the age, and doesn’t “trivialize the violence.” He contrasts it with some of the “titillating” violence in his earlier film, where the audiences were given many false starts en route to the first gory maiming.

Here, the killing is always grim, if deemed entirely necessary, business, but Smith knows he needed not just tone, but look, to sell viewers on the centuries-past era – one tackled with a fairly restrictive budget .(In fact, though shot in English, the production money all came from Germany, making this, technically, a German production. Stay tuned to see how next year’s “foreign film” entrants play out!)

March of Flagellation in Black Death, a Magnet Release. (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing).

Though even with a budget he describes as “low, but not stupidly low,” Smith realized he “could have done the the Lord of the Rings thing” with copter shots taking in mountains, dales, and doughty swordsmen in long shot, but instead, he tacked more toward the kind of work he admired in films like Ridley Scott‘s Gladiator, which strove for its own you-are-there realism. In setting up shots with cinematographer Sebastian Edschmid, Smith kept reminding himself that “smallness is Medieval.”

But Scott had a lot of digital help in recreating places like old Rome, and Smith notes “there is CG in (this) movie” – overseen by VFX supervisor Andreas Schellenberg – used in turn back the clock for what are now ruins, and make them look like contemporaneous, functional structures.

But he also knew he had to use those digits sparingly. When the crusaders arrive at their sought after town, Smith didn’t want viewers to think “look at that CG village. It looks great!”

Instead, working with production designer John Frankish, he found an authentically recreated middle-ages town, built by citizens of the former East Germany, who’d spend summers there recreating a simpler way of life, much as folks here might spend several weeks living and working at a Renaissance Faire.

The former government there “didn’t think it was political,” so the re-enacters were able to sojourn there over the years, and now in the era of reunification, the locals are on guard against it becoming a movie set. Black Death was the first film to shoot there, and the production was careful to only add “a few bits and bobs” to what already existed, including an important church.

So the town was a great boon to the budget-conscious production, but so were Frankish’ sensibilities, which Smith credits as being “usually right.” The production only had two horses, instead of a horse for everyone in Bean’s group. So, Frankish suggested they “just have two horses for Sean,” while everyone else walks – setting up a strong visual about power and rank.

Sean Bean and Johnny Harris in Black Death, a Magnet Release. (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing).

And later, when a character is to be drawn and quartered on screen, (remember, this is a horror film), he is instead drawn and “halved,” with just the two horses.

But the moment is every bit as effective.

And it wasn’t just in blood where Smith sought productive collaborations. Edschmid, working toward the expected “filth and stench” of the era would “put up smoke everyday” before the shots were undertaken, otherwise, it would all feel “too clean.” And when they arrive at the troublingly disease-free village, there is of course, “no smoke.”

Nor was there much cluttering up his working relationships with Frankish and Edschmid, with whom he’s worked before. They’d go over general concepts, then he turned them loose. “I assume you’ve done it right,” Smith says, summarizing his approach to those collaborations, though he’s also aware the question could arise about whether “no notes means you are doing it right – or does the director not care?”

But he does care, and there were moments where notes were unequivocal. When Bean’s company is attacked in the woods by bandits, the attackers wore pieces of fur, which live-off-the-land brigands often did. But while he credits the research costumer Petra Wellenstein did, the costumes might have “been real, but didn’t look real,” conjuring more of a “Flintstones” feel on screen.

Smith laughs that while he loves Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he didn’t want to inadvertently invoke that film’s humor. In fact, the productions he kept in mind included Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Name of the Rose, and Bergman‘s Medieval work, especially The 7th Seal.

Smith didn’t have to play chess with death, but he had to invoke its constant, hovering presence. Among contemplated future projects is a U.S.-based “noir,” so he’s not quite finished with “darkness” yet. But his collaborators – embedded smokey shot lists and all – stand ready.

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