I’m a massive fan of Neil Marshall, especially loving his first two feature length movies (Dog Soldiers and The Descent), so I recently decided it would be awesome to try and organize one of my quick-fire Q&A sessions with someone who worked on one or both of the films … Step forward Mr. Leslie Simpson. A fellow Brit and highly talented stage and screen performer who memorably portrayed Pvt. Terry Milburn in Dog Soldiers, and showcased his physical acting skills as one of the cave dwelling crawlers in Marshall’s 2005 masterpiece The Descent.
A few weeks after getting the green light from Leslie and sending my questions I was excited to receive his replies. I opened the email, downloaded the attachment, and what greeted me was … unusual. I believe my initial reaction was “Is he taking the piss?!”
Afterward Leslie described his interview style to me as “creative. I am a writer also – and simply enjoy playing with expectations.” A glance at previous online chats he has taken part in did indeed reveal a fascinating uniqueness to his question answering. There are genuine facts to discover, and some wonderful details about the movies I wanted to know about hidden within. You also get a sense of the man himself through his humour and the effort/imagination he puts into EVERYTHING he works on. Be it a simple interview, or a movie.
He did indeed play with my expectations, and maybe that’s a good thing every now and then.
1. Can you tell me about your journey to this point, was acting / performing a destiny from a young age?
Many centuries ago there lived a man who happened to sell his soul to the Devil. At that time it was considered quite a normal occurrence, and although it was frowned upon to some degree, it was part and parcel of life. How this man’s story differed from the usual Faustian cavalcade however, was that a deal was struck to enact a cruel and endless game of hide and seek.
Somewhere in the midst of his life the Devil had buried the Key to the man’s salvation, which ironically was also the Key to his punishment. But the Devil could not reveal whether the Key was animal, mineral or vegetable.
The challenge was, should the man recognise the Key when he came across it, the exit door would be revealed; but miss it and it would bite him on the ass and curse him to another cycle of life with exactly the same conditions and events as the one presently being lived.
The man, being familiar with the legends of old, concluded that what he was looking for was that Holy Grail of eternal rewards, the ‘Soulmate’.
Now it came to pass that lifetime after lifetime came and went without him ever coming close to discovering the Key. And with each life cycle his soul emptied out one grain at a time, until before long there was very little of his soul left.
As each lifetime passed, the man grew more wise, and began to recognise the events of his life as they occurred, both the tragic and the glorious, the pleasant and the frustrating. At the same time this new found knowledge meant nothing, because he was completely unable to change one single thing about any of the events, neither his reactions, nor the outcomes.
But with each cycle, and with less and less of a soul, eventually it came to be that no part of him was left to play the game. The man became a mere shell. A puzzle. But a puzzle that had no choice but to go through the motions of playing the game, constantly searching for something that he knew not what and knew not where.
And because every moment was little more than a spoke in a wheel, and each spoke carried the opportunity to find or miss the Key, eventually the man lost all sense of where the wheel started, and where it ended. And so it was that even the beginning of any one of his many lives, when to all casual observers he seemed little more than a babe in the cot, it was to him just as easily somewhere in the middle of his life, or somewhere at the end.
So every Today, and all his Tomorrows became the inevitable causes of what happened Yesterday – because Yesterday will be, in truth, the inevitable Tomorrow of the next cycle. The wheel simply turned round and round.
But this story is not so tragic as it first appears.
The man eventually found a way to hide himself in the midst of life, so that his quest could remain a secret. Because he had no soul, and because that meant there was no-one there, every person he encountered left a little impression of themselves on him, like an ink blot on a blank piece of paper, or a honey bee taking a rub of pollen from every plant on its travels.
The man found that despite his debilitating curse, he could be whosoever he wanted to be, because there was something of everyone he had ever met in him, and there was also a little part of him in everyone he met. Naturally this caused its own problems because whenever he spent enough time with people, it was as if they were looking in the mirror at themselves, (just as it was for him also). He soon learned that only the purest souls could face looking in the mirror without being utterly disgusted, so he was chased away from town to town because few liked what they saw.
So he could not do anything with this unusual talent of his other than what life made him do – which was very often nothing much at all. His natural domain it seemed, was on the stage, where he could show large groups of people their faces in the mirror without any of them suspecting that what he was revealing to them was their own inner lives.
Some called him devil, some called him angel, some saw a man, and some saw a child, some saw innocence and some saw corruption, some thought him childish, useless and foolish, while some thought him perfectly mad; but most simply thought him a nuisance. What they all agreed on though, was what a thoroughly odd fellow he was, never suspecting that the reason for it was that he had no soul, nor that he spent his days searching for a mysterious mate who may have held the Key in safe keeping. And for that reason, the man felt quite alone in the world.
So that’s it.
When last I heard of him, he had still has not found the elusive ‘soulmate’.
Perhaps you know where it is?
Or perhaps the Devil cheated when he told the man that what he sought was somewhere out there in the world: The prize never was, and never will be anywhere to be found outside, but perhaps the answer he was seeking was buried inside the man all along?
In every game of hide and seek, the perfect hideout is the last place we think to look.
Right, question two then …
2. Dog Soldiers is one of those great movies that defies a low budget to become a visually brilliant and intense horror movie, was it possible to sense something special coming together while working on it?
Dog Soldiers wasn’t low budget. It actually cost 85 million dollars to make. It was a deliberate attempt on the part of the director to make it look like a classic low-budget Horror. We shot it in Barbados at the height of summer, and had Scotland shipped over tree by tree.
We knew it was something special the moment werewolves got off the plane. They’re not as tall as they look on screen; they were actually only 2 1/2 inches high. You can’t really get full size werewolves these days because they’re just too expensive to feed. They’re like Pandas, they eat from morning till night. To compensate, Neil used a technique known as Rostrum photography. The werewolves would be in the foreground of the frame, while we would be 20 miles away at the beach resort sipping rum and cokes.
3. Can you tell me about the make-up challenges you faced for The Descent, and what did the process involve each day?
The lipstick was the wrong shade for a start. I prefer to have my lips drawn on, but Paul – the s/fx wiz – insisted on a prosthetic suction filled with helium so he could stick us to the walls and ceiling between takes.
It was actually a blast to do.
Factor in the prep and de-rigging, and it averaged at around 10 hours a day in the chair. And then there was the shoot in between. But I have a sadomasochistic approach to my work – the more challenging the work, the more inspired I get, so this job was ideal. Unfortunately most jobs stay within very safe parameters and that drives me crazy. The hardest thing about the Descent gig was finding the time to hit the pubs.
What a lot of people don’t get is that we weren’t in suits. What you saw on screen was genuinely us. There was a prosthetic that fit around the eyes, prosthetic ears, and a couple of pronounced vertebrae. Oh, and the teeth. And that’s it. It was a paint job basically.
Paul Hyett and his team were master craftsmen, they took their time and painted in every vein and sinew. They also had the unfortunate job of spray painting my hairless doodlethwacker at 3AM.
Now a doodlethwacker is not something anyone wants to see at that time of the morning, so it was lucky that it was sub-zero English winter temperatures with the windows thrown wide open to ensure we didn’t suffocate on the fumes, because there was in fact nothing to see.
4. Many people (myself included), consider The Descent to be one of the best horror movies from the modern era … What sets it apart from other similar films in your opinion?
Nothing. What? Too short?
Okay, the deliberate lack of lighting design, and Simon Bowles’ cave set. The film was shot in virtual darkness, and all points of light were natural to the environment – the torches, glow-sticks, etc; so on the big screen you’re basically watching the one corner where there’s a light source, but be lost in a sea of black. That was unique, and cranked up the audience’s unease to near impossible levels.
And Simon Bowles’ set, constructed at Pinewood Studios, was, well, you know, just …
A lot of people still ask me which cave system we used. That says it all.
What marked it out? Effort. Effort and ability. There’s no substitute.
5. Do you personally have a passion for the horror genre?
I watch a lot of movies because I like them, they’re my favourite. They’re nice and warm and squidgy, and I’d like to find a nice movie to marry one day.
I don’t watch as much horror as I used to. Movies that excite me still have strong elements of ‘the Other’, something that enters our lifewave from outside the parameters of the known, but they don’t have to be strictly horror.
I have a thing for Faustian themes. I’ve been intrigued and repulsed by the Faust myth for as long as I can recall and it informs not only my personal life and work, but also my viewing and reading tastes. Unfortunately it’s near impossible to find anyone to collaborate with on a version of the myth who wouldn’t make a total pig’s ear of it. Why spend a lifetime studying it, when in 10 minutes we can all be wiki-experts? Oddly, that in itself illustrates the sad universality of the Faustian way.
But yeah, from Little Nicky to Angel Heart, stick the devil in a movie, and I’m sold.
6. What did they use for your Dog Soldiers fake vomit?
7. Finally, what does the immediate future hold for you regarding acting?
To finish the current job and move on to something else. There is no other way.
Very few things have ever satisfied my creative urges, and since living in Australia that frustration has only increased. So I’ll be DIY. That way, if it’s cack, it’ll be my cack with my smell. Stepping in someone else’s cack is the worst.
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