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INDIE FOCUS: Romans battle in the Highlands in ‘Centurion’

A mad mix of the traditional sword and sandal epic with mud, spears, snow and plenty of blood and severed body parts, Neil Marshall’s “Centurion” tells the story of the Roman Ninth Legion, a group that disappeared while battling the Pict tribe in the Scottish Highlands in the second century.

Starring Michael Fassbender and Dominic West as Roman warriors, Olga Kurylenko as a Pict scout and Imogen Poots as a Pict exile, the film constructs a scenario of brutal battles and political intrigue to suppose how such a large number of Roman soldiers, pushing the boundaries of the Empire, could vanish without a trace.

“When somebody says sword-and-sandal movie to me, I think of deserts and dust and the Middle East,” said the English writer-director during a recent trip to L.A. for a screening of “Centurion” at the Los Angeles Film Festival before the film’s select national opening in theaters Aug. 27. (It is already available for video-on-demand.)

“What I don’t think of is rain and mud, and that’s the kind of film this was always going to be,” he continued, “to take these guys from the Mediterranean and throw them into this absolutely unsuitable landscape which played as much a character in the film as anybody else. They might as well be on the moon. Coming from Rome to the Highlands of Scotland was the edge of the world for them.”

Marshall became a favorite among genre aficionados with his first features, “Dog Soldiers” and “The Descent,” which showcased his low-budget storytelling smarts, not to mention copious amounts of old-school horror movie gore. When he jumped to a larger canvas with the $28 million post-apocalyptic road adventure “Doomsday,” however, the reception was more mixed; writing for the New York Times, Matt Zoller Seitz called the project “frenetic, loud, wildly imprecise.” It earned only about $11 million in the U.S.

“Centurion” can’t exactly be called a return to form — Marshall has never made a historical epic before — but it does find him going back to the inventively hard-charging, character-based thrills with which he made his name.

“I was inspired hugely by John Ford’s cavalry movies,” Marshall said. “I see it very much like that, as a western. The Romans are like the cavalry and the Picts are like the Comanches. You look at those films now and they are so un-PC, there’s just no way that kind of film would get made from the cavalry’s point of view anymore. And yet that’s exactly what I was doing, telling the story from the invaders’ point of view.”

He shot the film in remote mountains in Scotland where military troop transport vehicles had to be used to get the cast and crew to locations, and working with his usual prosthetics designer Paul Hyett, Marshall strived to create a grim authenticity for the battle scenes. It was the director’s rebuttal to the computer-generated slow-motion mayhem promulgated by Zack Snyder’s 2006 mega-hit “300.”

“There’s probably about 5% CGI enhancement to some of the blood, but the rest of it was all for real,” Marshall said. “I think it’s better for the film, I think it’s better for the actors that they’re dealing with stuff physically and getting their hands dirty rather than it all being clean and clinical for them. I think it’s all part of the process. It’s like adding CG mud into a muddy scene — what’s the point? Get them muddy.”

Keeping up with French writer-director Christophe Honoré is no easy task. His most recent film, “Man at Bath,” premiered this month at the Locarno Film Festival, and he’s already prepping his next project, “The Beloved.” For U.S. audiences, though, Honoré's latest release is his 2009 feature, “Making Plans for Lena,” which is available on video-on-demand following a small theatrical release that did not include Los Angeles.

Taking its title from the XTC song “Making Plans for Nigel,” which is heard in the film, “Lena” follows a woman (Chiara Mastroianni) struggling to hold her life together. She fights with her ex-husband, consistently frustrates her family and briefly loses track of one of her children in a train station. But just as Noah Baumbach attempted to do with Nicole Kidman’s title character in “Margot at the Wedding,” Honoré set out to draw a sympathetic portrait of an unsympathetic character.

“It’s difficult for the audience to like the character,” admitted Honoré, who co-wrote the script with Geneviève Brisac. “When we worked with Chiara we always thought about that. For me it would be too easy to present the character as a victim: her husband is a jerk, her family doesn’t understand her. So I hope spectators aren’t always with Lena, but at the end I hope they are completely with her even if during the movie sometimes she is hysterical and not very likable.”

Speaking by phone from Paris, the filmmaker said that working with the same set of actors over and over again is integral to his ability to maintain such a breakneck professional pace; the shorthand he establishes with his stars is key. Performers including Mastroianni, Louis Garrel and Alice Butaud routinely populate his work. Actress Léa Seydoux, recently buzzed about as a potential star of the American remake of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” had her biggest role to date in Honoré's “The Beautiful Person.” Catherine Deneuve (perhaps not coincidentally Mastroianni’s mother) has been cast in “The Beloved.”

“My dream would be to have a troupe of actors, like a factory,” he explained, “and every six months we can say, ‘So what kind of movie should we make now?’

“Maybe in 10 years I will stop making films like this,” he added. “I’ll just make one movie every five years, very perfect and precise, but for now it’s not my way.”

calendar@latimes.com


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