Violence dominates director Neil Marshall’s work, from his 2002 werewolf action film Dog Soldiers to his battle-centric Game of Thrones episode “Watchers on the Wall” from earlier this year, the latter of which earned Marshall an Emmy nomination. Marshall grew up in Northern England, reveling in hyperviolent horror films that were banned during the U.K.’s Video Nasties scare of the mid-1980s. Now 44, he’s gone on to helm The Descent, one of the most viscerally disturbing horror films of recent memory, and the pilot episode of Constantine, a dark, supernatural drama based on DC Comics’ Hellblazer series. Vulture talked to Marshall about decapitations, ex–Sex Pistol John Lydon, and taboo VHS tapes.
Watching the Constantine pilot, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a conscious effort to distinguish the show’s style from the look of the  Frances Lawrence/Keanu Reeves film …
We tried to make the show as close to its source material as possible. The idea that we started with is that [this show] takes place in a world with demons and beast things. I thought that that automatically makes it more creepy than any other heightened or twisted reality. But we were always intent on going back to the source material, and trying to make the definitive version of Constantine.
Various Hellblazer comics writers, like Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, and Pete Milligan, have brought their own idiosyncratic tics and concerns to the character. Were there any particular stories or aspects of the character that you focused on when thinking of your pilot’s look or style?
I love the fact that he comes from the U.K. punk scene. He was originally based on Sting from Quadrophenia, the same hairstyle, all that kind of stuff. But he also reminds of John Lydon from the Sex Pistols. I don’t know if it’s just the attitude — he’s a bit of a bastard. I like the fact that he can’t always be trusted. There are so many angles that I like about this character. He’s not just a nice guy. I’m a big fan of the U.K. punk scene, so that definitely heightened my appreciation [of the character].
There’s a portrait of John Lydon in the background of the pilot’s one scene with Jeremy Davies. Whose idea was that? And why old man John Lydon, and not early Public Image Limited or Sex Pistols–era John Lydon?
That was a production designer’s idea. We all loved the idea, but it goes back to that character as well. It’s his roots. It just seemed like the perfect fit.
Speaking of punk: You’re in your mid-40s now, so you were probably too young to be into punk in the late ‘70s. But you were just the right age to fall in love with banned Video Nasties horror films. Were you a big horror fan as a kid?
Yes. My very first horror experience was much younger than that, seeing the old Universal horror classics on TV. But then I went through a baptism of fire seeing what would become the Video Nasties films on VHS. We didn’t have a VHS player, but a friend of mine did. I think I was 12 or 13 when I watched a double bill of Zombie Flesh Eaters and I Spit on Your Grave.
[Laughs.] That was my introduction to hard-core horror. That was before they all got banned in the U.K. That led to me getting VHS copies of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, An American Werewolf in London, and The Howling.
The impact and effect of a moral panic like the Video Nasties scare often seems exaggerated, based solely on historical accounts. What was it like, for a fan like you? Was there a danger to watching these films when you were a kid?
Definitely. The idea that these films were banned made them seem more taboo. The thing is now, the list of banned films…some of them…I wouldn’t say they should be banned, but some are just not great movies. Some of them are just pure exploitation, trash horror. And others are genius classics like The Exorcist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But the idea that they were forbidden fruit mad them more intriguing.
Trying to get a hold of Texas Chainsaw Massacre was really difficult. Eventually, when I did track down somebody’s copy, it was a copy of somebody else’s copy of somebody else’s copy. [Laughs.] That added a kind of mystical element to it. And somehow the bad video quality enhanced the horrifying elements. I can’t explain why that is … the fact that it was illegal added an element of fear.
You mentioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but were there other titles you considered Holy Grail picks? Did you have a list?
Certainly Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Clockwork Orange. Getting a hold of that was very difficult. I think eventually, the copy I got was from the Middle East somewhere. It had Arabic subtitles on it. Those two were the most sought-after titles.
You didn’t really have any limits on what you could do on Game of Thrones, save for scaling back the number of mammoths in “Watchers on the Wall.” Which just made me wonder about a gag early on in the Constantine pilot: the bit where a girl has red paint explode all over her, and John reassures her it’s not blood. You’ve compared the freedom you had on Constantine to the kind Brian Fuller has on Hannibal, also a network TV show. But were there things you couldn’t, or thought you had to preemptively work around ?
With Constantine, we were deliberately going more for scares than gore. We wanted to work a sense of fear in there, which is very different than gore. You can splash around as much blood as you like, but that’s not particularly scary unless it’s done in a certain way or hits the audience at a certain point. But most or the time, that’s not scary, that’s gory, which is a very different thing. So we didn’t really set any limits for ourselves. Also, while it was a network show, we didn’t want to censor ourselves. Knowing the kind of stuff Hannibal pulls off on a weekly basis made us feel like if we wanted to go gory, that would be fine. There just wasn’t any specific call for it in the episodes I did.
In both “Blackwater,” your first of two episodes of Game of Thrones, and Centurion, characters gets scalped — or at least, the top of their head is sheared off with a broadsword — and someone legs get knocked off at the knee in both. Are these injuries a thing with you, or is that just a grisly coincidence?
When you do as much violence in your films as I do, it’s always a task to come up with something new. It varies based on the project, but the question is often something like: What’s the most authentic result of hacking somebody to bits with a sword? Now that we’re in a position that we can sell this stuff more freely I don’t want to hold back with that. I think it’s spectacular and sensational and exciting and gory and disgusting and everything. It’s high entertainment! [Laughs.]
When Herschell Gordon Lewis released Blood Feast, he noted that viewers were most disturbed when the killer pulls a victim’s tongue from her mouth. Are there certain recurring images that bother you personally, or you find is especially upsetting?
You try to find the things that really affect people. There are certain things in movies, like seeing someone get stabbed, that don’t affect people so much. But when I was doing The Descent, I tried to make you really feel the gore elements. So when somebody got rope burns on the palm of their hands, you really felt that. Or stuff to do with eyes or tongues, as you said.
With the decapitation in Centurion and “Blackwater” … the one in Centurion was done almost as an afterthought. But the one in “Blackwater” we got a much better effect. It was properly planned, and carried out. And it all sprang from the idea that, when you try to jump somebody with a sword, you’re not always going to be accurate, and neatly severe across the neck. Or if you aim a little high … it’s a messy business. I thought: What’s more authentic for this world? So: Let’s see what a messy decapitation looks like. It seemed more authentic, and I thought that we hadn’t seen anything like that before.
And the business with the leg: In Centurion, the guy was standing on a table, so it just seemed like the right height. [Laughs.]
Your regular cinematographer Sam McCurdy shot “Blackwater” and he makes the most out of some heavy use of shadows in that episode. On a TV series, it’s not common to have a regular collaborator brought in. Do you have any plans to work on him on any of your upcoming TV work?
He would be my first choice on anything. If there’s any way I can get him on stuff, I will. It’s not often with TV stuff, because they do have … it’s rare that you bring in one [director of photography] for an episode. Usually, one DP will handle a whole series. And that’s slightly problematic. We got Sam on my first episode of Game of Thrones partly because it was last-minute. I directed an episode, and they told me, “Okay, you’re gonna need somebody who can work as fast as you, and cut through all the crap. So it makes sense if you bring your regular DP with you. “I’m not saying that the DPs I’ve worked with on television since then haven’t been amazing. But Sam is my first choice.
It’s a great collaboration. You’ve got one more episode of Constantine coming up in season one. Are you onboard for any season five episodes of Game of Thrones?
No, I haven’t done any Game of Thrones this season. But, fingers crossed, I might go back next season.