Newcastle-bred director Neil Marshall decided to rebuild Hadrians Wall to contain a deadly virus in his latest movie, Doomsday.

He talks to Steve Pratt

NEIL Marshall is the man who rebuilt Hadrians Wall. Only on film, but his upbringing in the North-East caused the writer-director of hit horror movies Dog Soldiers and The Ascent to turn his thoughts to the Roman wall.

Growing up in Newcastle and then living in Carlisle meant I did a lot of driving back and forth between the two places along the old line of Hadrians Wall, he recalls.

At some point it occured to me what situation could exist to make a future government rebuild the wall?, he says.

The reason that the film-maker decided on was simple C a virus. With England under threat from a deadly epidemic sweeping through Scotland, the powers-that-be decide the best form of protection is to seal off the North from the rest of the country.

Because this 21st Century wall follows the line of the original Hadrians Wall rather than the border between present day England and Scotland, Marshalls home city of Newcastle ends up on the other side of the new barrier made of reinforced steel and with remote sentry guns.

The movie, Doomsday, is a $28m action thriller thats not only his biggest film to date but one that marks a move away from the horror pictures with which he made his name, the werewolf shocker Dog Soldiers and The Ascent, in which female potholers are attacked by mysterious creatures underground.

But theres still plenty of action, blood and gory violence in his new movie as a team of soldiers, led by tough girl Rhona Mitra, are sent over the border in Scottish no mans land to find the person said to hold the cure to the virus.

Doomsday started well before I made The Ascent. I came up with the idea in 2000/2001. I had a fivepage treatment sitting on the shelf and was then optioned to do something with it, says Marshall.

I took it to Rogue Pictures, told them the story and they said write a script. And thats pretty much what you see on screen, pretty much what Id imagined.

He wasnt pleased when 28 Weeks Later, another British film about a virus threatening mankind, hit the screens. They did steal our thunder a little bit, he admits.

But our film is so different, although they share a few things in common. Our people with the virus dont turn into zombies, which is quite difficult to get across to people. Its almost unwritten law they turn into zombies in movies. Virus equals zombies, they become living dead or mutants. But my virus kills people.

With star names Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell in the cast, Marshall didnt neglect the repertory company of North-East actors whove featured in his previous feature films and now have roles in Doomsday, although not what people who know them might expect. The whole idea of working with people Ive worked with before is never to repeat ourselves. It has to be interesting for all of us, he says.

I wanted to give Craig Conway the role of the villain, or at least one of the villains, because I knew what he was capable of.

With Les Simpson, whos been in all my movies, I wanted to try something new and fresh. So he plays a mean guy instead of a nice guy.

Previous collaborators Darren Morfitt, Sean Pertwee, Chris Robson, Emma Cleasby, Myanna Buring and Nora-Jane Noone have all been found a places in the cast, too.

The role of the tough major who leads the do-or-die mission over the border goes to Mitra, another tough woman following Marshalls female-heavy cast for The Ascent.

We auditioned a whole bunch of people and narrowed it down pretty quickly. Rhona stood out because she looked mean and like she could slug someone and carry it off. The character couldnt be so pretty you wouldnt buy what shes doing, says Marshall.

Although set in London and Scotland, most of the movie was shot in South Africa for economic reasons. Its about a third of doing anything in the UK, which was the primary reason for going there.

But it is a fantastic place, he reports.

Doomsdaylooks a much more expensive movie, than its $28m ticket, perhaps because Marshall was determined to put every single penny on screen.

We did a budget for the UK and that came out at 60 to 70 million dollars. We simply didnt have that money. Some of the South Africa location was doubling for the Scottish Highlands, which I know well, and if we hadnt found somewhere that looked right, we wouldnt have gone there, he says.

The final lengthy car sequence in which the soldiers are chased by gangs on bikes and in cars as they try to escape back to England took three weeks to shoot, with Marshall determined to use old-fashioned stunt work in preference to computer-generated effects.

For one scene we drove a Bentley car through the side of a bus at 100mph. Every day shooting the car chase there was some stunt man putting his life on the line, he says.

THE actors did as much of the action as they could. Darren Morfitt improvised a stunt that had him hanging out of the side of a speeding car with his head only a couple of inches off the road. He wasnt on a safety wire or anything.

Hes finding it strange that Doomsday isnt having its world premiere in this country like his previous two features. The film has already opened in the US and other countries around the world.

Reaction has been pretty mixed, he says. Its a film that divides opinion C its either very positive or very negative. Id rather have a film like that than one that gets no reaction at all. But its getting some very loyal fans out there.

His next project is undecided, although he has several in development, including one that would be shot in Los Angeles.

His first two films were British-backed.

Doomsday had money from a variety of places although it was an entirely British cast, substantially British crew and there was some British investment.

So far, theres no sign of him returning to film in Newcastle. I would love to, but it depends which projects go ahead. I did have a scene in Newcastle in Doomsday, because technically its across the border.

ö Doomsday (18) is now showing in cinemas.