Horror comedies are tricky beasts, and it’s the rare one that’s successful as both comedy and horror film. Severance is one of those. A busload of employees of arms manufacturer Palisade are on a tour of Eastern Europe, selling their wares. At one point they head to a mountain top retreat in some post-Soviet, post-local genocide republic, intending to do a weekend of team building exercises and the like. Instead they get caught up in a series of people dismembering exercises, as they’re stalked by an inventive and bloodthirsty killer. Director Chris Smith keeps the blood flowing and the laughs coming all throughout the film, while also making some salient points about globalization, believe it or not.
A couple of weeks before the US release of Severance, the MPAA took offense at the film’s website, which featured a very comical decapitation on the front page. We wrote about it here, and I remain baffled by the rating board’s decision. When I had a chance to sit down with Smith in a one on one, I knew that was where I wanted to star
This interview is riddled with spoilers. I have tried to keep them blacked out to the best ofmy ability.
Severance is now playing in limited release.
The American website for Severance was the same one you used for the UK, where you had no problem.
Absolutely no problem. None.
Why do you think that is? Did the MPAA say to you what was wrong with it?
I think it was the decapitation. Their perspective is that the movie is reviewed as a certain rating but… I don’t know. It’s a cartoon to me.
It’s a comical decapitation.
They have certain rules. I think some areas end up where the lines are blurred and things that seem like illogical decisions happen.
The tone of a horror comedy is so hard to get. Can you talk about balancing the tone so that you have a credible horror movie while also being funny?
It’s really tricky, because usually one side overtakes the other – it’s either a comedy or a horror with a smidgen of comedy. Where people get it wrong, and where I certainly got it wrong with a lot of the inverted commas in Creep, is when you try to make characters say funny lines in situations where they wouldn’t say funny lines. To make it credible the characters have to be grounded in truth, even if they’re silly characters like some of the characters in Severance. They still have to behave in ways that are truthful to themselves and to the movie, or you have the Roger Moore James Bond quip that most horror comedies suffer from, or you have spoofs like Scary Movie, where don’t take the horror seriously. Shaun of the Dead I think doesn’t suffer from it because it’s a zombie movie and zombie movies by their nature are not tension building scary, they’re more apocalyptic.
What we decided was to strip the characters back and to play them straight. We made sure the actors had the ability to cut a line or we cut a line if we think we’re saying it just to be funny. There are instances in Severance where I loosen the rules slightly, like where the decapitated head gives the camera a wry look, but I do believe that to be the truth, I believe your brain lives on –
And you set it up previously.
And we set it up so you believe that’s the case. If you look at The Full Monty, The Full Monty passes it off as realism, but then one of the most remembered sequences is when they’re all dancing in line, and that’s completely ridiculous. But it still fits in the world. We gave ourselves some slack.
The only joke that seems broad is the missile.
Well, it’s broad but… it’s broad for me only in the fact that he turns around [after firing a missile at some baddies] and says, ‘Oops!,’ which is a straight comedy beat. It is broad, but I believe it could happen. And I thought it was such a funny idea.
It’s interesting how ideas seem to just be out there and getting plucked at the same time. In Mike Judge’s Idiocracy there’s a similar gag, where a guy is holding a rocket launcher the wrong way and takes down a plane by accident. I assume you didn’t see the film when you were making this – nobody saw that film! – but it’s weird how ideas come at the same time.
It happens. When I was doing Creep Hostel was being made at the same time, and I didn’t know that. I didn’t see Hostel until after I finished Severance, and the torture rooms look very much the same. I think we’re all just soaking up the news and I think it’s just the war in Iraq and all that…
You saw Hostel after finishing Severance, but beyond the torture rooms, they both have a setting in common – the post-Communist Eastern Europe. What drew you to that?
For me, my reasons are entirely different. We can’t make movies like Deliverance or Southern Comfort in England because it’s too small; there are no real areas where you can be trapped. You break your leg in the country in England and you go to the petrol station half a mile away, or your mate can run to the nearest phone box. But as an English guy, finally recognizing and calling ourselves European – growing up I never called myself European – means we get to use all the big areas of Europe to tell those stories.
I think it’s slightly different in Hostel; I think Hostel is playing on… I don’t think in Hostel he’s quite as judgmental as some critics have said he was. I’ve read on the net people saying, ‘Why does everyone treat Eastern Europe like this?’ and the answer is because it’s new to us. But I don’t think the film is in any way taking the piss out of Hungarians; I think it’s more about corporations and fighting corporations.
But you are taking the piss out of American weapons manufacturers. How important is that whole political subtext?
It’s interesting – in the original script, you found out they worked for a weapons manufacturer at the end of the movie, and I didn’t buy that. So I decided to put that in the beginning of the movie so that we know what they do. But the first thing we’re faced with is, is this going to be about bad people who are weapons dealers getting what’s coming to them? And it’s not like that – these are nice characters, and who am I to say because that job does that, you deserve to have this. I don’t want to be judgmental like that. So I expanded the idea of what their company does, so as to say, ‘You can work at a company that makes lifts but also makes the sprockets that make the gun barrels of weapons that kill kids.’ As soon as the net widens we’re all responsible, which then gets to the idea of ‘What’s a legitimate target?,’ which is the whole war on terror aspect of the film. Then it gets to the idea that if you pay taxes to a country you’re a legitimate target; it’s a spiral to that level in a way. I didn’t want it to be judging these people, but what it means is that the corporation, Palisade, could be any country in a way. People don’t like you because you’re American or because you’re English, and that’s the way we disguised it. I think what that did is it kept it a bit more scary in a way. We don’t turn [the killers] into Jason; the movie plays around with the idea of it being a Jason kind of guy, and it’s not, but you think they are.
It is sort of a globalization horror film.
It is! It’s more to do with corporations than with weapons; weapons are just something for people to latch on to.
At the beginning of the film, as the characters are riding to the retreat and watching that training video on the bus – again, how do you make the tone work? The video is obviously funny and meant to be satirical, but how do you keep from going over the top?
Weirdly, while that scene is really broad, it’s considerably more toned down than real weapons corporation videos. I watched that and went, ‘Hmm, it’s a bit broad,’ but there’s a corporate video I saw for guns called ‘Cornershot,’ and you can fire around a corner. [American voice] ‘Cornershot! If you see terrorists but you can’t face them head on, use Cornershot!’ That’s a real gun. I’ll probably get done by that company now for ridiculing their product. So we copied some of the ideas from these videos; they do have racist imagery – not that company! – but in some of the videos they do have all the white people in the offices and all the black people are using guns. What they’re showing is terrorism and street crime, and they’re using prejudice to sell the product. It’s kind of crazy. But that corporate video shows inordinate restraint.
Was there always an American character?
There was more. There was originally going to be more, and it all came down to the idea of it’s more fun to take the piss out of yourself. She’s not the token American, because the actress is Canadian. The boss, George, is American, but he’s lived in Britain for 20 years, so his accent probably sounds weird to American ears.
Have you have experiences in the corporate world yourself?
Yeah, seven years. What I really hated for it is that I worked for a big engineering firm, and I was working in a drawing office. We used to install control systems for buildings, and I was the project manager and on the phone a lot dealing with corporate industry. But suddenly they gave us legislation saying that we had to all be working towards a certain thing, so the job suddenly entailed writing down everything you were doing as well as doing the thing you were doing. I thought it was preposterous, so I would make it all up at the end. One of the other guys said, ‘What are you doing, you’re supposed to write it as you go along.’ I said, ‘No one is going to read it. This is about breaking us, this is about turning us into a machine.’ I was 21 and had a bad attitude, but it’s true – they weren’t going to do anything with the information. And I hated the corporate speak: ‘We can’t spell success without U’ – and I decided I had to go to film school.
Do you ever run into that attitude when you’re meeting with financers or studio money guys?
The film industry is crazy, but it’s not like that. You’ve probably seen it on YouTube, the David O Russell video – that’s the movie industry! You do that in any other environment you’ll go to prison or get sued. I think that’s why I really belong here – what happens on set stays on set!
Are you a yeller?
Not at all. I’ve been too soft before, and I’ve been angry when I should have been soft.
To be a director you don’t have to just have a visual eye or be a good storyteller – you also have to be able to work with and be in charge of a big group of people.
It’s so weird. When you see a great visual director and you see them on TV and they’re introverted guys – they’re fantastic at what they do, but… the first thing I had to do on Severance was deal with seven actors, each of whom had an idea of their character, one who was edgy because he just had a break up with his girlfriend, and so on. I think I’m fortunately good at that, in terms of my strengths lie in people management.
What’s your favorite kill in the film?
I think my favorite sequence is the boulder on the head and the knife up the ass. I love the way we managed to make that work. The boulder, for me, comes from Kieslowski’s short film about killing. Have you seen that movie? It’s a long, protracted murder and I tried to turn that into something funny.
There’s the scene with the flamethrower –
That would have been my favorite scene, but people wanted it trimmed back.
I wanted more comedy with the flamethrower. The problem is that all the killers were stunt men, and he did it a little too broad, so I had to cut it back. But you thought it was agonizing – why?
Well, because it’s a character you like.
And she doesn’t deserve to die that way.
And you can see it coming – it’s very tense. We talked about mixing the comedy with the horror, but how about the other way around? How do you go from a brutal kill back into being a comedy?
It’s a very good point. I think that area of the movie proves there are certain things you can do and come straight back from. There are scenes like where she’s being chased and she comes across the phone and she gets put on hold and when she hangs up it goes from silly back to you being scared for her again. And you have scenes with strong bloody violence and even though there’s a jokey bit at the end, the movie doesn’t recover back to comedy for maybe five minutes. What we found while editing it is that the movie has a musical kind of rhythm to it, and sometimes a scenes exhausts an audience to the point where they can’t laugh straight after. An example of a beat that doesn’t work in terms of it should be laugh out loud funny but isn’t is the sequence after where the guy whose leg has been cut off is being tortured, the black guy dies, it’s all very dark but then she does the big Hollywood ‘I’m going to get my revenge’ and she goes to get the knife out of the knife holder and it sticks. It’s funny, but I’ve been at test screenings where it doesn’t get a laugh. I think what you do is you smile inwardly at something odd happening. I think the flamethrower sequence takes a while for people to get back into the comedy, as it’s the first hardcore kill of the movie. But to be fair, the movie does start off with someone being garroted against a tree, so I did warn you! The tonal mismatch happens immediately. It does have spikes, but they aren’t mistakes – what are you going to do, constipate your film with logic?
You talk about how some scenes play with test screening audiences. Do you use a lot of test screenings? What’s your opinion of them?
My opinion is that they can be useful – like with the airplane. Everyone put down their favorite scene as the airplane, and I had been fighting with executives who didn’t want it in the movie. They didn’t object as a tonal issue, they thought it was bad taste, and I thought, that’s why I want it in. It encapsulates the whole weapons thing.
Where it’s dangerous, test screenings, is when you haven’t finished the music or the sound design. I love sound design – I think my films are raised ten or fifteen percent by the sound. Execs will say it’s not scary, and I have to say, ‘It will be scary.’ They want you to cut, cut, cut to make it scary with the pictures and don’t think about the sound. Look at The Shining – absolutely nothing is happening for long periods of time but you have this ‘doot doot doot’ thing happening. Test audiences can help you or compound an exec’s fears and screw you. But I prepare for them very well and demand having a few days with a sound mixer.
I’m doing a kind of Bermuda Triangle movie. It’s not the Bermuda Triangle, but it’s called Triangle, and it’s a weird thriller set on an ocean liner in the middle of the sea. It has a Dead Calm, Shining kind of vibe.
Every movie ever shot on the sea has been a pain in the ass to make.
I know. And often they’re not that great. I’ve always been thinking of ways to solve this. You have to deal with things like the clouds moving and perspective shots being all wrong. One of my all time favorite movies is Jaws, and if you’re watching the weather in the background in Jaws, between two sentences it goes from cloudy to sunny, but you don’t notice it. Big ocean liners are like hotels. It’s the Overlook Hotel as a cruise ship. It plays on that Shining vibe more.
Is it a straight thriller, not a comedy?
It’s a straight thriller, but it all plays in reverse, like Memento or Irreversible. It has a weird structure.
This is your script?
Yeah, it took me four years to write, and it nearly drove me mad. I was always in my own head – and you wonder why these guys cut their ears off! Spending so much time in your own head working on a movie that’s about being in your own head… working on Severance was a joy from beginning to end because you come up with an idea and throw it at the film and see if it sticks.
But with a film that’s a puzzle movie –
It’s exactly the opposite of what I like, and this is very formal. Everything’s working in loops, and every single that has to lock on to every other thing. We’re basing it on Escher drawings. We’re going to be shooting that in October, is the plan. We have two options: to finance it with English money, but I want to go bigger. I want it to be my difficult third album, but my big third album.