Severance

Brit helmer Christopher Smith and his star Laura Harris talk weddings, footballers and Danny Dyer

It’s been a long press day for Christopher Smith and Laura Harris. Perched on a sofa in a London hotel, Smith and Total Film are waiting for Harris – she of 24 fame -  who’s popped out to take a phone call and despite enduring a day of grilling from the nations press, Smith is super-charged and charming and suggests we get underway without his star.

The Creep lenser is here to promote his new flick, Severance, about a bunch of office workers from a weapons company who end up at the mercy of a killer while on a team-building weekend at the firm’s eastern European retreat. “I’m on my eleventh espresso of the day,” the Bristol-born director tells us with a chuckle and proceeds to give an interview that perfectly displays why he is one of our favourite people in Movieland. But then he’s got every right to be a happy bunny – Severance is a clever, gag-packed blood-fest that will undoubtedly plonk Smith squarely and deservedly on the map.

Chris, you must’ve known you were making something special while shooting Severance?

When you put a film together for the first time, we had a vibe on set that we were doing something really special and that’s to do with casting, it’s to do with the tone of what the actors were doing and there was just this warmth. But it wasn’t until I stuck it all together -  and it was two hours the first cut – that I thought ‘this is good!’ Often you have to work at the edit to make it something, with this, all we had to do is shorten it.

So there’s a heap of footage for the DVD right there then…

I don’t know about that, it’s twenty minutes of people walking down lanes and stuff, trudging through forests, it’s hardly the director’s cut! This is the director’s cut, what you’re going to see in the cinema. Everything I wanted in there, is in there, nothing was left out. There was a few conversations about certain elements.

Really? What did they want you to cut?

I don’t want to ruin anything but there was the scene with Danny Dyer’s character putting the foot in the fridge. On the page it says, ‘he puts the foot in the fridge.’ They said to me, ‘you might not need that scene.’ I said, ‘what do you mean? That’s one of the best scenes in the film.’ They thought that as long as Danny’s character says later in the movie that he’s put the foot in the fridge, then you don’t actually need to see him put it in there. So there was a threat that this great scene I had in my head was going to be cut before we’d even shot it. So I called Danny up the morning after his birthday and he is still fucking wasted. He’s had about quarter-of-an-hour’s sleep, he comes in, does two takes. The first take was brilliant but it was about a minute long, so I said ‘Danny, make it about twenty-five seconds,’ and it was done, brilliant, he went straight home.

The consummate professional then…

Oh he is and he’s such a nice guy.

(Laura Harris enters.)

CS: As soon as I met him I found he’s a really loveable guy, he’s the one who’ll tell the jokes and get the vibe going. He’s very much acting when he’s playing a thug, he’s not a thug, he’s a cheeky little boy and so I tried to get as much of that into this character as possible. Why is Danny Dyer working for a weapons company, you know? He can be a computer guy, sure but he’s not going to be like Toby Stephens character, all suits and sales targets. So we found another way in for Danny’s character and for me, working with him was such a pleasure.

And how did you find working with Danny, Laura?

LH: The real pleasure of working with him is he’s totally instinctual, it’s great to work with someone like that. When someone’s a great actor but their instincts for comedy are off, it can be shit. But with Danny, it’s just there, it’s totally raw and so much fun to work with, he’s a great guy.

CS: I actually consider Danny a friend now, he’s coming to my wedding this weekend, he’s a…

LH: I didn’t get an invite, gosh, that’s so rude…

CS: She’s joking, she’s a bridesmaid. Always the bridesmaid eh?

But not in Severance, you’re the love interest in a way aren’t you? Maggie gives off this vibe that seems to attract all the men - unattainable without being cold…

CS: Perfectly put, I’ve been trying to find those words for this character, that is spot on.

LH: Yeah, which is kind of like me in real life… (Laughs)

You have this offbeat relationship with Danny’s character

LH: I do and it’s great that it transcends romance, you know? They can be themselves around each other and that is a sign of true love but let’s face it, what they all go through in this movie is way bigger than fucking romance! With everything else going on, who gives a shit if they kiss?

You’re character changes throughout the movie, probably more so than any of the others, is that what attracted you to the project?

LH: Firstly, it was an awesome script and to work with a bunch of English actors and a director this good, really was too good to pass up. With the character, I think maybe she was supposed to be feisty from the beginning but I remember Chris saying to me I could play it like the pretty girl who would never get through this ordeal, definitely a show dog type of girl. There’s something of that that lives in me anyway so I didn’t need to work on that, what I needed to work on was the Ripley side of her, why would she survive and how she’d survive this.

CS: The Maggie character very much came from the research Laura had done before and fed back to me. A lot of the character was changed during the process because there was a sassiness in the original script and a good actor will come in and question things and Laura said to me, ‘how does she just suddenly become this confident?’ So we worked on that. When she came up with that Ripley idea we realised, Ripley’s always right, so we back-peddled through the script and she’s the one who says ‘let’s stick to the main road,’ she’s the one who says ‘this obviously isn’t the right lodge,’ she’s always right. So even though she just sits in the background and glows, she’s just right.

You made quite a few changes to the script didn’t you?

CS: Not really, it was modified along with James Moran, the writer. The thing about them working for a weapons company for example, I just didn’t believe it. It was so fucking high concept. In fact, in the original script you didn’t know what line of business they were in until very late on - it read like The Office until you get to a scene late in the movie where they’re faced with what their company sells and you realised that they’re weapons dealers. So James and I talked it over and thought it was best to get that out of the way upfront, bring the war on terror in and take it to level ten and have some fun with it.

And you changed some of the fight scenes…

CS: Yeah, there was one moment I cut where Laura’s character is attacked by dogs and I just can’t stand dog attack scenes, they’re crap, total shit. I used a dog in Creep and I’ll never use a dog again, you never believe them. The day I meet a line producer who actually lets me release mad dogs onto actors, that’s when I’ll do a dog attack.

The comedy in Severance blends in superbly with the horror, it really relieves the tension…

CS: Comedy is so hard to shoot because it has to seem like the most natural thing in the world. There’s that really serious scene where Laura’s character is trying to tell Danny’s character that maybe they need to leave some of the others behind and suddenly you can here Babou Ceesay’s character taking a horse-piss upstairs. I’m not going to ruin the scene but we needed a sound to cover what’s going on behind them and we were going to have the pipes rattling but it didn’t work, so I thought ‘fuck it, let’s have him say he’s going to the loo and you can hear him taking a piss.’

It sounds like a cracking shoot…

CS: The shoot was loads of fun. It was split into two bits, the first was in Hungary the second was on the Isle Of Man. By the last five days of each it had gotten a bit gruelling but with this group, we were able to recharge ourselves a bit. No one ever fell out, it just gets a bit tiresome being away from home. The bombings happened while we were away and that was a bit weird and things like that make you feel like you’re in a bubble. Danny, for example, all his family and everyone he knows live in London, so things like that suddenly make you feel privileged to have this life. The microcosm of filmmaking, the silly little world you’re stuck in, it brings it all home. I don’t like to be at home when I’m filming, I didn’t enjoy the three weeks of Creep where we shot in England because I feel it’s like being part of something – like when Sven goes to the world cup and let’s the wives go out there, you shouldn’t be doing that. You should be getting a tribal kind of thing going. It’s like that, except there’s no footballers…

LH: I’d love there to be more footballers on set actually…

Now you know how to get Laura in your next movie…

CS: … starring Laura Harris, Frank Lampard and Joe Cole… (Laughs)

With that, our time is up. As TF is leaving the room we overhear a softly spoken exchange between director and star…

LH: I don’t know who those players are, sorry.

CS: You know Joe Cole, the little bloke who was on the front of Arena…

That must be a slice of that natural comedy Smith was talking about…

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