Neil Marshall for “Centurion”

Set in 117 AD, “Centurion” is Neil Marshall’s take on the mysterious disappearance of Roman’s powerful Ninth Legion. His story theorizes a series of increasingly deadly battles between a mysterious tribe known as the Picts, who will stop at nothing to defend their land and preserve their way of life.

Michael Fassbender headlines the cast as Quintus Dias, who leads the remaining Ninth Legion into battle with the Picts in the name of his leader, Virilus (Dominic West). Supermodel Olga Kurylenko leads the Picts as the fierce Etain, once wronged by the Romans and obsessed with their demise.

Dark Horizons spoke exclusively with Neil Marshall, who grew up driving the still-remaining old Roman roads running parallel to Hadrian’s Wall. As he heard stories and myths of its existence and the Ninth Legion’s disappearance, Marshall grew interested in what might have possessed the powerful Romans to build this wall in the first place.

“The myth itself is just that, a myth,” Marshall tells Dark Horizons. “According to historians, the Ninth Legion did go into Cala Doria and they were attacked but not necessarily massacred. And then they went off and supposedly did something else in the Roman Empire. What I wanted to create was a historic world for this. I wanted to make sure it was historically accurate from the point of view of the detail – the props, the costumes, the behavior, all that kind of stuff. The story itself is fictional. It’s a hypothesis of what might have happened to the legion. It fulfills that myth and how the myth might have been created. I particularly liked the idea that it was actually the Romans that created the myth in order to cover up a military disaster that would make them look very bad.”

Marshall admits his research was limited simply by the fact that information on the events is relatively scarce, giving him plenty of liberty with his story. “There’s only one book, but it never actually specifies what might have happened. It’s just that they disappeared or got massacred, but it never explains how they might have been massacred. So nobody covered that. All of that I had to come up with myself.”

“Centurion” is an action movie in the B-movie tradition, brisk and brutal. In recent time, historically-based battle movies generally veer into epic running times and detailed story-lines. While Centurion is not without story and intriguing characters, its 97 minutes are focused largely on the battles, which are fast, gritty and realistically imperfect. “I like that element, it has that freshness about it,” says Marshall. “It’s not perfect. If they come to the set and do this note perfect fight routine that looks like it’s a couple of ninjas without a false move, that doesn’t look real. It has that kind of rawness.”

In gathering his cast, Marshall knew it was important to cast actors that would not only be believable in the parts, but tough enough off-camera to handle the harsh filming conditions. “I knew that I was going to punish the cast,” admits Marshall. “It was going to be cold, wet and miserable and I was going to be putting them into rivers and jumping off cliffs. When they got to the top of the mountain, I wanted to be there just to open the back of the vehicle and let the cold flood in and see what their response was. And they were like, ‘What the hell have you got us into.'”

While there weren’t any casualties on set, there were some close calls. “One of the cast members got first degree frostbite in their foot. Throughout the shoot we had a few trips to the hospital. After they’d been in the river, one actor went into shock, turned green and started vomiting everywhere. But an hour or so later, he was back and fine. It’s just the shock you can get from going into water that’s about as cold as it can get before it turns solid. These guys were doing all this, but they still never complained. They were having a ball. It was a proper adventure for them.”

The director was able to go back to two actors he’d originally considered for “Doomsday”, Michael Fassbender and Dominic West, to play Romans Quintus and Virilus, respectively. “They auditioned for different parts [on Doomsday],” says Marshall. “When I first met Dominic I hadn’t really seen or heard of The Wire, but I’d seen him in a few other films and really liked him. He just seemed so perfect for the role of Virilus. It’s not like he is at all. He’s not that kind of brutal gorilla of a guy, but he has the physicality for it. And I just thought Michael would be great in this film. I’d seen him around a couple of times and we’d discussed what we might have a chance to do together. That was great to finally get him into this role. It really worked and they delivered great performances.”

The most unlikely casting choice was Olga Kurylenko, a svelte and seemingly delicate supermodel, in the role of the blood-lusting warrior Etain. “She was covered in cuts and scrapes and bruises by the end of it,” says Marshall. “She didn’t complain at all. When you’ve got her and Michael literally on the deck in the dirt fighting for their lives and knocking the hell out of each other, I was expecting that to be a problem. I thought she might ask, like, ‘Can I have a mat down here?’ But she just got straight down there.”

Kurylenko’s performance stands out, the most villainous and vicious femme fatale of recent memory. Although Etain is positioned as a villain, her backstory adds a level of justification to her vengeful quest. “I wanted to keep it grey, [like] hang on a minute, she’s a bad guy? It’s kind of like Magua in Last of the Mohicans, this absolutely evil character that is also justified in what he’s doing and totally believes in it. I wanted to give her a history that painted the Romans in a very different light so you can see it from her point of view. At the same time, you don’t want her chasing after you because she’s going to chop you into little pieces. She’s pretty dedicated to what she’s doing and you have to come up with a justifiable reason for that. I always think that the best villains are the ones that have a justifiable motive.”

“Centurion” debuted on VOD July 23rd. It will open in a limited theatrical release on August 27th, 2010.