Exclusive Severance Interview: Chris Smith & Laura Harris
23rd Aug 06
Chris Smith made a fairly big splash with his debut Creep a couple of years back. The film was successful on many levels (the torture scene!), so we were keen to see where his talent may spread to next. Well, now he’s back with a new film, Severance - easily one of the best British horror films of recent years, quite a compliment considering the likes of The Descent, SOTD and 28 Days Later.
We first heard of Severance through regular contributor Soulmining, who introduced us to James Moran, the writer of the film at FrightFest last year. We also met director Chris Smith there too, who teased us with a few tasty morsels on how Severance was shaping up.
Soulmining then ran his interview with James on this site (read it here), and we were lucky enough to get invited to a pre-final cut screening back in February this year. Blown away by the film’s ability to both make an audience laugh and scream, we’ve been backing this baby ever since.
So with the film's official release date now fast approaching, we recently got the chance to sit down with Chris Smith and star Laura Harris to chat about the making of the movie, the problems of staying in a hotel in Hungary, and lots of other juicy titbits. Read on...
EMB: Hi Chris and Laura. So, Severance - a great British horror comedy – we were very impressed with it when we saw it recently. Can you tell us what attracted you both to the project in the first place?
Chris Smith: I read the script, and I was called in by Michael Kuhn (the famous Michael Kuhn who is big producer of Qwerty) and he said to me, you know “Can you make this scary?” because at the time it was a script that was very funny, and I just said “Well, you know, I’d love to be able to”. The first thing we had to do is to try and find a way for each of the characters to be real. They were real already in James Moran’s mind, but the way I was reading the script was that it was very funny and very jokey.
So myself and James went right through it and found a way of making it so that there was kind of Woody Allen-esque tone to the characters so that they’re not just saying funny lines, or the situations aren’t being made obviously funny in a kind of jesty way, they’re mad situations that are funny. And that’s how it all began for me.
Laura Harris: Well, I’m just lucky to be working (laughs). The idea I’ve got the privilege of being able to say, “Well, I chose this project” (laughs again). But no, I just loved the script, and I liked the idea of being able to play this chick that kicks some ass and work with Chris.
CS: It was really lovely for us actually because it was kind of a weird thing in the sense that I’d really liked Laura in the few things I’d seen her in, and then there was this guy in the office who really, really LOVED Laura. And so it was these two things, you know, we were looking through this huge list of actresses that we were thinking of. And the casting director was with us at the time. And I wanted it to be that there was no-one that was off-balancing anyone else in the sense that, and this is a ridiculous example, obviously not a Nicole Kidman, but anybody where you go “well, she’s obviously going to make it”.
I tried to keep all the actors at a similar level. So Danny (Dyer), Tim McInnery, Laura, they’re all people that have done really good work, that are all really experienced actors and are known faces at a certain level. They’re not kind of ones that are obviously going to make it, so that you have that same thing that you have in Alien, where you don’t know who’s going to go first. So we were sat there with casting director and it was like, ”that sounds brilliant, let’s just go for that; let’s send the script to Laura”. So she got the script with a semi-offer straight away, and it’s like “Great”, and then we went and got drunk and that’s it. And that’s not how it works in Hollywood.
LH: Well, the script was very intuitive. It just felt right.
EMB: You actually have got quite a bit of a horror / sci-fi background. There’s Dead Zone, It, Highlander, The Faculty and lots of others. Had you seen Creep before being offered this script?
LH: I was told not to see it.
CS: Yeah, I didn’t want Laura to think it was some sort of slasher, some ripper kind of thing. Because this film isn’t really that sort of film. This was going to be not just a kind of ironic comedy, because I don’t think it is that. It was going to be a film that plays as a proper horror in one sense, but you laugh a lot when you’re watching it. And that’s what kind of makes it different really.
I mean the tone; the Evil Dead tone is that that the humour comes from the splatter. Shaun of the Dead is a comedy - it isn’t scary. Scream is a movie that is about the conventions, but it’s not funny, you know, it’s just ironic. And I wanted to find moments where the scenes paint the pictures of the irony, rather than having the words, having people being funny. So you know, we send someone off, the fat… Oh, take that back (laughs) – the little nerdy guy with the compass, exploring, you know he’s going to get killed, but he doesn’t and he finds the diving pool. Dammit! The little fat guy! (laughs) Because you can be sure he’ll be reading this (laughs)!
EMB: Severance also features a kind of an ensemble cast. Did everyone get on?
LH: It was wonderful, although I was told afterwards that during it I was a bit isolated and was always listening to my i-Pod…
CS: Oh, don’t worry about that. No, there was a playful mood on set. They were like a bunch of kids. And I think what Laura did very well, and what she’s saying about this idea, is that she kept herself very focused in the sense of her character was straighter than the others in a way. And there’s always a risk when you put someone like Laura in, who’s Canadian and has a very kind of certain look compared to the oddballs that are in a British cast. If you look at the guys from The Office when they went over and collected their… what was it, a Grammy they got?
CS: You know and one’s tall, one’s short and fat, one’s in a wheelchair, and that’s kind of England. And so what Laura did was she kept herself as this other character that you couldn’t quite read. You know, you straightaway get the geek, you get the geeky boss, you get the Velma from Scooby Doo, and you get Danny Dyer. And then you’re not sure about Laura.
I think what Laura did, which was great, was she kept, even though we were all socialising at the weekend, she kept this kind of unattainability that I spotted. Certainly the relationship between her and Danny, they were very close, but because she didn’t give everything away straight away, there’s chemistry at the end, and that’s what makes the film special.
LH: And everyone was so funny and so fun to be around, that essentially if I’m not listening to Marilyn Manson to keep me in a bad mood, I’m going to be laughing…
CS: It was true. It was such a battle of wits, you know. Tim McInnery is just a gag, Toby Stephens is so funny and Andy Nyman is a great magician as well, pulling rabbits out of his hat. So in terms of the ensemble, everyone got it straight away. So, there was no kind of, that actor ‘s sleeping with this actor so they’ve gone off in their little pocket, there was none of that.
LH: No-one was attracted to anyone! (laughs)
EMB: Damn – no gossip at all!
CS: No, there was none. And that’s what made it feel like an office team in a way. That there was a lot of chemistry, but there were no pockets, no one was arguing.
EMB: And with you all in Hungary together I suppose a bit like a team-building exercise in itself.
LH: Yeah, we were out in the wilderness. Well, we were in a castle. I loved it. I mean it was pure forest, and it was really hot.
CS: In a way, we should have shot it in January, and it would have been a lot more rainy and dirty. But it kind of doesn’t matter, because it has a nice look. But yeah, we were sweating. It was hot! And then we’d go over and do the scene, and when you’re shooting everything out of order in a movie and you run down a stream path, and you turn left, and you’ve got to shoot the next bit, and there’s been a monsoon, it causes a few problems.
LH: I think we broke the hotel’s virginity that month too. They weren’t used to the idea of people not abiding by the rules. That was pretty hilarious. Because the first night we were in, we moved all the tables around so that there was room for everyone, and to watch their faces, and they were appalled by the idea that we would move a table!
CS: Which is weird that you say that, because I guess, we wouldn’t do that if we were in The Savoy, but it wasn’t in arrogance, it was just that we were all working together, and we were a film crew, and we all wanted to sit together. But they felt like they would have done at The Savoy, like “Don’t do it”. We didn’t think we were being, well, we weren’t, we just wanted to sit together. Move the tables together, 25 beers. It was like that wasn’t it?
LH: Yeah, I mean in any other situation I’ve been in, people would have moved the tables. But there was a language barrier. I think if there hadn’t been a language barrier, we would have been ok.
CS: That’s right. We did ask. And at The Savoy they would have let us, and that was the difference.
EMB: I’m sure they liked you by the end of the stay though.
CS: Well, no I don’t think so. We only spent about a quarter of a million pounds on alcohol, so I don’t know why they didn’t like us, but…
EMB: What was a good day filming? The coach crash looks phenomenal on film, was that a good day?
CS: It was a weird day, a weird day. That was actually a really boring day, because we had to wait all day for the special effect, and I was actually just sitting there thinking, ”Just get me back at 6 when it’s ready to happen”, because we were all so drained and tired by that point. I think the best days were the fun days when we were all…
I don’t know, well, for me when I had the seven there, it was often great results, but a lot of thinking. When I was on one-on-ones or with twos it was a lot more fun. With any of the characters, I had no favourites, it was just kind of, it was all fun. It was a lot harder with all seven people because you have to try and put them everywhere. “Where am I going to be?”“Oh, you’re going to be there”, and you have to know where’ll they be. Fortunately they knew where they had to be themselves for the characters.
LH: I loved the parts of the story with the hookers and the rowing on the lake. Although that was a real tough day…
CS: Yes, we all had hangovers. It was the last scene... It was my birthday the night before, so what should have been a really simple thing where Danny just says one simple line, it was a real nightmare. We were all really hungover. It took five hours just to do this…
LH: There’s something about being rowed around a lake with half-naked gorgeous Hungarian hookers who were real princesses. They refused to walk around in their heels, and I was like ”Are you fucking kidding me? You took your fucking blouse off yesterday, put your heels on, come on, let’s do the scene” you know. Who cares?
CS: Yeah that was quite funny. The whole topless scene and Danny’s just saying all sorts of repugnant shit to them, trying to make them feel comfortable. Trying to calm them down and basically saying a load of repulsive shit to them. But that’s how we’d all been to each other all the way through, that is the way you deal with it. You don’t go ”Oh don’t look lads”. All the crew are standing there, every fucking boom operator (laughs). Everyone needs to be there for that scene.
LH: I heard about that actually.
CS: Yeah, it was fun.
** SPOILERS **
EMB: How has the reaction been to the rocket launcher / explosion scene?
CS: It’s funny actually, because the financiers were really worried that this scene... I don’t want to say too much about this scene because it’s a big surprise, but they were so worried about the plane scene that they said the Americans are going to find it offensive. All the screenings at Cannes, which went fantastic, the Americans were the ones that were laughing the loudest going “Yo man, yo man. Fucking right on!” So it was wicked.
** END SPOILERS **
EMB: The film went down really well at Cannes recently I heard.
CS: It went down great. We sold it everywhere pretty much. America are going to a big push on it as well, so fingers crossed it could be that kind of dream come true for me. Laura’s going to become some big, even more of a shotgun queen too..
EMB: Yes, I heard you hadn’t even held a gun before appearing in 24.
LH: Yeah and that was a handgun! And I cried - people have been asking me about that today. And actually I was firing a handgun, and then I saw a six year old just nailing the target next to me, and then I was like ”Oh my God”.
CS: I think we should say, for you as well, what you don’t get, is the absolute way, when Laura’s hung upside down on that thing, what makes it so great, and all credit to you, what makes that scene so good, is when an actor gives over everything and is aware of safety of course, doesn’t want to break her neck, but actually allows you to put her through stress and strain, that’s why it’s so good that scene, And I thank her for that for the way, because that was really hard.
EMB: So Chris, what have you got lined up next, I’ve heard it’s either Comedian or Triangle?
CS: Well it’s probably going to be Triangle, which is the next one, which is like a psychological Sixth Sense thing entirely set on a boat, which begins with the line EXT. BERMUDA, DAY (laughs).
No, it’s not about the Bermuda Triangle, it’s just basically somewhere really hot and sunny, and I’m going to shoot the whole thing on the top deck. (laughs again)