Interview: Christopher Smith on the Darkness of ‘Black Death’

By  · Published on March 21st, 2011

There are no morally sound characters in Black Death, Christopher Smith’s followup film to Triangle. Nearly every character is a pure bastard. No one in this universe, which is a solid mix of a genre filmmaking and period piece, could be deemed a good person. Oddly enough, though, the most charming character is who some will claim to be the villain: Carice Van Houten’s charming and intimidating witch.

The British director is interested in playing in gray areas and raising questions. If you have seen Triangle, then you should know by now Smith isn’t all about the answers. Black Death may not end on the complete mind-boggling question mark that Triangle does, which Smith himself jokes about, but there are definitely some open ends to be discussed.

Here’s what director Christopher Smith had to say about his atmospheric horror film:

Congrats on the film. I really enjoyed it.

Oh, great. Thanks, man. I’m really proud with it as well. I’m glad it worked out. It’s one of these weird ones where when you make the movie you always say…you sit down with the editor and you always get really drunk from reading through it when you watch the first assembly. And you sort of go…I always go, “What’s it like? Is it really good?” Or is it kind of good where we’ve got to do some work? Or is it bad and we can do some work but it will only get half good. So it was all right. So it was long but good. We just cut it down.

I’ve been in films where I’ve stooped halfway through and said, “No, no, no. Go make it work before I see it.” Some of it just works really well straightaway. And some of the scenes just don’t work, you can tell.

What changed when you got into editing?

Well, we shot the film in order. I don’t know if you know, we shot the film in order because we had actor availability. So the film had a lot more, you know, walking shots and so on and so forth. The village was a lot longer. In the village there was a whole explanation as to who she was and why she came to be in the village, which was a long sequence while she’s walking towards the rebirth scene where she explains everything.

And so lots of things like that that feel like they need to be in actually, as soon as you get too much explanation, that character ceases to be interesting. And it’s finding that balance. And if you look at the sequence for Sean Bean where he’s in the church and he’s accused of not having any heart by Eddie Redmayne, and he says, “I have felt pain. My wife and child are by God’s side.” That was a moment where, even in the script stage, I realized if we could make that scene as lean as possible it has a very good chance of being in the movie. That’s what I said to the writer. If you make it a big, baggie exposition scene, it ain’t gonna be in the movie. Not because I’ll cut it, the film will cut it itself. It will soon be exposed.

So we hadn’t those cuts to her scene of her backstory. So loads of things like that that didn’t feel wrong, they just felt too long.

I imagine when you shoot those scenes you’re thinking like, “This is essential to the movie.” And then when you get to editing, it’s just…

Not really, no. It’s actually like I can’t afford for it to be out in before. But because I knew that it might be needed I shot it. And we had these big critics on set from England, this big magazine, and I was shooting that scene. I thought, “This is such a fucking boring scene to be shooting.” And then I said I’m going to do it all in one long continuous take and I ended up doing 10 takes of it. I don’t think it ever got beyond the assembly. Just a huge exposition scene. Yeah, it’s gone.

It’s just a weird thing. An audience would rather be watching a mystery than…you know, it’s hard to know. That’s good editing is you just gotta make them infer meaning on her and think about her. And there’s enough of her in there by the end. And now what happens is there’s more exposition..not exposition, but when she’s in the marshes and she explains to him the power, you understand that that’s your God. And she kind of tells you that the power is as much an aphrodisiac as anything ‐ faith or…And you get the sort of person she is without knowing why she’s there.

To be honest, the why she got there is not the interesting question. It’s that she is there and why is she doing these things?

She’s like a femme fatale, but the witch version.

Yeah, she is. I’m glad you said that because I was just saying to someone that I believe because historically, if you look at the films, the war movies that came out after World War 2, after all that conflict, there was this… people kinda had to get back on and there was a pessimism in the air. I believe that that pessimism is there now. In our own kind of historical way I think there’s pessimism the air.

She’s probably the most likable out of all the characters in the film. Was it important not having her be a clear antagonist?

That’s right. She is. Yeah, that was a decision I’m very proud of. You feel like she’s very warm and welcoming, and your realize that she’s likable because she makes you laugh and she’s funny, she has a sense of humor, and she’s just evil. She’s just mean.

None of the characters are typically good people in the film. Do you see it that way?

Yeah, absolutely. They’re all flawed completely. And by the end even the good guy becomes the worst of them all. But they all…But I think if there’s a good guy in it, it’s the guy who walks out of the village with Wolfstan who takes him home. Because that character is the one who understands the corners of the idealism and the fanaticism that you’ve just got to kill guys, put them out of their misery and go on for the next fight. And he’s just this weary kind of Western character.

I like that spirit. There is a Western quality to it as well.

Did the gray area aspect of the film make it a tough sale?

That’s true. I just read a big budget Hollywood movie. I can’t say what it is, but I read it and it’s just great. I mean they want me for it and it’s so great. We’re going to have to make it not great unfortunately because you can’t sell it; it’s harder. But the ’70s every movie was gray with the exception of Jaws and Star Wars. Even Jaws is gray, actually. Jaws has got dodgy characters.

Was that difficult getting financing with that…

No, it was actually financed before. But there’s two things; it’s twofold. There’s getting it financed and it being financed and then it selling afterward. And that’s almost the same as getting financed is can you sell the movie to the buyers? And I’m so glad that Magnolia is bringing it out here. We’ve done so well at critically, we’ve done so well at festivals that it’s just not getting released everywhere. It’s not like a no-brainer. It’s not like Severance is a very easy film to really like straightaway. This is a film that I think you could like just the same, but it’s more of a mixed meal; it’s more of a main course, a desert, and a vitamin pearl.

It’s a bit of a meaty…yeah, that’s what I like about it. But it’s not going to me you and your girlfriend walking out and going, “Yeah! That was fun!” Me and my wife would like it because we love the same films. It was good.

I actually think maybe women would respond to the movie, like you were saying, Carice van Houten is a really strong female character.

Absolutely. The weird thing is with the film…I’m saying this because you expect the kind of happy, cheery kind of Severance type tone to be the tone that wins through. But we’ve…I’ve never won festivals before and with this film I just keep winning these festivals. We won the Screenfest Festival, and we won a couple in Spain and France and it’s just weird because it’s just a dark film. But it’s so painstakingly black, but it’s kind of fun. She’s fun and it’s not all doom and gloom because she does bring a welcome bit of comic relief. The torture is funny. So there’s elements to it that are funny, but it’s just very dark.

You mentioned the tone a minute ago. The film is very serious. Could you talk about avoiding cheese?

I think we more than avoid cheesiness. I think the thing we avoid, actually, is you are on the edge of Monty Python you have to avoid…it’s not cheese we’re always ever in danger of, it’s… It’s like it just tips over into being funny unintentionally because it’s so dark. And there’s one moment where I think there is a laugh that you’re allowed to have where just after the cages, Carice went out and said, “Bring out the horses.” [laughs] You just go, “There’s going to be horses now? What are they going to do to them now?” And so it’s grim.

But I think Carice went out and played the whole thing with a twinkle in her eye. And it really is clever. When she says, “Why are you doing this to me?” She says, “Because I like you!” She’s kind of funny in this kind of weird…

It all came from Carice. She means it. She’s saying it like she means it, but she’s got this bright little cheeky eyes and it just makes it kind of funny.

Can you talk about the balance of making a genre film, but also a period piece?

It is a genre film. They did a lot in England in the ’60s and ’70s. They do it less now. People would say about The Wicker Man again. Neither of these films were kind of direct influences to me, but they are all there in the sense of it’s a serious film set in a period. I mean The Wicker Man wasn’t period, but yeah, Witchfinder General is a very —

But you feel the violence’s, the current violence, which Witchfinder General was a very vicious film. It’s not now, but at the time it was. And it dealt with torture and things.

When you came on board the film, how much did you change the script?

It wasn’t just me doing it, it was me and the writer. I just steered the whole movie…the second half of the movie is a complete rewrite, literally from when…from the party onwards is a complete rewrite. The cages, everything that happens in the shed with him and the girl, all of that is all a rewrite. I just wanted to make the film about a kind of clash of religions and a clash of ways of life and have all that doing going on, and say, “What happens when two faiths, both being run by people with their own power and greed, when they clash, what happens?”

Obviously, the ending is ambiguous, just like Triangle. How do you respond when someone asks about the ending?

Personally, I don’t think it has an ambiguous ending. It has an emotional ending in the sense that you understand she has the choice to go back. But it’s ambiguous in the sense of whether she’s been back before. To me the ending’s very clear. But it is ambiguous.

It’s not cheesy. It’s the same, because you could have easily ended Triangle with, “Oh! That was what it was all about!” Instead, we go back in. Yeah, you’re right, we go back in. So you are right, it is completely ambiguous. But it’s allowing you to take enough of your ending and put it on there.

This is, I would say, less ambiguous. This was certainly less ambiguous than Triangle. It’s allowing you to think and allowing you to understand what the ending is. It’s not necessarily to do with…you know, it’s like you can finish the story your way. I like to think that he found peace, that he carried on seeing beauty in the world. He’s hoping that the stories he heard aren’t true. And you can hope that too. But chances are, it might not be true. It allows you to think because it’s so different the way he presents himself at the end. The way he is, he’s so vicious. He’s almost a completely ‘nother person. So you either use that as the hopeful hook that maybe that’s not true, that story that he’s become this crazy guy, or probably is. So you’re right. Thank you. I love the fact that it’s ambiguous.

Black Death is now in limited release and on VOD.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.