Last month Neil Marshall's viscerally terrifying 'The Descent' turned 16 years old. It's a film that helped launched the careers of it's amazing ensemble female cast who were relatively unknown before it's release.
'The Descent' follows six adventurous friends on a caving expedition that goes horrifically wrong when they encounter and are subsequently hunted down by the cave's inhabitants, strangely disfigured creatures who have been dwelling (and evolving) in the cave system for centuries.
It's harrowing and brutal. A real journey for the viewers and it's leading star and final girl Sarah, played impeccably by Scottish siren Shauna Macdonald.
Our lead writer Gavin Logan recently caught up with Shauna who was kind enough to answer some questions about her experience on the film.
GL: When you first started acting was horror a genre you were keen to explore?
SM: No. I’m a big sissy, I get very scared when I watch horror movies so I never imagined that I would be in a horror. I watched The Poltergeist when I was too young to watch it because I was round at a friend of my Dad’s house and myself and my sister went into the living room when the adults were in the kitchen and it happened to be on the television and it scarred us for life I think. We must’ve only been about 7 or 8 so I was put off horror from a very young age, little did I know how much fun it was going to be to be in. I was classically trained, whatever that means, but I thought I’d be doing Shakespeare, maybe some Checkov. I didn’t imagine that I would spend a lot of my time covered in blood and fighting monsters.
GL: Was there something specific about the script that drew you in straight away or was it just another gig?
SM: This was back in the day when you would walk into your agents office and they would hand you a brown envelope and in that envelope there was a script so that in itself was always very exciting. My agent did tell me what it was about, six girls go caving and then there’s monsters inside and I thought “Aw this is gonna be just another girls running away from monsters movie” and I really didn’t like to think of myself as part of a sub-genre were there was lots of girls screaming and getting chased and they need a guy to save them. However she then told me that it was the same director as ‘Dog Soldiers’ so I thought “Aha!” I had seen ‘Dog Soldiers’, I saw it in Glasgow and I thought it was brilliant. So when I started the audition process it didn’t feel like another gig. When I read the script it was like nothing I had ever had the pleasure of reading before. The character of Sarah, her journey is incredible and she gets to do incredible fights and her character is so layered. Horror actually really opens up opportunities for female characters because it’s kinda playing with the real and the unreal so you get to be kickass and vulnerable almost within the same scene.
GL: What was it like working with Neil Marshall? What would you say would be his most notable attributes?
SM: He likes his hats Neil, he’s got a good collection of hats. He’s very good at working with actors. He will come over and talk to us individually which was brilliant. Actors all have very different needs and there were six of us and he made sure that he gave all of us what we needed. Specific and detailed direction really. His whole driving point with us was that (he) wanted these characters to be realistic and they’re in probably an unrealistic setting, although being trapped in a cave isn’t unrealistic but perhaps playing with the subterranean creatures is an unrealistic element. He wanted to make sure that the girls, the other actors really played out the drama of the scene rather than the genre of the scene.
GL: Were you and the other girls familiar with each other before being cast? If not, did you do anything before shooting began to establish a group bond?
SM: We did not know each other and we did lots of bonding and it was amazing. Luckily the film had put money in the budget for training so we did climbing, caving, we did some white water rafting so that involved weekends away as well and I mean the cast just got on very well, very quickly and that was just one of the magical things about this movie, was the casting. That’s why we’ve stood the test of time. The girls and I, us, we’ve stayed in touch and we love each other dearly and it’s 18 years on (since production started) We didn’t know each other before and I’m just so glad that I know them all now because I think that they are just kickass superhumans, Goddesses, so I’m very glad of ‘The Descent’ for bringing the girls into my life.
GL: Was there anything that you brought to your character that wasn't specifically written into the script?
SM: I wanted her to physically transform actually and that wasn’t written into the script. I was told that we would be shooting chronologically as much as we could, that was purely a decision made on budget reasons to do with creating the set, how they would cut the set up essentially overnight and make it a different part of the cave system. So I thought if I can get my biceps going and give her a physical transformation for the aesthetic really. Also I think her meek and mildness at the beginning possibly wasn’t in the script and I really wanted to give her that kinda vulnerability of character that does not seem like a leading character to make that change so stark.
GL: The crawlers are obviously a huge part of the story and are a very unique and terrifying design. Legend has it that none of the cast had actually seen what the creatures looked like until filming began? What was the reaction like amongst the group?
SM: This is true we were not told or shown any images or reference points. We were told that they could hunt by sound and they’d been there a long time so you have your imagination to help you along the way. The reaction was priceless. I got to see a crawler first. Like I said we shot chronologically so Sarah had seen something down a tunnel, so I was reporting back but I think I was sworn to secrecy. I think Neil told me not to tell them because keeping the crawlers, the actors and all the images away from us created an amazing sense of fear of the unknown I guess and that was enough actually. I’ve done quite a few horror films and the monsters are not scary because they are people in make-up when you shout “Cut!” you know. The actors are generally not scared unless the director plays tricks on them. Neil didn’t play any tricks on us which I was glad about because I don’t think it’s needed. But the only trick he played was, let’s keep the crawlers away. So when the first crawler appears behind the shoulder, my character Sarah is holding the night vision camera at this point, so I was off-set watching it unfold because Sam McCurdy the DoP was operating the camera and the girls lost their minds, screamed and ran for the fire exit so Neil Marshall couldn’t use the shot. But it was absolutely brilliant to watch. We screamed. We had built up a persona of tough as nails, adventure girls and (we) screamed and ran away like big sissys.
GL: The film deals with a lot of different types of horror and anxiety. Claustrophobia, the creatures, betrayal but also the trauma of losing a child. Which of these horrors were more difficult to articulate on screen?
SM: Well I was only 23. Never had a child. I’m quite glad I shot that film before having my children although in ‘The Descent Part II’ I had my child by that point. I think I was worried that I wouldn’t have all the tools in my toolbox as an actor to portray someone who is going through great anxiety. Claustrophobia was easy for me because I hate small spaces, I really do not like it. Even though the rocks were polystyrene I had no trouble pretending. I could absolutely relate to that. So I suppose it would be trying to show the weight of grief that would be having lost a child a year before that was the toughest part.
GL: There's a lot of intense physicality involved in your performance. It must've been highly exhausting. Did you have any reservations about the amount of violence involved or did you just throw yourself at it?
SM: No hesitation about the physicality, I love being physical. I’m quite an athletic person, I’ve done marathons and actually I’ve done an ironman as well...so I’ve always kept myself fit and I do love the opportunity to build my body for the character. There was no reservation about the violence after I had spoken to Neil and after I had seen ‘Dog Soldiers’. I watched it recently with my daughter and some of it is very gory. It’s funny when you’re on a film set, a horror film set ‘cause I’ve been on a few of them, everybody gets the giggles a little bit when the blood comes out. It’s actually quite a technical exercise...to reset blood is a big deal so everybody wants to get the blood right the first time in the attacks or the exposing of the wound or whatever. To reset that, the actors, the costumes and the make-up takes a really long time so everybody is super concentrated actually to make sure that moment that they capture on camera is right so it’s very exciting and some people can get a bit giddy with the excitement of the blood.
GL: 'The Descent' was a huge success both financially and critically. Did you and the rest of the cast know you were doing something special during filming or when you finished?
SM: Weirdly it wasn’t hugely financially successful for us, I’m sure it was for the Producers. Critically yes we knew as soon as the reviews started to come out we were on to a good thing. You never really know when you’re in a film if it’s going to be any good. You really don’t know. We knew that we had an amazing time doing it and there was lots of time and effort and skill and talent and love poured into it and we just hoped beyond hope that it would work. It’s the acting that works really well but also a huge part is “are the monsters scary?” and yes they are and also I think that the set design was absolutely incredible and the sound, the musical score and the sound throughout the film just adds to the layers. We didn’t really know any of that until we watched it in the cinema for the very first time. The ‘Dog Soldiers’ boys came to our premiere in Leicester Square so it was pretty special and they told us it was awesome as well so that kinda sealed the deal.
GL: Was working on 'The Descent' a learning experience for you and what would you say you gained out of the experience?
SM: Huge learning experience. I learned about the stamina involved in being in a leading part of a film and what it takes to be a good team member and a good cast member and a good friend, all those things. It was just a life changing experience. Like I said I was only 23 and I had worked quite a bit before but I knew that this was a kinda make or break, it’s either going to work or it’s not. Sarah I guess you would say is the protagonist although it’s an ensemble piece so I gained a huge amount out of it and actually when I watch it back...I see all the mistakes I’ve made and you can only learn from your mistakes by watching your own work back and being very honest with yourself.
GL: What was your favourite and least favourite scene to film?
SM: I’ve got so many I don’t know. Favourite was probably the whole sequence with finding Beth and then getting covered with blood and that sort of transformation to her showing her ruthless side when she’s covered in blood and that guttural scream. Least favourite scene to film? I think I was a bit worried about the cabin scene ‘cause we were all supposed to be a bit drunk and wasn’t sure how to do drunk acting. I might’ve drunk some beers before to help. Which was very naughty maybe I shouldn’t say that. Maybe that was my least favourite but actually all the girls were there for that. Maybe the last scene was my least favourite because it meant it was the end and the very last shot of the film was the very last scene that we shot at Pinewood and everybody was there and we all hugged each other and said what a wonderful experience it was and that we loved each other and we were sad that it was finished.
GL: Is horror something you'd like to return to in the future and if so is there a particular type of story you'd like to be involved in?
SM: Well I’ve done it quite a few times and actually I’m writing a horror film myself so I think that will be the next horror film that I star in. I’m not going to give too much away on that actually. I’ve learned from that.
GL: You've been somewhat vocal about the portrayal of women in the industry. Just how important do you consider 'The Descent' to be in how it redefined the representation of women onscreen?
SM: Well sadly ‘The Descent’ was quite a long time ago, 2005 and it’s still a massive fight that we’re all fighting. This film starred six females and it’s still unusual for a film to have six females in it and if it has, the conversation is about that it has six females rather than about the story or the plot so that’s a shame that we’re still at that point. But I think you know, it did help, it’s definitely a powerful movie with six very complicated characters in it. I’ve been told that ‘The Descent’ is about girl power, I would argue that because the characters, they don’t necessarily stick together, some of the friendships shatter. Unlike in ‘Dog Soldiers’ where there’s a common foe and they all pull together, in ‘The Descent’ there’s a common foe and they all sort of splinter and look after, if it’s not just themselves it’s who they deem to be the most important in the group. So yeah I loved that it represented women in a more complicated, unpredictable, messy way because I guess we are all like that, women included.
Thank you so much to Shauna Macdonald for being an amazing sport and taking the time our of her busy schedule to answer our questions to help celebrate the 16th birthday of 'The Descent'. We think it still might be one of the best horror films to come out of the UK in a very long time.
If you haven't seen if before or if this exclusive interview has whetted your appetite and you fancy revisiting 'The Descent' you'll be happy to know that the film is currently streaming on Netflix.
- Gavin Logan