Interview: Christopher Smith

Black Death is a film set in 14th century Europe during the Black Death. The death toll was unimaginable and so overwhelming that people turned to their respective belief systems for guidance and not always for kind ends. Director Christopher Smith capitalizes on the sway that religion and superstition has on people – even to this day – in order to weave a tale about how even the most innocent, sincerest of believers can become a fundamentalist killer. Smith spoke at length with Working Author about his fascination with the period, his affinity for the story and some journeyman aspects of filmmaking.

“I just loved the madness of the world,” Christopher Smith admits. “I’ve always known about the Black Death. I don’t know if it’s taught so much here, but it’s certainly…in our syllabus it’s a big subject we deal with in England. When you’ve got…industrialization in the middle of England versus the Black Death plague and people being killed I know which one you pay more attention to. And there’s witches and torture and all that stuff I think young kids just love, so I was always aware of the period.” Since the period was so long ago, it’s easy to turn that time into a caricature, but Smith was completely against that.  “It wasn’t until I started researching more into it that I realized [that] if this had happened 10 years ago instead of 600 years ago we wouldn’t be treating it with the frivolity. And I think it’s that Woody Allen comedy is tragedy plus time. So I said ‘OK, let’s approach this as if this happened in the 60’s or the 80’s’ and show it some respect and actually in that way try and bring some of the madness that happened there thematically back today and say ‘Are there similarities from then to now?’”

“We’ve got the Black Adder in England and I knew that it’s not hard to make that period funny. It’s harder I think to make the period not funny and make it realistic and scary….” Smith adds. “I think it’s an important story today. It’s not funny what’s going on and I always felt that when I read the script…about a conflict of faith for a young…essentially moderate Christian who’s a monk who wants to love God and love [a] woman. He’s not allowed to. His story…his radicalization I felt was something that was dark. I always felt with horror movies the closer you get to the now and the today…whenever there’s a subtext going on it stays with you more.” With Black Death Smith draws similarities between the radicalization of Osmund, a young monk, and the radicalization of Muslims who become willing to blow themselves up.

The art direction in Black Death certainly captures the look and feel of the period and Smith was happy to credit his production designer. “I work with John (Frankish) on all my foreign films. We looked at movies like Aguirre: The Wrath of God and obviously The Name of the Rose…. To me (Black Death) is more about…the world is chaos and it’s crazy and it’s trying to get that spirit into the production design so it feels authentic and it feels dirty. So in terms of attention to detail we just did obvious stuff. We got the costumes right. We managed to find that amazing village, which we added to. We never made something overly spooky or overly titillating. In terms of the look it was really trying to create a modern look in the sense of ‘what would it be like to walk with these guys on their journey behind them’. So it was specific not only in the color palette, but in the world.”

Black Death was filmed sequentially, meaning that each scene in the movie was shot in order, which is different from most films, which are filmed out of order to accommodate locations and schedules. While the traditional method seems to be more intuitive, Smith was happy with this opportunity. “It just happened…it’s very rare to have that chance,” he says. “We realized that all of the actors’ availability…if it was shot in order…we had Sean (Bean) for five weeks so we thought a week – we shot for just about six and a half weeks, so Sean’s in for five. So we do the first week without Sean and the last bit without Sean. ‘Well, maybe we could make it work.’ We looked at the locations and we looked at the map, because obviously we were never in the studio; we were always traveling.” Smith points at an imaginary map in front of him to illustrate. “‘Well if we go there, we go there, we go there, we end up in the village, we can do it in order.’”

Despite having several films under his belt, Smith still walked away from Black Death with a few lessons learned. “All I’ve learned from shooting in order is you get this certain vibe. I think the vibe of the film certainly comes from shooting in order. I think the note to self would be don’t shoot the first day first and don’t shoot the last day last. Because you’re not up to speed on your first day and you’re rushing on your last day. Because what was our last day was all the stuff in the epilogue. We started at five in the morning and we finished at five in the morning. Even on the last day the crew were like, ‘You basically got two days of work out of one day.’”

If the production was rushed at all, it is unlikely audiences will notice it. Black Death opens on March 11, 2011.