The first world war ushered in the 20th Century with carnage and barbarism on an industrial scale. The brutality, devastation and sheer insanity of the conflict make it the ideal backdrop to a tale of horror and suspense.
Still from ‘Trench 11’
Leo Scherman’s latest film Trench 11 uses the real-life horrors of the conflict as a springboard from which to launch into a tale of claustrophobia, dread and the fight for survival. Vampire Squid caught up with Scherman to talk about his vision for the project.
Tom: Trench 11’s World War 1 setting is a pretty horrific backdrop to the horrors of the film’s events. What was it about this conflict that drew you to set the movie at this time?
Leo: Few environments in history were as terrifying and hellish as the battlefields of WW1. So many of the weapons were state-of-the-art and must have felt sci-fi to the lowly soldiers who didn’t know any better – hand-held machine guns, alien looking troops clad in gas masks, clouds of poison gas, storms of artillery shells… It’s an apocalyptic, almost surreal, world that’s always struck me as a unique setting for a horror film.
Still from ‘Trench 11’
Tom: The film features some stellar practical effects sequences, were there any that presented a particular challenge to shoot?
Leo: The parasitic worms were a big challenge. I prefer the look and feel of practical FX and was determined to do them in-camera. I needed to find the right FX artist who could deliver what I was after. So I approached Francois Dagenais – he’s just incredible, one of the finest in the world in my opinion. Francois shared my passion for doing the effects practically and had some ideas on how we could achieve what we were after. We did some tests that were pretty wild and then Francois and his team continued to refine the effects up until delivering the awesomeness you see on screen.
Behind the Scenes: Scherman talks with actor (Winnipeg Free Press)
Tom: Any horror fan will notice the influences of films like The Keep and The Thing in Trench 11’s look, feel and score. How important were these films to Trench 11 and are there any other film influences that were particularly significant?
Leo: The Keep and The Thing were both major influences indeed. With The Keep, there were two specific elements that I was interested in: the war/horror mashup and the score by Tangerine Dream.
In the case of The Thing, I think the references are more broad – everything from the narrative structure to the practical FX to the score. Carpenter’s film is a masterpiece.
I would say that William Friedkin is also an influence in terms of his approach to genre. He treats the material seriously and intelligently and tries to create a realistic and gritty world even if the material is fantasy-based, as in The Exorcist.
Behind the Scenes: Shooting scenes in Winnipeg (Winnipeg Free Press)
Tom: The film leaves viewers with an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia and disorientation as the soldiers venture deeper into the underground complex. How central were these effects to the tone of the film and how did you go about enhancing them?
Leo: The claustrophobia and disorientation were absolutely essential elements. When my co-writer Matt Booi and I were developing the story this was key. Imagine what a soldier entering an underground base during WW1 would have experienced. It would have been a totally foreign environment – especially when entering the enemy’s base. Being almost 100 feet underground in a wood-lined tunnel system must have been terrifying – it’s dark, it’s hot, it’s tight and you have no idea what’s waiting for you around the corner.
We didn’t have the budget to build a massive tunnel system so we had to rely on darkness and shadows. As the Hitchcock saying goes, the less you see the more you get. We leaned heavily on that idea.
Behind the Scenes: Filming in the snow (Winnipeg Free Press)
Tom: Although there are many fine performances in the film, a film like this relies on the strength of the dynamic of its central group of soldiers. How did you and Matt Booi go about constructing your group of characters?
Leo: It was an evolution in the writing process. Over time we realised that it’d be interesting to have a mixed team – Canadian, British and American soldiers. It created a strong group dynamic and helped differentiate personality types. Matt added a lot of little historical details – such as the Forced March (cocaine) they take and the excessive drinking that a tunneller like Berton would have been allowed to do – they basically encouraged the tunnellers to continue drinking on the job because the stress of their missions was so severe. And we made sure that each character was assigned historically accurate weapons and props. I think those kinds of details helped the actors connect with their characters, and helped them recognise how their character was different to the others in the group.
Behind the Scenes: Actors bear the cold in WW1 attire (Winnipeg Free Press)
Tom: Although the film is obviously a very dark fantasy, it still manages to feel grounded. How did you go about striking a balance between historical authenticity and horror?
Leo: I tried to approach the whole thing with the philosophy that we are making a drama, not a horror. This philosophy started at the script stage. Matt worked on a series of WW1 documentaries, specifically on the underground battles fought beneath the trenches. He had the opportunity to spend time with one of the world’s authorities on the subject. So the script is filled with historically accurate details.
I then asked every department – everyone from the actors to the art department to the lighting – to approach their jobs as though it was a realistic war drama. I knew that the horror would take care of itself.
Behind the Scenes: The crew prepare for a take (Winnipeg Free Press)
Tom: You are lucky enough to have trained under David Cronenberg, can you describe the influence that his work and mentoring has had on your own?
Leo: As a Canadian genre filmmaker, David Cronenberg is the king. His body of work is so impressive. His evolution from low-budget horror guy to celebrated Cannes auteur is pretty much every genre director’s dream. He showed me that you can make films that are commercially successful while also being intelligent and sophisticated. Further to that, David showed all of us Canadian filmmakers that you can do it from here (Canada) and still be successful. Even though he’s made a number of American films, including studio pictures, he always shot them in Toronto with his crew.
David is very honest and direct so the feedback he’s given me on my own work has been very educational. David is also a very kind and genuine person both on and off set and has been an ideal role model.
Tom: Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects that you’re able to talk about
Leo: Nothing concrete yet, but I have two historical thrillers that I am developing with Matt. There’s something really fun about hardcore history thrillers that I continue to be drawn to.
We’d like to say a huge thanks to Leo Scherman for speaking to Vampire Squid!