AICN Legends: Quint talks dinosaurs, insanity and nuclear subs with Sam Neill!
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. When you get the chance to talk to a legend like Sam Neill you don't bat an eye if they say the only time he's available is 2:30am. It's not that he was toying with me or anything. Mr. Neill was shooting a film in Australia and very graciously carved out some time in his day.
The funny thing is I'm a bonafide night owl, so I didn't mind the late night interview at all. The same probably can't be said for poor publicist Katrina Wan who had to stay up and connect the call, but I was bright eyed and bushy-tailed when the phone rang.
How could I not be? I was that kid that saw Jurassic Park eight times over the summer of 1993. I'm the weirdo that calls In the Mouth of Madness John Carpenter's most underrated film. I'm willing to overlook my blanket dislike of Paul WS Anderson's entire career to enjoy Event Horizon.
Sam Neill's career up to this point is incredible and he's is still going strong, working his ass off and raising the quality of every single movie he's in. Even though he gave me half an hour we only really scratched the surface of his work. I could have easily talked with him for 2 hours about Jurassic Park alone.
We start off with his latest flick, The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box, which just hit VOD Friday, and then dive into a few career highlights including slipping into the shoes of the anti-Christ in Omen III, how awesome John Carpenter is, a particularly interesting weekend trip with Tim Curry during the making of The Hunt for Red October, some sad talk about John McTiernan and a bit about the practical dinosaurs created by Stan Winston in Jurassic Park.
He has some great stories to share, so I hope you guys enjoy the chat!
Quint: Thanks for making some time to talk to me tonight. I understand you're having to fit this into your busy work schedule.
Sam Neill: I've been shooting today, but I'm happy to talk to you.
Quint: I'm a big, big fan of your work, but as a precursor to all that I have to say that I've spent a lot of time in New Zealand and I'm quite fond of your wine (Two Paddocks, website here).
Sam Neill: You've begun this interview very well. (laughs)
Quint: The acting stuff is fine, too, but mostly thanks for the wine.
Sam Neill: You bet.
Quint: I'm not sure if they've told you what we're doing here, but I'd like to start off talking with you about The Adventurer and then cover some of your career on the whole if that's alright.
Sam Neill: Sure, absolutely.
Quint: The first thing that caught my eye about The Adventurer was the fantastic cast they built. Michael Sheen, Lena Headey, you... Was that something you knew going in? Is that something that appealed to you about the project?
Sam Neill: Yeah, obviously. I didn't know Aneurin Barnard. I think he's got a great future, he's a very talented young fellow, but I didn't know him and I didn't know his work, either. Oh no, I had seen him play David Bailey in a television movie about the '60s (We'll Take Manhattan). He was fantastic in that, so I did know his work a little bit.
Lena Heady is a very old friend of mine. I've known her for 20 or 30 years. Michael Sheen, of course, I know his work very well and he's amazing. Ioan Gruffudd... I never know how to pronounce his name, but I'm sure you do!
Quint: I don't either, so don't feel bad.
Sam Neill: I know his work pretty well, too, so yeah. The cast was a major attraction for me.
Quint: I have to imagine that's a big part in choosing whether to join a project or not... knowing that you have some support on the screen has got to be reassuring.
Sam Neill: Definitely. It's like playing tennis. I'm a very mediocre tennis player, but if I'm playing with someone better than me, my game tends to lift. I still don't win, but I tend to play a little bit above myself.
Quint: You seem to relish playing the baddie in this movie, which I always appreciate. I first came to know your work when I was a goofy kid who worshipped Jurassic Park, but the more I've dug into your work I've come to prefer you playing a bad guy. There's a fantastic light in your eye when you do and you really sink your teeth into those roles.
Sam Neill: I have an appetite for scenery and I like to chew it once in a while. This seemed to be a perfect opportunity. He's a full blown villain. It's a film, and a book for that matter, that pays homage to a lot of those Edwardian swashbuckling mustache-twirling... caricature is the wrong word, but they're fully blown characters.
Quint: Yeah, I know what you mean. Drawn broadly and with a lot of flair, not really trying to understand the villain too much. I mean, there's not much you can do to really ground a dude that enslaves children!
Sam Neill: That's right. People like this really enjoy being bad. It's good to be bad and actors like me love being bad, too. Villains are such fun, they really are.
Quint: One of your big breaks was playing the ultimate villain. I don't know how much worse you can get than the anti-Christ (in Omen III)...
Sam Neill: He was a much sadder character, really. I always thought the way to play the anti-Christ was, to quote from the Rolling Stones, as a man of wealth and taste, but also as a man of infinte loneliness.
Quint: And that comes across in the films. That's actually something I really like in both Omen sequels. Damien isn't flat out evil. He's conflicted about his destiny and doesn't fully embrace it. I was pleasantly surprised going into both sequels because at the end of the first movie I just kind of expected the sequels to be about evil Damien.
Sam Neill: They had to give it a whole new spin, really. The first one's a very good film, I think and anytime you have a child who is mysteriously very evil and capable of terrible things that's very scary. It's not so scary when it's a grown up because lots of grown ups do bad stuff.
Quint: Right. Making Damien someone the audience can sympathize with is a pretty hefty challenge. I mean, if anybody's going into a sequel to The Omen they know the main character is essentially Satan. I don't know, that's something I love about movies... you can force an audience to empathize with someone or something in a way they probably never would in real life.
Sam Neill: Sympathy with the devil.
Quint: The next movie I want to bring up is one of my favorites. I don't think it's talked about nearly as much as it should be: In the Mouth of Madness.
Sam Neill: It does have a small, but loyal following.
Quint: I've noticed that following is growing. I mentioned on Twitter just before the interview that was revisiting it and I got a whole lot of responses from other fans.
Sam Neill: I think it's one of John (Carpenter)'s better films. I love John. He's a very interesting character. It was a curiously relaxing film to do because I could go wherever I wanted with it. It was hilarious fun. I was just talking about Mouth of Madness today with (a fellow actor) who is playing a character in this film I'm doing now that comes under severe pressure and goes a little bit (crazy). That was the best fun with Mouth of Madness, all that stuff where he's in a padded cell covered in crosses. You don't get to do that every day.
Quint: Well, most of us don't, anyway. It's a great arc because your character in the movie starts off as such a cocksure dude at the beginning and all that slowly crumbles as the movie goes on, leading to that great ending. Now, I saw that when it was released and I vividly remember being creeped out by the very meta imagery of you watching yourself on screen... while I was watching you on screen! It made an impression on me, that's for sure.
Sam Neill: (laughs) It's unusual, that's for sure.
Quint: You worked with John before that, right? You were in Memoirs of an Invisible Man.
Sam Neill: That's right.
Quint: By the time you got to Madness, had you developed a shorthand with him? Obviously, it sounds like you get along with him as a person, but to come back and work with him again shows that you also trust him as a filmmaker.
Sam Neill: If John Carpenter asks you to do something you do it! I was pleased that he wanted to work with me again. It's always nice when they pick up the phone a second time.
Quint: I keep mentioning character actors, but Madness is another one that is just filled with fantastic faces. In the first five minutes there's David Warner and John Glover and later on Charlton Heston...
Sam Neill: Charlton Heston, yeah. It must have been Heston's last films, I think. I don't know an awful lot about his career, but I think he retired fairly soon after that, didn't he?
Quint: He definitely slowed down. I think he did some voicework and day player jobs. Since every scene of Heston in Madness takes place in his office, I imagine you guys shot him out pretty quickly, yeah?
Sam Neill: He wasn't there for very long, but long enough to tell great stories about Ben Hur and the westerns he made and that kind of stuff. I love working with people who have been around. He had splendid stories to tell about the stuff he had done.
Quint: Had you ever gotten to work or meet Ernie Borgnine?
Sam Neill: Never, unfortunately.
Quint: I was lucky enough to talk with him a bit before he passed and he was exactly like that. He had boisterous stories from all points in his career. With the slightest provocation he'd jump into a story, like about Frank Sinatra on the set of From Here to Eternity.
Sam Neill: Years ago, when I was doing Omen in London, it was my first movie away from Australia or New Zealand, and I was staying in a little hotel in Piccadilly and I was climbing the stairs to my room and a small man came down the stairs with his wife. I did a double take and it just came out of me. I said, “Oh my God! Shit! It's Eli Wallach!” He said, “Hello, hello!” and sort of passed on. I felt an idiot. That's as close as I got to having a talk with Eli Wallach.
Quint: I actually met him once. He came through Austin while promoting his autobiography and did a screening of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The dude's still sharp and he must be in his 90s. So maybe you'll have another chance encounter with Eli Wallach!
Sam Neill: I'd like to read his autobiography, actually.
Quint: It's really good! It's called The Good, the Bad and Me.
Sam Neill: Speaking of bad guys... How could anyone be as bad as Eli Wallach? He sets the bar high.
Quint: You can tell that in a weird, disturbing way he's really enjoying himself when he plays a baddie.
Sam Neill: That's the key to any good bad guy. If he's miserable it's not much fun at all, but if he's really having a good time being bad, how fun is that?
Quint: I remember he told a story about Leone insisting that Tuco had his gun on a string around his arm instead of a holster. He said that Leone kept trying to get him to do this thing where he'd kind of twitch his arm and pull the gun up to his hand, but every time he'd try it he'd miss the gun and it's swing right into his nuts.
Sam Neill: (laughs)
Quint: Needless to say, he didn't do that very much in the movie. Going back to Carpenter, one thing I wanted to bring up is his talent for visual storytelling. Composition, framing, blocking... he's a master...
Sam Neill: And he hasn't made enough movies lately. He should be making one every year!
Quint: If I was the God of Movies that would happen. I don't know, maybe one of us needs to hit the lottery or something and we can start the Carpenter Film Fund.
Sam Neill: Yeah.
Quint: You've worked with a lot of really great visual storytellers. John McTiernan's another one that comes to mind.
Sam Neill: Yeah, and John McTiernan is in jail at the moment, which is really upsetting and disturbing to me. I'd really like to see him out of there.
Quint: I don't know too much about his case other than it involved tapping phones and stuff, but just selfishly as a movie fan I want to see him out and making movies.
Sam Neill: It just seems completely disproportionate. I don't know a lot about the case myself, but it just seems wildly disproportionate that he's spending a long time in jail. My God, it's ridiculous!
Quint: I know there's petitions and stuff for him to be released. Again, I don't know too much about it, so I don't want to scream “Let him out!” and then find out he really did something crazy, but my understanding is it wasn't violent or anything.
Sam Neill: It just seems wildly disproportionate. But, like you, I'm not an expert in jurisprudence.
Quint: So, let's talk about the good ol' days, then! What I love about The Hunt for Red October, besides the fact that it's such a great idea for a thriller in the first place, is that John McTiernan as a filmmaker was kind of riding at his highest when making the movie. He seemed to be at his peak. Every directorial decision reeks of confidence. Could you talk a little bit about working with him on the movie?
Sam Neill: It's a movie that's immaculately cast. You're halfway there if you do that. To have Sean (Connery) as the Captain and Alec Baldwin, who is phenomenal... I have to tell you, it wasn't the best fun to make because we were on an all male set! (laughs) It was on a Russian submarine with a lot of blokes and all the crew were male, for some reason, so it was like being in some awful locker room for about 6 weeks.
Tim Curry was on board, people like that...
Quint: I'm a huge fan of his, too.
Sam Neill: I don't think they'd allow this now, but Tim and I went out on an American nuclear sub for a weekend before we started filming.
Sam Neill: We're not even American nationals! They just asked the submarine cast “Does anybody want to go on a nuclear sub for the weekend?” I said, “Yeah! You bet!” No one else volunteered, just me and Tim Curry from memory. What a fascinating experience. Post 9/11 I don't think they'd offer that anymore. It was a real privilege.
Quint: What did you guys do? Was it exciting for a few hours and then you realized you're stuck in a metal tube for two days?
Sam Neill: We had a whole weekend submerged! I got to steer the submarine...
Quint: No, really?!?
Sam Neill: Yeah! We got to see most of the submarine. There were parts of the sub where there were armed Marines. That was kind of interesting. They said, “I'm sorry, sir. You cannot go beyond this point.” I said, “Absolutely fine by me!” (laughs) You can't argue with an armed Marine.
Quint: Especially when you have no place to hide. Good call.
Sam Neill: It was cool. I got a cabin to myself, all that stuff. It was brilliant!
Quint: Did that help you in any way prepare for the actual film or did that end up just being a fun perk of the gig?
Sam Neill: Well, Tim Curry and I were the experts onboard. We'd done it! (laughs)
Quint: You mentioned Mr. Connery. Considering you played his righthand man, almost every scene you have is with him. Much like McTiernan as a director, Connery strikes me as a guy that just exudes confidence. Was he a fun guy to act with or did he take everything really seriously?
Sam Neill: I was a little bit awed by him, to be honest. You don't feel entirely relaxed in his company. He's a little bit scary! I found him a little bit scary, but I learned an awful lot from him.
Quint: In what way?
Sam Neill: You know, watching what he does with the camera. It's very interesting to see how he works. He's a consummate professional. There's always something to learn and there's a lot to learn from someone like Sean.
I don't play golf. His principal interest is golf. I despise golf. I cannot think of anything I'd sooner not do, so we didn't really have any sport in common.
Quint: But you did have a profession.
Sam Neill: We had a profession, yeah. I think there was a certain amount of mutual respect. There was a great amount of respect on my part and some respect on his. I'd like to think so, anyway.
Quint: You both had to speak Russian together, so there's that as well.
Sam Neill: You know when the submarine is being towed out of the harbor at the beginning?
Sam Neill: We spent two or three days on the top of that conning tower. That was a build. They built that submarine... and it sank! Not when we were on board, but it sank and they had to cut it loose! It was being towed for some wide shots. That's what I heard. I'll confirm that from McTiernan once they let him go.
Quint: That's scary. At least it didn't sink when you were on it.
Sam Neill: Well... the rest could have been history
Quint: It would have been a hell of a way to go out.
Sam Neill: Save me, Sean! (laughs)
Quint: Before I let you go, we have to talk a little about Jurassic Park. It came out the summer I turned 12, which is the perfect age for a little boy to see that movie.
Sam Neill: My son was the same age. You're right.
Quint: You have Spielberg working his pop culture fantasy magic, which always speaks to kids anyway, and you add dinosaurs into the mix, which is like crack for young boys. So, that movie had a huge impact on me and it's one that still impresses me when I revisit it today. Every time I rewatch it I find myself blown away by the work Stan Winston and his team did with the dinosaurs, which actually helps make the early CG that much more impressive. The mixture of practical and CG helps hide the illusion and draws you into the world.
Sam Neill: I think that's absolutely right. Look, it's Stan's models, his puppets, that make the CGI work. Anybody can do whatever they want with CGI now, but mostly I just don't believe it. It always looks like CGI, but there's something about the three-dimensionality, the actuality of Stan's puppets which is so clever, so tactile and so real that you believe it when it cuts to something that's generated by a computer.
Quint: I think even people who don't know a whole lot about how movies are made still recognize when the illusion is executed well. There's no trick to something like Transformers, for instance. It could be amazingly detailed and perfectly conceived, but when you see it on the screen you know exactly how it got there, know what I mean?
Sam Neill: From an actor's point of view you get to a stage where you believe in them, too. There was a scene in Jurassic 3 where I'm surrounded by velociraptors. It looks like its curtains for Alan Grant. We took about a day to shoot that and each velociraptor had a team of puppeteers hiding in the bushes somewhere. I'd be standing around waiting for something to happen and I'd just catch a movement out of the corner of my eye. You'd turn around and one of them would look at you. They're moving all day. They were kind of standing around like I was, just waiting for something to happen... just kind of tapping their feet and winking at me. It was funny!
Quint: Funny? I'd find that terrifying! I know if I was in that situation that would trigger some primal fight or flight code buried deep in my DNA, some passed down memory of being hunted by a large predator.
Sam Neill: On the contrary, it's more like it's empathy from one actor to another. We're just actors waiting around. “Can we just get on with this? Or could we go off?” In my case it would be a tea break, in their case they'd go off and eat a chicken or something.
Quint: I totally get that and I think it's really nice of you to be thinking of your costars like that.
Sam Neill: (laughs)
Quint: So, let's talk about when you got the gig. It must have been an exciting project. You had to know leading an adventure film for somebody like Steven Spielberg was going to be a game-changer. Do you remember how you felt in those early days, before you started shooting, but after you got the role?
Sam Neill: I don't know if I ever saw it as a game-changer, but I was completely entranced with the idea of working with Spielberg. I still see myself as being fortunate in that regard to this day.
Quint: Thanks for your time, man. I really appreciate it.
Sam Neill: Eric, it's been a pleasure.
There are a myriad of films I would have loved to have discussed with Mr. Neill (Dead Calm, The Piano, Event Horizon, Daybreakers and A Cry in the Dark all jump to mind) and I ran out of time on my Jurassic Park geek-out, but I can't complain. I really enjoyed myself and I hope that comes across.
Thanks for reading along!
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