Directing in the Dark: Leo Scherman Talks About Making TRENCH 11

Horror meets the war movie In director Leo Scherman’s Trench 11. Set in the trenches of World War I, a highly contagious biological weapon, created by German forces, is discovered by Allied troops as they explore an abandoned underground bunker. Their mission becomes more desperate when one of their own is infected by the deadly parasite and begins to violently attack them. The soldiers now need to not only save themselves, but must stop the outbreak before it spreads to the rest of the world. Directed by Leo Scherman (Never Forget) who co-wrote the film with Matthew Booi (“Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan”), Trench 11 stars Rossif Sutherland (River), Robert Stadlober (Enemy at the Gates), and Charlie Carrick (The Devout).
Why does Scherman think there haven’t been more horror movies with war settings?
“I don’t know. I think it’s such an intuitive connection. What’s the old saying? War is Hell. From where I’m sitting, I can’t think of a more horrific, more terrifying thing than to have to go through a war, and I think quite specifically like World War I. Ultimately, when you get outside of the bravado and the patriotism, the nationalism, I mean every war is a little bit unique, different, but often it’s not like there’s really winners – it’s Hell on Earth. I feel like it really makes a lot of sense to do it. I mean there’s been some really cool ones, but not a lot.”trench 11[1]

Courtesy RLJE Films 2018
I agree that there haven’t been that many.
“I mean I actually consider Apocalypse Now sort of to be like that – It’s not a horror movie but it definitely has a tone – it’s really dark and scary.”
Some of the scenes in Trench 11, particularly dialogue scenes involving the villain played by Robert Stadlober, evoke Apocalypse Now. Is this an intentional homage, or is the interviewer just showing his age?
Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite films of all time,” he admits. “I’ve seen it 20 or 30 times. There may very well be. You’re not wrong, is the answer. But I wasn’t really conscious of it…I definitely was thinking about Apocalypse Now…but there was no direct homage at that level. I think it was more being influenced by. I think what is so great about the audiovisual and the tone for that is that the characters are intellectually rich and that was something I definitely wanted to try to do.”

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Courtesy RLJE Films 2018

World War I was my grandfather’s War, and when I was a very young boy he used to tell me some genuinely hair-raising stories about war in the trenches. But why did Scherman pick World War I?
“The real answer is I don’t know. My mother is English, and I have ancestors that fought in World War I. And so, I always knew about it and I just developed a bizarre fascination with it. For years I would stare at photographs of the war, really weird ones like the famous one with the guy who’s holding a brand new machine gun. It was just so bizarre to me and I don’t think I’ve really ever been able to reconcile the fact that it was real and that it happened…The more I thought about it, [World War I] is really under-represented in film.”
Obviously World War I gives Scherman the opportunity to show trench warfare and the tunnels under the trenches, and using the tunnels of course makes the movie inevitably somewhat claustrophobic. Was that intentional? Or just an unavoidable by-product of the setting?
“A bit of both I would say. My co-writer, Matt [Booi], was the one who had the idea to put it in a tunnel system underneath the trenches, and that’s because he worked on a British documentary about the underground war, and he ended up actually being able to go into the existing tunnels that are still there in Europe. So he was the one who really introduced that idea. I thought that was just a tremendously terrifying setting for [our story], and so once we said that’s where we’re going to put it, we just sort of took it from the point of view of the characters. You said it well what would they have experienced? And it would have been horribly claustrophobic right, just by nature. So it wasn’t really saying, let’s make something claustrophobic therefore we’ll put it there. It was the other way around. That was a unique setting for a World War I horror movie and then within that setting, what does being there mean? And being there meant dark, claustrophobic, pressure, because that’s what it would be like.”Trench 11[3]

Courtesy RLJE Films 2018
Were there special challenges of shooting in such closed in sets?
“Yeah, that’s the magic of cinema. Truthfully the sets were not nearly as tight as they appear on camera. We obviously did that by design. We used the darkness and lensing. It was more about how to represent the entirety of the tunnel system and a base even that we couldn’t build at all. We had to be very selective about what we did build, and then how could we maximize our set so that it didn’t look like just two tunnels. The greater challenge was working in the dark, which proved to be its own kind of challenge.”
Was he at all concerned that he didn’t have the budget to show any of the ground combat above the tunnels? Although there is archival footage of World War I combat, it’s all in black and white.
“I thought that even then, maybe one day I will be able to make a trench combat movie about World War I, but that’s not the story I wanted to tell for now, partially because I feel like Paths of Glory and the combat sequences in War Horse were really well done. So I kind of look at that and think maybe one day I’ll get more money and find a unique way of doing that, but that was never really the intent here, and you are right, we would not have had the budget to do anything effectively, so instead of doing something poorly it was playing to our strengths and our strengths were the underground tunnels.”
Given the persistent allegations of use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime among others in the world today and the theme of your movie, is there a political statement that Scherman and Booi are trying to make?
“To be honest, yes. The statement we are trying to make was less political than moral, but it’s that World War I is when it all really started. I think there had been use on a smaller scale of chemical or germ warfare in the past, but not even close to what what happened during World War I, and I think the metaphor is Pandora’s Box. That once that extensive use of chemical warfare is applied, you can’t put that back in the box. I think that the current use of it in the Middle East is a perfect example. World War I was a hundred years ago, and it’s still an ongoing issue. And that was definitely our statement – that this was when the genie got out. You’ve got to be careful with these things – there’s a kind of madness behind it all.”
RLJE Films will release the horror film Trench 11 on Digital, DVD and Video on Demand on September 4, 2018.

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