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HELEN BECK talks to Robert Carlyle, Guy Pearce and Antonia Bird about the ingredients that went into Ravenous.

What do you get when you mix Britain's hottest young director with the nation's fastest rising star? Undoubtedly one of the most remarkable releases of the season and a film which has already left festival-goers spellbound with its unique vision. Now, following its premiere at Sundance, Ravenous seems likely to slowly devour worldwide audiences with its unusual take on an even more unusual chapter in the history of the American West.

"It's energetic and fast-paced with a very dark edge" Antonia Bird

"I simply fell in love with the script," says director Antonia Bird, who cut her directing teeth on television's Inspector Morse before dazzling art-house audiences with the drama Priest (in which Robert Carlyle played one of his first major screen roles) and, more recently, Hollywood with the Drew Barrymore feature Mad Love.

"Still, this story can't be categorised: It's energetic and fast-paced with a very dark edge - really a mix of an adventure story, a 'whodunnit' and a social satire. Some would call it a horror movie, but there is something more here than that. Equally, as a woman director," she adds, "I guess I also saw it as a great opportunity to subvert the genre and speak metaphorically about the world we live in today."

With Ravenous, Bird has done just that. Set in the Wild West of 1847, the film tells the story of Colqhoun, a half-starved Scot (Carlyle) with a chequered past. Arriving at a desolate military outpost - a way-station for pioneers in the frozen Sierra Nevada mountains of California - he reveals to his hosts a most unusual saga of survival: travelling with a group of pioneers until they became snowbound, his entourage resorted to cannibalism in a last-ditch effort to stay alive. Colqhoun, needless to say, is the sole-survivor.

"the real attraction was doing a mixed-genre film" Robert Carlyle

But his story has ramifications beyond cannibalism and the will to survive. It also involves the ancient American Indian myth of 'Weendigo', which postulates the notion that "a man who eats the flesh of another steals that person's strength, spirit and very essence". Unfortunately, according to the legend, the would-be cannibal also develops an insatiable appetite. The more he eats, the more he wants, and the stronger he becomes. Incapable of skipping a meal - let alone a late-night snack - his only escape from the curse is in death.

"What appealed to me was the fact that it was a period piece, yet at the same time something wholly original," notes Carlyle, fresh from his starring turns in Trainspotting The Full Monty - plus the upcoming Angela’s Ashes.

"I could have really followed up The Full Monty with anything... well, almost anything," he says. "I had worked with Antonia on three previous occasions [Priest, Face and Safe], so I knew this would be something special. But, all compliments aside, the real attraction was doing a mixed-genre film, something unique and very strange."

"a fine balance of irony and horror" Guy Pearce

"When I first read Ted Griffin's screenplay I saw two things," says Guy Pearce (LA Confidential, Priscilla Queen of the Desert) who plays Captain John Boyd, a man caught at the moral epicentre of the desolate outpost which seemingly provides new culinary opportunities for Carlyle's mountain drifter. "I thought, this is either going to be a real wink at the camera – ie, we're not going to take it that seriously - or it's going to be a dark, evil, spine-tingling story. Obviously, I was hoping for the latter, but we ended up with a little of both: a fine balance of irony and horror. It's the balance that works best and what makes this film truly special."

Certainly Pearce’s Boyd has his hands full dealing with Carlyle’s character on screen. Joined by his ineffectual commanding officer (Jeffrey Jones), a military priest (Saving Private Ryan's Jeremy Davies), an alcoholic physician (Neal McDonough), and a cook with a taste for magic mushrooms (David Arquette), he gets a first-hand taste of the Weendigo legend before finally being confronted with the ultimate carnivorous conundrum - whether to eat dinner or be dinner.

"It's that sort of subtlety which makes the film really take flight," notes Pearce: "A sly humour that you don't play with a neon sign on your head."

"...you could almost see how eating human flesh could become a fad.." Robert Carlyle

"No pun intended, but all the actors had their chance to sink their teeth into Ravenous," adds Arquette. "It makes the ensemble that much more interesting to watch and, of course, the film as a whole."

Certainly, Robert Carlyle needed little convincing of Ravenous’ merits. "The story is based in the realm of fantasy, but its distance from reality, at least metaphorically, is not far removed," says the actor. "For example, I think it's interesting that the film is set in California, a place where this kind of eternal striving for physical beauty, vitality and virility is worshipped, much as my character does in the film. It may be a bit of a stretch, but you could almost see how eating human flesh could become a fad there.

"On a more satirical level, the movie also shows a character determined to stretch out his arms to consume all that he can, not stopping short of devouring his fellow man in the process. You start to ask yourself: Has anything really changed in our modern world in all those years? To be honest, I don't think it's changed at all."

A more tangible link to history is, however, readily apparent. Ravenous has its origins in American history: specifically, the Donner Pass incident (1846-47), in which a group of pioneers bound for California found themselves trapped in the same snowbound mountains. When their food supplies were exhausted, they were forced to consume the corpses of their fellow travellers.

"mostly I wanted to scare the pants off my audience" screenwriter, Ted Griffin

It was this historic event which sparked the imagination of up-and-coming screenwriter Ted Griffin. "I wanted to deal with all those issues of contemporary society: survival versus greed, the Indian legends, etc," says Griffin. "But mostly I wanted to scare the pants off my audience and hold them with a story that didn't insult their intelligence."

Though Ravenous takes place in California's Sierra Nevada, it was quickly decided that filming would take place elsewhere owing to both logistics and expense. Locations were initially scouted in Canada, before the film-makers eventually opted for the Czech Republic (with additional sequences shot in Slovakia and Mexico). "We needed a main location which could stand in for California and where we could still find expert crews," explains executive producer Tim Van Rellim. "We were lucky to find both in the Czech Republic."

What the production crew weren’t expecting to find, though, was uncooperative weather. Originally conceived to unfold in a snow-swept landscape, the script was re-written to compensate for the lack of necessary powder. "It became a 'green picture'," quips producer David Heyman, "and that's how we proceeded."

"Still, the weather kept changing from day-to-day and sometimes within the same day," adds Van Rellim, "which made for a very challenging and fluid shooting schedule."

Thus the production team marched forward until the final week of shooting when the snow - and plenty of it - unexpectedly returned. "I guess in the end we went back to making a snow picture with a bit of 'green' thrown in," jokes Heyman. "In a sense, it returned the picture to its original vision, which made us all very happy."

"it had to be fantastic, weird, mad and magical" Antonia Bird

"The only movie that I kind of kept thinking about while we were making it was Deliverance," concludes Bird. "But that triggered something as well - and maybe it's crazy to say it because it's not really reflected in this movie - but I also kept going back to Dances With Wolves for its magical quality. I just knew that Ravenous was a fantastic tale and that it would be completely wrong to go down the route of realism. I knew it had to be fantastic, weird, mad and magical. In the end I wound up not looking at anything else, to better create an original world as it exists on film."

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