I caught up with director Leo Scherman of the WWI-set horror flick Trench 11 for a chat on film-making, historical accuracy, his approach to directing, what he's learned from the very famous and prolific directors he's trained under and much, much more.

Trench 11 takes places in the final days of WWI where a shell-shocked soldier must lead a mission deep beneath the trenches to stop a German plot that could completely turn the tide of the war. It stars Karine Vanasse (Polytechnique), Rossif Sutherland (Backstabbing for Beginners), and Rob Archer (Kick-Ass 2).

Scherman treats much of the material not as a horror piece but as a drama. This adds a certain gravitas to the film that one doesn't often see – especially in this sort of movie (the WWI horror piece) which is really relatively new territory for any film-maker.

Trench 11 is available on VOD, DVD, and Digital now from RLJE Films. Check it out and enjoy the interview below.

Hello Leo and welcome to The 405! Getting right into Trench 11, what initially attracted you to the project?

A long time movie fascination of mine has been WWI and I kind of over time realized I didn't want to tell a drama about WWI or a traditional war film about it.

Yeah.

The more I thought about it – and looked at these photographs from the War – I just felt it was like a horror film.

Very interesting – kinda made me think of General Sherman's famous aphorism, "war is hell." That would fit well with horror. Like in Trench 11.

Yeah. And there was honestly kind of a sci-fi element to it with all this weird tech that came out.

Very true. Just as much as WWII I'd wager.

So, overtime I realized I wanted to tell a WWI-set horror film but I still wasn't sure how, and than I met my co-writer Matt [Booi] and he had this unique experience of working on these British documentaries about the underground tunnel war of WWI.

Nice. The Battle of the Somme mostly, there?

Yeah, of which I was unaware to be perfectly honest.

Not only did he work on them but he actually worked with one of the world's leading authorities on the subject matter. They actually went to the existing tunnel system.

Wow.

He told me about that and suddenly a light bulb went off and I thought 'that is how to tell this WWI horror story.' From there, it just kind of took on its own life.

Still from TRENCH 11. Courtesy RLJE Films.

Absolutely. WWI is such a curious event cinematically-speaking that I think very often gets overshadowed by WWII.

Oh yeah.

Which made me wonder, what was the creative process like in making what is ostensibly a zombie thriller with the War as its back drop? Especially in going for the visuals that you did in Trench 11?

Certainly from the look and feel with respect to the tone, I knew where I wanted to be. I respect the tone of The Thing and Alien... they're interesting because they are like really realistic, even though there's something fantastic happening.

Anchored in reality.

...they're sort of treated like a drama.

Certainly.

So I really wanted to take it in a naturalistic, realistic way despite this bio-terror, tweaked-out thing that's happening.

So, I just approached it by being as historically-accurate as possible within reason. I always motivated my choices that way so the way that the tunnel system looks was referenced from the real photographs and the real schematics and the real materials that they would've used to build them.

The way that we photographed the film was motivated by the kind of light sources that would've been there for real back then... So if the light couldn't have been there, let's not put it there... also with the costumes and the like too.

That was the ultimate way of approaching it was trying to root it in as much realism as possible.

Those choices show themselves really well in the movie too I think. That also acts as a natural segue to the next question I had which also – to me – in any film dealing with history: the mise-en-scéne. How challenging was that to get right?

With that, what exactly do you mean?

Getting into like the shot angles, what you mentioned of the history of it all, the realism...

Yeah. Yeah. I mean I think at that point, in terms of mise-en-scéne, to me that than becomes a question of taste. I really don't think there is a right or wrong of doing "period"

I suppose that really gets back to what you're trying to communicate over and above it being just a "period piece."

I guess one could make an argument that period is better served by simple tableaux shooting, you know what I mean? Maybe in line with more of a David Lean kind of aesthetic.

Yeah.

My director of photography [Dylan Macleod] and I definitely did talk about those things, for example we did shoot wide screen for that reason. I also didn't want to embrace too much contemporary aesthetics where you have a lot of small cameras rigged in small places, which I think are influenced by reality TV.

Absolutely.

But really that's just... I found myself – while we were making the film – each moment presented a opportunity where... I try not to think too much about the right or the wrong way to go about period and instead just try to think about the approach that is best serving the material in the moment. Some scenes are actually shaky hand-held with a skinny shutter. Other scenes are very old school, simple, camera system without a dolly and – you know – they're just watching the players inside the screen.

Yeah.

I guess I don't know if I'm really answering it but I try not to be too rigid about that stuff.

Still from TRENCH 11. Courtesy RLJE Films.

A pragmatic approach: I like that.

Yeah a little bit. That's exactly right. And the other reason I'd say for that is I also in a lot of scenes, I want the performers to dictate elements of that too. So if we're doing a walk-in, and we feel that we're now in the space on the set, they hold their spots and I'm open to their spots because I want them to own their own performance and feel like it's... they're not jamming our progress as a whole.

Indeed.

So, there's certain times too where I just allow them to dictate that and just shoot it that way because that's how they want to move through that space.

That kind of freedom I think is usually necessary for a great film. What were some of the other challenges like?

Of course the schedule. That was really, really tight. The working environment sometimes was very tough – you're always in the dark. Even though we were shooting in a warehouse. It's not a sound stage – we were shooting in an abandoned warehouse, so...

[Laughs] yeah.

We were shooting in Winnipeg, Manitoba – which is dead in the middle of Canada, in December.

Brrrr. [Laughs] I'll skip that weather.

[Laughs] yeah. It's really cold. In the summer. So in December it's just frigid.

So it was a very cold environment and it was very dark. So there's times where that also just – it wore people down a bit, but I also think that helped contribute to the film. It was better that than being on a perfectly temperature-controlled sound stage, where everybody was super comfortable. I'm not sure that would've helped, you know?

Yeah. That cold could absolutely help drive authenticity considering the movie's setting.

Yeah. I like to embrace those things but it was a bit of a challenge.

Still from TRENCH 11. Courtesy RLJE Films.

Definitely. I understand you trained under David Cronenberg and Paul Schrader – two remarkable filmmakers. What have been some of the greatest lessons about film you've learned from them?

I would say really most, from David Cronenberg, the greatest thing as a director I learned was sort of a two-fold approach.

One of them was take the material seriously... it's a genre film: it can be horror, it can be sci-fi, it can be whatever it is... but take it seriously. I think David always treats his movies like a drama and I feel like the material gets elevated because of that.

Absolutely.

I think that goes through his whole approach to film-making and it includes the cast and how an actor acts and the script and all that just be smart about it and take it seriously. Treat it with seriousness and treat it like a drama and I think that helps elevate the material.

Indeed.

This versus a tongue-in-cheek approach or a desire to just have fun. I think the intent of a film is to entertain first and foremost, but I think the way to do that – and I'm with David with this as well – is to be serious about it. Don't undermine the material.

We had a conversation about William Friedkin – David and I once. That's Friedkin's contribution, in my opinion, if you think about The French Connection or in the realm of horror about The Exorcist – it's a very serious horror movie. Like it might as well be a drama, right?

Once you say that, know I see it. [Laughs] Had never thought about that.

I think that makes it scarier.

I think that's the biggest takeaway.