Canadian director Leo Scherman explores the more metaphorical horrors of war in new film Trench 11

From the classic All Quiet on the Western Front to Spielberg’s War Horse and even Canada’s own dramatic tribute to Passchendaele, there have been plenty of motion pictures dedicated to capturing the horrors of the First World War. But filmmaker Leo Scherman has decided to take that measure one step further.

With his latest movie Trench 11, the Canadian director has decided not only to set his tale amongst the horrors of the Great War, but he’s sculpted his shocking story using the horror genre.

As the war sluggishly nears its end in 1918, the film follows an Allied battalion sent into an underground network of assumed abandoned German tunnels in search of a mysterious biological warfare experiment that apparently turns ordinary soldiers into deranged, zombie-like killers.

While the film has been garnering praise as a taut tale of body-horror, it also marks a slight career change for Scherman – who’s most recently been busy directing reality television for such networks as Discovery and Viceland, as well as creating the critically-acclaimed mockumentary comedy Cock’d Gunns for IFC and Showcase.

I caught up with Scherman recently to discuss his wartime terror (which opens at Cineplex Odeon Eau Claire Market on Aug. 31), the challenge of making battlefield dramas in Canada and the lessons learned from Trench 11.

Q: This is not obvious subject matter given your recent film background. How much was this an effort to expand your filmography?

A: I think it was extremely important and, oddly enough with me, it is a film I could’ve made 10 years ago. If you look at my first two feature-length films (White Knuckles, Never Forget), they are in the thriller wheelhouse and I think this could have been a natural extension of that. I mean this is a bit more of a horror, but it was definitely fitting in – I just took a sort of natural creative detour with a show I made called Cock’d Gunns which is a dark comedy, and things just have a way of doing that. So to answer your question ultimately, it was extremely important to me; it was something I always wanted to make and it’s just the way that life goes sometimes that this is how long it took in its own way.

Q: I read an interview with you talking about how the (wartime) period has always struck you as an appropriate setting for a horror film. I think you actually said, “It’s as though a violent contagion spread across Europe during WW1 with country after country becoming infected and turning on each other.” So is Trench 11 meant as metaphor?

A: Yes, totally and that is the metaphor. For me and my co-writer Matt (Booi) as well, personally I just prefer if you’re dealing with a supernatural monster or, in this case it’s bio-terror – I prefer when it’s serving a metaphor. And I do think if you go back obviously to Frankenstein, it was a metaphor for the other and even Night of the Living Dead, I like it when it’s working that way because it just gives you more to chew on, (so) even though a WWI movie has got a more of a punk rock approach to it all – it’s not a drama – it still just felt odd to me that if you were going to make any movie set during WWI to not have something to say about it.

Q: From my understanding, it is very hard to make period films – especially set in World War I and especially in this country. What kind of challenge did that present because I assume without the bio-terror aspect, this never would’ve been made?

A: That’s a really good point. I can’t say whether it would’ve been made or not because I didn’t try so I only know what we did and what did or did not happen. But I think that from where I was in my career and going into the pitch process with this film and the budget we were going to need to get it made, I would have had a lot more challenging time if it had been a WWI drama, and I think that’s probably true of most filmmakers, (but) I do think by having the bio-terror element it helped create some comfort for our financiers.

Q: Let’s talk a little bit about the accuracy of the film. Obviously the film’s details are historically accurate. What type of research did you guys go into as far as looking at trench warfare?

A: The credit goes to my co-writer Matt, and I knew this when I initially pitched a WWI horror. Then he came back and had the premise to put it in kind of the underground war with the setting and that’s because he made all these documentaries from WWI and II and he made a very specific documentary with the world’s expert on it and went down to the underground tunnel systems that are still standing in Europe today, in France. So the details all came from him because I kept asking for more and more and more and that was part of the idea when we were developing it – we kind of had this idea that, “What if we can Trojan Horse some information about WWI into this narrative?” (so) that was really what he brought. All I brought on that front was a desire and appetite for as much detail and accuracy as possible.

Q: Having made the movie now, what would you say is the biggest lesson you learned making Trench 11?

A: I think it’s cliché, but the biggest lesson was that, as a director, you’re really only as good as the people you put around you and, again, speaking to any of my main collaborators – all through my producing partners and cast, crew, DP, effects and all that stuff – you’re only as good as that, it’s really true. You lead and you try your best to inspire, but you are acquiring their skill set. You need them to be delivering. There is just a ton of little pieces to put together to get the whole and you can’t do all those pieces yourself. Maybe James Cameron can, but for me, it was just probably something I knew going in, but it was the greatest reminder of it – that as you move forward, you just want to be surrounded by the best people possible because that’s how you make a good film.

Trench 11 opens in Calgary Friday, Aug. 31 at Cineplex Odeon Eau Claire Market.

Steve Gow has spent a good amount of his time conducting interviews for a variety of publications as well as on television. Most notably, he was a film reporter for The Movie Network/HBO Canada and his written stories that were regularly featured in Calgary’s former “go-to guide” FFWD weekly, as well as Metro, Toronto Star and more.