A little while ago, as part of their release of Indonesian action film The Raid on DVD/Blu-Ray/streaming, our friends at Madman offered me the chance to interview the film’s writer/director, Gareth Evans.
If you haven’t seen the film, read our review for a bit of context, then read on for the interview!
(And if you’d like a chance to win the film on DVD, you’re in luck: see our giveaway post for all the details.)
Justin: I wanted to talk a little bit about the action: in both The Raid and Merantau, one of the things I really liked was that the action was shot really clearly — you pull the camera back, you shoot sequences of moves, you don’t do a lot of choppy editing or shaking of the camera. Can you talk a little bit about how you shot the action sequences?
Gareth Evans: One of the things I’ve kind of grown a little tired of lately, to be honest, is that there are a lot of action films at the moment where they hide the action. What happened was, I realised that I was watching DVDs of martial arts films that I love, that I revisit over and over again. The ones I watched were almost always from the 80s and 90s, the golden age of Hong Kong action cinema, from Police Story all the way to Fist of Legend, and when you watch those films… I know a lot of people commented on the action in The Raid, and I said to a couple of them that I never really felt that we did anything that was, you know, innovative. I just felt that what we did was just take a step back. And there were a few reasons for that.
First and foremost, I work with a choreography team in such detail, to shape and design the fight sequences and working out the video storyboards. I just feel it’s such an important part of the process. By working with them, I can see all the intricacies of the choreography, I can figure out where those complexities are, and then that makes me want to show them! You know, you’re going to go for three months of work designing these fights, and I don’t get why I’d want to hide them with close-ups and quick cuts.
So, that’s one reason, and then the other is just out of personal taste, as I’ve been watching action films since I was a kid. My dad introduced me to a lot of different movies and directors, watching films by Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee and John Woo. The action in there, the detail: you see everything, you feel like no shot is there to pad it out: it’s always there for a purpose and a reason. I just think it’s such an important thing to have in an action sequence.
J: So, I was going to ask how much detail you had in the script, but it sounds like you took the script and then you storyboarded everything with the action directors pretty tightly.
GE: Yeah, the script is there to give them a sense of plot progression with the fights. We put a little information in there when writing, you know: it’s like when it came to the fight inside the hallway, when he (Iko) had the stick and the knife?
In the script, it was there to say that he was carrying an injured partner, and that the injured guy could barely stand on his feet, so that every time he moved to save him from an attack, he’d have to provide support to keep his body upright. Then, the key details like: OK, he loses the stick, or he loses the knife, or now it’s hand-to-hand. So, we put those little bullet points in the script, and they become the little plot progressions, and this becomes a little more detail for the fight choreographers, so they know that there’s a certain arc to the fight in the plot.
J: I did notice too that you tend to use fight scenes in small spaces pretty heavily — there’s the one between Iko and Yayan in the elevator in Merantau, and all the hallways… They give the film a lot of immediacy and a lot of spatial context to the action. Did you have to do anything special to pull those off?
GE: In terms of The Raid, it was one of the things where we felt like we kinda had to have those tight little fights because… the location as it was, we didn’t want to make it too big and make it feel like it was designed specifically for the fight, rather than it being a real location.
And then, like you said, it gives it a certain immediacy as well, where there’s nowhere to escape and you don’t have room to distance yourself from an opponent. It gives an urgency to the fight as well.
In terms of shooting that, I always want to go as wide as I can with my shots, so that you can see all the action clearly. So, we’d stick wider lenses on there, but then we’d cheat with the positioning as well: we knew that we were safe if we were over shoulders in the corridors, because you know you’ve got all the room in the world to get your camera back. But for anything where we needed to come around into a profile shot we would position them nearby doorways, so that as the camera was coming around you’d have an art department guy waiting to open the door so that the cameraman can step inside a doorway and give himself an extra metre or two of space, then we could get a little bit wider on that shot. There were loads of little cheats like that, anything we could do to get the camera as clear and as distanced from the fight as possible.
J: Rama’s not an unstoppable killing machine — he looks at the odds, he gets hurt occasionally. Was that sort of vulnerability in the character something that was really important to you when you were writing?
GE: Yeah, for me that’s always been important when it comes to a hero, to have vulnerability in there. I don’t enjoy watching martial arts films where the guy is a killing machine — if I know he’s never in danger, then I don’t really care so much about the fight, because it’s not a question of is he going to win, but how he’s going to win. For me, it’s kind of interesting to have these little moments of vulnerability.
(Ed: sadly, the quality of the phone line dropped enough that I can’t transcribe the middle part of Gareth’s answer here.)
GE: There’s a moment in Enter The Dragon where Bruce Lee kills O’Hara — he jumps on O’Hara and crushes his ribcage — and you see this anguish and extreme aggression and anger on his face, and you see a sadness there as well, like he’s realised he’s crossed a line: he’s become the same monster as the person he’s killing. We wanted to have a moment that was kind of a riff on that: when Iko’s fighting against the machete gang, and he pulls a guy backwards and drags his neck on to the door frame… it’s such a sadistically violent kill, and we held a little pause moment there, when he looks at the kid’s eyes before he dies, and we wanted to just kinda weigh in a little bit there.
J: I thought you did really well with Iko Uwais there, he brought that aspect across really well in both Merantau and The Raid, actually.
GE: Oh, thank you.
J: As well as silat, you had a judo trained actor and athlete in a supporting role, and the face-off between him and Yayan was fascinating.
GE: Oh yeah, Joe Taslim. He contacted me through Facebook actually, after Merantau was done. He’d heard that we were doing something new and he wanted to be a part of it; I knew that he was a judo national champion, but I didn’t know much about him other than that. So, we called him in for auditions, and luckily he nailed both of them. We did a drama audition and then a fight audition, and actually he was good at both.
But yeah, it’s one of those things where we design the fights in isolation from everyone else first for 3 months, but then once we get our cast to come in and we can see what their strengths and limitations are, we adapt them and improvise the fights to incorporate their style more. So for someone like Joe, who’s much bigger and bulkier than Yayan, in terms of judo, we did a lot more upper-body work with him. It’s important to make sure that everyone you have is going to look at their best when they’re doing their fight sequences.
J: Do you think you’d go looking for another martial art to contrast with silat in the future?
GE: Yeah, we try to have these little moments where we have silat versus another martial art. But then, what I’d really love to see as well — and this is kind of like a throwback to the old Shaw Brothers films — is two practitioners of the same martial art that know it inside out and are masters of it, going toe-to-toe. Because I really love elaborate, long battles where nobody really lands a hit or a punch, but it’s a block and a counter and a block and a counter and a block and a counter. That’s something that I’m really keen to do in the next film, to find a role and a character — and a new fighter, actually, to be another opponent for Iko.
J: Did you get the same sorts of reactions to your films domestically as abroad? Did you run a different cut in Indonesia?
GE: In Indonesia, we released the same version. We had about… maybe one second of violence cut, which I was really surprised by, but very happy about to be honest, because we were expecting a lot. But they understood the film, they understood that it was playing as an action movie. The thing is, when it comes to the violence — because I’ve been asked [laughs] a lot about the violence — I never set out to make something that was overly violent.
J: So, where did you find the rest of your stuntmen? I’ve read a lot about where you found Iko and Yayan, but was there a stunt industry already in Indonesia or did you have to build your own?
GE: Yeah, so when I came to Indonesia there were a couple of stunt groups and stuff like that already, but most of them worked in the television industry and their opportunities were fairly few and far between in terms of doing elaborate stunt work. It was mostly flipping about on swings, and somersaults, and stuff like that. But then, what we were bringing to it then was a little more — we wanted a raw realism and aggression to the stunt work we did.
At the same time, we designed the stunts to look much worse than they actually are. When it comes to the actual execution of them, we plan a way to shoot them as safely as possible, obviously, but it makes the audience feel like they’ve seen something reckless and dangerous. So, for instance, the stunt in The Raid where the guy gets flipped over the balcony and breaks his back: the audience feels like it was actually all one take, but it’s actually three separate shots that got stitched together in post, with a lot of safety measures put in place to make sure that the stunt was able to be done safely, and stuff like that.
We have great stunt teams in Indonesia, and we’ve kinda found a team now through Merantau and The Raid that we’re happy to stick by and work together with a lot. It’s a good working relationship with all of them.
J: Did you use much CGI? I did read that you’d used a mix of CGI blood and squibs, was the CGI just easier to tweak?
GE: Oh, yeah… I mean, we didn’t have the budget for blank-firing guns. So, we used a lot of CG for muzzle flashes and bullets coming out. Anything we tried and couldn’t do practically, we would touch up in post. Whenever we do these little CG effects, though, we try to have at least something real in the shot, so that we’re just enhancing that, and that the audience aren’t too aware that it’s CG. That’s my favourite type of use of CG, to be honest, when it feels like it’s there to aid the shot rather than create it. So, it was little things, like blood effects, or explosions, and debris, little things like that.
J: Ah, right: so how much of the scene with the fridge was pyrotechnics, and how much was CG?
GE: [laughs] Actually, for that one, it was entirely CG! The fireball coming out through the door frame into the guys, that was real, the debris was real, but the actual fridge itself was entirely CG.
So, the fridge and then all the fire that come out of the fridge in that shot, we did all of that in CG in post. That’s my online guy, an Indonesian guy that did all the VFX for that called Andy: he’s incredible, he’s a genius. He’s worked with us now on two films, so I keep working with him. Even if I’m doing a small short film or something, I always bring him in on board and get him to do some stuff for me. He’s got his work cut out on the next one, actually!
J: One of the things that Merantau and The Raid did was direct a lot of international attention to genre cinema from Indonesia. Do you see a bright future for that genre cinema, and for Indonesian cinema in general?
GE: I hope so, yeah. I mean, I hope that producers and studios in Indonesia will see that there’s an audience for it, because we have some great directors in Indonesia that are looking to get their next projects up and running. For them to be able to get that little helping hand with them, or have genre not be such a bad word in terms of Indonesian cinema, would be great.
It would be great to see them produce more and more, because there are some really, really interesting voices out there in Indonesian cinema that are just waiting to be heard by a much bigger audience. So, fingers crossed, it’ll hopefully open up a few more opportunities for people as well.
One that we are really excited about at the moment is by these guys called the Mo brothers, they made a film called Macabre about two years ago, a kind of horror/slasher movie. They’re about to start a co-production with a Japanese company, Nikkatsu, called Killers. And Killers, basically, is something that I’ve been interested in for a long time, and as a result of us doing OK with The Raid we’ve actually come on board now as a co-producer for that film. It’s going to be a great thriller, it’s a fascinating storyline and the characters are great, so we’re really excited to see how that’s going to come about now. They’re going to start shooting (I think) in September actually, so… yeah, there’s a lot going on in Indonesian cinema now, and fingers crossed the local audience will be there just as much as an international audience can be there as well.
J: Cool, we’ll look forward to Killers! Can you tell me about your sequel, Berandal? How close to finished are you, and do you have a release date yet?
GE: For that one, we’re going to start shooting it in January… we’re just prepping everything at the moment. I’m finishing up the script, and fingers crossed we should be good to start shooting in January and finish shooting in June, I think, and then we’ll be done with post-production some time toward the end of next year, maybe September or October.
So, fingers crossed it’ll all go well: I’m looking forward to it, and I’m excited to see what we’re going to bring to it now. I mean, with The Raid we had the benefit of being the “surprise movie”: people didn’t know what they were going to get and just reacted to it. That surprise element is gone now, so we have to make sure that whatever we do next, it sits well with the audience. I spoke to Iko about it, and I was saying: We can’t just guess what an audience wants, because if we start doing that, then we’ll question every decision we make.
So we’ll just make it the same way we made the first one, make it for ourselves and hope that the audience is going to be there for us for the next one as well. [laughs] Fingers crossed, we won’t disappoint too many people.