Fans of action cinema should take note of the name Gareth Evans because they will be remembering it for quite a long time. The Welsh born Indonesian transplant has come to town for the Toronto International Film Festival to promote his third feature as a director The Raid – now saddled with the subtitle Redemption due to copyright issues surrounding the use of the film’s original title in North America. Seated in his hotel room, he has no idea how much buzz his film is about to receive on the world stage.
The film re-teams Evans with a two time previous collaborator in martial arts expert Iko Uwais. Both well versed in the art of Pencak Silat, they come together for their most ambitious project yet, a seige film about twenty police officers trapped in a run down tenament building on a suicide mission to depose a ruthless crime lord. Filled with brutal, but beautifully coreographed fight seqences and action set pieces, The Raid would go on to win the Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award at the festival before moving on to receiving raves at Sundance, SXSW, and around the world. But again, he doesn’t know any of this just yet. Right now, he’s still a bundle of nervous energy who’s just eternally grateful he even gets to make movies in the first place.
Dork Shelf talked to Evans about his knowledge of Silat, his close working relationship with Iko, and what it’s like trying to get an action film made in Indonesia.
DS: How did the idea for The Raid first come about?
GE: We were trying to get a different film up and running first of all, a follow up to Merantau, called Berandal. That proved kind of difficult because the scope of that film was a lot bigger, and that meant that the budget was a lot bigger as well. Finding the budget for big films in Indonesia is incredibly difficult. We tried and pushed to get the budget for Berandal for about a year, which fell to the wayside. I just needed to get another film with Iko (Uwais), do something else with him before his name just fades. I started looking at different types of films that I wanted to make and, taking into consideration that we wanted a low budget movie, something that only needed one location. I started looking at films like Assault On Precinct 13 or Die Hard, and thought about fusing the two together with more martial arts.
DS: I did get a real Die Hard vibe from it, and I was fine with that because I’m a real softie for “longest day” predicaments.
GE: I’m a big fan of Die Hard. It’s just a classic film. So even just to do something in a similar vain to that was something I simply embraced.
DS: What brought you to Indonesia in the first place?
GE: Well, that would be my wife. She’s half-Indonesian, half-Japanese. What happened was we were based in the UK at the time and I was offered work as a freelance director for a documentary. The documentary was about Indonesian culture and specifically Pencak Silat, the martial art we use in this film. Back then, I had never heard or seen that before. I watched a hell of a lot of kung-fu movies and Muay Thai movies but never heard much about Silat. So going to Indonesia and learning about this martial art, and the culture, it started setting off alarm bells in my head. During the documentary, it was like being paid to do six-months of research for another film. Coming out of it I drafted the story for Merantau, plus I had an insight so it wouldn’t be like some foreigner making a film, some horrible postcard vision of their culture. Also a little bit of Silat. And finally I met Iko during the documentary. I had my style, my culture, my story, my martial arts and my main actor.
DS: What stood out about Iko?
GE: He wasn’t the main subject of the documentary, we were actually following his master. One of the days when we followed them around, they did a, like, practice session, which had about 15-to-20 students. We were just filming for research. Getting an idea of their look and the movements so that when my director of photography got out here he would know what he would be filming. When we were filming we just kept focusing on Iko in a strange kind of way. He had a weird presence about him, the way he moved and the way he transformed was interesting. I said hello to him previously, he was very quiet, shy, humble, smiling, polite. And then all of a sudden he put his uniform on and his face transformed. He just looked focused and looked like he could really hurt someone. That kind of kickstarted everything and I told my wife that we needed to keep in touch with this guy. Maybe a TV show, we weren’t really sure what to do at that point. We finished the documentary and made sure to talk to him. I said to him that I intended to return to Indonesia and that I wanted to film something with him. And he just agreed, saying, “yeah yeah yeah,” but probably in his head he was thinking, “bullshit.” We came back to Indonesia five months later, I met up with him and we were already in the process of making a film. We had written a script. He was actually a driver for a film company at the time, just delivering messages between offices. He never really thought about doing TV or film. I asked him how much longer until his contract expired. Luckily it was within two-or-three weeks. I told him not to go back to his company, to come with us and make a film.
DS: What was it like to shift gears from a documentary to an action film?
GE: It was strange because, for me, it was more difficult to do a documentary. My background had more to do with narrative. I always wanted to do narrative feature films, but when the documentary came up it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I decided to try it, just see how it is. And I enjoyed doing a documentary but I think if you watch the documentary you’ll see there are certain elements where I’m manipulating the camera to create a narrative too. So for me it wasn’t difficult to make the transition back.
DS: This is probably one of the most violent films I’ve seen in a while. To just set the tone like that, does that feel liberating?
GE: Yeah, you can tell in some of the scenes by the design of the choreography if I was in a good mood or a bad mood. (laughs) There’d be little extra twists of knives. When we made Merantau, the psychology of the choreography was different. In that first movie Iko’s character is always trying to evade and escape a fight. He’s a good boy in Merantau. Two or three punches and a push then run away. This time it’s all completely different. They’re trapped inside of a building. They’re a trained SWAT team, their mentality is different. In this position, they have to kill or be killed. Every time Iko’s facing off with anyone, he has to leave them off so that if they aren’t dead they’re not going to get up to fight again. Once we knew we were going in that direction, we knew we couldn’t hold back too much. We haven’t screened it for the censorship board back home in Indonesia. We got a feeling that’ll be an interesting discussion. It’ll probably get cut pretty badly, but we made it with an international audience in mind. We knew that, even though it’s violence and aggressive, I didn’t want it to feel like we dwelled on anything too long. I tried to make it so that each moment’s more like a sucker punch, something that makes you wince but then it’s gone. You know what I mean?
DS: Yeah, it’s not gory, just brutal.
GE: We didn’t want to dwell on it. So when you see it, when someone gets shot in the face three times, it happens but then it’s over. We cut somewhere else.
DS: What is the film culture in Indonesia like?
GE: Admittedly, back home with action films, they’re still in their infancy. We’re really playing catch up with, say… in Thailand they’re way more developed with this type of movie. They’re blazing a trial for us to keep up with. There’s not that many action films being made. There are some coming out now, but we were all kind of learning from each other, trying to get more experience for the stunt teams and the fighters. The usual movies there, sadly, the studio systems there are stuck in a routine where they make films on a very low budget, minimal margin profit on it, just enough to pay for the next one. The result is a lot of cheap sex comedies and horror films. They’re really even stretching the boundaries of what you can call a film. But it’s very damaging because there are some really talented filmmakers in Indonesia who are struggling to get the budgets to get their films out. These guys are really important voices and their films should really be seen and heard. So I’m kind of hoping that, maybe, if our film has a little bit of a higher budget they could be a success, give the studios a bit more confidence and start to, at least, if they’re going to do ten shitty movies then maybe just make seven and keep the budget for the last three to give to someone else to make something bigger and more important.
DS: With the second film, do you find there’s a certain kind of trust now between you and Iko? How do you feel about your relationship with Iko?
GE: Iko’s kind of like a little brother to me. We’ve had this relationship develop since we made the documentary. He trusts me fully and I trust him fully as well. When it comes to the action, he always understood why I would be pushing him, and trust that I’m not just going for an extra take; I don’t know if I got it or not. It works both ways, whenever I’m editing the fight scenes I call him in, make sure he watches everything. Iko and Yayan (Ruhian, who plays Mad Dog). It’s really important to me that their work is equally represented. If they have any problem with anything, we change it, once they’re locked on it, then we’re done.
DS: Were there any fights that stood out for you or any that you were excited to do?
GE: That’s a hard one. There are scenes that really excite you in preproduction, when you come to production you dread them. Those big cool scenes, the really big fight scenes, when they’re going well, it’s a beautiful thing, when they’re turning out exactly as you wanted to be. But then there are the pressures to get every shot right. For martial arts, especially with gun play violence, you can really get lost in the coverage but edit it in a way that’ll flow better. With martial arts, every shot is a jigsaw piece. If something’s wrong you do it again until it’s not wrong. Especially that big final fight scene in the small room. That was a six-minute fight scene, with two-minutes drama to set it, and we had about eight days to shoot it. That’s really, really short for a big martial arts scene. Usually you want four days for a two minute scene. That was right until the final day of the shoot.
DS: You had a really good sense of balancing the narrative with the action. The story is there but it overlaps with the fighting instead of interrupting it. Was that a conscious decision that you made?
GE: I hate watching martial arts films where I have my finger on the fast-forward button. You’ll watch them once all the way through, maybe a second time. Then you start skipping chapters, to the fight scenes. I didn’t want the drama to intrude too much, leave people waiting for the next fight. It needs to feel like there’s breathing space, and reason for those breathing spaces for a good pace.
DS: What is it like to film in such a confined space?
GE: Funny you should ask, my DOP, Matt Flannery, is claustrophobic. He had a great time on this shoot. (laughs) For most of it he was fine, but certain scenes he simply couldn’t operate. Sometimes we couldn’t get him AND the camera into the space. There’s a shot where a machete goes into a wall with someone on the other side of it, and we had to set up and rig to have the camera hang down from the ceiling. He was very happy to not be in that wall. I’ll be honest though, the shoot was really punishing. Even though a lot of it was a studio set that we built, sometimes we were on real location. The one thing I can’t shake is how dirty and dusty that location was. That real location, it was terrible. Our production room kept flooding, on a daily basis. Not ideal conditions. In Indonesia it’s always hot. It never gets cold. You really look forward to those little breaks, those little bits of comfort, somewhere you can sit down. We didn’t have any of those on this shoot.
DS: What are your ideal action films?
GE: When I was a kid my dad would always pick up VHS films, stuff with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. My first major action film was probably Enter the Dragon. It was one of those things that makes you feel like you’re watching a real life Superman. Bruce Lee was one of the most incredible beings to walk the earth, he was like a god. Following that I got in to Jackie Chan, things like Armour of God, Police Story, those early films are the ones that stay with me a lot longer. Into the 90’s onwards I drifted away from action films, martial arts anyways. I got more into heroic bloodshed like John Woo stuff, and then more into Kitano gangster films in Japan. And then, all of a sudden Ong Bak came out. That left me with my jaw on the floor. It breathed such a new life into martial arts, it made it cool again. We hadn’t seen that type of performance in a long time. We owe Ong Bak a huge amount.
The Raid: Redemption opens in Toronto this Friday, March 23rd and in other Canadian cities on April 6th.