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Few would’ve expected a Welshman to have directed one of the most purely kick-ass Asian action movies in years—except for those who saw Gareth Evans’ previous film, 2009’s Merantau, which introduced the compact, explosive Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais, an expert in the Indonesian martial art silat. Evans and Uwais have re-teamed for The Raid: Redemption, a fast-paced, visceral actioner in which Uwais plays a cop punching, slashing, and shooting his way through an apartment building controlled by a drug lord. Evans recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the film’s throwback look, its upcoming sequel (and remake), and his favorite kinds of martial-arts movies.
The A.V. Club: The Raid: Redemption looks a lot like an old John Carpenter movie, and a little like mid-’80s Hong Kong movies. How much of that was intentional homage, and how much was just a function of your equipment and budget?
Gareth Evans: Once I knew the movie was going to be mostly in one location, I started looking at different films that had a similar setup, to figure out how they were shot, and sort of how they were structured as well. Besides the obvious ones like Die Hard and [Rec], other options came in, including Assault On Precinct 13. So Carpenter was a major influence on us, in terms of the design of the film. We were working on a very low budget, and we knew we wanted to borrow from Die Hard in terms of being able to achieve big action setpieces, but then also have these moments where we’re kind of building up tension, trying to sell the idea of these guys being under attack from every floor and every room, but without having hundreds of extras at our disposal. Because we just didn’t have the money for that many people. So watching Assault On Precinct 13, we picked up a bunch of low-budget techniques, like Carpenter’s use of sound and shadows to sell the idea that the precinct was surrounded by people and surrounded by snipers, when in fact you see hardly any of them. You see maybe 10, 15 people. Borrowing from those films was essential, to execute this film on the budget we had.
The look of the film? For sure, yeah, we were influenced by Hong Kong cinema in the ’80s, and Carpenter as well. We knew our camera needed to be able to move around a lot, and sometimes go the length of a corridor and turn 360 degrees, so the lighting then had to be adaptable to the situation we were filming in. It meant we went a little bit more gritty and rough in terms of the look of the film, and we achieved that by having more panel lights in the ceiling, and we’d follow and track along with LEDs on boom-poles. That gave us a much more free way to move the camera around. We took a sort of semi-documentary approach, then added the bombast and spectacle of an action film.
AVC: Other films recently have tried to get that look, but in sort of an ironic way. There’s nothing ironic about the way you’re doing it.
GE: That was our decision, to play it straight and not present anything with a wink or a nudge, you know? Just to see how the audience responds to it. Because the thing is, I genuinely love those films we were riffing on. They’re great movies. There was nothing ironic about why I loved them at the time when they first came out. We wanted to treat them with a certain amount of respect.
AVC: You mentioned the constrained location, but were there any other challenges about being in one place that were more difficult than you expected?
GE: It wasn’t so much the location itself that was the problem. The most difficult aspect was executing the action sequences, because it just takes so much time, and it’s take after take after take to get it right. But if I’m pushed to answer “What was the most difficult moment of the shoot?” it was a setup where we needed to have a two-story set, for the bit where Iko cuts a hole in the floor and then jumps through. When we were shooting that scene, we needed a studio with a high enough ceiling to build a two-story set, but all of the studios that had that kind of height were booked-out, so in the end, we had to shoot in an indoor badminton court, which had a tin roof. We took over that space for a week or two, and the problem was that with that tin roof, in the daytime the temperature just rose horribly. It was reaching like 40 to 42 degrees Celsius, and we were dropping like flies. The guys in their SWAT team uniforms, you know they’re in T-shirt, shirt, SWAT team jacket, helmet, gloves, trousers, heavy boots, and guns. And they had no energy left. We’d do about an hour’s worth of shoot, and then everyone was just drained. No one could move. We were forced to shift to night shoots, but even then, it didn’t drop the temperature down enough. We had like 20 air-conditioning units inside that building, and as much cold as it pumped out, it did nothing to affect the temperature in there.
AVC: About how much of The Raid was shot on a set?
GE: I think about 85 percent of it. The rest then was on real locations: the exteriors, the drug lab, and the stairwell stuff. The corridors, the atriums and the rooms, they were all shot in the studio space.
AVC: The martial-arts sequences in your movies aren’t just highly kinetic and well-choreographed, they’re very fast. Does that reflect the actual speed of the actors, or is some of that done in-camera?
GE: We tend to shoot 24 frames per second. We don’t really do under-cranking, because in my experience, whenever we’ve tried to use under-cranking… Like, a lot of times when we shoot these fight scenes, we don’t shoot just a punch or a kick. Sometimes we go quite long in the take, and if anyone gets thrown, then gravity takes over, and when you shoot 21 frames per second, it looks ridiculous. So we shoot everything at 24, and the only time we manipulate, really, is the moment of impact. The whole swing heading up to a hit is usually at normal speed. Then if necessary, we’ll put a little tiny speed-ramp, but only on the impact of the hit, just to give a little more power to it. More often than not, we don’t touch it.
AVC: As a connoisseur of martial arts, what do you think sets Iko Uwais apart from other martial artists?
GE: It’s like this: There’s so many different martial artists out there who are really great, talented fighters, but screen fighting is a very different thing. Like, we’ve seen so many people come to us and audition for us, and they’ve been masters who are very talented when it comes to understanding technique, or even the execution of it. But as soon as you point the camera at them, they suck. They just can’t do it. It’s a very different discipline. The thing with Iko is, he just has this knack, this ability to perform silat in a way where it looks beautiful, even if he’s doing something aggressively violent. There’s a fluidity to the way he moves that the camera really responds to. I think he’s got potential to be quite big, actually. In the work that he and Yayan do—Yayan [Ruhian] plays Mad Dog—they do the choreography together, and they’ve reached the point where they understand each other, and they understand what will look good on camera. It’s kind of exciting, because we’ve only done two films, and we’re in a position now where every film we do, we want to explore a different facet of silat. Luckily for us, silat has over 200 different styles of fighting, so there’s plenty left to explore.
AVC: Do you have a favorite era of martial-arts films?
GE: The ’80s and the early ’90s from Hong Kong, because that was the golden era for those types of films. Police Story, Project A, Armour Of God, Once Upon A Time In China… all of these movies are like great, great martial-arts movies. It’s changed a lot now. Back then, it was real fighters and real stunt men, and then I think in the mid-’90s, it became pop stars on wires, and I tuned out for a long time, actually. It took Tony Jaa and Ong-Bak to make everyone kind of sit up and pay attention to martial arts again. And the reason why everyone paid attention was because it was a real martial artist doing real martial arts. Hopefully, those days of pop stars on wires are kind of going away.
AVC: There was a lot of buzz at the Toronto Film Festival the year Ong-Bak premièred.
GE: I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to sit in a cinema to see it for the first time. It must have been incredible.
AVC: The festival circuit has been a huge boost to your career, too.
GE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, The Raid has only played in festivals so far. We haven’t opened anywhere yet. We’re going to open day-and-date with the U.S. and Indonesia and Australia. But up to now, it’s all been the festival tour for this film. And it’s been overwhelming to see the response people have been giving it.
AVC: Why has the title been changed from The Raid to The Raid: Redemption?
GE: Well, despite the barrage of emails and tweets the day after the title change was announced, it’s not like how people are complaining: “Oh, it’s the studio fucking with an Asian movie.” We tried really hard to get clear rights on the title The Raid, but somebody else has the rights to that title. So once we knew we couldn’t get the rights on it, and after we’d spent five months raising awareness of this film being called The Raid, we didn’t want to have to change it to something completely different, you know? So we thought, “Well, if we add the subtitle to it, that solves that issue.” We had already thought of the idea of doing it for sequels anyway. We were like, “Well let’s look for something with alliteration, just using an ‘R’ word.” And “redemption” is relevant to one of the subplots in the film. Our backs were up against the wall, and we didn’t have that much time to decide upon it. We waited and waited and waited to see if we could get The Raid cleared, up until the last minute. Everyone wanted to keep it. Sony wanted to keep it; I wanted to keep it. But it just didn’t work out for us.
AVC: What about the new score, by Joseph Trapanese and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda? How did that come about?
GE: Basically, when we sold the rights to Sony originally, the film was in the Cannes market, but we were still in production. We sent some rough-cut footage of the fighting to the Cannes film market. Sony saw it, took a liking to it, and decided to pick it up, but wanted a new score using someone off their label. So that was kind of the starting point. It wasn’t a case of them hearing the original and not liking it, it was more of a case of spotting an opportunity to market it. Anyway, they showed the footage to Mike Shinoda, and he responded to it in a big way, so we ended up getting him on board with Joe Trapanese.
For me, not to be too diplomatic about it, I really love both versions, and the best version for me is a combination of the two. There are some things which my guys did better, and some Mike and Joe did better as well. But overall, it’s been a good experience to have two different artists interpret your work in different ways. A lot of the fan reaction has been, “Oh God, it’s Linkin Park,” but it’s really good, and evokes that early Carpenter stuff as well. It’s got a retro ’80s feel, even though it’s using modern techniques and modern instruments. But I think it’s a solid piece of a score. What was reassuring to me was that when we spoke about it, Mike said from the get-go, “I’m not going to do this like a collection of songs that we just blast from the top of the film.” He said he wanted to treat it like a proper score, and go back to his classical training. And when he said, “Bring Joe in,” y’know, I was a big fan of Joe’s work on the Tron soundtrack. It was one of those things where everything he told me was just reassuring.
AVC: What’s the status of the English-language remake?
GE: Screen Gems is going to be doing the remake, and I’m quite excited about that. I’m working on it as executive producer. My approach is that I’m not going to be too involved. I just want to have a little bit of say in some things. But I feel the best way for that film to go forward is for whoever ends up in the director’s seat to be given the same sort of creative freedom that I got when I did my film, because no one questioned me about anything. It was one of those things where I wasn’t told that I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that. The only limitation I had was down to budget. So I think whoever does the film, it’s a pretty streamlined idea, and a pretty straightforward narrative. It just comes down to what they do in terms of the ideas, the action, and the setpieces. But Screen Gems have been very respectful of us, and very respectful of the original. They’ve even hired Iko and Yayan to go out there to work on some of the fight parts in the film.
AVC: And what about the sequel?
GE: Still writing at the moment. I should’ve finished it a long time ago. I haven’t really had the time to sit down and do the writing. Hopefully we can start shooting in January. It’s going to be a direct continuation of the story. Fingers crossed, we can start that in January and be ready for next year.
AVC: Do you want to stay in the martial-arts vein for the rest of your career, or do you have ambitions to do other kinds of movies?
GE: In terms of my work in Indonesia, I have a lot of ideas for martial-arts films, so maybe I’ve got another four or five films I want to do there in the martial-arts genre, with Iko. But my plan is to do one film there and then do another film maybe in the U.S. or the UK. And when I do those films, I don’t really want them to be martial-arts films. I kind of want to have a break from it, and discover different genres. I might stick to action in the early going, but then find different types of films that I can get into, explore, and try out.