Here is a great with director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais. Thanks to The Cult Lab.
Q: Gareth, how did you come to establish yourself as a filmmaker in Indonesia?
Gareth Evans: I was living in Wales for 26, almost 27 years of my life, and I’d tried doing short films. I did one low-budget feature film in the UK, but I didn’t really do enough to get myself noticed by the film industry. I stayed very localised, and I didn’t really put myself out there enough. I didn’t chase it as much as I should have. When I got married, my wife and I were living in Swansea, and she could see that… I’d drifted back into my nine-to-five office job. She was looking for work but was struggling to settle. We were happy in Swansea – we loved the city, we loved the house and everything – but Monday to Friday was the sticking point. (Laughs) Weekends were great, but Monday to Friday was the sticking point.
Q: What was that first feature you made?
GE: It was a film called Footsteps. That was kind of a social drama. (Laughs) It sounds more high concept than it really was. It’s about a young guy who becomes disenfranchised within society, and as he drifts further and further down, he ends up, unwillingly, becoming involved sort of a snuff-film trade. But we shot it in more of a matter-of-fact way, because we didn’t want to do it like, say, 8mm or something, where everyone’s wearing grungy clothing and it’s dark. So we did it, like, “Oh, there’s an office block somewhere…” And in that office block they casually film people being killed. So that was the first one we did, and it was a big, big learning curve.
Q: In what way?
GE: Because we didn’t know what we were doing! (Laughs) We had a budget of £8,000. Two and a half grand of that went on the camera. We shot for two weeks. I had a crew of four people – that’s including me – and we did everything ourselves: make-up, props, and locations. Some places, we wouldn’t get permits, we’d just film until the police came. It was really more like a gung-ho shoot, grabbing stuff whenever we could. There are obviously limitations in doing a film that way, but then there are things you learn as well. So that was a big learning-curve film, and it gave me a taste of what it would be like to do that as a job. To know that on a Tuesday morning at 10am, instead of sitting down with a cup of tea, looking at my computer, I was out on the streets somewhere, shooting someone’s performance. It was this weird feeling of, “Oh, I want to do this.”
Q: What was your day job back then?
GE: It sounds weird now, but I was doing web videos to teach people the Welsh language. My boss, who passed away a year ago, was this incredible lady who supported me throughout. When I did Footsteps, I took the money out to do it, and, because I couldn’t risk losing my job, I said, “Can I please take a month off? You don’t have to pay me, I just want to shoot this film and get it out of my system.” And she agreed, she let me do it. So thanks to her, I had that opportunity. And then when we finished shooting… then the work got harder. (Laughs) I was doing my nine-to-five job, and then at night I’d go home and edit. I’d edit until 2am, wake up at seven and go to work. So that was the first film. It was completely different. I never, ever thought I’d make martial arts films.
Q: So how did the move to Jakarta come about?
GE: My wife put in a few calls back in Indonesia, she had a few contacts there, and one of them was a producer who was working on a documentary series. It was supposed to be five episodes, and each one was about a different element of Indonesian culture. And she was looking for a director to do one on silat, the local martial art. She knew that I was interested in martial arts, and she knew that I’d done a film before, and she was looking for someone from the outside that she could trust to make the film and give it an outsider’s perspective, because she didn’t want it to be made by someone who knew everything about martial arts.
Q: How much did you actually know about the subject?
GE: I’d seen karate, kung fu, muay thai and all those martial arts disciplines in so many movies, from my childhood right up to now, but I’d never seen silat before. And when I finally saw it, it just felt like nothing else. It felt completely different from all the other martial arts, and what I loved about it was that it was so adaptable to different situations and environments.
Q: In what way?
GE: Like, they might be fighting eye to eye but in a heartbeat they’ll come down low and take your legs from you! It was that sneaky style that I really loved about it – it was so direct and so abrupt. And during that documentary I got introduced to the traditions and cultures in Indonesia. We shot five different masters in five different areas of the country, and the idea was to get to grips more with the philosophy of silat rather than the physical side. So we were following different people on different journeys in their life, and one of them was a young boy doing merantau [a rite of passage among the Minangkabau people that involves leaving home on a journey of self-discovery]. That was the impetus. As soon as I found out it was a real tradition, a real piece of culture, I filed it away for a storyline later on. And also during the documentary, once we got to the Jakarta section, we were filming one master and one of his students was Iko. So through that documentary I met Iko, I met the choreography team, I found a martial art I loved, I really embraced the philosophy and the culture of it – and I had a tradition I could use as a storyline for a film.
Q: Iko – how did you first meet Gareth?
Iko Uwais: The first time was when Gareth was making this documentary about silat in Indonesia. When he was in Jakarta he came to my silat school and straight away he said, “I want to make a silat film. Do you want to do it with us?” I said, “OK.” (Laughs) I didn’t really believe him! I thought, maybe I can help with the choreography and the fighting. I didn’t think I could be the leading actor! So then Gareth went back to Wales. Then he came back to Jakarta and immediately he showed me the script for Merantau. He said, “You’re the leading actor, you’re going to play Yuda.” That’s when I started to believe him!
Q: Were you always involved in martial arts?
IU: I’ve been learning silat since 1993. At the same time I was doing silat, I used to play football. I was a junior until 2003, and then I stopped. There was a silat competition and I was the winner of the national round in the Indonesia area. I was in London for the UK Open in 2006. That was before I met Gareth.
Q: What was your day job then?
IU: I worked as a driver for a phone company for two years. When Gareth did the documentary he said, “Do you want to join us? I said, “Yes, but I have a contract with the phone company.” He said, “When does it run out?” I said, “May 16.” He said, “OK, when you’re finished, come with us and make the movie.” So I signed with him and I switched being a driver for making a movie.
Q: Gareth – was it difficult to make the change?
GE: When I got to Indonesia, and when I started designing Merantau, which, after all, was only my second film, it didn’t feel weird. It felt like, “Oh, I’ve watched a few martial arts films, I know how they work.” So I’d just go back and re-watch a bunch of the key films – the classics, like Drunken Master, old Bruce Lee films, anything with Jackie Chan – looking at the cinematography, the choreography and the editing to figure out a way to riff on it, while at the same time trying to create our own feeling and style.
Q: Merantau does seem very old-fashioned and traditional, especially in comparison to The Raid. It’s also a little more artistic, in a way.
GE: I guess so. Look, I like to mix up genres together. So The Raid is me mixing martial arts with horror, really. I realise when we were designing The Raid that it’s a survival horror. Technically, at its core, it’s a survival horror film. Merantau is more of a drama. (Laughs) Perhaps there’s a little bit too much drama in there, compared to action, although the last 15 minutes is pure action. But we deliberately set up these little scenes, with all these different characters, so that by the one hour mark, everything would start to tumble down – there’s consequence after consequence after consequence. But The Raid, obviously, is a lot more streamlined. We just step on the pedal.
Q: Merantau is a little bit reminiscent of the Kung Fu TV series…
GE: Yeah, for sure. It was kind of like a throwback. A lot of people said it was very similar to Ong Bak, but that was inescapable. We couldn’t get past the idea of a south-east Asian guy leaving his village to go to the city, and then stuff goes wrong. Yes, I understand why people said it was like Ong Bak. But for me it was like The Big Boss, the Bruce Lee film: country boy goes to Thailand and gets mixed up with nefarious characters. It’s been done so many times before, the storyline wasn’t new, but what I hoped to bring to it was a greater emotional connection to the characters.
Q: Iko, how did you prepare for Merantau?
IU: I had never tried acting in front of the camera, but Gareth trusted me with the moves. Maybe he taught me a little bit about character. For the fight scenes I can express myself. But the problem is, when I do the dramatic scenes, I had to learn so much.
Q: How would you describe your character in Merantau?
IU: My character Yuda is really quite gentle, really normal. He has a normal family, a really good family, and when he leaves his village to go to the big city, he is surprised, slightly. Life is much tougher. Everything is really difficult for him. In The Raid, just the accent is different from me. I was more confident for The Raid, it was much faster and there was more action.
Q: Gareth, how do you choreograph the fight scenes?
GE: This might sound a little highfalutin’, but when we do the choreography, we do bear in mind the psychology of the scene. So for Merantau, the hero is a good guy with a good heart, so in the early fights in the film he’s just trying to defend himself against his attackers. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody, just enough to let them know he’s in control. It’s only as the film progresses that things get more and more serious, and he’s called upon to take the fight to them. So the film becomes more aggressive towards the tail end of the film.
Q: The Raid, on the other hand, is more like a grindhouse movie…
GE: Yeah. A lot of the criticisms levelled at Merantau were, “Oh, it’s too soft.” We really love Tony Jaa’s work and we respect him very much as a talent – he’s an incredible martial artist – but a lot of the Tony Jaa fanboys turned against us. They said, “Aw, fuck Iko – he’d have his arse kicked by Tony Jaa. He’s got no power, no speed.” So the choreography design on The Raid was almost a response to that. It was like, “We’ve got to up our game. We can’t keep soft.” In Merantau the choreography couldn’t be too aggressive because it didn’t suit the character and it didn’t suit the situation. But in The Raid the psychology is completely different. Every single situation is: kill or be killed. So we had to be more aggressive this time.
Q: Gareth, was Iko your first choice for The Raid? Did you write it for him?
GE: Yeah, when we did Merantau it was a project that we designed for him, so we wanted it to be his thing, like, ‘This is going to launch Iko as a star.’ So for The Raid it was a no-brainer. I always knew I was going to write the role for him; I was just trying to find something new for him to do. So for the sequel we have to push him even more – make the character a lot more complex and give him more moral dilemmas. He’s become kind of like my little brother. We’ve gone through this whole process together, so everything that happened to us on Merantau and The Raid has happened to us at the same time. So I’ve got this thing where I kind of want to look after him, or look out for him. So when it comes to his career, I want to push him more with each film – develop his acting skills more. Because there’s no doubt that he can fight. But he can’t fight forever. So the idea is, once he reaches the point where he can’t do martial arts any more, he starts to slow down or tire, then he can make the shift into serious drama, in the way Jet Li did for a while. So hopefully he can aspire to having that kind of career later on.
Q: Iko, how did you prepare for The Raid?
IU: To prepare, before the shoot, me and all the other fighters had a boot camp. We went to see the army in Indonesia where we learned how to be like the characters. I had to get the character of someone in a SWAT team. The training was tough. Absolutely! They’re really like, “Go! Go! Go!” Really, really tough. And really, really strict. (Laughs) They really shouted at me!
Q: How long did it take to choreograph The Raid?
GE: When we design the fight sequences we spend about three months designing them – every single fight sequence in the film. It’ll be me, Iko and Yayan Ruhian – he’s the one who plays Mad Dog in The Raid – the three of us will be together in an office space with loads of crash-mats and a Handycam. I’ll tell them about the props, the location, the situation, the tone of the fight, as well as the opponents and what their skill set is. All of these details I give them. And then I give them a walk-through, so they can fill in the gaps and workshop it. For that first three months we film it as a wide shot, so we have all the detail. Then we go back and re-film everything, this time filming it like we would the film. It’s like a pre-visualisation storyboard of the entire fight, so by the end of that three months we have a locked template of how every single fight scene is going to be shot and edited. We do this because we’re still in our infancy with action films and we use it as a safety net, so when it comes to production we know exactly what we’re shooting.
Q: Do you shoot the whole movie this way?
GE: Just the fight scenes. Literally, from the beginning to the end. The only thing we don’t do in pre-visualisation is the drama element.
Q: Iko, did you ever get hurt?
IU: Every scene! I have a mark on my hand. There was one scene where I was fighting one fighter with a machete – it wasn’t a real machete, it was a fake machete – and I had to block him with my arm. For maybe 17 takes I had to do the same movement, every time, and every take. One time, I didn’t move quick enough, and the knife broke against my arm, because it was really strong and really hard. I still have the mark. It was really bad for continuity.
Q: Gareth, could you talk a little more about the horror element? The music is especially effective…
GE: As much as Die Hard was an influence, Assault on Precinct 13 was a bigger influence, I think. The thing with Die Hard was that it was all about the spectacle – how big we could do the action scenes and what we could do with the downtime in between to rebuild the tension. But Assault On Precinct 13 gave me the idea of creating tension and claustrophobia while also making people feel that this building was super-dangerous and filled with swarms of bad guys – without actually showing them! Because we didn’t have the budget for that many extras, so a lot of it was down to creating that feeling with sound. So a lot of times, you’ll hear crowds banging on doors – but you don’t see anyone. You just see a shadow on a doorway. We hear people, we hear crowds, but it’s really just my sound guys in Thailand just screaming into a microphone. So there were all these low-budget horror-movie techniques that we used to amp up the tension, amp up the fear.
Q: Which scenes in particular?
GE: There are probably two major moments where we borrowed elements from the horror genre. Like, when the guy with a machete is checking the toilet cubicles, one by one, and he’s tapping his machete against the tiles. That’s like a stalk-and-slash movie. And when the guy’s hiding in the wall, again, it’s all about playing around with feelings of claustrophobia and fear. It’s a situation with no escape. Actually, that wall scene was inspired by Michael Jackson’s Thriller! When I was a kid, that final moment, when the girl is in the house and all the zombies start breaking in through the walls… that terrified me. I was terrified by that – I hated that feeling, the idea that it doesn’t matter how much you hide yourself, someone, or something, can always break in and find you. So that was the reasoning behind the wall scene. I wanted that feeling, but in an action film. I was trying to find elements that you don’t usually get in a martial arts film, because I know people, from the outside are going see that this as a martial arts film. It’s going to be labelled a martial arts film, without a doubt. So I wanted people to be surprised by some of the elements we’ve thrown in there as well. And hopefully that comes across.
Q: Iko, how would you describe the movie?
IU: (Laughs) I would say that before you see the movie, maybe you should go to the toilet go to pee! From the beginning to the end, the audience cannot breathe. Every level just goes up and up and up.
Q: Gareth, the film is called The Raid: Redemption in the US, isn’t it?
GE: Yeah. I wrote a blog about it, actually. Because that was one big backlash when that happened – people went nuts. They thought it was the studio messing with some Asian film, like, “They don’t respect it…: But Sony totally respect it. The preparation and the work that has gone into raising the awareness of this title has been huge, and it hasn’t come just from me. It’s been a collective effort. Sony tried hard – we all tried hard – to keep the title, but it was a legal thing that we couldn’t get cleared. So we had to have a back-up, and maybe people don’t like The Raid: Redemption, and that’s fine. It’s not a problem. But the film is exactly the same. And you’re only going to see that title for four seconds at the beginning and four seconds at the end. That’s it.
Q: So will there be more Raid movies?
GE: Yeah. It serves a purpose, to create this feeling of a franchise. The second one, in Indonesia, is called Berandal. Berandal is “thug” in English, but it doesn’t work. It’s not really a translatable title, so we might call it The Raid: Berandal, just to maintain the audience awareness. The hardcore fans? They’ll always know what the film is, what it’s about and when it’s coming out. But the mainstream audience won’t, and we have to keep them in the loop. Before I made the film – before I made any film – I was, and still am, a huge fan of Asian cinema. I’ve always imported DVDs from Hong Kong and Japan. Even if they don’t have English subtitles, that’s how badly I want to see them! But what’s worked really well for The Raid is that the gap between release dates in different countries is not that big any more. And that was a conscious decision – I told the guys, “I want the releases in the key territories to be very close together.” (Laughs) Because there’s nothing worse than being the guy who wants to see a film and can’t, sometimes for up to a year. I wanted to bridge that gap.
Q: So do you have the story worked out? Is it a trilogy?
GE: It’s definitely two films. But a trilogy? I’m working on ideas for a third. I know where it’s going to go, but I haven’t really had a chance to sit down and work on the crux of the story. I’ve got a basic idea, but nothing I can really tell you. I think the third one won’t be until a long time yet.
Q: Do you feel the weight of expectation for the second one?
GE: Kind of. It would be impossible not to. But when we did the first one, we did it without feeling like we were answering to anyone. I think we have to maintain that, and we have to switch off that part of the brain that asks, “What are people going to react to?” When we made the first one, we sold the US and UK rights while we were still shooting. It was all on the same day. So I was like, “Shit, we’ve got big distributors in the US and UK.” But I still had a month of shooting left. And the next day my brain was like, “Fuck, this is like a studio film now.” You start to question everything, you start to doubt yourself. And then I thought, “This is ridiculous – what are you doing?” I mean, they’d bought the film based on the stuff that I’d shot earlier, when I didn’t even know they were interested. So I just shut it out of my brain and carried on making the film the way we wanted to do it. So what I’m hoping for the second one is to do the same thing: rely on our gut instinct.